15 Years Ago, 50 Cent Plotted A Pathway From Underdog To Superstar
Fifteen years ago today (February 6, 2003), Queens, New York’s 50 Cent took the world by storm with his debut album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. When Curtis Jackson burst onto the mainstream scene with a survivalist story, vendetta vocals, and Eminem and Dr. Dre in his corner, the industry was in for a tectonic shift.
Especially early in his career, 50 Cent rapped like an MC against all odds. He was a sneak attack that defied trend, circumstance, and the industry. In the late ’90s, as an artist signed to a Jam Master Jay’s production company, 50 first appeared care of an ONYX “React” video feature. Quickly after that, 50 became the latest pupil of Poke and Tone of The Trackmasters and their Columbia/Sony-backed imprint. Plugging away at his Power Of A Dollar debut album, Fif’ came out swinging in the conceptual “How To Rob.” The now-infamous record, serviced as part of the In Too Deep soundtrack, portrayed a cartoonish 50 Cent out to stick up rappers Diddy, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, JAY-Z, Slick Rick, Big Pun, Kurupt, DMX and even ONYX. Soon after, peeved Rap peers including Jay, Pun, and Ghostface Killah clapped back, leading many to look into this rapper with the catchy name. Meanwhile, Nas welcomed the fellow Queens native onto his Nastradamus promo tour. 50’s career had momentum.
While Fif’, The Trackmasters, and Columbia planned for a Y2K shutdown, that is not what happened—at least in the positive sense. A-List Rap peers responded to “How To Rob” in a way that made the concept appear botched. Then, on May 24, 2000, while sitting in the backseat of a car in front of his grandmother’s house, 50 Cent was shot nine times at close range—including bullets to the face and chest. The MC spent the next six weeks with a walker. He needed the remainder of the year to recover, losing all of 1999’s momentum. When Curtis Jackson returned to his affairs, The Trackmasters’ Power Of A Dollar plans were crumpled and discarded.
With the “dollar” seemingly worthless, a steadfast 50 Cent did what he could, on his own terms. He built a base by practically giving away his music. In 2002, 50 Cent dropped his first official mixtape, 50 Cent Is the Future, alongside DJ Whoo Kid and his G-Unit band-mates (Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks). In an interview with Mass Appeal, Whoo Kid compared Fif’s ’02 musical output to that of a drug dealer. “He gave me the product, and I had to go distribute it, literally every eight weeks,” he said of a rapper who was arrested for hustling in the ’90s. Two more official tapes followed that year. Meanwhile, other high-profile DJs clamored to include songs from the outspoken rapper on their projects.
Although 50 Cent may have seemed to have been demoted to the minor leagues upon losing his major deal, he treated his Rap career like the playoffs. “[Listeners] like me in the hood because they know what I’m saying is actually going on,” 50 Cent revealed in Whoo Kid’s Rewind DVD. “They know when I’m rapping, they can pinpoint the incident: ‘Oh, he’s talkin’ about this, son. Oh, he’s talkin’ ’bout that sh*t that happened with these ni**as,’ – know what I’m saying? They start to feed into me more in the ‘hood.” Whereas Fif’ believed his non-fiction verses were deemed a liability at his previous employer, Rap fans loved the authenticity. Just as Tupac had seemingly pointed to who he believed shot him in Quad Studios’ lobby, 50 Cent would call his enemies out by name, in verse. Long before Rap Genius, 50 Cent’s lyrics all had meaning—and consequences. Whether he was clowning a Rap peer or scoffing at New York City street bosses, Curtis Jackson’s bars were made of iron.
Full of such rhymes, Whoo Kid pushed 50 Cent Is the Future hard, from sidewalks to skyscrapers, bodegas to boardrooms. The Queens DJ’s efforts reportedly led to Eminem’s manager, Paul Rosenberg giving a listen. In turn, Paul gave it to Marshall Mathers—not unlike Jimmy Iovine sliding Dr. Dre an Eminem cassette four years prior. Em’ apparently fell in love with what he heard. Bringing the work to the attention of Dr. Dre, a joint venture was formed that would give Shady Records and Aftermath Entertainment a facelift fit for a dynasty.
Even prior to being shot nine times in 2000, 50 was stabbed in March of that year in New York City’s Hit Factory Studios. The incident was reportedly tied to Ja Rule and Murder Inc. Records. Blackchild, an artist on Irv Gotti’s label, claimed responsibility for the stabbing that led to three stitches. It was a physical escalation of a tiff that had been brewing over Rap and Queens for some time. However, now it was not going anywhere (and still has not). Whoo Kid spoke more in-depth about the deal with Mass Appeal: “Dr. Dre was a little sketchy about dealing with 50 ’cause he just came from the shooting. Dr. Dre came from hell with Suge Knight [and Death Row Records], and he was like, ‘I’m in a nice, safe place right now. I don’t need to be dealing with another guy who just went through all the shootings. Now I have to deal with him?’ So Eminem was like, ‘I’ll put him on my label, and he’ll be my responsibility.’ That’s why the whole Shady/Interscope thing got set up and put together because Eminem really took a big risk on 50.”
With Eminem officially backing him, and Dr. Dre on board to produce, 50 Cent went to work. The man who was a target in Jamaica, Queens was now powerfully armed with talent, money, and confidence. In just five days, 50 Cent recorded seven tracks for the album with Dr. Dre, including “In da Club.” The song became Dre’s (with help from Mike Elizondo) biggest Rap introduction since “My Name Is.” This time, in the messaging and tone, it felt closer to the Death Row Dre. Originally shopped to Shady Records’ mainstay D12, the re-appropriated record became Get Rich Or Die Tryin’s lead single in January of 2003. It peaked at #1, later bringing in Grammy nominations and MTV VMA wins. In just over three minutes, 50 Cent brought his energy into the club in a way that elevated any party. Whereas so many Rap peers regularly shed their streets-facing persona for a hit, 50 and Dre emphasized his brand: “If you watch how I move you’ll mistake me for a player or pimp / Been hit wit a few shells but I don’t walk wit a limp / In the hood then the ladies sayin’, ’50 you hot’ / They like me, I want them to love me like they love Pac / But holla in New York them ni**as’ll tell ya I’m loco / And the plan is to put the rap game in a choke-hold / I’m feelin’ focused man, my money on my mind / I got a mill out the deal and I’m still on the grind.” Curtis Jackson let college basement parties and Top 40 radio know about his paperwork, his near-fatal shooting, and his fierce work ethic.
However, to follow the Pac blueprint, 50 Cent also knew he needed to let his guard down in other places. “21 Questions,” featuring another Row alum in Nate Dogg, flashed 50 Cent’s sensitivity and vulnerability. Dr. Dre reportedly did not want the song on the album. According to 50 Cent, Dre told him “‘How you goin’ to be gangsta this and that and then put this sappy love song on?'” 50 Cent responded by saying, “I’m two people. I’ve always had to be two people since I was a kid, to get by. To me that’s not diversity, it’s necessity.” 50 Cent was set on giving the people both sides of his soul. However, the video kept the thug—presenting the call for commitment in the confines of a prison. In one cohesive album, 50 Cent showed he could make hits for the show, the after-party, and the hotel.
With Dr. Dre dedicating himself and his coaching to the album, 50 Cent also applied the tools taught to him earlier in his career. In an interview with Vulture, 50 detailed the experience of meeting the Run-D.M.C. co-founder at a nightclub. Jay, who was previously instrumental in ONYX and Jayo Felony’s careers, coached 50 on how to improve his songwriting. “He gave me writing habits because he would have me write the chorus three times before he picked one,” Fif’ told Vulture. “It gave me the habit as a writer to up with more than one melody for the record. So on ‘P.I.M.P.,’ you’ll hear the chorus area, and then you’ll hear an area that feels like a bridge on the record, but that’s out of the habit that I write two or three melodies on every song. It’s like what Jay would say to me, ‘That’s good, but if it is what we think it is, you need another one.'” Run-D.M.C. choruses brought Rap catchphrases into the living-rooms of mainstream culture, and so would G-Unit’s head honcho.
“P.I.M.P.” was 50 Cent’s fourth single off Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, led by steel drum samples provided by Mr. Porter and Fif’s loveless account of money over romance. Immediately, the song kicks off with a hook: “I don’t know what you heard about me, But a b*tch can’t get a dollar out of me / No Cadillac, no perms, you can’t see, that I’m a motherf*ckin’ P-I-M-P.” After the song’s second hook, 50 seemingly applies some knowledge Jay gave him, and he begins to toy with a new melody and expand the song’s hook. He throws out a new rendition and avoids overtly repetitive structures. Five years ahead of Drake and Kid Cudi, Fif’s rhymes possess melody: “I’m ’bout my money, you see, girl, you can holla at me / If you f*ckin’ with me, I’m a P-I-M-P / Not what you see on TV, no Cadillac, no greasy, head full of hair, b*tch, I’m a P-I-M-P.” It’s not so much the lyrics 50 Cent delivers here that made the song stand out so much as it is his inventiveness and knack for writing catchy, in-your-head melodies and hooks.
However, the same mixtape fans who had helped convince Eminem, Dre, and Jimmy Iovine to make an investment needed to be appeased. Like Tupac landing at Death Row, 50 Cent brought beef with him. As MTV and others covered the Ja Rule and 50 Cent physical feud, it was a talking-point for Interscope’s newest artist. The major distributor had hundreds of millions with Tupac, Dre, Em’, and Snoop’s Dogg Pound using narratives of controversy and WWE-like beef. Keeping that blueprint in play, 50 Cent needed no manufacturing. The MC had the media well-aware of his foes, and his vengeance existed throughout his vocals.
Even if he was reportedly reluctant to get back into the terror-dome (which he would) Dr. Dre-produced “Back Down.” 50 Cent clawed into Ja and Murder Inc. on the song: “Your success is not enough, you wanna be hard / Knowing that you get knocked you get f*cked in the yard / You’s a Pop Tart, sweetheart, you soft in the middle / I eat ya for breakfast, the watch was an exchange for your necklace.” The muscled MC bullied his 5’6″ nemesis in a way that resonated with the streets, the prison yard, and suburbia. Curtis Jackson made Ja’s strong sales and popularity decline between 2001’s Pain Is Love and 2002’s The Last Temptation feel significant, and telling. Even with two Hip-Hop giants in his corner, G.R.O.D.T. cleverly presents 50 Cent as the cinematic underdog—who knew how to bully the very people he saw as oppressors. It made for a compelling character, and a storyline that lasted well into the 2000s, with some lingering effects today.
By the end of 2003, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was certified six-times platinum. The album yielded five singles in an era when the music industry’s attention span seemed to be shortening. G.R.O.D.T. signified Dre’s Midas touch in a third consecutive decade. It also diversified Eminem’s label into Gangsta Rap. Now part of “the three-headed monster,” 50 used the opportunity to build his own empire.”Free Yayo” t-shirts and all, G-Unit was the beneficiary of chain-marketing, even before The Game was added to the fold. Like Em’ with D12, Curtis Jackson brought his homeboys Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo along with him, as well as Cash Money castaway, Young Buck. The attitude, the mixtape marketing, and the shake-things-up approach would soon permeate across Shady/Aftermath. 50 Cent’s rise was meteoric, in a story that once seemed destined to die on the launchpad. Rap had a new superstar, and 15 years later, the game is still playing by some of his rules.