YOU’D be forgiven for judging the paperback novella “The Ski Mask Way” by its cover.
The book’s jacket artwork depicts a muscle-bound thug stripped to the waist to reveal a tapestry of tattoos: a skull, a spider and the word “Un Broken” etched across his pectorals in gothic font. Flanked by the silhouette of prison bars, he clutches a woolen balaclava, leaving little doubt as to the shoot’em-up literature within.
“Let’s get that money the fast way -- the ski mask way,” one character says to another, handing him a sawed-off shotgun.
Then there’s its title. “The Ski Mask Way” is also the name of a rap song by 50 Cent, a polarizing hip-hop superstar who is no stranger to the criminal mind-set. His past as a crack dealer, thrice-convicted drug offender and drive-by shooting survivor are key to his streetwise mythos, helping to sell more than 20 million albums worldwide and propel his 2005 memoir “From Pieces to Weight” onto the bestseller list for eight weeks.
The Queens, N.Y., native is listed as co-author of “The Ski Mask Way.” But more important, he is its publisher, under a deal with MTV and the Pocket Books division of Simon & Schuster that launched G-Unit Books late last year, making him hip-hop’s first book publishing magnate. January saw the imprint’s initial offering, a trio of “hip-hop novels” -- “The Ski Mask Way,” “Baby Brother” and “Death Before Dishonor” -- the rapper wrote with other popular genre writers, respectively, K. Elliott, Noire and Nikki Turner.
Now, G-Unit is poised to become the most high profile purveyor of a hot-selling literary genre sometimes called “urban fiction” or “street lit” that has steadily increased its cultural presence over the last half-decade.
Reading like a mash-up of Quentin Tarantino movies and N.W.A lyrics, Danielle Steel-esque sexploits and gritty urban verite a la HBO’s crime drama “The Wire,” the category has been responsible for millions of book sales each year. The books, which retail for about $12, have stayed off most bestseller lists, however, thanks to a quirk in the way those lists are compiled: They do not tally books sold at street vendors, mall outlets or music stores, where street lit sales are strong.
The genre overlaps with hard-core hip-hop, similarly glorifying gun violence, drug dealing, pimp-ho identity politics and porn-worthy sex -- sometimes all within the space of a single page. That’s why some African American literary fiction writers and scholars say street lit has eroded the market for serious black literature. Novelist Nick Chiles wrote in a widely discussed New York Times op-ed piece last year that it was “as if these nasty books were pairing off in the stockrooms like little paperback rabbits and churning out even more graphic offspring that make Ralph Ellison books cringe into a dusty corner.”
James Fugate stocks plenty of urban fiction at Eso Won Books, Southern California’s preeminent black bookstore. But he is no fan of the category. “I think it has a negative effect on a lot of young black people,” said Fugate, the store’s co-owner. “They want to believe in this view of the world: that it takes crime to get over and that the system is against them.”
As 50 Cent (government name: Curtis Jackson III) sees it, street lit captures the yin-yang of gangsta nihilism and ghettofabulous excess. “It’s the perfect merger of literature and hip-hop,” he said by cellphone, traveling across New York City in a chauffeur-driven car. “It’s a huge opportunity because no one else is in a position to create this kind of venture.”
Write it, sing about it, sell it
WHICH is to say that the rapper, 31, is using his publishing clout and street cred to cross-promote a dazzling array of branded goods and intellectual properties. Other rappers signed to 50’s G-Unit/Interscope record label make frequent cameos in the books; mentions of his Glaceau Mineral Water line, video games, Reebok shoes and G-Unit streetwear collection abound. Reciprocally, the rapper gives shout-outs to G-Unit Books in his songs.
Publishing industry sources say the books have been flying off the shelves, so far. And at a cultural moment in which rappers are shilling everything from wireless networks to air fresheners, 50 Cent’s expansion of G-Unit has made him the “gangster-style Oprah” in the opinion of Vibe magazine Editor in Chief Danyel Smith. “There’s a whole generation of people who feel underserved by the types of books that are often categorized as ‘mainstream,’ ” Smith said. “50 and his management team are going to exploit that and hopefully serve some readers at the same time. From a marketing perspective, I think it’s genius.”
Coke war collaboration
THE G-Unit novella “Death Before Dishonor” tells the story of two star-crossed -- and pistol packing -- lovers: Trill Johnson, a crime gang leader caught up in a dangerous turf war with a Cuban cocaine trafficker, and Sunni James, a no-nonsense ex-con beauty salon owner who falls in love with Trill while he is on the run from police.
The book’s co-author, Turner (a bestselling urban fiction star who, like many in the genre, started out self-publishing her books), met 50 Cent only twice over the course of their collaboration. As with his other co-authors, they brainstormed the book’s plot line, then he made editorial suggestions to the finished galley. He is the first to admit his input isn’t “writing,” per se.
“I didn’t want to stand over the writers’ shoulders,” 50 said. “I can come up with a great concept for a book and have them take it to the next level based on their talent in the field.”
Urban fiction’s runaway popularity has resulted in a glutted marketplace; nowadays, bookstore shelves heave under the offerings from several hundred recognized street lit authors. Turner says she jumped at the chance to share authorial credit with 50 Cent in part because his devoted fan base guaranteed a strong first edition run.
“When I first started out, I was selling books out of the trunk of my car,” said Turner. “Being able to write with 50 validates me to the hip-hop community. And what he raps about, I write about.”
But it’s unlikely G-Unit Books would exist without the efforts of the rapper’s literary agent, Marc Gerald. In the late ‘90s, he was editor of Old School Books, a division of W.W. Norton that reissued books from the first wave of street lit: ‘70s titles like Iceberg Slim’s “Pimp: The Story of My Life” and Donald Goines’ “Daddy Cool” that conjoined revolutionary African American racial politics with harsh urban realities. And since then, Gerald has tirelessly championed the new wave of street lit.
After brokering the deal with MTV and Pocket Books to publish 50 Cent’s memoir, Gerald convinced the rapper and his manager, Chris Lighty, that a G-Unit publishing arm could capitalize on what the agent described as a “completely neglected” book-buying audience. And again, Pocket Books was eager to go into business with them.
Gerald makes no bones about publishing pulp fiction. “It’s entertainment at the end of the day,” he said. “Historically, black books have had a heavy burden. They were meant to uplift the race -- to speak to some larger social issue. It wasn’t something you could kick back and enjoy like a Stephen King book. These books have been under the radar because they don’t try to be more than they are.”
EXCEPT, of course, when it comes to the books’ promotional tie-ins.
An impressive array of G-Unit branded goods as well as various rappers signed to 50 Cent’s G-Unit/Interscope record label pop up in G-Unit Books -- the same kind of product placement used to defray costs in many big budget movies.
Such hucksterism is hardly subtle.
“The crowd came in sellout numbers. Lloyd Banks from G-Unit was one of the MCs,” reads a passage in “Death Before Dishonor.” Later, two guys named Mannie and Moe “were laid back playing 50 Cent: Bulletproof on a PlayStation in another bedroom.”
A scene in “The Ski Mask Way,” meanwhile, puts the rapper’s brand-building efforts in perspective: “Squeeze put in a G-Unit mix tape and pulled off in a hurry ... ‘Hell, that nigga Fifty is getting his marbles. They can hate if they want to, but he has an empire -- clothes, music, video games, Vitamin Water ...’ Seven said.”
According to 50 Cent, a high school dropout who Forbes magazine described as a “masterful brand-builder and a shrewd businessman,” it’s all about synergy.
“You got RBK spending marketing dollars on promoting a shoe, you got G-Unit clothing, you got G-Unit/Interscope allocating marketing dollars for the record company. And I’m cross-marketing all of it into the new projects with the books,” he said. “It totally ties together.”
As with “The Ski Mask Way,” the rapper said he plans to name other books after his songs -- and vice versa. “Now that I’m up and running, I can have the book be released simultaneously with the music,” he explained. “From a marketing perspective, it’s explosive.”
Louise Burke, Pocket Books executive vice president of publishing, said the decision to distribute G-Unit Books was a no-brainer: 50 Cent had already written a bestseller for the imprint and his marketing reach was beyond reproach. Still, the scale of his ambitions made the MC unique among Pocket Books authors. “He had this great idea that he particularly wanted to get young male readers to start reading,” she said. “He also expects to make films of these books -- that’s one of the reasons he entered into this venture. It’s a long-term project for him.”
That includes branching G-Unit Books beyond street lit. Next February, the rapper will release “The 50th Law,” a hardcover business manual he is co-authoring with Robert Greene, the bestselling power politics guru whose 1998 personal strategy guide “The 48 Laws of Power” has become a must-read for rappers and urban music executives. The book will attempt to draw parallels between the kind of Machiavellian skullduggery examined in Greene’s earlier book, American corporate culture and the street hustler mentality to which the rapper credits his success.
“I don’t see any limits,” 50 Cent said. “I’ve already come so far from where I’m from, there’s no one in the world that can convince me that something’s impossible.”