50 Cent's debut album 'Get Rich or Die Tryin'' turns 20. This is the story of how it was made, from recording in a safe house to hitting No. 1 and touring on a bulletproof bus.
50 Cent's debut album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" turns 20 years old on February 6.
To mark the occasion, Insider spoke to those who helped make the project.
"We really got rich and didn't die trying," producer Sha Money XL said.
It was January 2003. In the world of music, Michael Jackson had only recently dangled his nine-month-old son over the balcony of a Berlin hotel room, Fergie had just joined The Black Eyed Peas, and Ja Rule and Nelly were the kingpins of the rap scene.
Since the turn of the century, Ja Rule and Nelly had shared no less than five No.1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and a further eight in the top 20. The recipe to their success? Radio-friendly rap and frequent collaborations with R&B's biggest songstresses of the time — Christina Milian, Jennifer Lopez, Ashanti, and Kelly Rowland included.
The days of traditional gangsta rap, the genre the likes of N.W.A, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and The Notorious B.I.G., first brought to the mainstream in the late 1980s and '90s, appeared to have passed.
Things, however, were about to change courtesy of a young rapper from New York by the name of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson.
50 Cent's back story is well known. Raised by his grandparents in Queens after the death of his mother, a drug dealer, when he was 8, by 12, he was selling crack cocaine out of his grandparents' house, and in high school he was arrested for carrying a gun. At 19, he was sentenced to three to nine years in prison for dealing drugs, though he would only serve six months.
Following his release, Jackson began rapping. His first recorded album, "Power of the Dollar," which went unreleased, was produced by Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC. On its lead single, "How to Rob," 50 detailed how he would rob famous rappers, and prompted responses from Jay-Z, Ghostface Killah, and Wyclef Jean.
In May 2000, just before the album was about to drop, however, Jackson was shot nine times, including in his chest, arm, and face, by a gunman outside of his grandmother's former home. Following the shooting, he was dropped by record label Columbia.
Jackson himself would later identify the gunman as Darryl Baum, the personal bodyguard of Mike Tyson. Investigators said the hit was likely carried out as revenge for Jackson's track, "Ghetto Qur'an," in which he mentioned prominent Queens drug dealer Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff.
Lucky to be alive and desperate to tell his story of survival — it was time for Jackson to go into hiding.
Sha Money's safe house
During the recording of "Power of the Dollar," Jackson was introduced to music producer Sha Money XL by Jam Master Jay.
Sha, real name Michael Jean Clervoix, told Insider he had just bought a property in Westbury, a small village in Long Island, New York.
"I was 24, I just got my first big pay cheque and bought my first crib, and that was the same year 50 got shot," Sha said. "I was telling him, 'Bro, I got my own crib, I'm out the hood.' I kept calling his grandmother's house and kept telling him, 'Call me.' When he finally called me, he was like, 'Yo, they put Humpty Dumpty back together again.'"
"They didn't complete the job, so 50 didn't want to be in a place where people could see him and call someone and tell them he's there," Sha recalled.
"So when he came to my crib, he came with his homies and he saw that it was safe, that we was in the suburbs chillin', he was like, 'We could do this.' And then he came to my house every day, Monday through Friday, for like 1 ½ to two years."
During his time at Sha's house, Jackson would record two mixtapes — "50 Cent Is the Future" and "Guess Who's Back?" — which saw him become a breakthrough star on New York's underground rap scene.
"Those mixtapes, if you walked down the street anywhere in New York, that's all you heard from people's cars," DJ Ease, a world-champion DJ who was born and raised in Brooklyn, told Insider. "'50 Cent is the Future' was fucking crazy."
Carlisle Young, an engineer on "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," told Insider that the hype Jackson had created at the time was "humongous."
"I think Sha and 50 figured out," he said. "I guess I would call it a company culture. They created this culture where people would just be sending beats, artists coming by, recording people coming by, and it just created a huge hype."
"I mean, the world was against them at the time too, right? But I guess that negativity actually helped them in a way," Young said.
So much buzz did the mixtapes create that Jackson and Sha caught the eye of Eminem, who, according to Rolling Stone, introduced Jackson to Dr. Dre.
Jackson then signed a record deal with Interscope and got to work on his debut album: "Get Rich or Die Tryin.'"
Some of the tracks that ended up on the album ("Wanksta," What Up Gangsta") had already been written and recorded at Sha's house. The rest, namely the album's biggest hits such as "In Da Club," "21 Questions," and "Many Men (Wish Death)," were written and recorded after.
Dubbed by AllMusic as the "most-hyped debut album by a rap artist in about a decade," the finished product was a 19-track harrowing hood tale, fused with cutting-edge production from one of gangsta rap's forefathers in Dre.
The album's lead single, "In Da Club," spent nine straight weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and went on to become the best-selling single of 2003, while "21 Questions" also scored Jackson another No. 1 hit. By the end of the year, "Get Rich" had shipped 12 million copies worldwide, making it the highest-selling album of the year and among the highest-selling rap albums of all time — ahead of Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle," Dr. Dre's "2001," and 2Pac's "All Eyez On Me."
More importantly, it would mark the return of gangsta rap in an era of ladies-man rappers like Ja Rule and Nelly.
"At the time, people had started to complain about hip-hop — it was becoming too commercial, too pretty," said Young, the engineer who worked on "Get Rich." "Everyone used to make fun of the rappers singing, and then 50 came in and his rawness helped him take over from Ja Rule and the others."
"It was hip-hop in the rawest form," Sha, Jackson's producer, added. "A lot of rappers, they just come out with a song. And you either like the song or you don't. 50 not only came out with songs, he came out with a story that people could relate with — not getting shot, but the world being against him and him still being fearless and ready to challenge everyone.
"He gave the world a street story but on the highest level with the help of Eminem and Dre."
A model for success
The success of "Get Rich" was a confluence of Jackson's incredible story and ability on the microphone, Eminem and Dre's mastery in the studio, and the timing of its release. But they weren't the only ingredients.
Sha and Young told Insider that Jackson's work ethic and dedication to his craft were unmatched, both before and after the album's release.
In the studio, Sha said Jackson "didn't drink or smoke" at all, which he said was unusual for rappers at the time.
"He had a drive that I haven't seen in any artist since, one that only he carries and you can still see that in him to this day," said Sha, who has since worked with Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, and Bobby Smurda.
Young recalled the tours that followed the album as being relentless, despite the ongoing danger to Jackson's life.
"It's like one day, we might have a show in, like, let's say Seattle, right? And then literally the next day we'd have a show in Miami. And we were driving in a bulletproof bus the whole way — it was crazy," said Young, who added that, more often than not, Jackson would insist on going back to the studio to record straight after long trips on the road.
"We spent a lot of time in the studio bus, but when you're on the road you can't record anything because the bus engines are too loud and the microphone picks up that noise," he added.
"So they were either like making beats at the time or just writing the songs, but then as soon as the bus stops, 50 would say, 'Is it time to record?,' or 'We're recording until they have to go perform, right?' Then a lot of times after 50 left the stage, we would go back to record again."
According to Concert Archives, Jackson played 84 shows between February and the end of 2003, including gigs in England, Germany, Sweden, Greece, and all over the US. Sha also recalls shows in Albania and the Middle East.
"We weren't even supposed to be touring and we were places where there were wars going on, places where it was really scary to be," he said.
"Get Rich or Die Tryin'" was also masterfully marketed by Jackson and his team. Every detail of the album, from his diss track "Back Down," aimed specifically at Ja Rule, to its artwork, was carefully curated to reinforce Jackson's image as the gangsta rapper that the hip-hop scene of the early 2000s desperately needed.
The album's artwork remains among the most recognizable in rap history.
Designed and shot by Julian Alexander, the founder of Brooklyn studio Slang Inc., and Sacha Waldman, the front cover features Jackson topless against a blood-red background, wearing a gun holster and standing behind a broken shield of glass.
Other promotional images feature Jackson in various poses, including one of him standing on the streets wearing a bulletproof vest, and another of him pointing the barrel of a gun down the camera.
Waldman told Insider that the gun used in the latter picture was real and Jackson's own, while the broken shield of glass on the album's cover wasn't an after-effect as you might expect — it was a real sheet of glass that had been shot at with a real gun.
"It was a very organic thing," said Waldman. "I think the imagery shows him as the warrior that he was, like he was really prepared to get rich or die trying, and you shouldn't mess with him because he won't stop trying."
"I think that's why the album took the world by storm because the energy of it all was just perfect," Waldman added. "He kind of came out with this bible that said, 'I'm on the block now. I'm not in hiding anymore, I'm not selling mixtapes out of my trunk anymore. This is 50, and I'm going to get rich or die trying.'
"And now 20 years later, the guy's a titan. I think people really love that story."
A lasting legacy
After the release of "Get Rich," the world of popular rap seemed to take Jackson's lead, moving away from what Young describes as the "commercial" and "pretty" styles of Ja Rule and Nelly, to a more raw, heavier, club-ready sound.
Over the next few years, Illinois rapper Ludacris, Cash Money's Juvenile, and Bronx native Fat Joe all had No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Snoop Dogg returned to the big time, openly flaunting his gang affiliations on the mammoth "Drop It Like It's Hot." The Game, a Piru blood gang member and 50's former prodigy, scored a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, as did Houston underground star Paul Wall.
As for Jackson himself, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" launched him to the forefront of rap and popular music, where he would remain until the end of the decade. His 2005 followup album, "The Massacre," sold 9 million copies worldwide and spawned another string of monster hits, including "Candy Shop" and "Just A Lil Bit."
And while 50 has moved away from rap itself in recent years — he hasn't released an album since 2014's "Animal Ambition" — his debut project is still being listened to now. Since the launch of Spotify in 2006, the album has been streamed over 2 billion times, while 50 still boasts 28 million monthly listeners.
"It's amazing. 20 years later, I feel like it's almost like the same year," said Sha. "It's like 2003 now, because the energy for the album is still so high."
"It's the best part of my life story for me, believing in someone who nobody believed in at that time, and then seeing them turn from victim into a winner," he added.
"We really got rich and didn't die tryin'."
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