He brings up the celebrity endorsement thing before I do. “That aura of celebrity benefits you, gets you over the wall, but then you have to deliver.”
I’m here to talk to 50 Cent, aka Curtis Jackson, about SMS Audio, his headphone and speaker company. He’s intense, thoughtful and quiet throughout our interview, conducted in the midst of this year’s CES. I’m led into a small cubicle outfitted with comfortable couches and about 8 people in a Discovery Channel crew who set up lights and serve as an audience for our chat while preparing to shoot a segment after I leave.
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Studio Mastered Sound is a company that 50 founded in 2011 to pursue making headphones and audio products, something that others in the industry like producer Dr. Dre and rapper Ludacris have also done recently with some success.
“This is the second time I’ve been here actually showing product,” he says. “The first time was just with a 3D rendering.”
The line has now expanded to several lines of headphones including the Street by 50, which comes in wired and wireless flavors.
50 says that his desire to get the right people to run the business was why the acquisition of KonoAudio made sense. The founder of KonoAudio, now President of SMS, Brian Nohe, founded that company because he had a love of music. It’s also, 50 says, what is behind the newly announced partnership with producer Timbaland.
It’s clear from the way he talks that he has a deep respect for the producer, who he worked with for a track on 2007’s Curtis. I ask him what he thinks Timbaland brings to the company.
“Look, there’s a team of Audio technicians that work on the science and then I choose between ‘these two’,” he says. “Then I can send those to him and ask his opinion.”
Which brings up an interesting question. If you’re a celebrity which is very aware of the power of your personal brand, and your ability to influence decisions and trends: how do you tell if someone is honestly agreeing with you? The most important thing that Timbaland, someone who has had at least an equal amount of success in the business, and who he has had a personal relationship with for years, brings to the company is trust.
He speaks earnestly about giving the products an identity that separates them from the rest of the pack. There is audio science, and then there is personal taste. And that taste may not be for everyone, but it’s a distinct one and he’s bringing people in that share it and that he can trust to be honest about their opinion. Which seems like a good move.
It’s clear that he’s got a handle on his tech, as well. Especially photography and videography-related stuff.
When I come in the room, he’s checking out the Canon C300 in an image on his iPhone. He snaps a screenshot, and after I tell him that there’s likely one at the Canon booth he says that he’s got to get one before he leaves. Later, when I’m taking the picture that accompanies this article, he remarks on my Canon 40mm pancake lens. He has the 50mm 1.2, he says, but he likes the size of the much slimmer pancake.
But what about those headphones? The new Street series seemed well-built, if a bit more obsessed with metallic flake and high-contrast cushions than I normally take my headphones. But the sound was crisp and a bit broader than the counterparts from Beats. They’re undeniably tuned somewhat for hip hop, which is something that he has no problem addressing.
“People think that they’re only for that kind of music,” he says, “but hip hop draws inspiration from so many kinds of music, Jazz, R&B and stuff.”
He’s also conscious of the way that social media has changed the landscape of promotion since his first major album in 2003. “When I release new music and that builds up, you can see a material shift towards or away from the brand. When I released My Life, there was a shift towards SMS [in social media].”
The need to build something organically comes up a lot. When a product has that stink of ‘truth’ on it, when two people talk to each other on the street and recommend it, it has a different path and chance at longevity from one that has its popularity goosed purely through hype.
I mention the concepts mentioned by Dustin Curtis in his post The Best. Namely that the time, money and effort you spend finding the best thing ends up being worth it in the pleasure that you have using it. Finding the right thing (or making it right) can be a worthy pursuit. For him, though, the right thing ends up being music more often than not.
“A woman can say she has to have the right shoes,” he says, “but as long as I have access to music, I can survive.”
From there, the topic turns to being a creator, someone who makes things and therefore, can’t stop thinking about them long enough to enjoy them.
“I love music, but when I listen to it, I’m always seeing the seams, how things are put together, always analyzing, seeing how I could have made things better, or different,” he says. This means that he likes to focus more on film and television in his downtime, because he can enjoy them more as a participant, something that he can’t always do with music.
He’s also restless and contrasts himself with Eminem, a friend of many years. “I can’t stay inside and do nothing,” he says. “When you look at Em, your last public impression of him was the last album that he released.”
He has too much that he wants to accomplish to stay inside.
“I want to do a lot,” he says, I don’t want to be someone who just made cool songs.”