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Rap: Another Gangsta Warfare: 50 Cent and Ja Rule

Another Gangsta Warfare: 50 Cent and Ja Rule
The subway ride from Manhattan to the 179th Street station in Jamaica, Queens, is so long that when you come up the stairs and into the light of the street, you feel as though you have jet lag. It's the last stop on the F line, a neighborhood so outer-borough it might as well be in another state. Head south, cross Jamaica Avenue, and pass through a desolate area of abandoned buildings and trash-strewn lots dubbed "Bricktown" by the locals, and you're in one of hip-hop's fertile crescents. At the corner of 134th Avenue and Guy Brewer Boulevard, a small-time teenage hustler named Curtis Jackson-who would find much greater success as a rapper named 50 Cent-was busted selling crack and heroin to an undercover cop. A few blocks away is Woodhull in Hollis, a middle- class oasis among the crack chaos where a sweet-faced kid, the child of Jehovah's Witnesses, named Jeffrey Atkins-who would rename himself Ja Rule-hung out on doorsteps with his buddies, eagerly knocking fists (giving a "pound") with anyone who crossed his path. Looming over everything is Baisley Park, one of the city's toughest housing projects, which was controlled in the late eighties by a drug lord named Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. At his height, he had more than 100 employees-including, says a source, Curtis Jackson's crack-addicted mother, Sabrina, who was murdered in 1984. McGriff's "Supreme Team" sold crack, chanting the slogan "No dollars, no shorts"-street slang for no singles (hard to launder) and no discounts. McGriff, now 42 and in a federal prison on a gun conviction, was the image of ghetto success in the most violent epoch in New York's history. Now the government is investigating whether he used his drug money to fund Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo's Murder Inc., Ja Rule's record company.

The Supreme era once again haunts hip-hop. Violence, both verbal and actual, has been escalating to a level not seen in a decade, as 50 Cent, Ja Rule, and McGriff play out roles rehearsed on the street corners of their youth.

With its welter of long-running plot lines, hip-hop has always had more than a passing resemblance to pro wrestling-drama is what it's called in the hip-hop world. With one crucial difference: It's real. In Ja Rule's recently released disc Blood in My Eye, the violence is verbal-"I'll probably go to jail fo' sending 50 to hell"-but three years ago, it was physical. In March 2000, outside the Hit Factory studio on West 54th Street, 50 Cent was beaten and stabbed by Lorenzo, his brother Christopher, and a Murder Inc. rapper named Ramel "Black Child" Gill. Now hip-hop's elder statesmen-from Russell Simmons to Louis Farrakhan-are worried that it's heating up again-this time to lethal effect. The feud has drawn in other rappers, D.J.'s, and dueling hip-hop publications; The Source (anti-50 Cent) and XXL (pro) have been denouncing each other in editors' letters and burning copies of each other's magazines. It's even leapt across continents: In July, a member of Ja Rule's posse threatened to break the neck of a D.J. in Durban, South Africa, simply for playing 50 Cent's song "21 Questions" after Ja Rule's set there. The hottest mix tape on New York's streets is "Street Wars," which provides a blow-by-blow of the industry's current beefs.

"Beef" is a time-honored hip-hop tradition-as well as a time-honored PR stunt. 50 Cent's knocking-on-death's-door image-after he was famously shot nine times, and lived to tell about it, he and his 6-year-old son, Marquise, sport matching bulletproof vests-is as much a part of his appeal as his laconic drawl, melodic choruses, and memorably odd ("berf-day") pronunciations, which are said to be a result of a bullet to his mouth. It's his violent rep that 50 Cent feels gives him unimpeachable authenticity, separating him from hip-hop's faux gangstas, whom he derides as "wankstas." "I think the industry would prefer a studio gangsta rather than someone who actually comes from that background, because it's less of a risk," 50 told me. " 'Cuz you're investing money in this person as an artist-and shots could go off."

Indeed, when shots did go off-on May 24, 2000-his first label, Columbia, dropped him even though the streets were already buzzing about his song "How to Rob," in which he fantasized about mugging hip-hop and R&B superstars. "After I got shot, they got afraid," 50 Cent says. "Afraid of me in their offices." But it was that story that convinced Eminem to bring 50 Cent to his label at Interscope Records. "His life story sold me," Eminem told XXL in March. "To have a story behind the music is so important." Eminem's instincts were spot-on: 50 Cent's Interscope debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', sold an astonishing 872,000 copies in its first week and will likely be 2003's best-selling album.

For Ja Rule, on the other hand, being embroiled in this beef has brought dwindling rewards. At the turn of the millennium, Ja Rule's empathetic duets with Murder Inc. labelmate Ashanti made the pair the Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell of the hip-hop generation. But in early November, as 50 celebrated the launch of a new sneaker line named for his G-Unit Crew at downtown hotspot Capitale, the first-week sales of Ja Rule's Blood in My Eye, which is rife with over-the-top threats against 50 Cent, were the worst in his history at Murder Inc. A source close to the label says that even before its release, Lyor Cohen, president of Def Jam, the parent company of Murder Inc., was so concerned about Ja Rule's diminished street credibility that he tried-unsuccessfully-to enlist notoriously thuggish hip-hop exec Suge Knight to release Blood in My Eye on his Tha Row label.

Like a hip-hop Hatfield and McCoy, Ja Rule and 50 Cent may hate each other so much because they have so much in common-they were born five months apart in 1976 in neighboring Hollis and South Jamaica. "Hollis was about heroin dealing and numbers running," remembers a man who grew up in the neighborhood, "while South Jamaica was into organized cocaine dealing." In South Jamaica, crack addicts lined up along 150th Street for their fix.

Both Ja Rule and 50 Cent dropped out of high school (50 made it to the tenth grade; Ja to the eleventh). Though 50 Cent was arrested several times, he was a low-level crack dealer and hustler rather than a McGriff-level drug kingpin. "When you grow up without finances, it starts to feel like finances are the answers to all of your problems," 50 says. "And a kid's curiosity leads him to the 'hood, and he finds someone who got it and he didn't go to school. They tell you, ‘No, you can get paid like this.' "

Ja Rule is best known for his association with another drug: ecstasy. He rapped about its raptures so convincingly that he became known as a "love thug." When hip-hop took a darker turn, Ja talked up hustling in interviews. But his adolescence was more sober than he likes to let on: He was raised a Jehovah's Witness and spent much of his young adulthood performing "field service" (door-to-door proselytizing) for the faith. "Ja always seemed like a good kid," remembers the man who grew up with him and 50. "He would just hang out on the steps of his ma's house in Hollis, smiling." Indeed, with his mother working long hours, Ja spent most of his time on those front steps. "I'd come home from school and nobody's home, so that's why I kind of feel like the street's raised me, you know," he told Louis Farrakhan in a recent "beef mediation" session. Televised on MTV and BET and broadcast on Clear Channel radio, it was meant to include 50 Cent, but he demurred.

In the mid-eighties, Ja Rule and 50 Cent's role models were drug kingpins like Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols, Howard "Pappy" Mason, and McGriff. For McGriff's Supreme Team, "a couple of days' receipts brought in $150,000," a former Queens narcotics detective told me. Turf wars abounded. "The dealers in South Jamaica were particularly territorial," a southeast-Queens source says. "Fat Cat had 150th Street, Supreme the Baisley Park projects."

Beefs tended to be settled with extreme violence. "Pappy started the whole torturing thing," remembers one man who was in the life at the time. "There was a fight for who could be the craziest or the baddest. They would put hot curling irons in people's rear ends or tie them up for days on end and leave them in their own shit."

Though the two grew up in southeast Queens and idolized the same hustlers from the neighborhood, Ja Rule and 50 Cent's beef-whose origin is nearly as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-didn't begin until the the late nineties. "I think it started with a video shoot that I did on Jamaica Avenue," Ja Rule told Farrakhan. "We're all from the same neighborhood . . . I think when he seen how much love we was receiving from all of the people . . . he didn't like the fact that I was getting so much love."

50 Cent, however, dates the beef back to 2000, when a friend robbed Ja Rule of jewelry. According to an affidavit filed in January in an ongoing federal investigation into Murder Inc., after the robbery occurred, Ja Rule "informed Irv Gotti, who in turn contacted McGriff. McGriff promptly secured the return of the jewelry . . . using his reputation for violence to intimidate and threaten the robber."

Retribution related to the robbery continued, according to Ja, in March 2000, when 50 Cent was attacked by the Murder Inc. posse outside the Hit Factory. The Lorenzos punched 50 Cent, and Gill stabbed him in the chest. 50 Cent was treated for a laceration to the chest and a partially collapsed lung at St. Luke's-Roosevelt hospital and later received an order of protection against the trio of men-which he denies he sought. In the tougher-than-thou world of hip-hop, the order of protection was interpreted by some as an admission of weakness. The Source published its contents in its February 2003 issue, and a Website called posted the order with the message: "Real street ni99as don't snitch. 50 Cent does not rep the street. He is a coward and a liar . . . you can't deny court documents!"

Two months after the Hit Factory incident, 50 Cent was shot nine times while sitting in a car outside his grandmother's southeast-Queens home. "I know who shot me. He got killed a few weeks after I got shot," 50 Cent says. "Same situation, somebody waiting on him." 50 Cent refused to reveal the identity of the shooter or who might have put him up to it. But in the affidavit filed in connection with the investigation into Murder Inc., McGriff is named as a suspect: "McGriff was involved with the shooting of another rap artist, ‘50 Cent,' who wrote a song exposing McGriff's criminal activities." (The song in question is 50 Cent's "Ghetto Qur'an.")

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