Back when Curtis James Jackson III was working an outer-borough corner — and before the South Jamaica resident became rap star/movie star/business mogul 50 Cent — he saw a lot of power plays and pole positioning go down among some would-be street kingpins. Compared to some of the sharks he's encountered in boardrooms, however, those guys in the drug game seemed like amateurs. "Oh man, on a corporate level — I've seen more ruthless moves made in black and white on a piece of paper than I've seen on the streets of my old neighborhood," 50 says. "Buying up someone's market share is not the same as killing someone on the avenues, but it's still violent."
That notion of going Sun Tzu on your enemies whether you're on the block or in a business meeting is a big part of Power, the new TV series that 50 executive-produced and helped develop with showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh (The Good Wife) for the Starz Network. Focusing on a nightclub owner named James "Ghost" St. Patrick (played by Omari Hardwick) who can't duck his drug-dealing past, it's a sleek-looking cable drama, complete with a morally confused antihero, graphic violence and the sort of get-rich-or-die-tryin' narrative you'd expect from the hip-hop legend. Calling in from Sacramento ("I'm just chillin' in the Bay Area, playin' a Summer Jam concert and hanging out with some friends") a few months before the show's June 7th premiere, 50 walked us through Power's creation, his cable-TV takeover and why no one should confuse him for Ghost.
Where did the idea for Power come from?
You ever heard of Robert Greene's book The 48 Laws of Power?
"Never outshine the master," "When you destroy, destroy completely" — man, you gotta pick it up. Anyway, the things that he describes, these laws that don't just apply to business moguls; if you look at any successful person, the drive is all coming from a person's passion for something. So my thought was: What would happen if you filtered these ideas through the story of someone coming up through urban culture? What would that look like?
Like a small-screen version of Scarface?
People look at Tony Montana, and they think, oh, everybody wants all the stuff he has. No, there's an obsession with Scarface because it's about a guy who came up from the bottom and he made it. He came here and he conquered. That's the American dream. That's what Ghost is after. That's what everybody is after.
You originally developed this as something you were going to star in, right?
Yeah, I was going to play Ghost. The plan was that I'd be all over this; in fact, when Courtney and I first started working on the idea, I was so excited by brainstorming that I immediately went out and wrote 12 songs — one of which was the theme "Big Rich Town."
Are some of those songs on the new album, Animal Ambition?
Some are, yeah; the stuff that I originally wrote and gave to Courtney, those were more inspired by Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack…I was trying to go for that old, Seventies soul feeling. But she ended listening to them while she was writing the series, so a lot of the feel of it worked its way in there. Anyway, the more I saw what kind of time commitment the network was asking for, the more I thought maybe I should go for something smaller acting-wise here. I see myself a lot in movies and on TV, performing music on shows…I'd rather have a hit show where I don't have to watch myself all the time. I see more than enough of myself, trust me. [Laughs]
So you took the dad character instead?
Man, my character is the worst person in the show. I don't want to say too much, but…let's just say there's more going on there than you'd think. I'll leave it at that.
Did you develop this originally as a show for Starz?
It's funny, they had something similar [in development] — and after we pitched this to them, Chris [Albrecht, Starz CEO] got rid of it to bring us on. He felt this was the right show, so we worked on it and got it done. After we got the greenlight, it felt like everything happened pretty comfortably after that. Courtney might have something different to say about that, since she may have had some conflicts — or she might just be politically correct and say everything's cool. I knew she was stressing, though. [Laughs]
It is a lot different working with a network and calling the shots on a show than it is making an album, isn't it?
Me, I wouldn't be good with taking notes from the network…you know, you pitch a show, they say ok, you make it, and they go, "It's perfect. We love it. Now go change it…." [Laughs] It's like, oh, this is the new show we're going to make now? You hire a bunch of writers, you work on it until it's exactly right — and then you change it. That's what you're stuck with, unless you're crazy like me and you decide to just finance it. [Laughs]
The show takes place in a nightclub, but it feels like it works off a hip-hop narrative — the whole street-to-the-penthouse arc that Ghost goes through, even if he can't leave the street behind.
I don't think that's exclusive to the hip-hop community. I mean, yeah, you have a number of people who are coming from a low-income environment and are making decisions based on financial restraints. That certainly affected a lot of the decisions I made early on in my life before I got into music; there's a reason that there's a consistent theme in the hip-hop community that's basically "If it ain't about money, it ain't about shit," you know what I mean? [Laughs] It's easy to see those higher levels of living when you don't have them.
It's all about the choice that you make when you're presented with two options: Do I stick with the streets or do I try and move upward? Ghost, he could have been successful doing whatever he put his mind to; it just so happened that he made a decision back in his high school years to go the criminal route, and he made his name that way.
People are going to look at this show's hero who did certain things to get where he's at and, given your backstory, draw certain autobiographical parallels. Are you cool with that?
You mean do I think people are going to be like, "Is this Get Rich or Die Tryin' but in a nightclub?" [Laughs]
I get it, but I mean…I'm not Ghost. This isn't my story. I mean, I don't know that this show is reflective of the struggles that I've gone through, or you know, am going through now. There's a project that I'm working on with Peter Tolan that will get into that…it's about how the media blows things up, and it's a comedy. That gets into some crazy facts-are-stranger-than-fiction stuff.
But Power is more like…let me put it to you this way. Hollywood is like fashion: It recycles itself. No one has remade The Godfather, or King of New York, or New Jack City, because they don't think they'd be hits now. But on TV, you can do something like The Wire or The Sopranos, and they're hits. People figured out that TV is where this stuff is happening. Movie stars stopped looking down on TV. So that's what we're doing. We're helping to fill that hole.
You think you would have done Power if cable TV hadn't become the place for the next Godfather, etc?
Not at the level of quality I wanted to do this at, no. We wanted this to look legit. It's for damn sure this ain't I Got Da Hook Up! Nothing against Master P or anything, but you know… [Laughs]