Photography by Clay Patrick McBride
Some say you never get a second chance to make a first impression. 50 Cent was on that train of thought when making his debut single, 1999’s “How to Rob.” Then, the grimy Jamaica, Queens, MC was signed to TrackMasters/Columbia Records and prepping his solo debut, Power of the Dollar. Although the LP never came out, “How to Rob” dropped on the In Too Deep movie soundtrack, in August of that year. It wasn’t a hit, but it did become a staple on NYC’s late-night mixshows, gaining much industry and street notoriety for its threatening content.
Recorded in the spring of 1999 at three New York City studios (the Hit Factory, The Cutting Room and The Lion’s Den) and released to the streets via New York’s Hot 97 soon after, the fiery debut single took aim at more than 25 established celebrities, relieving most of them of their cash and jewels. A jab at Mariah Carey, who was divorcing her then-husband, Columbia Records president Tommy Mottola, stirred so much controversy before the record’s release that it had to be pulled from the original version. (“I’ll manhandle Mariah, like, ‘Bitch, get on the ground/You ain’t with Tommy no more, who gonna protect you now?’”)
The Madd Rapper, a comedic act and MC alias of former Bad Boy producer Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, was added to the song’s hook for levity, saying, “This ain’t serious/Being broke can make you delirious/So we rob and steal so our ones can be bigger/50 Cent, how it feel to rob an industry, nigga?” That helped cushion the blow, but folks still caught feelings. Several rappers fired back, most notably Jay-Z, who spit his response onstage at the 1999 Hot 97 Summer Jam, rapping, “I’m about a dollar, what the fuck is 50 cents?”
Still, the track hit hard and sparked both love and contempt for 50. While he eventually achieved mega rap stardom with his real solo debut, 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, hip-hop heads will always remember the first big 50 Cent song. To mark the 10th anniversary of his official arrival, XXL took a trip down memory alley to reminisce on one of hip-hop’s greatest heists.
“How to Rob”feat. The Madd Rapper
50 Cent: Writing the song was my idea. I wrote the lyrics in pieces. It wasn’t just random. People came to mind based on what rhymes. Once I was able to say it in different orders, I said the verse to Rich Nice. Before I brought it to him, I’d been doing it over a Beanie Sigel beat, other tracks. I was just playing with the concept in my head… It wasn’t hard to come up with the concept of robbery, when you’re not in a great financial space. It kind of felt like I was being rejected during that time, while I was trying to make music. And after it got even worse. I was doing what [rappers] were afraid to do at that point… They were actually afraid to mention each other’s names, because Biggie and Tupac had kinda gotten out of hand… [When] Rich heard the lyrics, the whole song was done. I laid both of the verses, and then it was time for us to record the chorus. He got D-Dot…to create clarity, to show that it wasn’t a dead-serious attack at them. Without D-Dot, it was straight robbery lines. There was nothing that said whether you dead serious or you ain’t… I kinda went after everybody who was relevant, and it was really like doing my own [version of Biggie’s] “Dreams of Fuckin’ an R&B Bitch.”
Rich Nice, A&R for Columbia Records, for Power of the Dollar: The label had no idea about the record. [We had been] trying to do it under the radar, ’cause, at the time, I kinda felt that the building would be against it and be like, “Nah, don’t make that kind of song… We want him to be serious rapper.” [But] the song was intended to be lighthearted, [not] to go at everybody and piss everybody off.
Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, Brooklyn beatmaster, former member of Bad Boy’s Hitman production team, MC known as The Madd Rapper: I didn’t even know 50 Cent. We both were on Columbia Records… One night, I get a call from Rich Nice… He said he had this record that he really needed my help on. I was like, “Man, I’m about to go home… You gotta get here in a few minutes.” He got there real quick, put on the record, and I was like, “Man, this shit is hot.” It reminded me of Big, but his angle was perfect. I definitely wanted to get on, and I told Rich, “Just tell son that he gonna have some problems, though. But I’m with it.” I felt like, if I got on it, it would lessen the blow. Plus, if I make it funny, it’ll almost look like he’s my artist, even though he wasn’t. I did the hook right then and laid it down. Rich loved it and took it back. He called me up two days later, like, “Everybody loved it,” and they were putting it out.
Rich Nice: One day I was in the office, and I got a call from Donnie Ienner [then Chairman of Sony/Columbia]: “Come to my office right now… It’s about the 50 song.” I go up to the office, and they’re just like, “You gotta take Mariah’s name out.” And I’m just like, “Ooohhhh, shit!” Cory Rooney called and was like, “The name has to come out. They’re really upset about it.” I’m like, “It’s just a line, one line.” I call Fif, and Fif says, “See, that’s that bullshit.” But he changed [it]. I’m being nice when I say how upset [Mariah] was—like, absolutely enraged.
Cory Rooney, former senior executive vice president of Sony: The whole bane of [Mariah’s] existence is to be accepted by Black people…because she’s half-White, half-Black. She looks White, and everybody felt she was White, but she never really could gain acceptance… So when she heard that, she went off, and she called and threatened to sue the label… She demanded that Tommy did something about changing the record… [She and Tommy] were basically legally separated. 50 was a Columbia artist, but she was the Columbia artist. So they had no choice… Mariah was still a very valid artist, and Tommy was still in power. It’s funny. Mariah had a similar problem with Biggie, when he said, “Mariah Carey/Kinda scary” [in “Just Playing (Dreams)”]. She hated him so much.
D-Dot: I was in one of the meetings when Donnie Ienner told us that Mariah wants the thing out… So 50 went back and changed it to Case and Mary.
50 Cent: I was mad to make any changes [to my lyrics]. I didn’t want to change anything. You had more artists that were more effective not being changed… You had Big Pun on there, the best Latin rapper ever. Master P was an explosion at that point. They was, like, the hottest thing out of the South ever, No Limit, at that point… Mariah’s been a star since as far back as I can remember. I was signing to the label; she’s the biggest thing on the label. And married to the guy who runs it. It’s a different thing, man.
Cory Rooney: [When the record came out to the public,] I remember people listening to [it] and going, “I hope he don’t say nothing about me.” Even me… It’s like, “Oh my God… We let this nigga in the industry, and we have an animal amongst us.” And nobody felt safe anymore. He was really direct [in what he was saying]: “I would rob you, and I would rob you, I would rob all y’all.”
Rich Nice: Chaka Zulu, was doing radio at the time at Columbia and was taking 50 around backstage at Summer Jam, introducing him to people, on some cool, like, “Let’s put a face with the name, and everybody be easy.” When he met Jay, Jay said, “You know I gotta get you back for that, right?” And he was like, “No doubt, no doubt.” But he didn’t know he meant right then. When Jay went onstage and said his rhyme…I called  and said, “You on, kid. You on right now. It’s on and poppin’. You got the biggest dude in the game sayin’ your name.” And that wasn’t the intent. We did it more to make him an individual, to separate him from everybody.
50 Cent: That song had momentum. It had impacted where the hip-hop culture was aware of it, and me, based on it… A lot of people didn’t [respond to] it. The ones who had the egos had to respond. Because they weren’t used to somebody openly putting them out there, and who was I to say it? They all battled with each other, had stuff to say about people subconsciously. They always wrote subliminal shit. That’s the sucker way to do it. Just say it, if you got an issue.
To read exclusive responses from 10 artists 50 name dropped on “How to Rob” give their reaction to the record when it first dropped, be sure to pick up the December/January double issue of XXL on stands now.