My finger is in 50 Cent's mouth.
I didn't know what to expect when I met the man destined to be hip-hop's next big thug, but sliding a finger along his tongue was low on the list of possibilities.
Until he was signed to Eminem's Shady Records last June, the 26-year-old Queens rapper was well-known at the local precinct house but hardly anywhere else. Eight months and two megahit singles later, 50 Cent's major-label debut, ''Get Rich or Die Tryin','' has sold 1,694,000 copies in its first 11 days of release. What made a perennial police suspect and unapologetic crack dealer the hottest chart commodity since Shania Twain? He's Eminem's newest favorite rapper.
And he's been shot nine times.
In a New York hotel suite, 50 Cent sinks into a queen-size bed and inventories the bullets that pierced his body during a street-war ambush on May 24, 2000. One went through his left shoulder; one lodged in his hip; another entered his cheek and shattered when it hit his jaw. ''I was like, 'Oh, s---, they shot me in my face!''' 50 recalls. ''I got a small particle of the bullet -- let me show you.''
He waves me into the bathroom and, without consent, thrusts my hand under the faucet, wipes it with a washcloth, then guides my index finger to the back of his tongue. There's a hard bump the size of a BB. ''The doctor said it would do more damage to remove it than to leave it, so he left it.''
In the world of hip-hop, where nothing matters more than credibility, 50 Cent's story is incredibly credible. Born Curtis Jackson in South Jamaica, Queens, to a 15-year-old crack-dealing mother, 50 Cent emerged hard. When he was 8, his mother was murdered under mysterious circumstances: drugged, then left to die with the gas on in her home. At 12, he started dealing crack himself. At 15, he bought his first gun -- a .380. At 19, he was kingpin of the local drug cartel, but with a son on the way, it was time for a change. ''I was going to jail every other summer,'' he says.
Emulating heroes like Rakim and KRS-One, 50 started to write rhymes, and soon found a first-rate mentor in the rap game. In 1997, he signed a production deal with neighborhood legend Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, who took 50 under his leather-clad wing. 50's gritty, quick-witted crime stories reverberated with authenticity and quickly became a hit on hip-hop's grassroots proving ground, the mix-tape circuit. Two years later, Columbia signed the scarred street soldier and gave him a $65,000 advance. Fifty thousand dollars went to Jay, producer of the demo that cinched the deal, and $10,000 to lawyers, which left 50...well, back on the street hustling, perhaps the only rapper with a major-label deal and a crack corner.
When 50 grew impatient with Columbia's glacial pace, he dropped the razor-sharp bootleg single ''How to Rob'' on the streets. A comic lesson on sticking up everyone from Jay-Z to Mariah, it mirrored the celebrity-skewering lyrics of a certain Shady character in 50's future: ''I'll rob Boyz II Men like I'm Michael Bivins/Catch Tyson for half that cash, like Robin Givens.''
''A lot of the artists on that song are friends of mine now,'' 50 says, dismissing issues of resentment. He wrote the song, he says, to get his label's attention. ''I needed them to stop and look at me.'' It worked -- sort of. Columbia put ''How to Rob'' on the soundtrack for the 1999 thriller ''In Too Deep,'' but continued to delay release of 50's then already heavily bootlegged album, ''Power of the Dollar.''
While most ''studio gangstas,'' as 50 calls them, craft their make-believe criminal lifestyle in couplets, 50 Cent was living it. On that bloody day in May 2000, he was shot nine times while on his way to a Queens tattoo parlor. The gunman -- who 50 believes was hired by a local drug lord -- ignored the two other passengers in the car and fired round after round into his body. When 50 pulled his gun to retaliate, the assailant shot him in the hand.
Eerily, as 50 describes the scene, sirens wail from the street. ''On the way to the hospital, we had to drop my gun in the sewer,'' he recalls. About his attacker, 50 says only that he ''died a few weeks later.''
Detailing the ordeal, the rapper is, curiously, all smiles. Though he now routinely wears a bulletproof vest (''I put it on right after my underwear''), the incident, he says, has left him unafraid of death. ''When I have conversations with people, for some strange reason they think I'm gonna die and they're not,'' 50 says. ''But you know what? Death means nothing to me. I think I bled my fear out into the back of that car.''