No small change

Times Staff Writer

He's been shot. He's been stabbed. He's been locked up -- most recently on New Year's Eve.

For rap music fans, that only adds to the allure of 50 Cent. Popular on the club scene for years, the 26-year-old native of Queens is aiming for the big time with the release next month of his first commercial album. For many in the music industry, "Get Rich or Die Trying" is one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the year.

"He writes monster songs," said industry veteran Steve Stoute, who has run the black music divisions at several top labels. "He's got incredible flow. Everybody on the street knows his background."

And everybody who's anybody in the rap world knows 50 Cent's backer: Eminem.

The new album marks the latest transformation of Eminem from Detroit unknown to superstar rapper to movie star in the largely autobiographical "8 Mile," and now to music impresario. Eminem is co-producing "Get Rich" along with another of rap's biggest names, Dr. Dre.

"I can't rap forever," Eminem said in a recent interview. "The fact is I'm really not looking to be the frontman anymore. My game plan right now is to take a back seat."

The collaboration between Eminem, Dre and 50 Cent emphasizes rap's maturation as music acts cross racial and ethnic lines considered taboo just a short time ago. Witness the critical lashing that Dre endured in 1999 after introducing Eminem to the insular world of hip-hop. Now, it is the white rap star who has introduced his black mentor to a black artist who many predict could become the next rap sensation.

"It's kind of funny how it works, isn't it?" said Eminem. "When we're in the studio, I don't look at Dre and go, 'Wow, you're black!' And he doesn't look at me, and say, 'Wow, you're white!' We don't dwell on color. This is about music. Art. If 50 was white or Spanish or purple and rapped as good as he does, he'd still be in the same position. My prediction: This guy is the next big thing."

50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, was born in New York's Jamaica, Queens, ghetto. In an interview, the rapper, who was soft-spoken and polite, said he was raised without a father and orphaned at the age of 8 after his mother, a drug dealer, was killed on the street. His grandparents took him in, but it wasn't long before he was busted for selling drugs as a juvenile. He was arrested and convicted twice more as a teenager, records show.

After getting out of jail in 1995, 50 Cent started rapping and signed a deal with the tiny JMJ label owned by his mentor, Jam Master Jay -- the Run DMC member who was shot and killed Oct. 30. 50 Cent said Master Jay taught him the rudiments of music theory in the same neighborhood where the rap pioneer was gunned down. (His killing remains unsolved.)

"I was in awe of him," 50 Cent said. "He taught me everything: counting beats, song structure, all of it."

By 1999, 50 Cent had cut a deal with Columbia Records and with the Trackmasters production team. Together, they recorded 36 tunes in less than three weeks.

Columbia never released the sessions, even though they contained more than a dozen rap gems, including the droll Randy Newmanesque "How to Rob" -- a song in which 50 Cent fantasizes about robbing rich gangsta rappers:

"Yo, the bottom line is

I'm a crook with a deal

If my record don't sell

I'm gonna rob and steal.... "

The stick-up fantasy satirized dozens of wealthy entertainers, including P. Diddy, DMX and Big Pun and was released as part of an obscure soundtrack in 1999. The song became a staple of the New York club scene and at rap radio stations, turning 50 Cent into an underground celebrity.

"You know how it is," 50 Cent said. "You see these stars on MTV driving big cars, sporting big diamonds. I think they forget what it's like when somebody's starving, how robbery isn't out of the question. That was the thought process behind 'How to Rob.' It wasn't personal. It was comedy based on truth, that's what made it so funny."

Not everyone appreciated the joke. Several New York rappers responded in follow-up songs and interviews with taunts belittling 50 Cent. Then, in March 2000, the rapper was stabbed during a scuffle at a Manhattan recording studio -- allegedly by an East Coast rival, according to news reports. No one was arrested.

Two months later, 50 Cent was shot nine times -- once in the face -- in an ambush in front of his grandparents' house. Again, no one was arrested.

After the shooting, Columbia Records put his album on ice, scrapped a scheduled music-video shoot and dropped him from its roster. 50 Cent says Columbia executives no longer wanted to work with him because of the violent attack. Columbia officials declined to comment. Sources at the label said there were other potential problems with the deal.

"When you get shot, where I'm from, if you can move your fingers and your toes afterward, you're all right," 50 Cent said. "In the hood, it ain't nothing shocking. You heal up. You get back to work. The truth is: Losing that record deal hurt me more than that shooting."

After being released from the hospital, 50 Cent holed up in a small studio and began recording new material with a friend. They laid down dozens of tracks with volatile lyrics exploring new subject matter, including his stabbing and shooting. But label executives became nervous when 50 Cent showed up for meetings in a bulletproof vest surrounded by bodyguards. Failing to elicit any interest in his new material, the rapper decided to release the songs independently on mix tapes distributed by bootleggers in underground clubs.

One of those tapes found its way last year into the hands of Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg. Eminem was impressed and in March began touting 50 Cent as his favorite artist.

At the time, Eminem had just put the finishing touches on "The Eminem Show" CD and was busy completing his first starring role in "8 Mile." During a break, he played the mix tape for Dre.

"When I first heard 50's tape, I was just listening like a fan -- and loving it ... ," said Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers. "I played his music for Dre and he gave it the green light. So I called 50, I said, 'Man, if you are down with it, we would love it if you would come out here and work with us.' "

In June, Eminem flew 50 Cent to Los Angeles to attend the release party for "The Eminem Show." The two rappers spent hours kicking around ideas. The following day, Eminem introduced 50 Cent to Dre, and a deal was proposed.

The Brooklyn rapper decided to meet with several labels before signing a contract with Shady, Eminem's label; Aftermath, Dre's label; and Interscope, a West Coast arm of Vivendi Universal, the world's largest music corporation, which will oversee global distribution. 50 Cent received a $1-million advance.

"Once the industry got wind that Em and Dre were interested, I started getting calls from everybody," 50 Cent said. "I got higher offers from other companies but came back and did the deal with Em, because I thought it was better creatively."

Last fall, 50 Cent earned his major label debut as a guest artist on Eminem's soundtrack for "8 Mile," the sleeper that became a hit, doubled box-office projections and turned Eminem into a film star.

The soundtrack has been a huge success too. Four months after its release, "8 Mile" ranks No. 1 on Billboard magazine's national pop chart, selling nearly 119,000 copies last week.

In February, 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Trying" will be the first solo release from an expanding roster of rap acts that Eminem intends to produce for his label. Shady already has released Eminem's last CD, a recording by D-12 and the soundtrack.

Eminem launched his Shady label two years ago with Interscope. The deal was conceived by Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine, who introduced Eminem to Dre and has been instrumental in guiding and financing both careers.

The partnership has produced some of the most creative and profitable recordings of the last decade -- as well as a hit movie for Vivendi's film division. Together, Eminem and Dre have sold more than 60 million albums worldwide for Interscope.

"We give each other strength," said Dre, whose real name is Andre Young. The Grammy-winning producer is behind many of hip-hop's biggest hits, including music by Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Eminem. "Think about it. Jimmy gave me Em's tape. Em gave me 50's. The rest is history."

Despite his success, Eminem still has detractors. Once criticized for writing misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, he recently has come under attack by the management of the Source, the nation's largest rap publication. Last month, the Source published an editorial accusing Eminem of being an unwitting puppet for white entertainment conglomerates scheming to usurp hip-hop from the minority groups that gave it birth.

Eminem said he doesn't care what critics say. Right now, he's busy trying to launch a career.

"50 Cent has star quality," Eminem said. "He's got the story. The lyrics. The flow. He's not afraid to experiment. And man, what about that drawl? It hits you."

In November, 50 Cent's "Wanksta" single (from the "8 Mile" soundtrack) shot to No. 5 at KPWR-FM, the highest-rated radio station in Los Angeles. In early December, 50 Cent's "In Da Club," the first Dre-produced track from the upcoming "Get Rich" album, began receiving airplay at KPWR and other stations across the nation.

But outside a Manhattan club on Dec. 31, the rapper was arrested. Police carted him and three associates off to jail after finding two loaded weapons and four bulletproof vests in their vehicle. 50 Cent pleaded not guilty to gun charges, and he and his associates remain free on bail.

Industry experts say the arrest is unlikely to interfere with the rapper's ascent in a business where successful acts have been charged with murder, assault and robbery. Privately, competitors speculate that the controversy could even boost sales.

"If you believe in God, you believe in fate," 50 Cent said. "You believe everything happens for a reason. After I got shot, I stopped worrying about trying to make records that sell and started making music to say things I want to say. To go from where I began to where I am now, man, it's inspiring. It helps people where I come from to realize anything is possible."

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