50 Cent: The outlaw is in

The enormous popularity of hip-hop star Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson says as much about society's love affair with violence as it does about the gangsta rapper

December 3, 2005
Vancouver Sun
By Peter McKnight

In the hood, hoopty, hate low, niggas don't know I'm around

Hop out, hit 'em up, lay my murder game down
You see me in ya projects, 187's in progress
Hard niggas finna soften up when that lead touch' em
You cut' em once and keep fight, fuck it just keep cuttin' em
It's real killa instinct, kill or be killed

Well, it ain't exactly Ode on a Grecian Urn, but it sells. Those lyrics are from a little ditty called Gunz Come Out, just one of the many edifying tracks on gangsta rapper Curtis (50 Cent) Jackson's CD The Massacre.

But Fiddy, as he's affectionately known, doesn't just talk the talk. The rap superstar, we're told, also walks the walk, or rather, swaggers the swagger: A convicted drug dealer, ex-con and the survivor of a multiple shooting, 50 knows whereof he speaks.

And while he's now a certified member of the glitterati, violence still follows the hip-hop henchman wherever he goes. A man was recently murdered after a Pittsburgh screening of 50's semi-autobiographical movie, Get Rich or Die Tryin', and the last time 50 toured Canada, a man was shot to death at his concert in Toronto and violence erupted at his Montreal gig.

So it's no wonder that Toronto-area Liberal MP Dan McTeague did his level best to bar 50 from entering Canada. But despite his efforts, Fiddy will bring his unique brand of mayhem to Vancouver tonight, as he kicks off the Canadian leg of his shoot-'em-up Massacre Tour with a gig at the Pacific Coliseum. If he doesn't get shot up first, that is.

At least that's what 50 would like you to believe. The mythology of 50's life, as described in his lyrics, his movie, and his new video game, Bulletproof, suggests that he inhabits an anarchic Hobbesian world where everyone's a brute and life is short, even for those with the biggest weapons.

But make no mistake about it: What you've heard of 50's life is largely mythology, a carefully composed narrative that bears little resemblance to reality.

Take, for example, the oft-repeated claim that 50 was shot nine times, which makes him appear invincible. In reality, 50 was sitting in a car with an "accomplice," shall we say, when some hood from the 'hood drove by, spraying nine bullets in their direction. Fiddy was hit in both legs and the jaw, meaning he was shot three times, not nine. His accomplice was hit in the hand, but still managed to drive 50 to the hospital, where officials confirmed that he wasn't in danger.

Three times is bad enough, you might say, but if so, why does the hip-hop marketing machine keep promoting the nine times legend? Even 50 himself, in a radio interview, talked about being shot at nine times, not being shot nine times, though it's doubtful he'll explicitly counter the rumour, since it certainly wouldn't help the sales of a video game called Bulletproof.

Fiddy's stay in prison is equally the stuff of urban legends. He regularly blathers on about having served "seven to nine," an apparent attempt to convince people that the 30-year-old has already done nearly a decade in prison.

But, while 50 was originally sentenced to three to nine years in prison, the "seven" actually refers to the seven months he spent in a prison "boot camp" -- you know, those places where not-so hardened cons get yelled at by former drill sergeants, replace their ebonic-infused street slang with a lot of militaristic "yes sirs" and "no sirs," and spend an inordinate amount of time crying. If anyone could get video of 50's time in the joint, five bucks says it would squash his street cred, pronto.

Even Fiddy's drug dealing, which inexplicably gives him cachet in certain quarters, was less daring than you might think. According to court documents obtained by the Smoking Gun website, 50's accomplice in his drug-dealing ventures was a 16-year-old girl who kept the drugs hidden in her underwear and who made the deals (including the deal to an undercover cop which landed the future rapper in court), while our intrepid street tough looked on from the safety of a car. Fiddy was apparently little more than a lookout, and evidently not a very good one.

The second time 50 was arrested on drug-related charges, police found cocaine, heroin and a starter's pistol in his home. Not what you'd expect from someone who's all about guns, but a fake gun is exactly what you'd expect to find in the home of a poseur extraordinaire who's all about image.

And now that 50 is becoming an omnimedia entrepreneur in the mould of fellow ex-con Martha Stewart, that image is being played up in songs, movies, video games and even Reebok's "I am what I am" advertising campaign, which features 50 counting from one to nine, an obvious reference to the apocryphal story of his being shot nine times. A cynic could easily add to the ad, "but you're not what you pretend to be."

Even in "real" life, the marketing continues: Just days before The Massacre CD was to be released, 50 told New York hip-hop radio station Hot 97 that he had booted his protege, rapper The Game (Jayceon Taylor), from his posse. That led to a shootout between the rival rappers' entourages outside the Hot 97 studio, and, after countless bullets were fired, one man was shot in the leg.

The lack of serious injuries convinced more than a few people that the whole thing was an in vivo publicity stunt to help move 50's album. Although The Game denied the shootout was orchestrated, 50 has, more than once, hinted that things are not always as they seem, that it's his job to "scare people." And wouldn't you know it, The Massacre, which is an inferior effort even by Fiddy's standards, sold more than one million copies within four days of its release.

Given that violence isn't just part of 50's image but its very essence, McTeague's concerns are understandable. But it's the black community that really ought to be up in arms, so to speak, about 50's armed hip-hop.

The art of gangsta rappers is, after all, little more than a modern-day minstrel show, where the actors don masks that play into every nefarious stereotype about young black men. Of course in this minstrel show the black guys get rich -- or die tryin' -- but their wealth comes at the expense of young black men, who are portrayed as animalistic, as subhuman.

That said, violence isn't unique to hip-hop: Blues and country artists have long written about offing people, with one of the most famous lines coming from Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues: I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. Cash, who milked his stay in Folsom for all it was worth, actually spent only one day in prison, which makes 50 look like a lifer by comparison.

Violence isn't unique to music, either, as it's now used to sell everything from video games to movies to cars to sneakers, and has even made its way beyond pop culture. A minor controversy recently erupted in, of all places, the august pages of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which featured a pharmaceutical ad showing a man aiming a gun at a representation of a human head.

After a Victoria physician complained about the ad, the drug company said the pistol was a "symbolic representation of the physician's armamentarium" for fighting disease. But the fact remains that the powerful image, whether metaphorical or not, grabs the attention and sells the product.

People are abundantly aware of this: A recent Leger poll found that 55.9 per cent of Canadians believe there is too much violence in advertising, but the really interesting result was that 32.9 per cent think the amount of violence is just right, an explicit recognition that violence plays an important, and perhaps legitimate, role in advertising.

So 50 Cent, for all his false bravado, is really only a symptom of the problem. And 50's enormous popularity, not just with impoverished inner city black youth, but with volleys of middle-class suburban white kids, stands as a testament to our continuing love affair with violence, to the revelation that in modern society, the outlaw is in.