50 Cent interview: tensions over Beats made it 'difficult to work with Dre'
Looking at a pair of SMS Audio headphones, you'd be forgiven for not noticing that they had anything to do with American rapper and entrepreneur Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. Unlike Beats Electronics, which milks its association with Dr Dre for every cent, (no pun intended), there is almost nothing to link SMS Audio's headphones to the company's high-profile founder.
While this may seem odd, it is part of a deliberate strategy to put quality products ahead of celebrity branding. Speaking to The Telegraph at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, Mr Jackson said that, while his name has helped to boost the company's profile, maintaining a level of detachment ensures its future.
“There are people who buy our products that don't even know I'm associated with it. They just get it because it's what they want,” he said. “From there they become loyal to the actual brand, so when I remove myself from it to do different things, the company will stay strong.”
SMS Audio's focus on quality has paid off, with the company's BioSport headphones powered by Intel winning a CES 2015 Innovation Award. The in-ear headphones are the first to integrate a heart rate monitor, bringing smart exercise capabilities to users of all fitness levels – with no battery recharge required.
“It's like having a treadmill with you while you’re running outdoors,” said Mr Jackson. “We've been able to utilise waterproofing technologies to prevent them from being destroyed by your sweat or by the weather, so it's just keeping it functional for people's cultural lifestyles.”
SMS Audio also unveiled a second line of Star Wars-themed on-ear headphones at CES, featuring designs based on R2D2, Chewbacca, Darth Vader and a TIE Fighter.
This mash-up of the 50 Cent and Star Wars brands might make some people’s heads spin, but Mr Jackson claims it is all about achieving widespread appeal.
“Last year was the first year's collaboration with Star Wars and Lucasfilm, and what we projected for the first quarter sold in two days,” Mr Jackson mused.
“People are extremely passionate about that brand – it's amazing, and it was a learning experience being connected to it for a short period of time. But that's why it's so difficult to get the licence, because they don't want to be associated with anything that isn't high quality.”
For the same reason, Mr Jackson has chosen not to follow Beats down the route of optimising its headphones specifically for bass-heavy hip hop music. He claims that SMS Audio's headphones are suited to all genres of music – including classical.
“People immediately assumed I would go after Beats as far as the musical sound, and I kind of went after the highest possible quality across all of them,” he said.
Commenting on Apple's recent acquisition of Beats Electronics, which was founded by Dr Dre, Mr Jackson said that it has opened up a lot of opportunities for SMS Audio – not least the chance to collaborate with Intel on its BioSport headphones – because technology companies now recognise the value of the “cool factor”.
However, rivalry between the two rappers is clearly fierce. 50 Cent's decision to leave his former mentor Dr Dre's record label, Interscope Records – of which fellow Beats inventor Jimmy Iovine is also a co-founder – last year was partly fuelled by growing competition between the two headphone brands, he admitted.
Everyone's competitors watch the people they're competing with, but there was a point when they were a little more conscious of me than I felt comfortable with, because we're friends,” he said.
“We have two companies that do the same thing, but so do plenty of other companies, so there was nothing to make him feel like he was supposed to be the only person in the category. They just identified how effective the marketing could be when I was connected to it, so it kind of made it difficult for me to work with him and I had to leave the label.”
Mr Jackson is now on the verge of launching The Beast, the second part of his extended play (EP) with American hip hop group G-Unit, with his new label Capitol Music Group. His solo album, Street King Immortal, will be coming out shortly after. He will also appear in a film called Southpaw, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris and Forest Whitaker.
However, Mr Jackson said that SMS Audio and his other business investments still bring in far more money than his work in the entertainment industry. He added that brand associations are mandatory for music artists now, because the major record companies don't have the ability to pay that they did in the past.
While some artists – most recently Taylor Swift – blame this on music subscription services like Spotify, which pays record labels an average of less than a penny per play, Mr Jackson acknowledges that subscription services represent the future of music purchasing.
“We're going to pay for it like we pay for cable – monthly blocks for everything instead of each individual release,” he said. “It used to be that music released had a build-up to a day and it felt like an event, and everyone who was passionate about the artist was doing it at the same time. Now it has to come out in pieces. The singles will probably be the largely portion of the profits.”
So is 50 Cent really tired of using technology? His presence at CES, and his excited references to drones, driverless cars and massage chairs throughout our interview suggest not.
“To me, going out to meet people and being social is like, you gotta be somewhere – we'll talk and enjoy ourselves. Now it's the telephone, and social networks like Instagram, and you meet more people in that way than you would by just running into them,” he said. “But sometimes you need people – you don't always want to to look at a screen, you want to see her.”