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No small change

Backed by Eminem and Dr. Dre, rapper 50 Cent is ready to cash in.

January 14, 2003|Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writer

He's been shot. He's been stabbed. He's been locked up -- most recently on New Year's Eve.

For rap music fans, that only adds to the allure of 50 Cent. Popular on the club scene for years, the 26-year-old native of Queens is aiming for the big time with the release next month of his first commercial album. For many in the music industry, "Get Rich or Die Trying" is one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the year.

"He writes monster songs," said industry veteran Steve Stoute, who has run the black music divisions at several top labels. "He's got incredible flow. Everybody on the street knows his background."

And everybody who's anybody in the rap world knows 50 Cent's backer: Eminem.

The new album marks the latest transformation of Eminem from Detroit unknown to superstar rapper to movie star in the largely autobiographical "8 Mile," and now to music impresario. Eminem is co-producing "Get Rich" along with another of rap's biggest names, Dr. Dre.

"I can't rap forever," Eminem said in a recent interview. "The fact is I'm really not looking to be the frontman anymore. My game plan right now is to take a back seat."

The collaboration between Eminem, Dre and 50 Cent emphasizes rap's maturation as music acts cross racial and ethnic lines considered taboo just a short time ago. Witness the critical lashing that Dre endured in 1999 after introducing Eminem to the insular world of hip-hop. Now, it is the white rap star who has introduced his black mentor to a black artist who many predict could become the next rap sensation.

"It's kind of funny how it works, isn't it?" said Eminem. "When we're in the studio, I don't look at Dre and go, 'Wow, you're black!' And he doesn't look at me, and say, 'Wow, you're white!' We don't dwell on color. This is about music. Art. If 50 was white or Spanish or purple and rapped as good as he does, he'd still be in the same position. My prediction: This guy is the next big thing."

50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, was born in New York's Jamaica, Queens, ghetto. In an interview, the rapper, who was soft-spoken and polite, said he was raised without a father and orphaned at the age of 8 after his mother, a drug dealer, was killed on the street. His grandparents took him in, but it wasn't long before he was busted for selling drugs as a juvenile. He was arrested and convicted twice more as a teenager, records show.

After getting out of jail in 1995, 50 Cent started rapping and signed a deal with the tiny JMJ label owned by his mentor, Jam Master Jay -- the Run DMC member who was shot and killed Oct. 30. 50 Cent said Master Jay taught him the rudiments of music theory in the same neighborhood where the rap pioneer was gunned down. (His killing remains unsolved.)

"I was in awe of him," 50 Cent said. "He taught me everything: counting beats, song structure, all of it."

By 1999, 50 Cent had cut a deal with Columbia Records and with the Trackmasters production team. Together, they recorded 36 tunes in less than three weeks.

Columbia never released the sessions, even though they contained more than a dozen rap gems, including the droll Randy Newmanesque "How to Rob" -- a song in which 50 Cent fantasizes about robbing rich gangsta rappers:

"Yo, the bottom line is

I'm a crook with a deal

If my record don't sell

I'm gonna rob and steal.... "

The stick-up fantasy satirized dozens of wealthy entertainers, including P. Diddy, DMX and Big Pun and was released as part of an obscure soundtrack in 1999. The song became a staple of the New York club scene and at rap radio stations, turning 50 Cent into an underground celebrity.

"You know how it is," 50 Cent said. "You see these stars on MTV driving big cars, sporting big diamonds. I think they forget what it's like when somebody's starving, how robbery isn't out of the question. That was the thought process behind 'How to Rob.' It wasn't personal. It was comedy based on truth, that's what made it so funny."

Not everyone appreciated the joke. Several New York rappers responded in follow-up songs and interviews with taunts belittling 50 Cent. Then, in March 2000, the rapper was stabbed during a scuffle at a Manhattan recording studio -- allegedly by an East Coast rival, according to news reports. No one was arrested.

Two months later, 50 Cent was shot nine times -- once in the face -- in an ambush in front of his grandparents' house. Again, no one was arrested.

After the shooting, Columbia Records put his album on ice, scrapped a scheduled music-video shoot and dropped him from its roster. 50 Cent says Columbia executives no longer wanted to work with him because of the violent attack. Columbia officials declined to comment. Sources at the label said there were other potential problems with the deal.

"When you get shot, where I'm from, if you can move your fingers and your toes afterward, you're all right," 50 Cent said. "In the hood, it ain't nothing shocking. You heal up. You get back to work. The truth is: Losing that record deal hurt me more than that shooting."

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