Around 1995 or 1996, Curtis decided to get into the rap game. He liked cats like KRS-One, Rakim and Nas. He took the name 50 Cent in homage to a deceased Brooklyn street lord. “I just preferred to take a gangsta nigga name out the hood than to take a nigga’s name like Al Capone.”
He told his crew about his plans. They thought I was crazy: What?…We ain’t never heard him rap before…He probably can’t…What he sound like? “At that time, Jamaica, everybody over there was hustling for me,” Curtis recalls. So no one was buying it. Besides, the neighborhood already had its rappers: The Lost Boyz. That one cat Freaky Tah (R.I.P) used to walk around with a boom box all day, freestyling while everyone else sold drugs. But 50 wanted to give music a chance.
“I have to internalize things—and it’s a damned shame—in a negative way to understand them,” he says. “I look at things from a street aspect ‘cause that’s what I understand; that’s when I knew for sure how to play it. All this other shit I don’t know. I never had a job in my life. That 9-to-5 shit is a trap. If you can’t make some money to invest as an entrepreneur, then fuck it.
“I watch my peoples. Like my grandfather, he was 65 years old. He got one house: the house I got shot in front of. And that house is worth, what? $160,000? Come on, the worst publishing deal is gonna buy that house for you right now. The niggas that’s doing bad right now—the niggas in the game that think we suck—should be able to have a house that cost $125,000. Just ‘cause they in the game. Even if they get $3,000 a show, $2,000 a show. So what? You do enough of them, you got mortgage money every month. You only got to do one a month.”
“50 Cent is one of the best MCs I ever worked with in my life,” says Jam Master Jay, the man behind Run D.M.C.’s turntables, who brought us Onyx and Jayo Felony. A mutual friend hooked up 50 and Jay in ’96. Jay gave 50 a beat on tape. 50 had no oconcept of song structure. He rhymed from when the beat began to when it ended. But the lyrics were hot. So Jay signed him to JMJ Records and put him on Onyx’s forgettable 1998 Shut ‘Em Down LP. They shot a video for the single “React,” which featured 50 and Onyx rapping and playing ice hockey. Well, it was a good idea.
50 quickly learned how to make songs. “You don’t run into an MC too often that can listen to a beat and come up with a whole concept with dope chorus and dope vocals in two hours,” says Jay. 50 struck the older cats as ahead of his time. “At the time, Jay-Z was new, and a couple of people was like, ‘He sound like Jay-Z and he’s harsh,’” recalss Jam Master.
“Like [he had one song] ‘Somehow the Rap Game Remind Me of the Crack Game.’ That was right on the money as to where Jay-Z was going in the future. Even like the Down South, ‘Big Pimpin’—type songs, he was already doing all that shit before Jay-Z.”