Despite what preconceived notions you may have of 50 Cent from his music, you can't argue his success. He's been behind multi-platinum selling records, made a smart investment in Vitamin Water (that paid off when it was later purchased by Coca-Cola), and most recently launched his own line of celebrity headphones (SMS headphones). Being successful in one market is tough and doesn't necessarily guarantee success in another. But repeated success, however, is never by accident. I sat down recently with 50 at this year's CES — not just to discuss the latest SMS headphones, but to learn what it takes to be successful, and what encouraged him to recently take up photography.
Behind a locked room just by the SMS booth at CES sits Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent. I'm in line waiting to interview him, a bit anxious to meet someone behind many songs I listened to through high school, but also in a state of wonder. "How many times have I walked by booths like these completely unsuspecting that the person behind the product is literally behind the products on display?"
50 Cent isn't what you might expect, at least he wasn't quite what I expected. He was very approachable, engaging, and the kind of guy who pats you on the leg or the shoulder as he talks to you — as if you've been good friends for a while. I start by asking him how SMS (the headphone company he started) came to be. He begins by telling me about his appreciation for the idea of listening to music the way it was intended.
"For me the mastering process of the material I create is way longer than the actual creative process of developing the content. I'll make a song and then try and sit there to make sure it sounds perfect. The work part of making music is that. For people to hear music on things that don't have the ability to play the subtleties kills the whole concept and idea of it...and that's why it makes a lot of sense that people from music are passionate and wanting to be involved in this category...to the point where it's become almost a standard now."
He tells me how a lot of artists simply sign licensing agreements — taking a few pictures and then escaping out of the fold. Naturally the popularity of 50 Cent, made him someone that other companies would target for similar brand association.
"The finances from touring, and the other companies working with me, made me financially able to start and enter a realm of freedom. An artist is interested in his actual creativity and his actual ideas. Having the finances to make them happen without waiting for someone else...that gratification is amazing. So I'm kind of living a dream sequence right now. This is my third time at CES, the first time I just had a 3D rendering of what I wanted the headsets to look like, then I acquired Kono Audio to make my business for SMS work. The toughest part of these projects are finding the right people to work with"
I then asked 50 Cent how he found the right people to work with.
"A big part of being successful is being a good judge of character. You have to have people knowledgeable enough in different areas to find who is going to be the right person to specialize in the other. You got to do it in pieces. Imagine this, you're a journalist and my friend knows something about journalism. I'm going to bring him with me when I meet with you so he can throw things out there — to see what you know, and what you don't know. Then I can assess if you're the kind of person I want to be involved with. 'Did he impress me or did he not impress me?' After going through the process you feel like you accumulate the people that are the right team and then full steam ahead."
What about SMS' recent partnership with Timbaland. What capacity is Timbaland going to be involved with the creative process?
"Timberland is the other producer I work with outside of Dre...[in music] I use them as sound boards. I'll go create what my album is and then bring it and play it for them to put pressure on them to give me something better than I already have. Creatively they'll listen and they want to be the best. [Timbaland] financially invested in SMS audio — and got some equity / ownership in the company — so that he can help me with the signature sound. Obviously we'll use professional acoustic engineers to get it to the right place but if I'm in a space that I feel like I have two that are the best, I'll go 'OK, here you decide.' Then Timb can listen in and we'll go from there...his ear for it can help us pick the right things."
It's perhaps a little known fact that 50 Cent is also someone who has taken up the hobby of photography. I asked him how he came into that field.
"I traveled my first 3 albums...I got a huge map inside my office and I put push pins in each one of the locations I had been. So if I was in Germany I'd say I want to go to Copenhagen, because there was no pin in that area on the map. When I say I'm a world touring artist I wanted to mean it, and feel like I've been everywhere. So I opened markets in Africa, Kosovo, and Croatia, just to say 'yeah, I've toured everywhere.' The excitement of getting back and looking at the actual map was cool but I didn't have anything to hold onto or remember the actual time period. So a photo album would have been a lot more effective of the actual experience...seeing how you changed...how the style changed over that period...your haircut...your energy. The Vitamin Water staff gave me some photography lessons and it went from there."
With 50 Cent being someone who has literally toured the world, I asked him what his favorite destination is.
"New York is home. Away from that...(he pauses and thinks for a moment)...London. It's like the other version of NY. Los Angeles is also cool because they are used to seeing celebrities. So there's not the same reaction to it — you get a chance to fall back and relax."
Someone signals to me that my time with 50 Cent is just about up, so I ask him one more question. I ask him how he uses his SMS headphones throughout the day. He points to the Street by 50 models (showcased in new colors that will debut this spring).
"I use those. These [headphones] fold up and are portable. This morning I got up at like 6:30am and went to the gym and used them early there but everyday my shift changes. Under different circumstances I'll be traveling and...getting in a car from a plane."
Pointing to the new active noise-canceling headphones recently debuted at CES...
"I haven't traveled with the noise canceling ones yet, they don't want me walking around with them because we just unveiled those here at the CES [sitting back and laughing]. Notice I said 'they didn't allow me?' I'm supposed to own the place but I still need to listen to people."
And on this note we concluded the interview, and I left with more appreciation of what 50 Cent has been able to accomplish, and how savvy he has been in the business world — able to make the right calls on who he should work with and who he should listen to.
SMS Headphones are available in a variety of models and feature Kleer technology that boasts the ability to stream music uncompressed and to 4 units at once. A portion of the proceeds will go to Feeding America a charity that aims to fight hunger.
I listened to the Street by 50 headphones and left very impressed. The sound quality is great, and in my opinion delivers more clear and crisp highs than the popular Beats by Dre line. If you're in the market for headphones in this category, I think they're definitely worth a listen.
Thanks to 50 Cent and SMS Audio!
(Images: Chris Perez)