50 Cent explains his business philosophy

July 14, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC

You may have seen that Curtis Jackson—the rapper, actor, and entrepreneur also known as 50 Cent—filed for bankruptcy on Monday in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is light on details; he will likely have to submit itemized paperwork in the next 7-14 days that enumerates his assets. Monday’s filing simply estimates that Jackson has between one and 49 creditors (individuals or entities to whom he owes money), that his assets are worth between $10 million and $50 million, and that his debts are also worth between $10 million and $50 million.

In other words, this does not mean Jackson is broke, which is a common misinterpretation of bankruptcy filing. Rather, it can often be a tactic to avoid payment of a recent new debt. In Jackson’s case, it so happens that last week a jury in Manhattan ordered him to pay $5 million to a woman who says he posted a sex tape of her online without her permission. It is possible, though unconfirmed, that this judgment is what precipitated his filing. (Separately, Jackson’s boxing company, SMS Promotions, filed for bankruptcy in May, listing between $100,000 and $500,000 in debt.)

Think of a Chapter 11 filing as an attempt at relief: It lets the person reshuffle their finances and often get some of their debts “discharged” (that is, wiped away). It is a clean slate. Jackson’s various business ventures will continue as usual during the course of the bankruptcy proceedings.

“This filing for personal bankruptcy protection permits Mr. Jackson to continue his involvement with various business interests and continue his work as an entertainer, while he pursues an orderly reorganization of his financial affairs,” said William Brewer III, an attorney for Jackson, in an e-mailed statement.

It isn’t as though Jackson has not had success in business. Like many entertainers turned moguls, he has had wins and losses. His boxing promotions company failed, and the 2011 film All Things Fall Apart, which he wrote and starred in (and for which he lost 50 pounds) was a flop. But Jackson had an ownership stake in VitaminWater (he made a reported $100 million when the company sold to Coca-Cola) and he built G-Unit from a record label into a clothing line, shoe brand and charity foundation.

Then there’s his headphone-maker, SMS Audio. Founded in 2011, the company is still in business and still signing new partnership deals. As recently as April, it announced new co-branding deals with Reebok and Marvel. It added those to existing partnerships with Walt Disney Parks, Lucasfilm’s Star Wars, and Intel. Jackson is founder and CEO. (SMS sent Fortune this statement about today’s bankruptcy filing: “SMS Audio is a standalone entity and this news does not affect the company.”)

In April, Jackson visited Fortune and spoke about SMS Audio as well as his overarching business beliefs. Fortune published a condensed interview. Now, in light of the bankruptcy filing, the rest of his comments about business and how he runs SMS may be of interest. What follows is an edited transcript from parts of the conversation.

Fortune: It seems like SMS has focused more on brand partnerships than celebrity endorsers, is that right?

Curtis Jackson: We’re all about brand association. We’ve watched a lot of people fall off. A lot of companies that had artists involved. So instead we just have a few people we work with, and we make them more prominent. [He shows the SMS sports headphones, with New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony on the box.]

With sports and lifestyle, you make that easy connection. I’ve seen it consistently with athletes: They really want to be friends with artists. It gets a little weird, because I’ll be a fan of someone in their sport, and we meet, and then they get my phone number, and they call me too much. I’m like, “What do you want? Oh, I’ll call you back…”

We work with Rob Gronkowski now. Gronk. We brought him on as an ambassador this year. Away from the sport, he and I went out and we had a ball. He just said, “Pour me shots,” the whole time. We’re shooting a ‘day in the life’ video, like we did with Helio Castroneves.

So you’ve got a few athletes involved, then. But not to the extent of Beats by Dre. Are you the Dre of SMS?

I would say Tim [the artist and producer Timbaland] is our Dre. And you could argue that he’s as good or better. He’s produced a wider genre of music, he’s done things with more artists. [Timbaland appears on the box of the SMS DJ headphones.]

In some places, kids look ay Dre and say, “He’s the headphone guy.” I mean, his last album was 2001 [in 1999]. Because he’s such a perfectionist. I run into him and I’ll hear his stuff and say, “This shit is good, put it out. Put it out!”

Well, to be fair though, I don’t know that a typical 14-year-old today knows you, either, right?

Yeah. But they’re in tune with the hip-hop culture. It’s like a guy who they know because he’s new and hot right now, vs. someone who’s been here for a long time, like, a long time. And I’m glad I have Jay Z and Puffy around, they always make me feel better about how old I am.

SMS is more international [than Beats]. But Dre is responsible for this culture, because he produced some of the records.

Have you and Dre talked about business?

Well, no one’s talked to him about business. Show me one thing where he’s talking about business. His relationship with Jimmy is why he’s the premiere name connected to Beats.

What have you learned about business, from all your ventures?

The majority of time I’ve been involved in business, I’ve dealt with companies that were past the startup point. Because at the point where they’re looking for a celebrity to endorse the product, they have already made it to retail, made profit, and it could be that they’re at the end. A lot of artist-associated headsets are done out of desperation. They need to do something that will turn it around, and they choose an artist that is not necessarily influential enough.

When I fell in love with hip-hop culture, it was taboo to be associated with a corporation. They called it the “crossover.”

Now it’s cool. I created SMS because I wanted to make sure I was able to continuously be a part of how people enjoy music.

I had dibbed and dabbed in brand extensions and opportunities prior to that, and I felt like it would be cool to be associated with why people listen to a high-quality product.

What if SMS were to fail, how bad would that be for you?

It would be okay– I could still do other things.


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