How 50 Cent’s revenge-soaked, hollow-tipped hustle changed rap forever
In 2002, 50’s 50 Cent Is The Future mixtape solidified his distinguishable qualities and put the rest of hip-hop on notice.
How 50 Cent’s revenge-soaked, hollow-tipped hustle changed rap forever Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images  

50 was driving a 400 SE but had never made a rap song; he was wearing a Nets jersey, so Jam Master Jay thought he was Kenny Anderson. This was 1997.

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It was a chance meeting outside of a club in Manhattan. When JMJ mentioned that he was trying to develop an artist of his own, 50 — who had years of informal freestyling under his belt, but had never been inside a proper recording booth — suggested himself. The pair signed a production deal.

Very little finished music is available from the 50/JMJ sessions, and what is is starkly, sometimes painfully formative. See “The Glow,” where 50 Cent (well, “Fifty Cent”) is rapping like Mase if Mase rapped more about mistrials. But it was during these sessions that 50 learned how to write songs — specifically hooks, which JMJ would demand one after the other, three or four potential choruses cooked up for every single beat.

50 didn’t last long with JMJ. They went in fits and starts, the Run-D.M.C. tours got in the way, and so the young rapper left — he kicked around the outskirts of the industry, was taken under some semi-powerful wings, was nearly shoehorned into a group with Nas. There was the breakout single, then the disses from Jay and Ghostface and Big Pun. There was the “blue General Motors car” that pulled up behind him in the spring of 2000 and began firing bullets into 50’s own parked vehicle, striking him nine times. There was the half-year he spent hobbling around on a walker, shedding weight and building muscle, learning to talk with a bullet gash through his face, eradicating the limp.

Five years after the meeting and the Mercedes and the Nets jersey, 50 was poised to be the biggest rapper in the world. That April, he announced his return with a mixtape called Guess Who’s Back? that collected new work, hits from past mixtapes, and songs from his shelved Columbia album. (At 19, I bought a Benz, I did / The older niggas really wasn’t feeling the kid.) Then, starting in June, he dropped a trio of mixtapes, just months apart from one another, and announced a deal with Shady/Aftermath. He became a fixture on those little MTV News segments they squeezed in between TRL and Made. The first and best of those three mixtapes, 50 Cent Is The Future, is not only a staggering show of pop instinct and raw charisma, but a durable blueprint that lasted well over a decade.

Just weeks after the last of those tapes, God’s Plan, hit bootleg blankets and DSL modems, a masked man broke into JMJ’s studio on Merrick Blvd in Queens and shot him in the head, killing him instantly.

The murder is still unsolved, but immediately after the death was reported, rumors took hold that it was in some way retribution for JMJ’s relationship with 50 Cent. Those whispers were so pervasive that you wound up with absolutely unbelievable things like this item from Entertainment Weekly, which asks if the killing was revenge for 50’s “parodies of other rappers’ songs” and “lampooning of gangsta rap.” Of course, nobody who knew anything thought this — the song at the center of the rumors was “Ghetto Qu’ran,” which is about as straightfaced as a rap song gets — but the fact was they hit a tipping point where writers at EW were feeling around in the dark for context clues, all before an album was out.

By the time 50 Cent was a global superstar, the myths and archetypes that formed the bedrock of his image had been deeply embedded in the public consciousness. This was after crack and after 9/11, after Big and Pac were killed, and after Puff strong armed his way into everyone's’ living rooms. A lot of the early writing about 50 casts him as a magnetic, efficient take on familiar molds. But the truth is that, even by the standards of late-capitalist America, 50’s life had been unbelievably, almost impossibly harrowing. (That the story of the son of a murdered, single mother whose rise to the peak of the entertainment industry could elicit shrugs is both horrifying and unsurprising.) And yet 50 did not win by making you believe you could be him — he was scowling and sarcastic, bulletproof and ready to die. He was the future.

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Curtis Jackson is born in the summer of 1975. His mother, Sabrina, is 15 when she has him. Despite her youth, Sabrina is fearless and resourceful; when he talks about her in interviews, or when he writes about her in his 2005 memoir, 50 describes a remarkably tough woman who provides a comfortable, happy home for him in the middle of bleak surroundings. When he’s eight years old, Sabrina dies. “After I lost my mom, I can remember feeling like I wanted to go into a park but it was raining outside, and I felt like it was raining because my mom was dead,” he tells Interview in 2005. “Went to her funeral and everything and still didn’t understand what was going on. Just knew that everything that was good went away.”

50 — he’s called Boo or Boo-Boo for most of his youth — moves in with his grandparents, still in South Jamaica. He senses right away that there’s less cash flow, so he stops asking for new sneakers. He learns how to box. Around the neighborhood, he keeps running into people who seem well-groomed, who have nice cars, who wear new clothes. They all tell him they knew his mom. By the time he’s 13, he’s selling crack between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., when his grandparents think he’s at an after-school program. Much of this takes place on a segment of Guy R. Brewer Blvd known as The Strip. (“Back then, niggas used to call me Boo / In six months I sold a million gold tops on Guy Brew.”)

One day, a stray vial he forgets in his sneaker sets off a metal detector at Andrew Jackson High, in Cambria Heights. He tells his grandmother he sells drugs. There’s no real fuss. (It isn’t until a couple of years later, in 1994, after 50’s been arrested twice in quick succession, that she tells him his mother was murdered by rival dealers — they drugged her and turned on the gas in her apartment.) He finds out he’s having a son.

There’s the meeting with Jam Master Jay, the sessions with all the hooks, the lurches forward and stays in purgatory. He plays his music for Markie from the Fat Boys in a barbershop; Markie invites him to a recording camp upstate. He meets Tone and Poke from the Trackmasters and begins to come into his own. (They float the idea of putting 50 in The Firm with Nas, Foxy Brown, et al., but it never gets very far.) He writes and records at a dizzying pace. He signs a deal with Columbia, then watches as the budgets creeps skyward, blocks of studio sessions and ransoms to car services. He makes a song with Destiny’s Child and a couple with Noreaga. He worries he’s never going to recoup.

In 1999, desperate for some traction, 50 releases “How To Rob,” a comic song where he imagines sticking up dozens of famous artists. It becomes a sort of minor sensation. It elicits those responses from Jay (“I’m about a dollar — what the fuck is 50 Cents?”), Big Pun (“And to the 50 Cent rapper, very funny, get your nut off / ‘Cause in real life, you don’t know I’ll blow your motherfucking head off”), and Ghostface, who dedicates an entire skit to him on Supreme Clientele.

He finally gets on the release schedule; the album is slated to come out in August 2000. Columbia schedules a video shoot for the Destiny’s Child song. But on May 24, that blue GM pulls up behind him and nearly kills him. He’s rushed into surgery. Bullets penetrate his legs and arm, chest and hand, and one lodges into the left side of his face. Columbia drops him. Power of the Dollar is never released in stores. Two summers later, though, he’d have his revenge.

An aside about the Supreme Team:

Through the 1980s, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff and his organization had a quasi-stranglehold on the crack trade in Queens. There are police reports and fatty paperbacks to wade through if you want to know all the details, but the gist is that, by ‘87, the Team was wildly lucrative and sloppily violent.

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At the end of that year, Preme went to prison following an FBI raid. His second-in-command, Gerald “Prince” Miller — Preme’s nephew — missed the worst of the federal sweep while locked up on state charges, but tried to revive the operation when he got out in ‘89. But things were never really the same. The Team was plagued by surveillance and wiretaps, and their operations from ‘89 through the 1990s were carefully scrutinized by state and federal authorities. Preme served seven years in prison and was released in ‘94; he did a couple more years following a probation violation, but was free from 1997 until his December 2002 arrest on federal weapons charges. (In 2007, he was convicted on murder-for-hire charges in federal court and sentenced to life.)

This is the context in which Sabrina Jackson had to live and work, and the neighborhood in which 50 grew up. Shortly after “How To Rob” took off, 50 put out a song called “Ghetto Qu’ran,” which was knee-deep in the lore and specifics of the Supreme Team and all the characters on its fringes. Preme’s name is mentioned within two bars:

“When you hear talk of the Southside, you hear talk of the Team
See, niggas feared Prince and respected Preme
For all you slow motherfuckers, I’ma break it down iller
See, Preme was the businessman and Prince was the killer.”

The question as to whether “Ghetto Qu’ran” led to 50’s shooting — and/or to Jam Master Jay’s — has been mulled and turned over for going on 18 years. Prodigy wrote in his book that Preme ordered the hit on 50, and an affidavit from a federal special agent argues the same. But on “Many Men,” from Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 pins the shooting on a man named Darryl Baum, known as “Hommo.” (Reporters covering the Murder Inc. money laundering trial in 2005 wrote that, after the prosecution brought up the link between Preme and the shooting, defense attorneys could be heard yelling from the judge’s chambers: “Hommo did it, Hommo did it, Hommo did it. Even 50 Cent says it!”)

“Ghetto Qu’ran” was slated to appear on Power of the Dollar; when 50 returned two years later, with Guess Who’s Back?, he once again included the song.

If you go back and listen to Power of the Dollar, which was heavily bootlegged almost immediately after it was shelved, you’ll find that the magic comes through intermittently: for every scorched-earth screed like “Life’s On The Line,” there’s a song like “The Hit,” which is competent but hollow in its biting of ‘96-’97 Jay, from the halting flow to the knowing sarcasm. There’s filler.

Guess Who’s Back? is a powerful, compelling sampler. 50’s identity is fully-formed; from the record’s beginning, he’s singing about being on probation and rapping about the lifespans of stickup kids, and he does both with that new lilt that was carved by a bullet. The tape’s problem is stamina. The first five songs are extraordinary: the fourth is “U Not Like Me” (“From the last shootout, I got a dimple on my face / It’s nothing, I can go after Mase fanbase”) and the fifth is “50 Bars,” a detail-dense story (“In the black 740 I sat, my hat turned back / Down down baby, Nelly singin,’ my wrist blingin”) that nods to Nas’s style. But after that opening run, the strongest songs are “Life’s On The Line” and “Qu’ran,” both a few years old by that point.

Neither of those LPs hit like 50 Cent Is The Future. Recorded largely in Canada, because studio managers around New York found 50 a safety hazard, Future was the most nationally visible patient zero of “mixtapes” as we knew them in the 2000s: a sampling of original raps by a single act over a variety of mostly pilfered beats. It isn’t a series of scraps and exclusives put out under a DJ’s name, nor is it an album under novelty glasses and a fake mustache, as so many quote-unquote mixtapes are now.

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During the mixtape boom of the 2000s and early 2010s, fans and critics often drew a stylistic distinction between that format and traditional albums. Where the latter was more beholden to traditional song formats and pop concerns, they argued, the former left rappers free to run on past the margins, to rap without reservation, to be unfiltered and rough around the edges. What makes all of 50’s mixtape work, and especially Future, so vital is that it perfectly distills 50’s personality — menacing, hilarious, reveling in its own villainy — in a way that feels loose and off the cuff, but arranged so that it’s packed with hooks and could more or less be lifted from Canal Street straight onto Hot 97. It’s pop music with street sensibilities, murder music for your commute.

What I’m trying to say is that it opens with a Raphael Saadiq beat. He leans on the Mobb Deep catalog and snatches from Jay, whom he’d dissed on a bizarre “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” interpolation the same year. The Ruff Ryders and the Geto Boys are flipped. It’s a survey of hits from the decade prior, but that’s never the point — 50 is the unifying force, his melodic tangents doubled and his verses spit out like poison.

The density of color and unexpected turns makes your head spin. On “Just Fuckin’ Around,” 50 lulls you into a chorus, then breaks the illusion: “You like the smile and the dimple on my face? / Bitch, that’s a bullet wound, I ain’t Mase!” On “Clue/50,” he raps about a dice game gone wrong then says the other players are “looking at me like I’m crazy — they shook / I don’t give a fuck who he shot out in Red Hook.” Future is full of tiny asides and flexes that stretch a capo persona to its absurdist extremes: at one point, he asks a girl for head, then promises Yayo will reciprocate.

Speaking of Yayo, it helps that by the time this tape came out, he and Banks had begun to steadily improve. When recounting the story of his being hired as 50’s DJ, Whoo Kid says he stumbled into the meeting where 50 sat down his two friends and explained to them that they were about to become rappers. Their appearances alongside 50 before Future –– and still at points here, especially on “G-Unit That’s What’s Up” — were often dull and labored. Here, there are glimpses of something more, like when Banks says over the “Breathe Easy” beat that he has a girl who cooks and cleans for him like Celie in The Color Purple — a line that’s specific, gleeful, and tasteless, just like 50. The tape also features Juvenile, who brought along his own group, UTP. The following year, seeing as Yayo was in prison when it was time to roll out the first G-Unit album, 50 signed a little-known UTP member named Young Buck to be his replacement. This was right when the balance of power in hip-hop was shifting from New York to the South; signing Buck was like choosing a Vice Presidential candidate because he’s from a swing state.

50 Cent Is The Future is a mission statement from a man who survived not only the blunt, crushing weight of American poverty, but a spectacularly violent attempt on his life — which he improbably survived, only to have his lifelong dream stripped away from him. He’d been run through the industry ringer in a way that almost no artist survives. And his response was to double down on a hostile, unforgiving persona, but to wield that persona in a way that put their best-laid marketing plans to shame.

When Get Rich or Die Tryin’ comes out the following February, it shakes rap to its bones. It sells almost 900,000 copies in four days and about 820,000 in the following seven. It’s everywhere. Puff tells MTV that the hype feels greater than it was for Snoop or Big. DJ Clue says the same. There’s a case to be made that the coarse, acidic 50 from the mixtapes appears on too little of Get Rich, that “Like My Style” and “Poor Lil Rich” and etc. don’t properly capture what “U Not Like Me” and “Life’s On the Line” do so readily. But there are supervillain themes like “Heat” and manic frets like “Gotta Make It To Heaven,” the venom of “Back Down” and the gloss of “If I Can’t.” There’s “In da Club” and there’s “Many Men.” A number of the beats had originally belonged to Rakim, who was trying and failing to come to creative terms with Dre. 50 fit in seamlessly.

In later years, a pervasive myth would take hold that Kanye West squeezed 50 out of rap’s mainstream — that Graduation selling more than Curtis in the fall of 2007 signaled a sea change, that gangsta rap had gone dead or dormant — but the truth is that 50 never makes a great record after Get Rich. He hangs around on the fringes of the Hot 100 and, to this day, could pop back up with a jolt of nostalgia or by being grafted onto a no-brainer pop song. Gangsta rap is thriving, on the charts and in local scenes. But like all of us, 50’s tethered to a specific time, and by the end of the W. Bush years, that time was no longer some point approaching on the horizon.

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In 2002, all that was still in front of him. It would be an overstatement to say that 50’s rise hinged on 50 Cent Is The Future. Part of the appeal was that an underdog sunk his claws in deep enough to become inevitable. But it was 50’s most succinct argument. It’s the exceedingly rare resume that is defined by its specificity but so clearly shows its creator as a budding superstar. The trick is that 50 sells this all as force of will, and a lot of it –– the pace at which he released music, the fact that he towed his friends into the spotlight — clearly was. But he never plays the everyman, because that’s not what he is. 50 Cent Is The Future is about the 50 Cent who would be a star on Billboard because he was a star on Guy Brew, and in the boxing gym, and in every lunchroom and parked car he’d ever stepped inside.

How 50 Cent’s revenge-soaked, hollow-tipped hustle changed rap forever