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A formula for big bucks: 50 Cent's rap meets pulp

March 18, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

YOU'D be forgiven for judging the paperback novella "The Ski Mask Way" by its cover.

The book's jacket artwork depicts a muscle-bound thug stripped to the waist to reveal a tapestry of tattoos: a skull, a spider and the word "Un Broken" etched across his pectorals in gothic font. Flanked by the silhouette of prison bars, he clutches a woolen balaclava, leaving little doubt as to the shoot'em-up literature within.

"Let's get that money the fast way -- the ski mask way," one character says to another, handing him a sawed-off shotgun.

Then there's its title. "The Ski Mask Way" is also the name of a rap song by 50 Cent, a polarizing hip-hop superstar who is no stranger to the criminal mind-set. His past as a crack dealer, thrice-convicted drug offender and drive-by shooting survivor are key to his streetwise mythos, helping to sell more than 20 million albums worldwide and propel his 2005 memoir "From Pieces to Weight" onto the bestseller list for eight weeks.

The Queens, N.Y., native is listed as co-author of "The Ski Mask Way." But more important, he is its publisher, under a deal with MTV and the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster that launched G-Unit Books late last year, making him hip-hop's first book publishing magnate. January saw the imprint's initial offering, a trio of "hip-hop novels" -- "The Ski Mask Way," "Baby Brother" and "Death Before Dishonor" -- the rapper wrote with other popular genre writers, respectively, K. Elliott, Noire and Nikki Turner.

Now, G-Unit is poised to become the most high profile purveyor of a hot-selling literary genre sometimes called "urban fiction" or "street lit" that has steadily increased its cultural presence over the last half-decade.

Reading like a mash-up of Quentin Tarantino movies and N.W.A lyrics, Danielle Steel-esque sexploits and gritty urban verite a la HBO's crime drama "The Wire," the category has been responsible for millions of book sales each year. The books, which retail for about $12, have stayed off most bestseller lists, however, thanks to a quirk in the way those lists are compiled: They do not tally books sold at street vendors, mall outlets or music stores, where street lit sales are strong.

The genre overlaps with hard-core hip-hop, similarly glorifying gun violence, drug dealing, pimp-ho identity politics and porn-worthy sex -- sometimes all within the space of a single page. That's why some African American literary fiction writers and scholars say street lit has eroded the market for serious black literature. Novelist Nick Chiles wrote in a widely discussed New York Times op-ed piece last year that it was "as if these nasty books were pairing off in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring that make Ralph Ellison books cringe into a dusty corner."

James Fugate stocks plenty of urban fiction at Eso Won Books, Southern California's preeminent black bookstore. But he is no fan of the category. "I think it has a negative effect on a lot of young black people," said Fugate, the store's co-owner. "They want to believe in this view of the world: that it takes crime to get over and that the system is against them."

As 50 Cent (government name: Curtis Jackson III) sees it, street lit captures the yin-yang of gangsta nihilism and ghettofabulous excess. "It's the perfect merger of literature and hip-hop," he said by cellphone, traveling across New York City in a chauffeur-driven car. "It's a huge opportunity because no one else is in a position to create this kind of venture."

Write it, sing about it, sell it

WHICH is to say that the rapper, 31, is using his publishing clout and street cred to cross-promote a dazzling array of branded goods and intellectual properties. Other rappers signed to 50's G-Unit/Interscope record label make frequent cameos in the books; mentions of his Glaceau Mineral Water line, video games, Reebok shoes and G-Unit streetwear collection abound. Reciprocally, the rapper gives shout-outs to G-Unit Books in his songs.

Publishing industry sources say the books have been flying off the shelves, so far. And at a cultural moment in which rappers are shilling everything from wireless networks to air fresheners, 50 Cent's expansion of G-Unit has made him the "gangster-style Oprah" in the opinion of Vibe magazine Editor in Chief Danyel Smith. "There's a whole generation of people who feel underserved by the types of books that are often categorized as 'mainstream,' " Smith said. "50 and his management team are going to exploit that and hopefully serve some readers at the same time. From a marketing perspective, I think it's genius."

Coke war collaboration

THE G-Unit novella "Death Before Dishonor" tells the story of two star-crossed -- and pistol packing -- lovers: Trill Johnson, a crime gang leader caught up in a dangerous turf war with a Cuban cocaine trafficker, and Sunni James, a no-nonsense ex-con beauty salon owner who falls in love with Trill while he is on the run from police.

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