At 16 I had already been involved in street life for years [50 Cent started dealing drugs at 12]. I was aggressive enough to get by on the street – but then I’d go home and be my grandmother’s baby. I was outside hustling but I still had to talk my grandmother into letting me walk home from school myself. I said to her, look, I’m bigger than you now.
I came to live in my grandmother’s house when some of my mother’s eight siblings were still there [his mother, a cocaine dealer, was murdered when he was eight]. My aunt Sylvie, she hated me being there. She had been the baby, then suddenly it was me. My grandmother would look at me and there would be a little moment when she wouldn’t say anything, then she’d say, come on here baby. And I said to Sylvie, do you notice she always pauses and looks at me before she speaks to me? And Sylvie said, yeah. ‘Cause everyone noticed. And I said, I think she sees my mother’s face on top of mine.
I think shock is the best way to describe how I felt when my mother died. I didn’t understand it. To have a single parent as your guardian – they’re your whole life. I was eight. I was just like, what do you mean? She had spent a lot of time away from me, she was always hustling. She had to be very tough, to be around a lot of men… she had to adapt. At that time they didn’t have teen programmes helping teen mothers [his mother was 15 when she had him] and my mother wanted to give me what I needed, so she couldn’t rely on welfare.
My mother wanted to give me what I needed, so she couldn’t rely on welfare
It scared me half to death when my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt would call me with updates all the time and she always said, don’t worry, she’s fine. I’ve never told anyone this but two years ago, the day she called to tell me… It was early in the morning and I was on a treadmill in the gym. I got to the hospital and the whole family was there. My aunt told me the doctor said she’d had a stroke and there was nothing they could do. They took me to her and she was the smallest I ever saw her. I said ‘Hello?’ I saw her eyes jump when she heard my voice, like she was trying to see where I was at. Everyone else left and I talked to her for a little bit. Then they all came back in and her heart rate started to drop. My aunt said, shit, she was waiting for you. I’ve seen a lot of people pass in the neighbourhood, I’ve lost them to motorcycles or altercations or drugs. But none of them impacted like when my grandmother died. She was the love of my life.
I felt I had to do whatever it took to get by. The stuff that came out of my mouth when I was outside the house – wow, that kid was crazy. I was the youngest in the pack, everyone else was at least 16. People told my grandmother stuff I’d done and she’d say, nope, not my baby. We all wanted nice things, nice clothes, because we wanted to attract girls. So we had to hustle to afford them.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
When you get hurt as bad as I did [he was shot nine times at close range in 2000] you become afraid of everything because you know anything can happen at any time. I got shot in the afternoon, broad daylight. So I got scared, and that made me harder than I was before. The only time I was comfortable was when I didn’t care. So I just said – fuck it. When you have the pistol and you’re looking for them, your attention is shifted. You’re not afraid anymore. You’re like, I hope that is them coming up the block now.
I started writing lyrics full time in 1997. I met Jam Master Jay from Run DMC and he had his label, which would take people on and develop them until they were ready to go to a major. Jay taught me how to count bars – and when the chorus should start and stop. And I kept practising. Sometimes hard work beats talent. I wrote all the time, and so I got better and better.
I think Jay liked me ‘cause I looked like the lyrics. I had all the jewellery, I looked like a hustler. I’d been on the street so long, people respected me. The honest truth is, at that point, the drug dealers were the leaders of the neighbourhood. They had more money than the rappers. The things LL Cool J and Run DMC wanted were the things guys hustling already had. Now, of course, the artists are way richer than the dealers, the hip hop culture has grown so much.
I came into music with songwriting intentions ‘cause that’s where the money was
Eminem had this competitive energy that made him the guy all the other rappers worried about [Eminem signed 50 Cent to Shady Records in 2002]. From early days, he was this great battle artist. The guys who were up against him would think of everything you could say about him, then he’d say those things about himself first. So everything they had against him, he took it away. He was writing all this personal stuff. I was never anything like that. I came into music with songwriting intentions ‘cause that’s where the money was.
If I could talk to my teenage self, I’d tell him to focus on music with a stronger intensity. He could still have this career without going through all the things I went through. And thinking about relationships – I think back to when I was with someone and that person could have been the person I was going to be with for the rest of my life but I didn’t have the references yet to know there was something special there. It’s like the clarity I got about my grandmother after she was gone. Some people have been better at that than me. If I look at Jay Z, I’d point out he capitalised on people better than I did.
If I could go back to any time, I’d go back to when the sales figure for the first week of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ came out. I went to sit at the back of the tour bus and just thought, wow. I couldn’t believe it. When I got those sales I knew that from now on I didn’t have to wait for someone else to say it was okay, I could say it was okay myself. But I also knew that feeling, that confirmation, that finally you have the momentum – you only feel it once. I knew I would never have that feeling again. ‘Cause everything was about to change.