Musical success in the iTunes era hinges as much on image and crafted messaging as it does on songs. Being an artist is in many ways like being a startup entrepreneur. Both are constantly looking to tap into an audience, build that following, and create a product that can both stand the test of time, stand up to the competition, and be adored by fans.
Fourteen years ago Curtis Jackson could barely pay his bills. Dropped from Columbia Records and recovering from a failed hit that put nine bullets in him, the future of the man who would become known as 50 Cent was very much in question. By his own account he was blacklisted from the rap game, repeatedly cut from record labels, music shelved before it was ever released.
But as luck would have it another former never-do-well rapper—Eminem—heard one of 50 Cent's controversial records and believed in him enough to fly the New Yorker to Los Angeles for a high-powered meeting that would change his life forever. Books. Movies. Video games. Brand endorsements. Clothes. Headphones. There's even a charitable energy drink that donates a portion of each purchase to ending world hunger. The man's come a long way from selling drugs on street corners in Queens.
In January he left New York's polar vortex for Las Vegas and the CES tradeshow to promote multiple projects, one of which is a Google Glass app called Hang w/, in which he's an investor. Hang w/ is a streaming service that 50 Cent will use later this year to create the first live-streamed music video, which is sent direct to Hang w/'s 1 million users and his millions of social fans. In between media appearances Fast Company got the chance to speak with the rapper turned entrepreneur about digital innovation, branding, writing, and the sometimes cutthroat world of technology.
Tell me about why you believe in Hang w/.
To be able to live-screen and have people watch in real time is exciting to me. You have more than the limited amount of time on Instagram or on Vine, those short videos. It's a way to directly reach the audience. The audience that I have on Facebook, I got like, what, 38 million people on Facebook, 8 million people on Twitter.
It's all about the ability to communicate directly to an audience. You have to work social networking. The Hang w/ app gives me the ability to show you what my life is like. Let's say you've never actually been to an (NBA) game live—I can actually show you in real time what's going on at the same time.
What's a key for you as an entrepreneur in terms of investing?
Off the top I do due diligence. I send attorneys to get an NDA, I get non-exploitive agreements that determine what companies I'm in. If they're a normal person, or I get a feeling I wouldn't do it, I won't do it. If you don't know them for many years, why would you do it? [I want to work with] people who have successful track records that have consistently had some success. It's interesting, I see people where it actually bothers them to see people become influential when they've been working at it so long.
I got some assistance, in the beginning of my career when I wasn't selling. There were companies that said they wasn't going to be doing nothing with no rapper. I wouldn't care where they came from. Mark Wahlberg came from music. Will Smith came from music. Some of the biggest talent—the biggest talent in Hollywood.
Doing the crossover thing with Hollywood, how much of your brand is Curtis Jackson, how much is 50 Cent?
The separation from 50 cent and Curtis is when I'm irritated. When it's hard circumstances I'm 50 Cent. What I'm doing is writing the roughest times in my actual life, in music. I'm creating that content that mirrors the dysfunctional behaviors in the environment that I grew up in. If someone doesn't have room for growth, or is not open-minded to things changing, I think their limited thinking is going to leave them behind.
Do you feel like one of the most powerful black entertainers in the world right now?
Do I feel like I'm one of them? Yeah, I do think so. What happens to me often, for example, people watch what words you choose. Because when they think there's a tone of arrogance they see me as the aggressor. If you're a new artist you utilize someone to add some energy into the conversation at the same time. New artists like Kendrick Lamar. He possesses the ability to allow people to feel like he didn't even know that this was going to happen. Like he didn't know. He was working hard as hell to make it happen. But when I watch him, I look at it and go "did he know?" Because he really convinces you that he didn't know it was going to happen.
Do you think he knew before he got with Dre, and was in Compton, on a smaller level?
I think he had to know it was going to happen for him one day to actually continue to do it at that pace.
When you were shelved by your record level, after you were shot and "How to Rob" came out, did you still feel like it was going to happen or did you have a dark time?
I had points in my career. I really felt like I was ready in '97 and I wasn't. Honest, I wasn't. And the bumps and bruises I received in process is what made me good enough when I did get there. I look at the circumstances like when you want it today, and it doesn't come, it doesn't mean it's not coming in the future. You got to believe it's going to happen in order to do the work for it to happen.
For Kendrick, he became a media darling because he didn't have arrogance in his character. When you can see some people didn't have anyone believe in them, if they weren't confident, if they weren't over confident, they wouldn't exist. They have to develop a defense mechanism for people not believing.
Let's translate that to technology where a lot of these lessons can be applied. Maybe the outward persona of engineers and technical people aren't as confident, maybe their chest isn't as puffed out. What was your take on CES?
The people who should be here, aren't. The youthful energy is not around.
They're watching the music instead of listening to it. If you listen to music, where do you hear it?
I go online these days.
You're going to go to YouTube. And even if it's just a static picture it's going to show you the title and the song, you'd actually be looking at it on a video player. Now people can sell a phone based on a camera. You have a camera that you might not even use. Give me that phone because the camera is better. People are concerned about taking pictures for Instagram. All the technology changes. Used to be a point where an artist would be on the entry level, or perform for a few hundred or thousand dollars. That's over. They've given in to the drill that they have 150,000 followers on Instagram. So a lot of the new talent that you would have seen performing at different places, they aren't going to show. [The audience] would rather see an attractive woman host a party then no other attractive women, than see a new artist.
What advice do you have for writers? How do you get creative and tap in?
For most writers they want to have the freedom to write different directions. But know that what you're going to hear is people put you in a box. You don't necessarily have to fight your way out the box. You can start to create a space for yourself, especially if the box is big enough. People are diverse. They can accept one thing from one artist and not the same from another. We can pick a path with the exact same material and they can look at it and go this is amazing [from one artist]. If it's an artist they feel like embodies other things or other qualities about them, and they interpret them differently, they want something different from that artist.
So how do you stay true to what you are and not get pigeonholed?
When you actually write things and your presentation is diversified from the very beginning you don't have to stay in one little space. If you come one way they're going to say "he can do all of it," if your record came out that way. If you lean toward what's hot, you can't get mad. If you write novels or screenplays, don't stay on one genre. Write different things out the gate. It depends on if you're passionate about it. If you're a talented writer, you know you can do it.
If you would do a techie version of your song "How to Rob," how would it go? Can you give me a couple bars?
[Laughs] Na, na. What would I be robbing? Samsung [laughs] and tech companies? Their element is different. Totally different from where I come from. But they could be as ruthless, trust me.