The Number Ones

March 8, 2003

The Number Ones: 50 Cent’s “In Da Club”

Stayed at #1:

9 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

If you bought 50 Cent’s debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ on the day that it came out, as so many of us did, then you probably got the version of the album with a bonus DVD in the plastic behind the CD. That DVD didn’t have anything special. It was just a cheaply produced documentary about 50 Cent’s rise, with the same information that a great many magazine profiles also included around the same time. But the menu-screen music for the DVD was Dr. Dre and Mike Elizondo’s towering beat for the single “In Da Club” — that unstoppable instrumental on an endless loop.

When Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ came out in February 2003, it wasn’t like you had to go out of your way to hear that “In Da Club” beat. I probably heard bits and pieces of Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ dozens of times a day without even meaning to. The album seemed to be playing from the open windows of every passing car. Every time I rode the bus, someone would yell lyrics from “Many Men” or “What Up Gangsta.” (It usually wasn’t me.) More than any other album that I can remember, Get Rich was simply part of the air. It conquered the public space quickly and mercilessly. But even with that all-pervading presence, I could not get enough of the “In Da Club” instrumental. I would put the DVD on, leave it on the menu screen, and go about my day. I would let it soak into me. It didn’t get old. It still hasn’t gotten old.

The “In Da Club” beat did not sound like rap music in the way that I knew rap music to exist. At the time, Dr. Dre was on a huge career upswing in large part because of the way he’s reinvented his production as something colossal and laser-precise. That’s the Dre that you can hear on tracks like Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair.” But the “In Da Club” beat was even bigger than that. “In Da Club” was vast and urgent and dramatic, and it was also sharp and focused and locked-in. It was James Bond music, Jason Bourne music, Ethan Hunt music. It was music for jumping from an exploding helicopter onto the back of a moving train. That was the quality that Philip Atwell, future director of the Jet Li/Jason Statham joint War, foregrounded with the “In Da Club” video.

The “In Da Club” clip opens like a Michael Bay movie. A Hummer winds its way down twisty desert roads as sickly green computer-font chyrons loudly appear on screen, identifying the location: “Somewhere… Shady/Aftermath Artist Development Center.” There, Dr. Dre and Eminem, both in white lab coats, overlook a sci-fi laboratory, where technicians are building a robotic 50 Cent. When 50 reappears, he’s hanging upside down from the ceiling, electrodes all over his muscled-up torso. Scientists watch 50 run, lift weights, and record songs. We see 50 and his friends in a club, but that club turns out to be part of this cavernous, secretive scientific experiment. The implication is that Dre and Eminem have built their own rap version of Drago or the Terminator — the impossible perfect specimen, painstakingly programmed to put the rap game in a chokehold.

In truth, 50 Cent was something better than this futuristic android. Like Dre and Eminem before him, 50 was the right rapper at the right time — the readymade titan who changed the game immediately upon arrival. 50 simply couldn’t be stopped. He felt inevitable. In 50, the world met a charming rogue with a superhero physique and a movie-star smile. He was New York to the bone, but his music, thanks to a rare and impossible-to-replicate combination of factors, transcended the regionalism that’s always been a key part of rap’s power. He rapped with a hard vengefulness while mastering the art of the sticky singsong chorus. And he had the kind of lurid, bloody pulp-fiction backstory that no rap scientist could’ve invented.

He’d been shot nine times. That was the first thing that anyone knew. At the VMAs that year, Chris Rock made a repeated punchline out of it: “He got shot nine times.” Those bullets were intended to kill 50. They failed, and they turned 50 into a myth. That weird little dimple on the side of his face? Bullet wound. That slurry, almost-Southern delivery? The result of the bullet fragment still lodged in his tongue. On “In Da Club,” 50 drew explicit attention to his own wounds: “Been hit with a few shells, but I don’t walk with a limp.” After that line, he added a casual ad-lib: “I’m aight.” It sounded like he’d immediately jumped back up and brushed himself off. Somehow, having his body riddled with bullets had made 50 Cent stronger — a more marketable figure and a better rapper.

The reality was a whole lot more traumatic than that image. The shooting left 50 in the hospital for weeks and using a cane for months, and it was was merely the latest trauma in a lifetime full of them. Curtis Jackson grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, the son of an absent father and a drug-dealer mother. (When 50 was born, the Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was the #1 song in America.) In the ’80s, when 50 was a kid, that part of Queens was a crack hotbed, and his mother was part of the crew surrounding the local kingpin Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols. When 50 was eight, his mother was murdered — poisoned, with the gas left on in her home.

After his mother’s death, the young 50 Cent moved in with his grandparents, and he fell under the spell of the local crack-dealing crews. 50 has said that he was about 10 when he first started dealing. The young 50 sold crack and heroin. His grandparents didn’t know what he was up to. In the early ’90s, 50 was arrested a couple of times, and he did sentences in youth detention centers and boot camps. Eventually, he started writing raps as a spare-time activity, and he named himself after Kelvin “50 Cent” Martin, a notorious Brooklyn stickup kid who was murdered in 1987, when he was 23. When Curtis Jackson chose 50 Cent’s name, it was a kind of signal. 50 Cent wanted to let the world know that he was just as reckless and dangerous as the original 50 Cent.

In the late ’90s, the young 50 Cent came to the attention of Jam Master Jay, the DJ for the Queens rap legends Run-DMC. (Run-DMC’s highest-charting single, the 1986 Aerosmith cover/collab “Walk This Way,” peaked at #4. It’s a 5.) JMJ was the Run-DMC member who’d been deepest in the streets before the group took off. In the ’90s, when Run-DMC’s commercial fortunes flagged, JMJ dabbled in drug sales, occasionally shipping cocaine into New York. Jay also remained in Queens and launched his own record label. He’s the guy who discovered the Queens group Onyx, refashioned them from club kids into screaming baldheaded roughnecks, and turned them into stars. Jam Master Jay also co-produced Onyx’s signature song “Slam,” a #4 hit in 1993. (It’s a 9.)

Jam Master Jay was looking for new artists when he met 50 Cent, and he helped mold 50 from a raw street rapper into a musician, showing him how to write hooks and structure songs. JMJ also gave 50 his first big look, inviting him rap a verse on Onyx’s 1998 single “React.” In the hockey-themed “React” video, we see a young 50 in the penalty box, looking and sounding very little like the guy who would conquer the charts five years later.

Jam Master Jay mentored 50 Cent, but he never landed 50 a deal. Instead, 50 started working with Curtis “Slim” Williams, a onetime bank-robbery specialist, and Williams became 50’s manager. In 1999, the Trackmasters, the pop-friendly rap production duo, signed 50 to their Columbia imprint, and 50 started recording Power Of The Dollar, which was supposed to be his debut album. 50 made his on-record debut with “How To Rob,” a song that appeared on the soundtrack to the 1999 movie In Too Deep. “How To Rob” instantly made 50 infamous. Over a Trackmasters beat, 50 described all the ways that he would rob the biggest rappers and R&B singers of the day. The song is mordantly funny, and it got 50 a whole lot of attention, which means that it did its job. I first heard of 50 Cent as the guy who kept getting dissed on Jay-Z and Ghostface Killah records.

50 Cent especially delighted in going after fellow Queens rapper Ja Rule, and the two of them beefed, both on and off-record, for years. In a recording studio brawl, the Murder Inc. rapper Black Child stabbed 50 Cent, and 50 was treated for a partially collapsed lung. 50 also incurred the wrath of a lot of dangerous people with his song “Ghetto Qu’ran,” a panoramic portrait of the Queens drug kingpins of the ’80s. One of those kingpins was Murder Inc. ally Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, who was apparently furious when he heard his name on the song.

In May of 2000, 50 was shot nine times outside his house. It was two months before Power Of The Dollar was supposed to come out, and it was a couple of days before 50 was supposed to shoot a video for his Destiny’s Child collaboration “Thug Love.” A few years later, 50 Cent identified his shooter on record: “In the Bible, it says, ‘What goes around comes around’/ Hommo shot me; three weeks later, he got shot down/ Now it’s clear that I’m here, for a real reason/ ‘Cause he got hit like I got hit, but he ain’t fucking breathing.” Sure enough, Darryl “Hommo” Baum, a Brooklyn stickup kid and former Mike Tyson bodyguard, was murdered a few weeks after 50’s shooting.

Most of these anecdotes about 50 Cent’s street life come from Queens Reigns Supreme, Ethan Brown’s gripping 2005 book about the intersections between Queens drug gangs and the borough’s rappers. After that book’s publication, though, I watched a former Supreme associate testify that Supreme had ordered 50’s shooting. This was in the Irv Gotti money laundering trial, and Irv’s lawyer successfully argued that the testimony was both sensationalistic and irrelevant to the trial, that it should be thrown out: “It’s like a plot to assassinate Bob Dylan.”

50 Cent survived the shooting, but Power Of The Dollar did not. Columbia execs, apparently worried that 50 wouldn’t survive or that the violence surrounding him would come to threaten them, dropped 50 from the label. They had reason to fear. 50 came from an undeniably violent background, and music-business success was no guarantee of safety. In October 2002, 50’s former mentor Jam Master Jay was murdered execution-style in his Queens studio. JMJ’s killing remains unsolved.

While recovering from his shooting, 50 Cent traveled to Toronto to record when no New York studios would let him book time. Without a label, 50 Cent turned to mixtapes. Before 50 Cent, mixtapes were generally DJ mixes that would sometimes include exclusives, like rappers freestyling over beats from other rappers’ songs. Those tapes — or, by the early ’00s, CDs — would then be sold in the same grey-market street stalls that sold bootleg albums. 50 Cent was one of the early practitioners of the single-artist mixtape, essentially an album made for the street. In 2002, 50 made himself an underground legend with the tapes Guess Who’s Back? and 50 Cent Is The Future. Guess Who’s Back? had new songs and unreleased Power Of The Dollar tracks. 50 Cent Is The Future showcased 50’s G-Unit crew and mostly took beats from other people’s hit songs. Both were word-of-mouth cult sensations.

After the mixtape blitz, someone was going to sign 50 Cent, and that someone turned out to be Eminem. Em loved Guess Who’s Back?, and he flew 50 out to Los Angeles to meet Dr. Dre. Eminem and Dre signed 50 to Shady and Aftermath, giving him a million-dollar advance. After signing the deal, 50 released his No Mercy, No Fear mixtape. That tape included “Wanksta,” a hypnotic and sardonic track that took aim at 50’s old adversary Ja Rule. Eminem put “Wanksta” on the 8 Mile soundtrack, and he made sure that 50 was all over the soundtrack album. “Wanksta” came out as a single, and it became a #13 hit.

The stage was set. After all that, 50 Cent’s debut album was always going to be huge. The album also turned out to be great. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ is a near-masterpiece of snarling malevolence. 50 raps about street-life exploits without speaking in code, which served to make his criminal tales legible to just about anyone. With his devil-may-care confidence and his slurry singsong delivery, 50 was just magnetic. The beats, many of which came from Dre and his in-house production team, made 50 sound like he was a hundred feet tall. Eminem didn’t overdo his involvement in the album, but whenever he and 50 rapped together, they found an unlikely chemistry. They sounded like they really liked each other, like they were united in some dark purpose.

50 Cent always performed disdain better than just about any other rapper; he reacted to the lameness of his detractors with a mixture of disgust and amusement. He was always more comfortable talking about violence than anything else, but he knew that he had to talk about other stuff, too. “In Da Club” had started out as an instrumental from Dr. Dre and his regular collaborator Mike Elizondo. (Elizondo, who also co-wrote and co-produced Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair,” went on to produce some records that I really love, like Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and Turnstile’s Glow On. Hell of a career.) The “In Da Club” beat was supposed to be an 8 Mile song for Eminem’s D12 crew, but the group wasn’t sure how to approach the track, and it didn’t make the soundtrack.

When 50 Cent heard the “In Da Club” beat, he immediately asked for a notepad. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Mike Elizondo says, “He wrote it, verses and choruses, in an hour. He recorded the bulk of his vocals that night as he wrote. While he was writing, we started laying the idea to Pro Tools and built the track.” Dr. Dre was surprised that 50 decided to write about partying to that monster beat, and that tension is a huge part of the appeal of “In Da Club.” The beat sounds like explosions and car chases and international espionage, and rather than rapping about some epic criminal exploit, 50 uses it to describe a casual night out. He leaves most of the violence implied, though he’ll still go upside your head with a bottle of bub.

50 Cent’s delivery on “In Da Club” is a playful in-the-pocket singsong, and everything that he says sounds like a hook. The opening chant — “Go! Go! Go!” — could’ve appeared on any number of late-’80s or early-’90s hip-house tracks. When 50 starts talking about “it’s your birthday,” he’s using an old playground chant that had appeared on “It’s Your Birthday,” a 1994 track from 2 Live Crew leader Luke. Luke’s former lawyer, the owner of that copyright, tried to sue over the chant, but a judge threw it out, using the entirely sound reasoning that the phrase wasn’t copyright-protected. (Luke’s highest-charting single, the 1990 2 Live Crew collab “Banned In The USA,” peaked at #20.)

Most of the “In Da Club” lyrics are almost laughably simple. 50 shouts out some of his new friends and supporters: Dre, Eminem, Xzibit. 50’s got the X if you into taking drugs. He’s into having sex; he ain’t into making love. In the hood in LA, they saying, “50, you hot.” They like him; he wants them to love him like they love Pac. His flow, his show brought him the dough. They brought him all his fancy things. His crib, his cars, his jewels. Look, homie, he done came up, and he ain’t changed. He’s gonna tell you what Banks told him: Cuz, go ‘head, switch the style up. If they hate, then let ’em hate, and watch the money pile up.

In those lyrics, 50 Cent also also uses a homophobic slur that was an unfortunate part of early-’00s rap vernacular. I don’t even know what to say about that. Did 50 mean any malice by it? Sure. 50 meant malice with everything. The malice wasn’t specifically directed at gay people, but he definitely didn’t care if he accidentally targeted anyone. A few songs that will appear in this column, songs I love, use that particular slur. Maybe I’ve learned to tune that out through sheer force of habit. That’s age, and that’s privilege; I haven’t extended the same courtesy to a lot of older songs with unconscious politics that piss me off. On the rare occasions when current rappers use that word, it turns my stomach, but I can hear that word on a 20-year-old song without blinking an eye. So yeah, I’m a hypocrite.

Beyond that one particular word, “In Da Club” walks an invisible line. It’s tough but smooth. It’s loud but seductive. It’s dazzlingly catchy in a way that never compromises its hardness. 50 Cent was not the first street-rapper to score a #1 hit, but he might’ve been the first to make a #1 hit that didn’t sound like it was shooting for crossover status. At least in that Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ era, 50’s pop instincts and his criminal focus rarely seemed to interfere with one another. Instead, it sounded like his mercenary hustler mentality was the same drive that led him to make hits. And “In Da Club” was an all-time monster hit.

With Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and “In Da Club,” 50 Cent had both the #1 album and the #1 single of 2003. Get Rich, released a few days early to combat bootleggers, sold nearly 900,000 copies in its first week. In its second week, it moved another 800,000. It was a true blockbuster record, a world-conqueror. Maybe that’s why 50 never came off as Eminem’s protege. Right away, he was the man’s equal. By the time “In Da Club” fell out of the #1 spot, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was already quadruple platinum, and it wasn’t anywhere near done selling. “In Da Club” never went away. 50 Cent popped up at the Super Bowl Halftime Show earlier this year, rapping “In Da Club” while hanging upside down, the way he’d once done in the video. He didn’t look quite so comfortable these days. Like the song, 50 Cent stuck around. We’ll soon see more of him in this column.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: D12 had the “In Da Club” beat first, and they didn’t do anything with it. But after the song came out, the group got caught up in 50 Cent’s beef with Ja Rule, and they suddenly had some idea how to use that beat. Here’s D12, without Eminem, taking shots at Ja Rule over the “In Da Club” beat on their 2003 mixtape track “Kick In The Door”:

(D12’s highest-charting single, 2004’s “My Band,” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne and his Sqad Up crew rapping over “In Da Club” on another 2003 mixtape track:

(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beyoncé singing over the “In Da Club” beat on her 2003 track “Sexy Lil Thug”:

(Beyoncé will soon appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Lonely Island rapping about hugging over an “In Da Club” sample on their 2013 Pharrell collab “Hugs”:

(The Lonely Island’s highest-charting single, the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30. Pharrell will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The trailer for the 2017 time-loop horror movie Happy Death Day made heavy use of “In Da Club,” and I thought that was perfect. “In Da Club” would be an ideal slasher-flick version of “I Got You Babe” in Groundhog Day — a song that could serve as a constant punchline without ever getting annoying. Then I saw the movie, and “In Da Club” isn’t even in it; they just use some generic song as the alarm-clock music instead. Good movie, though. Here’s that trailer:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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