After reading Robert Greene's The 50th Law, I wanted to learn more about the life of Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson from the man himself.
So I ordered his autobiography, "From Pieces to Weight", which is focused mainly on his days as a drug dealer and gangster in Southside Queens, New York. His entry into the music industry and rise to fame is left until the end of the book. It's a shame; I'd have liked more details about how he applied the hustler's mindset to the rap music game. Still, there's a lot to be learned from both parts of his life story.
It turns out the drugs business is a lot like any other business. Marketing, finance, manufacturing and strategy all come into play. In addition, operating in a ruthless, Darwinian environment like the ghetto forced Fifty to be resourceful and scrappy to survive. Although I don't condone Fifty's behaviour in general, there's a lot to be learned from his approach.
Here's 4 lessons I took from his life story.
Lesson 1: Understand Your Master's Motivations (and your Master's Master's Motivations)
One of the funniest stories in the book was about how Fifty got out of rehab.
He was in rehab, not because he was doing drugs (most crack dealers won't touch their own product), but because, according to him, he'd ingested it by accident. In his own words, he'd be so busy cutting up and preparing crack that he wouldn't have time to wash his hands when he grabbed lunch. When Fifty and his partners were arrested, his partners were imprisoned, but the cocaine in Fifty's bloodstream got him sent to rehab for 18 months.
Fifty didn't enjoy being in rehab, mainly because, as a non-drug-user, he didn't appreciate being patronised by the stadd. Protestations that he didn't have a drug problem were seen as a failure to leave the "denial" stage. More patronising feel-good "support" from the genuine addicts didn't help. But Fifty eventually learned he'd have to play the game if he wanted to get out.
So he pretended to be an addict with a real desire to recover. He learned to speak the jargon of the programme, and he learned low-level conversation hacks that made him appear trustworthy and honest (like sheepishly looking at his shoes, then directly into the other person's eyes). Soon he was seen as a model patient, enlisted to support and mentor the other addicts.
His tricks worked because Fifty understood the motivations of the people with power over him. To the staff at the rehab centre, he looked like a good patient, and that was good enough. The centre's boss was more concerned with looking good to visiting politicians than whether the programme was truly effective.
That changed when the centre got a new boss. Suddenly, there was someone at the top who realised that the programme wasn't working. Sure, it looked like it was working, but it wasn't getting results. She began paying more attention to the addicts' progress, and she saw through Fifty's tricks. He was close to the end of his 18 months in rehab, but she suggested that his time there be extended.
The case was taken in front of a judge. Fifty brought his "model patient" A-game. She brought detailed evidence that the programme wasn't doing what it was supposed to, that the programme pumped addicts full of buzzwords and bullshit, but produced no results, and that this young man was an example. The judge didn't buy it. He didn't want to buy it. It was too inconvenient to be true.
He told the centre leader that she'd only been on the job for six weeks, and how, in that time, could she have found flaws in a programme that had been running successfully for years? He praised Fifty as a model patient, and ruled that he be released on schedule.
Within a day Fifty was back on the corner hustling.
Lesson 2: There's Less Competition For the Big Opportunities
At one point, Fifty and his partner were amongst a bunch of small-time crack dealers working the same estate, all competing for the custom of the same drug fiends. With so much competition, profits remained modest.
Then Fifty remembered a relative of the local drug kingpin, who a few years ago had succeeded -- if only for a brief period -- in taking over the drugs trade for the entire estate. The strategy was simple. Sell top quality crack at a low price, sacrificing short-term profits, but ensuring the fiends only want your product. Once that happens, suggest that the other dealers become your resellers. If they're still inclined to scratch out meagre profits as independents, a few armed threats might persuade them otherwise. (Business can be easier when you operate outside normal regulatory frameworks).
It was a simple strategy, but it required boldness and ambition. Any one of the other dealers could have attempted it. But they didn't. It was Fifty who realised that he had the resources and capabilities to pull it off. Taking over the neighbourhood wasn't easy, but it turned out easier than expected. Why? Because no-one else had the guts to try. There was no competition.
Selling drugs on the corner is doable, so everyone does it, so it's hard. Conquering the whole estate seems impossible, so no-one does it, so it's easy.
Lesson 3: Sometimes the Winning Move is Changing the Game
Fifty was finally moving up from small-time hustling to building a drugs empire, and making a name for himself as an aggressive gangster, someone not to be fucked with. But his life was never safe. The higher he rose, the bigger target he became.
He realised that there were few good endings to the drugs game. If by chance he didn't end up in jail or shot, even as a kingpin he'd be in constant danger. That's when he made the decision to switch to hip-hop.
It turned out he was quite good at rap. After years of hustling, he wasn't afraid to work hard, either, and this work ethic meant his music fast became really good. Strategic self-promotion and mixtape campaigns helped build his name when his record label repeatedly dropped the ball. A fortunate encounter with Eminem and Dr Dre was his big break, and he took advantage of it, moving to their label and rapidly rising from obscurity to international super-stardom.
And of course, he made far more money along the way than he ever would have selling drugs.
One frustrating thing about the book was that Fifty doesn't go into much detail about his rise to fame. It only takes up a few chapters. But then again, I've read a few autobiographies like that. Malcolm X's autobiography involves years spent as a petty criminal, and then he quits and joins the Nation of Islam. It turns out he's pretty good at building a movement -- and BOOM, soon he's the organisation's number two guy and an international political figure.
So I suspect that lots of success might be just as rapid. You get someone who's floundering and struggling for years, trying to win at the wrong game. Then they switch to the right game, and BOOM. Rapid success.
Lesson 4: Consolidate
This isn't a lesson I learned directly from Fifty's life story -- rather, he made the major mistake of not consolidating, and it almost killed his rap career before it started. Let's trace the steps backwards to see where he went wrong...
How was his rap career almost killed? When Fifty himself was almost killed, shot 9 times by a drive-by assassin.
Why was he shot? He'd pissed off too many people, and most notably, lost the favour of the local drugs kingpin, so he wasn't protected.
How did he fall from favour? The kingpin had tried to engineer a meeting between Fifty and a rival dealer, but Fifty didn't attend the meeting. He was too busy trying to build his music career.
If he was moving into music, why was he still involved in the ghetto? This is the key part. Fifty had tried to make a clean break from the drugs game. But when the record company repeatedly dropped the ball, he found himself low on funds (at one point he was forced to live with his mother-in-law) and so was pulled back into hustling.
If he was a drug dealer, why was he so short on money? He'd blown the profits made from dealing on cars, clothes, jewellery -- he wanted to look good. He'd assumed he be dealing forever, and so hadn't bothered to keep any savings.
This, here, is the fatal mistake. If Fifty had put some money aside during his years of hustling, if he'd consolidated his gains just a little, he'd have been able to quit drug dealing for good when he made the move into music. But he didn't, and he was forced to to stand half-way between the two worlds. Hustling didn't work, couldn't work, as a part-time commitment, and it almost got him killed.
I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies, so I write more of these "life lessons" posts. I've just finished Steve Jobs biography and I'm working through a book about the Medicis, so they'll probably be next.