All it took was nine bullets to make 50 Cent a legend.
On May 24, 2000 up-and-coming rapper 50 Cent was sitting in a car outside his grandmother's house in the Queens, New York neighborhood of Southside Jamaica when a gunman drove up and fired repeatedly. Initially the attempted murder wasn't good for 50's career: His label, Columbia, dropped him immediately. But the former drug dealer and boxer refused to abandon his music, putting out four albums' worth of "street mix" CDs, sold for cheap on street corners.
In a genre that prizes authenticity, nothing says "keepin' it real" like nine bullet holes. Eminem, the world's biggest rapper, heard 50's street mixes and signed him to a deal with Interscope, the industry's hottest label, in 2002. "There's a mystique about him," Eminem declared.
50 Cent, who is now 27, always had plenty of mystique. Born Curtis Jackson III (he was named after his grandfather), he never met his father and was often left alone by his mother, Sabrina, a low-level drug dealer in Queens. When Jackson was eight, his mother was killed at home by someone who drugged her drink and turned on a gas oven, leaving her to die. The murder didn't deter her criminal-minded son, who was first arrested for dealing in high school and then in 1994 was busted for possession of heroin, 10 ounces of crack and a starter pistol and sentenced to three to nine years.
Jackson loved rap, though, and saw it as his route to legit riches. Naming himself after a well-known New York street thug, he began working with Jam Master Jay, Run-DMC's legendary DJ. On an audacious 1999 single, "How to Rob," 50 threatened rap heavyweights with burglary, creating an image of himself as ruthless, fearless and calmly remorseless. When Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002, police questioned 50, hoping he might know who'd killed his mentor.
In its first two weeks of release in February 2003, 50's debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', sold a remarkable 1.6 million copies. With sales of 6.5 million in the U.S., it was the top-selling CD of the year. Although 50 Cent's appeal began with his illegal exploits and contentious behavior--including feuds with rapper Ja Rule, his Murder Inc. label chief Irv Gotti and jailed drug dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, whom the government suspects of having funded Murder Inc. to launder drug money--it spread through the bravado of his witty rhymes and magnetic hooks, which turned gangsta stories into pop smashes, including "In Da Club" and "P.I.M.P." His album "seems to consist of nothing but hits," The New York Times wrote. "But it's a grim party: The casual jokes about death are his way of reminding us of the price he might have to pay for his success--and for our entertainment."Playboy sent Rob Tannenbaum to meet with 50 at the Interscope offices in Manhattan. Tannenbaum arrived unarmed.
Playboy: Are you wearing a bulletproof vest right now?
50 Cent: Nah. I took it off as I came into the building.
Playboy: So you figure we're not a lethal threat, huh?
50 Cent: Yeah. Plus, I don't like to make everybody uncomfortable. Because I'm from the bottom, I have a different class of people who envy me. They have nothing to lose, so the situations can be a little extreme. That's the reason I wear it--just preparing for the worst. Biggie and Tupac got shot, but if they wore the vest, it would have prevented them from dying.
Playboy: When you wear the vest, can you tell it makes people uncomfortable?
50 Cent: Absolutely. The majority of people who acquire the finances I have at this point, they come from something totally different. Even if they're not intimidated by me, they're intimidated by what they believe could happen while I'm there. When I was on Columbia Records I didn't want them to be intimidated by my past, so I didn't tell them who I was.
Playboy: You didn't tell them you were a drug dealer.
50 Cent: But when I got shot, they became afraid of me because I responded the way that environment conditions you to respond: Get shot, get up, and if your fingers and toes still move, then you move forward. Getting shot is not a big deal where I'm from. Once they say "He's gonna make it," it's all right. When somebody goes to jail, a new face takes his place to hustle on that strip. It doesn't change. Because getting shot didn't mean as much to me, that made Columbia even more afraid of me.
Playboy: But sitting here right now, you seem calm and friendly. A lot of gangstas glare and shout like they might kill someone any minute.
50 Cent: That's a shield. If you put me in a situation where I feel like I have no choice but to do something to you, it's gonna be done. It makes even law enforcement afraid, the influence I've got. In my neighborhood you can get somebody killed for $5,000--if I showed you my bank account, you'd know I could really create Vietnam there at $5,000 a body. [laughs] That's what makes them pay so much attention to us.
Playboy: You've toured the U.S. Has all that travel changed you?
50 Cent: Your outlook changes a little bit, but all across the country I've been subjected to the same things I've been subjected to in my neighborhood. I walk through a metal detector, and even though it doesn't go off, they still want to wand me. I'm 50 Cent. I got an aura around me that's negative, and I don't think it's gonna leave. But I'm all right with it. Everything happens for a reason. Being shot in the face, I lost a tooth. [opens his mouth to show a missing tooth] Gums, too. And my voice changed. There's a little hiss when I speak, because there's more air in my mouth. And this is the voice that sells millions of records. [laughs] I was a felon; now I'm a superstar. I went from nothing to a hell of a lot. I just bought Mike Tyson's old house in Connecticut--18 bedrooms. It's the biggest residential home on the East Coast.
Playboy: You could say that getting shot was the best thing that ever happened to you.
50 Cent: Yeah, I'd still be on Columbia Records. Wow! They didn't understand what I was doing like Eminem and Dr. Dre did. Lyrics that Columbia might have asked me to change, Dre was like, "That's hot."
Playboy: So getting shot made Columbia drop you, gave you a distinctive style and made you a legend.
50 Cent: Yeah, it made me special.
Playboy: We saw four very large guys with you in the hallway. Who are they?
50 Cent: Security guards. Two of them are armed.
Playboy: You're a convicted felon, so if you were ever caught with a gun, you'd go back to jail.
50 Cent: Right. When Jam Master Jay got killed, they tied my name to that situation immediately. "Do you think somebody would kill him to send 50 a message?" A few years ago they thought I killed two girls. The guy who actually killed them had a Suzuki motorcycle, the same stock colors as mine. They chased me on my bike. I got away, but they got a perception of me in that precinct. They feel like I know exactly who tried to kill me, but they have no information on that from me.
Playboy: Since your jail term, have you carried a gun?
50 Cent: Yeah. Since my jail term I've been shot nine times. I'd rather get caught with a gun than get caught without one.
Playboy: Your life was like this even when you were young. Tell us about your mom.
50 Cent: My moms was real aggressive. My mom used to like women. I think she had a girlfriend when I was eight years old. She was really manly, really tough, and she had to be--she was hustling. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother even before my mother passed.
Playboy: She was murdered.
50 Cent: She was dead for days before they found her. When they found her, her body was fucked-up. Someone put something in her drink and turned the gas on. But in my neighborhood, if you had both parents, you were spoiled--"You got a mother and a father? Oh shit!"
Playboy: Did your grandmother tell you how your mom died?
50 Cent: I got what happened later. My grandmother was uncomfortable even saying that my mother liked girls.
Playboy: She didn't like the word lesbian?
50 Cent: Well, not lesbian. I don't know what you call it--bisexual? I'm here, so it had to be bi. [laughs] But I think that's why I don't pass judgment on people. I ain't into faggots. I don't like gay people around me, because I'm not comfortable with what their thoughts are. I'm not prejudiced. I just don't go with gay people and kick it--we don't have that much in common. I'd rather hang out with a straight dude. But women who like women, that's cool. I could actually get into that, having a woman who likes women too. We might have more in common.