50 Cent: From crack dealer to tycoon

We profile rapper 50 Cent, 'master brand-builder and shrewd businessman' who sees his years spent hustling crack and finding hip-hop stardom as just a training ground for his true vocation: business.

It's easy to be cynical about rap stars' business ventures: most consist of milking their fame to make easy money from advertising deals and merchandise.

But the way 50 Cent tells it, the years spent hustling crack, surviving "diss wars" and finding stardom as a hip-hop king were just a training ground for his true vocation: business. "I used to read The Wall Street Journal before my music took off," he told the FT. "People assumed I had more interest in the sports section but, for me, it was always amazing to see the possibilities [of] some investment that could take me to a different space financially. I didn't get into [rap] for the music, I got in it for the business."

The link between hip-hop and entrepreneurialism has been well-covered by a mini-publishing industry dedicated to instructing (mainly white) executives on how to apply rapper wisdom in the boardroom. But 50 Cent, whose teenage apprenticeship began when an older drug-dealer took him aside to advise him on the flaws in his "business model", has a particularly Darwinian take. "The one difference between a boss in my neighbourhood and the CEO of a company is that the guy selling drugs doesn't think killing you is not an option," he says. "The guy running the straight business might not have psychotic means of accomplishing his goals but he will do pretty much everything else short of killing you to get what he wants."

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Having survived being shot nine times at close range in 2000, 50 Cent's defensive approach is understandable. Most of his time now is taken up either touring or promoting his business interests, which, despite his efforts to distinguish himself from other rappers, centre on his G-Unit merchandising line (everything from clothes to video games and condoms) and some lucrative endorsement deals. Forbes calls him "a masterful brand-builder and a shrewd businessman". Last year he scooped $100m when Coca-Cola bought the company behind his "Formula 50" vitamin water (wisely, he'd insisted on a stake as well as fees). Even his feuds now have a commercial edge. A recent face-off with rival rapper Kanye West helped promote both their new albums.

Yet it remains a dangerous game, says The Sunday Telegraph. The bulletproof vest "Fitty" wears, and the bulletproof HumVee he drives, aren't just for show: only last year, Q magazine dubbed him Dead Man Walking'. "My past is my shadow," he says. "Everywhere I go, it goes with me."

Born in Queens in 1975 to 15-year-old Sabrina Jackson and named Curtis James Jackson III, he was devastated when his drug-dealer mother was murdered when he was eight. But within a few years he'd become so good at dealing himself that he could easily pull in $3,000 on a good day. "It was the only way that I could provide for myself," he told the FT.

He got his first break in the music business in 1997 when he sent a demo to Jam Master Jay, who became his mentor. But it was discovery by Eminem in 2002 that led to a multi-million dollar record contract and his blockbuster debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Those who know 50 Cent well say this motto hasn't changed. "In his mind, he could go at any moment," says rap management author Robert Greene. "He's got this fatalism, and because of that he wants to get as much done as he can. He wants the biggest empire of anyone who's emerged from hip-hop."

Could 50 Cent be in danger of losing currency?

In person, 50 Cent is described as "contained, impeccably polite and even jovial". But he can still explode if things don't go his way, says the Los Angeles Times. Last year, during a row with record company bosses, he tore a 70-inch plasma TV off the wall, and hurled his BlackBerry through a window. His rage was due to the leaking of an embargoed video, but the underlying reason may have been his falling sales.

Hip-hop, or 50 Cent's version of it, is going out of style. "In a fractured marketplace, in which gimmicky Southern rap is the subgenre du jour and hard-core New York hip-hop has taken a back seat," 50 Cent "faces questions about continuing relevance". But buoyed by the success of his business brand, 50 Cent seems to be taking his declining popularity well. "When the fans stop screaming... it's nice to have created a safe place for yourself," he told the Daily Record.

He's certainly never been busier. Alongside his business empire, he's dabbling in publishing (a well-received autobiography and a new management book, co-authored with Robert Greene); and a career in film is taking off. Imminent releases include The Dance with Nicolas Cage and Righteous Kill ("that's myself, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro"). But these all rely to some extent on 50 Cent's mystique as a rap artist. "I've still got lots of experiences to draw on for my work," he says. "I've only been famous for four years. I've got 27 years before that to talk about." But the real test of his prowess as a businessman, surely, is whether he can now move on from his past.