The Life of a Hunted Man
At twelve, he was a crack dealer. At twenty-three, he was nearly shot to death. Now, at twenty-six, he is a hip-hop ruler. And old rivals want him dead
April 3, 2003
It's well past 4 a.m., and 50 cent's six bodyguards are out in the hallway of the hotel, lazily leaning against the wall or completely asleep. 50 is inside his room, still pulsing with energy. Three hours ago, he finished the biggest show of his career yet, a sold-out date for a crowd of 15,000 at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum. When 50 left the venue, he was surrounded by a ring of bodyguards until he climbed into a bulletproof GMC Suburban. A convoy of nine trucks followed him three minutes down the road to this hotel. Now, as his crew prowls for groupies, 50 is keeping a roomful of friends in stitches, telling stories about his past with the same mix of he-didn't-just-say-that humor and gruesome detail that has made him the most exciting new MC and the coolest new villain in hip-hop since the emergence of Eminem. Tonight he'll hold court for three or four hours straight until it's time to leave for a tour date in Baltimore. There's a thin wife-beater covering his chiseled torso and a Yankees hat balanced at an angle atop the white do-rag on his head. His navy-blue bulletproof vest is there on the floor.
On records, 50 projects a scary crack dealer, but among friends, the screw face drops. He's animated, a street-corner shit-talker who knows where all the bodies are buried and knows no one can make him shut up. When he gets around to talking about his six-year-old son, Marquise, who appears in the "Wanksta" video, his son's mother pulls his picture out of her wallet. She calls him a hip-hop baby. "One time he was watching TV with another little kid," 50 says, "and a person got shot and died. He said to the other kid, 'That's weak. My daddy got shot a lot of times. He didn't die.' " Everyone laughs. "I had to tell him that was a special situation," he says. "You're not supposed to get hit that many times and get away!"
Violence has been a constant in the life of twenty-six-year-old 50 Cent -- government name Curtis Jackson, nickname Boo-Boo. His mother, a drug dealer, was killed when he was eight. At twelve, he became a dealer, and was nearly shot to death at twenty-four. His first hip-hop mentor, Jam Master Jay, was killed execution-style last year. Just four days before this very evening, an empty SUV owned by Busta Rhymes was hit with six bullets while parked in front of 50 Cent's manager's office. And right now, there are people who want 50 dead.
Some have suggested that it's other rappers who are trying to kill him, but 50 says hatred from his old competitors in crack dealing has multiplied because of his fame. "This ain't no rap war," he says. "This have nothin' to do with no rappers. The gangsters don't like that I do whatever the fuck I wanna do. I'm movin around, I'm all over the country, I'm makin' money, I'm a motherfuckin' star. That bothers a nigga. The people that dislike me have nothin' to lose. I'm from the bottom. They're uneasy about still bein' on the bottom."
50 gets through his days in bulletproof trucks, walking with four to six bodyguards just inches away, ushering him briskly through streets and doors, but his body language and demeanor show him unmoved by the threats on his life. He never refuses to stop for an autograph or a photo request, even when it exposes him to danger. Is he worried about his grandparents, who still live in Queens, New York, in the house where he grew up? He says his reputation is enough to protect them. "They [his would-be killers] know how I am. Anything go on around there, they need to move everything they love. They mammy, they pappy, they kids, all that shit. That'd start some real nasty shit. And they don't wanna go through that." He seems confident he won't be killed, unperturbed by being hunted. "It don't matter to me," he says. "That shit is not important when you got finances. Do I look uneasy to you?"
He does not. In this hotel room, he's boisterous, arrogant, secure in his own skin and having fun. The man from the gutter in Queens who nearly ended up in prison or dead is the biggest new star of the year. His gory, brilliant major-label debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', sold 2.1 million copies in its first three weeks. Nearly all hip-hop fans know the broad outline of 50's life story: the ghetto-celeb crack dealer who escaped the drug game by thrusting himself into hip-hop, only to have his enemies follow him into his new life. One day in 2000, just months away from the release of his first album, he was shot nine times. His album was shelved, but 50 became a street legend on the strength of underground mix-tape hits (which are now collected on Guess Who's Back?). Last year, Eminem and Dr. Dre signed him to a joint label deal, and Em featured 50's Ja Rule dis, "Wanksta," on the soundtrack to 8 Mile. Dr. Dre produced Get Rich's first single, "In Da Club," and 50 went platinum in just over a week. "As soon as he walked in the studio, he picked up a pen, and we were done in an hour," says Dre. "We just made some shit we wanted to hear."
Part of 50's success is his unique voice, with a slur that's the result of the hole in his jaw from a bullet to the face. But a bigger part is his credibility. When he talks about drugs and guns and death, you know he's speaking from experience. "If he says he's gonna pop you, you think he might," says Eminem. "Kids wanna see a guy that got shot that many times and lived. There's a whole mystique about him, but at the same time, the same kids that are goin' to the shows are a little bit intimidated by him. Maybe not all, but most. He's definitely out there. And that's me sayin' that."
"I think kids like me like the fuckin' bad guy in a film," 50 says. "People love the bad guy. I watch movies all the time and root for the bad guy and turn it off before it ends because the bad guy dies. It's cinematic law: The bad guy has to die. But sometimes the bad guy gets a record deal and becomes a superstar like 50."
Curtis Jackson was born July 6th, 1976, on the south side of Jamaica, Queens, a rugged, drug-infested strip. Nearby residents describe it as the main arena for all the up-and-coming crack dealers. "That was their playground," says one. "That's where they got their stripes. A lot of niggas dumped bodies on that side of town." Young Curtis never knew his father, and doesn't want to now. "Let's give him a warning in this article," he says. "Don't you even dare crawl your ass out this way. I don't wanna know the nigga." 50's mother, Sabrina Jackson, was only fifteen years old when he was born and wasn't around very long. She dealt cocaine. "My moms was hard," 50 says. "She's real worse than me. She wasn't really feminine like that. My moms was tough-tough, like man-tough."
Curtis spent most of his time with his grandparents, because his mom was out working. "She used to substitute finances for time," 50 remembers. "Every time I seen her, it was somethin' new for me. Christmas every day. She put jewelry on me early."
When Curtis was eight, someone went home with Sabrina, put something in her drink that left her unconscious, closed the windows, turned on the gas and left her for dead. She was found a few days later. "Had to be something to do with the drugs," 50 says. "Her body was all fucked up." She was twenty-three.
He moved in permanently with his grandparents. They tried to steer him away from the street, but he was Sabrina's boy and thus able to hang out with the older guys in the neighborhood. When he was twelve, those guys gave him some cocaine to sell. "They knew nobody was there for me, so they gave me a little three-and-a-half grams and said, 'Here, start hustling,' " he says. "The other kids my age wouldn't even know what to do if you gave 'em a scale and bakin' soda and a pot to cook [crack] up." Of course, at twelve he could hustle only between three and six in the afternoon, when his grandmother thought he was in an after-school program. "I did things in the street, then I was able to adjust and leave that at my doorstep. Once I get in the house, I'm my grandmother's baby. But once I'm outside, I do whatever I gotta do to get by." He can still flip that switch between tough and sweet whenever he likes, moving in a heartbeat from the charm of a soft-spoken choirboy to a teeth-clenched icy grill that would make you throw your wallet at him in fear. He's clear about when and where to employ each one. "I know I gotta be able to separate in order to progress," he says.
In tenth grade at Andrew Jackson High School, 50 was arrested for possession of crack and given juvenile probation. He transferred to another school, but it didn't matter. "I was fashion show in high school. After the first time I got in trouble, I'd pop in when I had something nice to wear and shit." He dropped out after tenth grade. (He got his GED in jail a few years later.) By this time, he was a budding boxer and a rising street icon, a ghetto celeb feared throughout Queens, in control of a crack house and the main drug-selling strip around the way. At eighteen, 50 was making $5,000 a day selling crack and heroin. He bought himself a white Land Cruiser and a white Mercedes-Benz 400 SE. "He's always been known for doing something crazy and wild," says Sha Money XL, a longtime friend and president of 50's indie label, G-Unit Records. "People around Queens be like, 'I know Boo, he was crazy in school. He used to come to school with mad money and guns.' "
50 used a lot of intimidation and strategy to maintain his hold on the strip. During one of his prison stints, he met some thieves from Brooklyn. Back on the strip, he employed them to rob rival Queens hustlers. He'd let the stickup kids keep whatever cash and jewelry they got as long as they gave him all the drugs. Then he gave the stolen drugs to his customers when they bought his crack, as a buy-one-get-one-free deal. This forced his competitors to carry guns, which meant they had to scatter when the cops came. "So they had to come and leave, come and leave," he says. "Consistency is the key to all success. If you can consistently sell crack without the cops comin', you gonna be successful. If you consistently put out quality material in your mix tape, it'll build anticipation for your album."
50's not proud of having sold drugs, but he feels no guilt about it, either. "Guilt?" he asks, a little annoyed. "Hell, no. Guilt for how? Try tellin' a kid that's twelve years old, 'If you do good in school for eight more years, you can have a car.' And let a kid's curiosity lead him through his neighborhood and find somebody who got it in six months on that strip. It don't seem like one of the options, it seem like the only option. I provide for myself by any means. I don't care about how anybody feels about it. 'Cause when I'm doin' it, I really don't have intentions to hurt nobody. I don't expect everybody to understand. But there's people that's from where I'm from that understand."
In the summer of 1994, 50 was arrested twice in three weeks and knew he was headed for death or prison. "It was comin'," he says. "Long as you stay there, you don't beat the odds."
For years he'd been going to friends' basements and rhyming to instrumentals for fun. Now he thought it was time to get away from the drug world and try hip-hop. He knew nothing about constructing songs, but he told himself he would succeed. "Once I focus on something, it gotta work for me," he says. "I won't turn off from it. I convince myself it's gonna work and then no one can convince me that it's not."
In 1996, a friend introduced him to Jam Master Jay, who was then organizing his label, JMJ Records. Jay taught 50 how to structure a song. "Jay knew 50 was the shit," Sha Money says. "He was treating 50 like a big-budget artist." Jay produced 50's first album, but it was never released.
In 1999, 50 moved on to Columbia Records, where he recorded another album, Power of a Dollar, which included the underground classic "How to Rob," in which he describes mugging a slew of rap and R&B stars and lays out who 50 Cent is: the fearless and funny thug who's just a minute off the street. The song exploded on the hip-hop underground and on the radio. 50 had always admired how KRS-One had roared into hip-hop behind a dis record ("South Bronx"). Now he'd done the same.
One night in a club, 50 said "What's up?" to a man he knew who happened to have stolen a chain from Ja Rule. Ja saw 50 talking to the man and felt disrespected. Thus began a feud. "Wanksta" and a slew of records dissing Ja and Murder Inc. head Irv Gotti followed. Things got physical one day in Atlanta. Ja and 50 were staying in the same hotel, and when 50 saw Ja, he pulled him aside to talk. "He was lookin' real stupid," 50 says. "He had one of them little bats they give you at the baseball games for your kids. He had the li'l-tough look on his face." Their talk didn't last long. "I let him go on for about a minute or two, and then I just punched him in his eye. I heard enough of that shit."
50 says anger is his most familiar emotion. "Somethin' happen that another person might start crying about, I get mad. Some people know how to express themselves emotionally and cry and do all that other shit. Me, emotionally, I'm, like, thirteen."
Months after the Atlanta fight, in a scuffle with Ja Rule's crew at the Manhattan recording studio the Hit Factory, 50 was stabbed, though not seriously. (Charges were dismissed.) But while the Ja Rule beef merely got people talking about 50, he gained respect when Jay-Z responded to being dissed in "How to Rob" by saying, "I'm about a dollar/What the fuck is 50 Cent?" on "It's Hot (Some Like It Hot)," from Volume 3 . . . The Life and Times of S. Carter.
"When he responded, I was complimented," 50 says. "He wouldn't say nothing back to somebody he didn't think was hot. I never went to radio until after he said that about me. I don't know if my career would be where it's at if he didn't respond."
50 was poised to be a star. In a few months, his album was to be released. But there was at least one contract on his life; some say three. "Where I'm from, the price of life is cheap," he says. "For $5,000, you could kill somebody. You could pick a shooter. You could have a few different choices. Might do it for less than that if they like you." On May 24th, 2000, death came for a visit, and his life changed forever.
He was at his grandmother's house, on his way to the tattoo parlor and then to the studio, at about 11:20 in the morning. He got into a friend's car, then was asked to go back in to get some jewelry. When he returned and slid into the car, another car pulled up. Someone crawled out of the back and came up on 50's left side with a gun cocked. "Sneaky motherfucker, man," 50 says. "He did it right. He just didn't finish. He like Allen Iverson shakin' a nigga, go to the basket and miss." The man hit him with nine shots at close range. 50 took bullets in the hand ("shell hit my thumb and came out my pinky"), the hip ("that one hurt-hurt"), the calf and the chest, and one to the face went through his left cheek and into his mouth. "You don't actually feel each one hit you," he says. "The adrenaline is pumping. You movin' and tryin' to get out of the way. I was bouncing around the back seat. We pulled off. We got a block or so. We had to pull over to get rid of the tote [gun]. Threw it in the sewer, then we got to the hospital. But I was up and still talking the whole time." A few weeks later, the shooter was murdered. 50 denies responsibility.
He spent thirteen days in the hospital, then staggered out on a walker. Six weeks later, he began walking on his own. Now life was more precious to him. He began working on his body with endless push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups that turned him from kinda fat to chiseled.
But more important for an MC, there was now a large, squarish hole through the left side of his lower jaw and a piece of bullet left in his tongue. He'd lost a bottom tooth and a U-shaped chunk of his gums, but his lazy tongue and the hole in his jaw gave him a slur like no one in hip-hop. "There's a different sound now when I talk, 'cause of the air around the tooth," 50 says. "Gettin' shot just totally fixed my instrument."
The story of the shooting of 50 Cent spread throughout hip-hop and made him seem mythical, even unkillable. But as soon as Columbia heard, it dropped him. "I wasn't sure if the industry was ever gonna embrace me again," he says. In January 2001, he began spending every day at Sha Money XL's studio, making songs for the underground mix-CD world. He released five albums of material within months, flooding the market as no MC ever had. "I thought, 'This dude got shot, got back up and is still poppin' shit?' " says Eminem. "He came back stronger than ever. That made me stop."
Eminem flew 50 out to L.A. for a meeting. "When everyone else was afraid to work with me for reasons outside of music, he looked straight past that," 50 says.
"One of the things that excited me about Tupac," Eminem says, "was even if he was rhymin' the simplest words in the world, you felt like he meant it and it came from his heart. That's the thing with 50. That same aura. That's been missing since we lost Pac and Biggie. The authenticity, the realness behind it."
Back in the hotel room, it's almost morning, and 50's still telling stories, first about when Foxy Brown came to visit him in the hospital, then about an old friend with such bad luck he got arrested almost every time he left home. It's almost time to leave, so he slips on his bulletproof vest and begins pulling the Velcro straps tight. He's richer than ever, but he's being hunted. "Niggas out there sellin' drugs is after what I got from rappin'," he says. "When you walk into a club, and the bouncer stop doin' whatever the fuck they doin' to let you in and say, 'Everybody else wait. He special' -- that's the same shit they do when you start killin' niggas in your hood. This is what we been after the whole time. Just the wrong route."
Everyone turns when Marquise's mom holds up a tailor-made kiddie-size navy-blue bulletproof vest that her son will wear onstage this summer at his father's shows. There's something cute and funny about it, but no one laughs.