Inform someone that 50 Cent is currently the executive producer of dozens of shows across close to ten networks, then watch their brains fall into slight disrepair as they try to match the larger-than-life image of the muscle-bound, tight-jawed, bulletproof-vest-wearing party MC of their past with the image of one of the most prolific people working in Hollywood.
But for Curtis Jackson, there is nothing to match up. The gripping storyteller and strategic villain figures out where money is made and he makes it. Born in Queens in 1975 to a 15-year-old mother, he came into a very specific set of skills necessary to thrive under cutthroat capitalism. His mother, Sabrina, whom he once described as “man-tough,” was a street-level dealer who plied him with jewelry before she died under mysterious circumstances when he was 8. He went to live with his loving grandparents, where he played good boy at home while rising as a hustler on the streets. By the time he was in his late teens, he had two luxury cars, guns, gear, and a small army of employees — but no easy way out.
Providence arrived when Run-D.M.C.’s DJ Jam Master Jay, while working as a producer in the ’90s, taught 50 how to make songs and connected him to the music industry. That led to a deal with Columbia Records — one that famously fell apart when Jackson narrowly survived being shot nine times outside his grandmother’s house in 2000 shortly before his debut album, Power of the Dollar, was set to be released. A bullet to the jaw gave him a distinct tight-lipped slur, making every word he rapped sound like a threat. His label unceremoniously dropped him, but his street legend approached superhero status. He immediately flooded the market with a series of self-made mixtapes, peddling his tale of riches and woes and building both an audience and a mystique. Those tapes landed him a new record deal in 2002 with Eminem’s company, Shady Records, and his first studio release, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, became one of the biggest-selling debuts in hip-hop history and the soundtrack at weddings, clubs, and birthday parties for the next 20 years. He has since released five studio albums, founded two film-and-television production companies, and kept himself in the news, for better or worse, by beefing with everyone from Ja Rule to Oprah to Vanderpump Rules star Randall Emmett.
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He transferred to TV the drug sagas he told and sold on his records, and in the mid-2010s, he co-created the show Power for Starz with writer and producer Courtney Kemp; he also launched BMF, the scripted Starz series based on the real-life Black organized-crime outfit run by two Detroit brothers. And he’s got a slate of projects in various stages of development that seems to expand by the week. In 2022, his relationship with Starz soured, and by February 2023, he had inked a new television deal with Fox and later bashed his former network for passing on his upcoming shows. (Starz declined to comment on this story.) “I’m aggressive enough that I like to take my spot,” he told me during the first of our two lengthy conversations in May, reflecting on his early career from his home in Houston, “rather than waiting for people to give it to me.” Jackson had just opened up sales for his Final Lap tour in the fall, which he claims will be his last as a rapper. He told me he sold 600,000 tickets in seven days.
I hear you’re in Texas these days?
Yeah, I stay out here. I like it, man. Houston is cool. The night stuff, it’s got all the different places you can go out to eat. It’s decent. You know what? Miami is such a party place for me that I didn’t see it as a place I want to live. I would go have a good time; now, I gotta get away from that.
Do you party less now at 47 than you used to when you were younger?
At one point, my core audience was in college. They’re going out, they’re partying as often as possible. And you’re hot with the music culture at that point; you’re the theme music to their life. It’s so difficult to get people to agree on things. You’ve got Democrats, you’ve got Republicans. It’s very rare that you can get these people to agree on stuff. And one thing within entertainment culture is when it works, it feels like magic because the music comes on and they can agree to have a good time.
Now, my core audience is grown. They’re at home, they’re not going out to the nightclub as often. They’re having that drink that they would have on premise in the privacy of their home. They have wine cellars because they don’t want to party with the kids. We’re in a different place in our life. I’m able to reach my core now through television — same storytelling formats but have them tune in to me on the tube instead of in music.
Have you always thought of yourself as making music that people would vibe to in that way? Or was that something you learned over time?
I hustled my way into the music business. When I met Jam Master Jay,1 I already had a 400 SE Benz. I was right at the peak point of what you could have in my neighborhood selling drugs. I started telling him I wanted to rap. Then he gave me a tape with beats, and I went and wrote to it. He was like, “Yo, where the hook?” I’m like, “It’s right there.” He’s like, “That ain’t a hook.” And he taught me how to count bars. I was forced to write the chorus multiple times before I could rap. Because in Jam Master Jay’s head, he was like, Anybody can rap. You’ve got to get the song structure together. Some guys could come up with punch lines and it’s lyrical, but they can’t necessarily write a song to save their lives. Their music is so much better than everybody else’s that nobody buys it. But the money is in writing the right songs. So that was way more important to me for my entire career.
I think if you’re in the music business, if you put business in front of music, you’re handling things the right way. The music is important. But when you focus on the business instead of the music, you can actually keep the money. You can effectively live the way you want to live.
Did you apprentice with anyone else to learn the business side of things?
When I was at Columbia Records — and I specifically point to Columbia because it was a real record company — I was with Jam Master Jay. It was called JMJ Records. And we would develop the artists and then he would sell them off to Def Jam or whatever. Like Onyx or these other guys. Now, when I’m at Columbia Records, I’m finally interacting with the structure. People registered me as an artist. I was basically an intern. I was in publicity with Yvette Gayle; I was in the art department with Julian Alexander. I was with everybody in that building that was important to how a project comes together.
But after I got shot, Columbia Records stopped answering the phone.
I wouldn’t have known how to navigate that or what to do next if I hadn’t spent that much time around the building.
That’s when you started releasing mixtapes.
That was one photo shoot for a bunch of mixtapes. That was one day we had a green throwback, a red, white, blue throwback. And we mixed all of that shit up and took one batch of photos that was the covers of all of those tapes. I had a Columbia Records fake bar code behind the CDs to make them feel like something worth stealing so the bootleggers would bootleg it and rip it for us. That’s how it got through the neighborhood. But if I hadn’t spent time with Julian, I wouldn’t have known to do that.
If you’re saying there’s no plan B, then you got to say no stone’s unturned. You got to look and say, I’m going to make sure the highest possible probability of me having success here is where I put myself before we actually go.
When did you first realize that trolling people who had audiences was a way for you to get on? Because I first heard of you from “How to Rob,” and to me that shit was audacious — so audacious that you couldn’t help but gain everyone’s attention.
That’s desperation, to be honest with you.
You always think you ready before you’re ready. You always feel like, I have it, this is it. And it’s just about someone recognizing it. And you’re not necessarily ready at that point. In 2000, I performed on the Cash Money Ruff Ryders tour before they opened the curtain. Before the show started, I was in front of the fucking curtain. I would tell Yay [Tony Yayo], “We do it the same way whether there’s ten people or 10,000 people because if we can get ten people to fuck with us … There’s no plan B, bro. This has got to work.”
Following Tupac’s and Biggie’s passing, artists were avoiding actually saying another artist’s name. At that point, they were going to that extreme to continue to compete but through subliminally saying it instead of saying it outright. I’m approaching the release date for Power of the Dollar; there’s no momentum, and we’re just getting closer and closer to the date. And I’m like, Yo, I got to do something. And I did “How to Rob.”
It wasn’t until that point that I made the relationship with Nas. He heard it and was like, “Yo, who is that?” Next thing you know, I was on the Nastradamus tour in 1999. And they’re kinda figuring out “Who is he?” They know I’m from Southside Jamaica and all that, but they would see my temperament was more like an additional security person. They was like, “Oh, he ready to pop. He don’t care where he at.”
But these are circumstances I’m under in South Jamaica anyway. Look, worst-case scenario, everything that happens to me happens to me anyway. So when I get involved in music culture and all of those beefs that stood out in the beginning, it’s coming from home. It’s coming from my neighborhood. I would’ve been subjected to that even if there was no music. That’s where we’re at. That’s what it is there.
I think that’s what people find so fascinating. You seem to have the temperament of somebody who would be on security, and yet you are this prolific creative businessperson who also creates within the realm of storytelling and art. It’s a unique combination. What makes you so successful at making television? You didn’t come out of USC; your dad wasn’t a producer or whatever. You just figured this out. Tell me how.
I had an interaction with the movie producer Avi Lerner. One of the unwritten laws of power is to appear not to need anything because everybody will do you a favor when you don’t need it. And when I met him as a successful artist, and in a financial place that I didn’t need one thing from him, and because I was interested in what he had developed as a business, he was excited by my interest. He offered probably more than the average person. I appreciate and love him for it too. Because obviously he helped me understand Hollywood.
I made over 20 movies through Cheetah Vision, financed with $200 million from people I met while traveling who wanted to invest in film production. And then we broke that money into ten pictures. We sold domestic rights to Lionsgate; international territories we sold separately afterward. And because of the way we kept the budgets, we made profits. I got paid almost $10 million on each one of those films. So I paid myself to learn how to participate on those projects.
You could see that for Lionsgate, they’re looking for Chad Stahelski to deliver with — what’s the joint? It’s the biggest one they’ve got over there. Damn, I can’t think of it. It’s with Keanu Reeves.
Yep. You can see the blockbusters on the schedule. They count on those to make money. The other things, that’s “found,” or surprise, money for them.
And your stuff was making found money.
Right. Avi was selling The Expendables without a frame of film shot. They were selling the territories off. They knew it was on genre, it’s an action film, it has Stallone in it, has this and that. And they’ve got a poster and that ain’t even his picture from his photo shoot. And they’re selling the territory. And I’m like, “Oh, so you know how much money you going to make back off the movie and what’s at risk and what’s not at risk anymore?” And it changed my whole perspective on the film business when I could see it as a business instead of it being just such a great creative idea.
Tell me about Power. The jumping-off point of a club owner who has two sides and wants to go legit, then all the troubles that come from that — where did that idea come from? Was that you? Was that Courtney Kemp?
The club-owner piece, that’s from Courtney. That’s the creative side of it.
I would download things to her about the Southside and she would listen. It got to a point where it didn’t even feel like an interview. Then she would say, “Stop. What was that?” and write it down.
Initially, we pitched Power to everybody and they passed. I had time to reapproach the script and the project. When I was doing it, I recorded six songs because I knew the main character, Ghost, and his arc so well. And when we went back to reboot the pitch, we’d play a minute and 30 seconds of a song, stop, and Courtney would talk about a piece of the character. It’s so different from what they were hearing in any other pitch because you don’t have someone there as experienced or as successful in music — exclusive music that is fit for the show.
And the drug dealer making it to the top of the drug trade or feeling like he’s at the top of his neighborhood, it’s a universal theme. I felt that way myself. On the corner I was on, I was the biggest thing there. It’s not as big as it connects with in the actual show, but the feeling is universal in that people felt that all over the place. When you saw people in the environment that I’m from having nicer things, they was involved in something. You make it to the top of the drug trade, and there ain’t no old-folks’ home for drug dealers. It’s just the federal penitentiary.
I was basically making Menace 2 Society. I just took the character O-Dog that was young, Black, and didn’t give a fuck, and I made him white.
You mean Tommy?
Yeah. He is the realest dude in the show. And then my character, Kanan, comes home from jail in season two, and all I want is my business back. I’m a complete monster and bad guy to them because I focus. Whenever you focus, any extreme discipline is ruthless. If a person is extremely focused, they’re ruthless because you can get in the way and you will get knocked out of the way for them to accomplish what they’re after. Like, the district attorney’s office is fucking ruthless. They don’t necessarily have compassion for human life; they start to see each one of these cases like it’s just a case. And it’s ruthless because of what it does to the person.
Did you know from the beginning that you were going to expand Power into almost a Marvel-type universe in character spinoffs and crossovers, or did that occur to you as the show progressed?
Around season four or five, we started really thinking about spinoffs and then by the time we got to season six, Courtney had taken my name off the show’s marketing. It was needed the entire time for promotions and stuff like that, but by the time we reached that point, she started to see herself more like she was like Shonda Rimes or someone else and then it was like, “I wrote this.”
It felt like, Okay, you forgot the beginning part where you didn’t have the information to write it. You understand? Now when you look, and you see I have 30 shows across ten different networks, and there’s no announcement of any new project from her, it might have something to do with the direction. Because the talent is all in there. She has what it takes to make hits all day. But you still didn’t have no announcement, so it means she’s not identifying what direction to write in.
What do you think about the writers strike happening now?
I hope it doesn’t last. What it did to me immediately was it made me focus on the non-scripted side of production. I sold three unscripted projects as soon as people started hearing about the possibility of a strike. The last time, it lasted for about a hundred days, a little over three months. If it extends to that point now, I don’t know. I don’t see it as a positive thing for the writers that I know that have established overall deals. You see so many people reducing staff and expenses that it would be an opportunity to pull out of those deals. Courtney’s in that position. I believe those projects will get dropped.
You broke into this field from a rap perspective and were maybe not even taken seriously as a TV person. Did you —
Look, I took a major pay cut, too.
Tell me about that.
There’s no one that could come and tell me to take $17,000 to act and executive produce and make music. I gave them the theme song for Power. I gave them the things that connected, hopefully, in a different way for it. You see what I’m saying? All those things for $17,000 per episode? I get paid more to go to the nightclub and wave. But I wanted to make the show. I wanted to make it so bad. When I was talking to executive producer Mark Canton in the beginning, I was like, Nah, I got to be like this.
You said everybody passed on it. Starz was kind of the last house on the block. Can you tell me who passed on it and why? What kind of feedback did you get when people passed?
All of them. We went through all of the premium channels.
You’re talking HBO, Showtime?
HBO, Showtime, Paramount, Hulu. We went to all these organizations in the early stages. They probably had something else they felt was similar, or it wasn’t what they was looking for. I’m sure now they wish they didn’t pass on it.
And then every two years, it felt like we was auditioning for a major carrier. It’s time to renegotiate, and it would be an issue. So for me at that point, really what it is, is racism. Because the project is a success, but the platforms are not necessarily acknowledging things that have diversity connected to them. I’m outperforming a lot of the shows that they had in the award-show ceremony, and they’re not putting the work in the awards show, even to watch it lose.
Or to acknowledge it as a contender.
I kept going to go see the Hollywood Foreign Press people, and after the third time, I’m like, I don’t have time to meet these people again. To me, they’re a bunch of weirdos. I don’t care about them. At that point, I turn into the rapper 50 Cent.
Sounds like you have to do a fair amount of code-switching, and everybody’s code-switch plan is different. What have you learned about how to alter your approach?
There’s points where I feel like the alien in the world, in where I come from versus what’s actually happening. Let’s say you’re being sued for a ridiculous amount of money, and nobody wants to budge because of how much money they believe you have at the present moment. You’re sitting there thinking, I could really leave, and for $5,000, I can kill who I want. You know what I’m saying? This is really not a maybe. I’m sure! When I got shot nine times, that was $5,000. Because that’s where I’m from. Even they missed — if you went at them and you missed, they wouldn’t show up to court next time.
Do you feel people in the business are intimidated by you? And if they are, does that perception give you a certain advantage that you can use strategically?
Well, you know what? I think at points, they’d be afraid of me saying things exactly the way they are. Because they say the right thing instead of exactly what they’re experiencing or what’s going on.
Look. New York City, you know what you learn right away to do? Say “no.” It’s very easy. “No. I’m not going to do that. I’m not fucking with you on that.” They don’t know how to say “no” in Hollywood because they don’t want you to remember them as the person who told them “no” when you could be next, when you could turn into the next thing. The project that you’ve been reading for and you’re ready to perform? You find out you’re not going to be in that project anymore when it starts, not because they called you and told you, “I liked you. I really wanted to work with you, but they made a different choice.”
I see a lot of similarities — but I’m not saying it’s the same — with the way Ice Cube transitioned from the music business to starting a production company. What sort of influence did that have on you? I’m wondering if you watched the way he moved and learned from it.
Yeah. I watch all of them. These guys are a blueprint. They’ve done it in film, which is even harder. Television is not easy to crack, but when you do, you’re the guy. The success in music is music. In film, you’ve got a hit film. That doesn’t mean anything for television. You have to have more than a show that works. You have to have consistency.
I did The Oath in 2018. Sony Crackle liked that, and I had the No. 1 show on Sony while I had the No. 1 show on Starz. And it wasn’t a high-paying production, but I knew I could get the audience interested in something different with the success I was already having with Power. It’s just because of one hit. In our culture, how often is a guy a one-hit wonder? When I’m at a point in television where I have one hit, I just want another one. I need another one.
We know American viewers are obsessed with money, power, and violence, but why do you think people love your content specifically?
They know it exists. You see the results of it in the news all the time. The good bad guys are the bad guys that you saw on the biggest platforms in entertainment: The Sopranos, The Godfather.
There’s a word that represents intelligence that’s used within criminal activity, and that word is organized. When you say “organized crime,” the only thing you can think of is white Italian Americans. You don’t think of any triad organizations. You don’t think of any Russians. You don’t think of any other culture, African Americans, anything.
Matter of fact, if they say, “He was making a lot of money,” they’ll call him a kingpin or a gang leader if he’s African American. Because calling him organized would mean he’s intelligent. Right? When you start to show culturally how things change, the different people that are involved in this world, it opens it up.
And it’s the time period also: Raising Kanan, that’s the golden era. I know that from the early ’80s back into the ’90s, it was hustlers! And this is just in that period. The drugs, of course. They’re going to give you for five grams of crack what they would give you for 500 grams of cocaine because it’s okay for it to be in the party in the bathroom in Hollywood, but it’s not okay for them to have it in the neighborhood. That is the angle that was put on even the drug trade at that point.
So if you can show how it operated, you saw success. A portion of it that was captured the best was in The Wire: “I want my corners.” This is the lowest level of the business, fighting over the corners and territory. The hustler in Marlo versus Avon. But the average viewer loved that because they hadn’t seen anything that represents what happens in the culture.
Then when you get to Ghost and Power, it’s bigger, broader. Who did you know who was staying in a condo like that in downtown Manhattan? He wears a suit every day, mixing in with the businesspeople when he’s walking in, figuring out how to do things on a different level.
The story we hear about your decisions is always that they pay off. You bet on yourself with Power; Power pays off big time. Even with Vitamin Water in the early aughts — at a time when every other rapper was investing in spirits, how did you know to go in that direction?
You know what’s ill? In that time period, my instincts guided me toward water versus spirits. I didn’t drink. At that point, I was zero alcohol involvement. I always saw those things as a distraction, even smoking weed. We don’t have nothing, and you want me to just let the money go up in smoke?! I’d rather not smoke weed with you, and I still have the money in my pocket. Maybe get something to eat later on. It was simple for me to not involve that. Growing up in the household that I was in, alcoholism was serious. It starts casually, becomes extreme, and everybody is just kind of hit by it.
Just looking at things and not understanding why they’re the way they are sparked interest and ideas. I may walk down the grocery aisle, see a gallon of spring water for $2.69, and then I walk farther down, and there’s a gallon of spring water for 59 cents. And I’m like, So I wouldn’t know whether that was Poland Spring if it was in two different glasses. Yo. I want to sell water. This was before I knew Vitamin Water existed. But I knew I could charge $1.50 extra per piece and it wouldn’t even matter. I could get in the middle of that, come in at a dollar and change, and see what happens.
We found out it was a privately owned company in Queens, and I’m already running around making more money than — look, you got to imagine how rich you are when you’re making about $32 million running around on tour. From where I was at? Think about the transition. I stopped feeling the financial transactions. The money that was physically around me didn’t even count. The money that counts is at the accountant’s office. When I say “How much?” and I’m looking at the monthly, it’s all black-and-white. It’s not green. So if I do the deal with Vitamin Water, I don’t really need the money up front. The big money, on the back end when they sell it, I need to participate in that. And it changed the way artists look at deal structures. Because until those stages, they were not looking to do deals like that. They was looking for how much they could get an advance right quick, get the shot, and go from there.
Have you had investments that didn’t work?
Yeah, a lot of times. I remember — what was it called, Frigo, the underwear company? I lost that. You don’t even remember. They had a pattern for you to put your package inside the underwear and keep you from rubbing against yourself. They had cooling fabrics and stuff that they had got technology for. And it was super-high end. So everybody would be into it as premium because it’s in Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. But that company was just mismanaged.
I saw a TMZ report about you teaming up with Shaq and Kenya Barris to talk about buying BET.
Well, yeah. I’ll entertain the idea. I think BET is Tyler Perry’s network. He’s done enough work there to dominate that. And not even only dominate — I don’t think they’ve explored what it would be like not having a Tyler. And he’s created enough content that if they didn’t sell the company to him, he could go across the street and say, “I’m going to start my own.”
So when there’s a bidding type of situation, they’ll come to me because they know I have four of the top shows in African American households. And Starz is not — I don’t know if you could say it’s a whole network if you’re putting it up against BET. Because they got the limited side, they got the BET Plus, the BET Studios, all of this shit. Starz is just that platform. And now, being spun away from Lionsgate, it’s like, Where’s the studio? I believe you’ll be watching content from Starz on another network in this climate with the way things are. And I’m only comfortable saying that because their board members have said it.
But BET, though, I do like. It’s something to explore.
I understand you’re doing some unscripted stuff; you’ve got documentaries in the works. Do you see yourself branching out into other genres? Family-friendly sitcoms? Comedies?
Out of the 30 pieces across ten different networks that I have, three are comedies. But I’m a drama guy. I like the dramas and shit.
That’s fair of you to say. Why so many networks?
In this climate, I don’t want to be directly connected to one spot unless I’m having the ability to put all my ideas on that. So obviously, Starz couldn’t actually handle how much I’m producing. I haven’t delivered one failure of a production to them. Even the show inspired by Isaac Wright Jr., For Life, was pitched to Starz before I was able to take it to ABC. And when they said “no,” the business had said “yes” to me so many times that their “no” didn’t mean anything.
You’ll start to see me do all genres. It’s not whether I would write it because I’m not going to write it. It’s whether I would identify with it being good and the right thing for that platform.
It feels to me you almost see it as a mission on some level, outside of just making money, to kind of get our culture up.
I bring in talent that they wouldn’t necessarily bring in. It wouldn’t happen on other platforms. The hottest one would just be there as a cameo. You think the new artists right now don’t look and say, “I want to do film and television,” because they see me in film and television? Hell, yeah. They look early.
When I was in that position, I wasn’t ready to do that. Like, we committed to one film. Eminem did 8 Mile and never wanted to do that shit again because he wasn’t in control of it. It’s like, What the fuck am I doing this for? The director’s screaming at me, this guy’s telling me I got to read this. I got to know these lines by tomorrow. All of this other stuff, and you’re going, Nah, the music part: Not only does it pay off, but it’s fun. Because guess who the boss is there: me. Creatively, I’m the boss. Moving into another setting, there are so many moving parts, so many people involved. It gets gossipy, it gets messy, all kinds of crazy.
Yeah, but all these shows, they really do help codify our culture. Instead of it just being street knowledge or knowledge we pass to one another, putting it on television, putting it in a documentary, really makes it part of collective history. It enters us into American history. Is that a goal for you?
It’s important to me not only to do what you just said but to be the gateway for the younger artists. For them to come to me when they decide, Yeah, I want to do some acting. I want to do this. It’s a talent to see talent in people. Not everyone has that. They may be talented themselves in one way and even in multiple ways. I like to be the person to position other people. I like to give them a job. I knew Omari Hardwick was Ghost. I knew BMF ’s Lil Meech could be who he is now. I got the animated show with Nicki Minaj on Amazon. Like, these things happen. She’s different because she’s from the crib. It’s like it’s a female version of me. When she go loopy, it’s a different version of the same loopy you see from me.
Even Kendrick Lamar, he said he wanted to do some acting. It took me a year to get that right. He was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for it. That means it was done right. It wasn’t a show that we just put rappers in. Now there’s no place in television that doesn’t have respect for his work. He’s going to work wherever he wants following that. So if there was any questions about him prior to this, they’re gone.
And then you look at Mary J. Blige. The kids, they hear ’90s music the way we hear Motown: They do not understand. They’ll look at Mary like she’s … Monet. Because they’re seeing her in Power Book II and they don’t know why we love her. They just know the performances. They just know “I saw that” and “She got some kids that’ll kill me. She got kids my age that’s on the shit!”
What do you think your true essence is? What would be true about you no matter where you came up? If you were born on a farm in India, if you were in a suburb outside Phoenix, what do you think would still be there?
Aspiration is at my core.
Even if I was brought up in a whole nother scenario, I would still have interest in living on the highest level. And then whichever path is to that would make sense to me. I’d join a gang right now if it was a successful gang. I can’t find one successful story of gangs. Do you know what a successful gang is to me?
A sorority. Go to fucking college. Get in the sorority and let them be your family. You know what I’m saying?
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