The Many Faces of 50

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is worth more than most may think. The rapper turned entrepreneur, pitchman, author, philanthropist, actor, and movie producer is making deals faster than many of his hip-hop predecessors. Later this year, he’ll star in a pair of films, Things Fall Apart and The Gun, as part of a catalog of theatrical releases produced through Cheetah Vision, the Los Angeles-based production company he founded in 2009. And filming is under way for The Set Up with Jackson starring opposite Bruce Willis. The Set Up is the first of a 10-picture deal backed by a $200 million fund financed by New York City-based Hedge Fund Film Partners.

As part of the deal, finalized in November 2010, up to $20 million will be allocated for each film with the Queens, New York, native serving as an actor and/or producer. The company’s day-to-day operations are run by Randall Emmett; however, Jackson was heavily involved in formulating the details of the deal which took about a year to construct.

“The films are exciting to be a part of,” says Jackson, who first acted in 2005 in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his semi-autobiographical film. “It’s turned into a passion of mine where I now actually want to be a part of it on a different level.”

Contrary to popular belief, Jackson’s ascent wasn’t rapid or mere luck. Using inherent street smarts, fearlessness, authenticity, tenacity, and swagger, the 35-year-old has created a portfolio of ventures in film, music, fragrances, video games, and other industries which collectively have boosted his net worth to an estimated $200 million.

Movin’ On Up
Despite the diversified portfolio of ventures, music remains Jackson’s passion and main focus since his 2003 debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ which sold more than 15 million copies. That same year, he founded G-Unit Records, a division of Interscope. Today, the label is operating more independently and the lineup of artists includes Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, with plans to add a few others. With 100% ownership of the label, Jackson can receive anywhere from 50% to 80% profit from an artists’ success depending on the terms of the contract.

Chris Lighty, founder and CEO of New York City-based artist management firm Violator, who is Jackson’s manager, business partner, and self-described partner-in-crime, says, “Music is still about 40% of his base. Without music, the rest of the opportunities wouldn’t arise.”

Bestselling author Robert Greene co-wrote The 50th Law (Harper; $19.99) with Jackson, a book that dispels some popular public assumptions. “You think that he is all angry and emotional, but in fact he’s really kind of cool and collected, and very thoughtful,” Greene says. “I could see that there was a side where you didn’t want to cross him; there’s nothing about that that is fake. But he is remarkably kind and gentle as a person–and human about things. So the kind of thuggish image that people have about him is absolutely ridiculous.” Greene centered the book–which sold 100,000 copies in the U.S., 27,000 in the U.K., and was recently licensed for foreign translation–on the idea that fearlessness has been the foundation of Jackson’s success and power.

The hardcore persona that introduced hits such as “In Da Club” and “P.I.M.P.” is one Jackson now doesn’t mind dispelling if it means getting deals done in the boardroom. “I’m fine with it. I’ve been going through this process my entire career.  So I kind of expect it on some level,” he says.

Straight to the Bank
In 2004, the rapper entered the world of fashion with the launch of G-Unit Footwear Collection by RBK (Reebok). By the time production ceased in 2008, the line of sneakers, hats, wristbands, T-shirts, and boots had delivered $70 million in cumulative sales with Jackson earning about $25 million. During this same time, G-Unit Apparel by Ecko Unlimited was competing with other hip-hop-inspired brands such as Sean John, Rocawear, and Phat Farm. The 50-50 partnership with designer Marc Ecko generated $100 million in retail sales before the mutual decision to end production in 2009.

Lighty says lessons were learned during those initial forays into the fashion and retail industry. “They want you to sell as many sneakers as they can get and we initially wanted to do it.” Once market saturation takes place, however, products like the G-Unit sneaker find their way to discount stores, he adds. “So, while it was a great experience, we learned how to understand [the market], monitor our partner, and make sure we don’t ever fall into that wheelbarrow again.”

The 2005 deal he struck with vitaminwater to acquire a 10% stake in its parent company, glacéau, in exchange for his endorsement led to one of the most unprecedented financial opportunities in hip-hop history. Jackson received a reported $100 million when glacéau was sold to Coca-Cola Co. for $4.1 billion in 2007. The deal solidified Jackson as a businessman and propelled his notoriety beyond music. In 2005 and again in 2009, a partnership with Vivendi Games led to the release of 50 Cent: Bulletproof and 50 Cent: Blood in the Sand on Play Station 2 and Xbox gaming consoles.

“We took many meetings for both games from stage one to completion–from the music to what it looked like,” recalls Lighty. “Was it too much blood, too little blood, too much shooting, explosions. We actually did some simulations early on of the game and made changes. And 50 pretty much created a soundtrack for both games. It was a lot of deciding whether it was fit to hold the brand.” About $10 million in royalties were generated with 1.7 million and 800,000 units sold, respectively.

Position of Power
Denitria Lewis, cultural sommelier for Blue Flame Agency, a New York City-based culture and social media strategy firm whose clients have included Ciroc Vodka and Toyota/Lexus, notes engagement via the Internet as a key influence for Jackson’s connection with audiences. “From a viral perspective, he just really understands how the Internet works and he taps into things people naturally want to see online,” she says. “So, he’s now even taken that into his digital presence, which is really just modern day word-of-mouth from his video, website, and blog content, then his ability to personally engage his fans on Twitter and YouTube. He is very strategic.”

In November 2010, he appeared in a video with 15-year-old Internet sensation Keenan Cahill. Jackson dropped in for a cameo on one of his YouTube videos, which at press time the video boasted more than 9 million views.

But there has been some backlash. Also in November, Jackson was criticized in the blogosphere for tweeting pictures and posting video of himself playing with stacks of cash. Many questioned his insensitivity for those struggling in a tough economy. Jackson adamantly defends his actions as pure entertainment. “I sent a joke on Twitter at the wrong time and it was completely misinterpreted. I accepted it was misinterpreted. And everyone has a right to their opinion on you when you’re public property.”

There are instances, though, when Jackson does have the last laugh. In 2008, Jackson sued Taco Bell for using his name and likeness without his permission. In a failed publicity stunt, the fast-food chain campaigned for the rapper to change his name to one of their price points on their new value menu (i.e., 69 Cent, 79 Cent, or 99 Cent). Jackson won and Taco Bell learned the value of a half-dollar.

“It was a very smart move for him to say, ‘No, you will not take my image, my likeness, and No. 1, make money off of it and then, No. 2, make me appear to my fan base and my followers as something that I have no intention of being,’” says Lewis. “And it worked for him. Taco Bell was just kind of running with it and saying, ‘Oh, this seems like something 50 would do. We can just do it and no one would think twice about it. They took a chance. And unfortunately, it didn’t work.”

Robbie Vorhaus, CEO and founder of Vorhaus & Co., a brand strategy firm based in Sag Harbor, New York, describes many artists as “timekeepers,” meaning they are singular in what they do. They may be “hot” but they aren’t making money in their sleep, he adds. “50 Cent figured out he did not want to be a timekeeper. Instead, he said, ‘I want to build something sustainable so that even when I’m not as popular as my talent, my production companies, movies, or music that I discover will live on.’”

Follow My Lead
In September 2009, Power by Fifty Cent was launched exclusively in Macy’s. It’s the first fragrance for him, and Lighty says another can be expected. The product was created, manufactured, and distributed by independent companies rather than the traditional fragrance houses. It’s marketed and promoted by Lighthouse Beauty, in which Jackson has a 25% stake (so does Lighty). It’s a model unlike most celebrity lines. (Reality TV star Kim Kardashian’s line of fragrances is also part of Lighthouse’s portfolio.)

Launching Power by Fifty Cent along with Jackson’s Before I Self Destruct album’s promotional, touring, and marketing efforts created a media blitz of two-for-one. “50, Sean Combs, and Jay-Z are the poster boys of what went wrong in the music business,” says Lighty.  “They’ve made so much money outside of the music business, and the music business helped market and promote their brands but didn’t participate in being partners in their brands.”

“[Jackson] doesn’t get into a venture where we’re not going to have total involvement,” Lighty continues. An example of his hands-on commitment: For the film Things Fall Apart, Jackson dropped 50 to 60 pounds in nine weeks on a liquid diet for his role as a cancer-stricken football player.

Like the strong-willed, determined characters he plays, the businessman tirelessly works to surpass expectations and his own high standard of success.  “It’s a slow grind,” says Lighty. “Every initial business isn’t gangbusters and turns into vitaminwater. But everything has been successful at some point or another. Fifty years from now, they’ll look back and say 50 was one of the few artists to really make the money, make headway, and make a difference for not only artists but the next generation.” Jackson explains his longevity: “Those people who stick around for a long time, it says they have the intelligence to maneuver themselves and market themselves to the public.”

Jackson is currently working on his fifth studio album, and will next be exploring business opportunities in the vitamins/supplement industry. “Most people gauge success on numbers, how much is coming in.” Jackson says. “For me [it’s about] the comfort, the freedom, because financial freedom allows you to come and go as you please.”