UNCOVERED: The Making of 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ Album Cover (2003) with Art Director Julian Alexander.
10 years ago today 50 Cent released his classic album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. (Insert “go shorty, it’s your birthday” joke here.) The culmination of Curtis Jackson’s remarkable journey – from “How to Rob” novelty rapper, near-death shooting victim and Columbia Records castoff to reckless mixtape rabble-rouser and Dr. Dre/Eminem ally, it remains a watershed moment in NYC hip-hop history; the last time a product of Gotham’s streets ascended in such memorably precipitous and incendiary fashion to become a global star. Perfectly capturing the charisma of Fif and the sense of danger that enveloped him on the cusp of fame was Get Rich Or Die Tryin’s album cover – the work of art director, Julian Alexander of Slang Inc. To commemorate the anniversary, our own Brent Rollins spoke with Julian about how the artwork all came together – from the initial meeting with G-Unit at 50′s grandma’s house to scrapped plans involving bloody hands to the safety precautions necessary for planning a photo shoot with Curtis at the time.
How did you get involved in the Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ project?
Julian Alexander: At the time I was an art director at Sony Music and I had built a relationship with 50 because I was his art director for Power of the Dollar, which was his album for Columbia/Sony that never came out. So we had done a couple of singles for him, including “Your Life’s On The Line” and “Thug Love” (a song he had with Beyoncé) and “How To Rob” – which was his first record that got a lot of attention. We had already done a photo shoot together, we had a good rapport. And he felt like I could represent his music well visually. And we built this really strong relationship. He would come and just hang out in my office for hours and ask me questions about what I was doin’, whether it was for his project or not.
When 50 got shot [in 2000], he got dropped from the label shortly after. But he would still come up from time to time to visit me [at the office] after he was no longer signed to Columbia. And after he put out that 50 Cent Is The Future (2002) mixtape he came to see me and he was weighing his options of [which label] he was gonna sign [with]. But he told me that wherever he went, he wanted me to do his artwork. When he ended up signing with Interscope, I’m thinking, “Yo, this great.” [But] I didn’t hear from him immediately. A little bit of time passed and then we reconnected. I remember going to 50′s grandmother’s house in Queens. It was the same house [near] where he was shot in Southside Jamaica, Queens. We were talkin’ about what the album was gonna be. He had a two-way pager at the time and I remember him paging [Shady Records co-founder] Paul Rosenberg and saying’, “I want Julian Alexander to do my artwork.” When he sent that through my thoughts were “A-ight, this is official!”
A couple of days later I got the call from Nicole Frantz, the creative director of Interscope, to talk about budget and how to get things going. At the time I still had this full-time job, but I was lookin’ forward to continuing the working relationship we had. So for me it meant full-time work during the day [at Columbia/Sony] and then at night it was all about Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. That’s what I did when I came home from work.
Did you get to listen to the album before you started working on it?
Julian Alexander: When I went to 50′s grandmother’s house he played the entire album for me.
What was your initial impression?
Julian Alexander: It was fresh off the 50 Cent Is The Future mixtape – which you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing. It was huge. And this [Get Rich Or Die Tryin'] stuff really blew my mind the first time I heard it. When he played the record for me, it was me, 50, Yayo and I think [Lloyd] Banks was there for part of it. But Yayo would hype everything up! [laughs] He would tell me what I was about to hear before I heard it. So for instance when they played “Heat” for me – which has the sound of the cocking of the shotgun [incorporated throughout] the track – I remember Yayo telling me, “Dre had that beat for a while and there was nobody that rhymed to it in a way that satisfied him.” I would get these little pieces of the story [of the recording process] that would just lead into [each song]. Sonically it was very different from what was goin’ on at the time. The only record I remember not liking – or that I liked the least, which is a better way of puttin’ it – was “P.I.M.P.”
Too breezy for you?
Julian Alexander: Yeah, it was. [laughs] That’s exactly what it was. It was less gritty than the rest of [the album]. Sonically it was less gritty, subject wise it was a gritty record. But everything [else] I heard I felt told the complete story. The title said something, there was this perspective.
50 already had the title of the album in mind when you previewed it?
Julian Alexander: He had the title of the album already. And he had very clear ideas what he wanted the cover of the album to look like.
What was his original vision for the cover?
Julian Alexander: He wanted to have shattered glass. And I kind of envisioned it as a doorway — a shattered full glass door. And what you would see was a bullet hole in the glass and you would see his hand leaning on the glass. His posture would be kind of kneeling over – like he’s leaning on the glass for support. So you’d see this bullet hole, a shattered glass with a hand on it and there was gonna be blood drippin’ down from his hand. You wouldn’t see his face, but you would see a slumped figure and blood on the hand. You would read that this person had been shot, but they’re still standing.
Not to underestimate Mr. Jackson – he’s obviously a smart guy, but that’s a super sophisticated image.
Julian Alexander: He’s a very sophisticated person in that way. It was a really powerful image.
So how did it change from that initial idea to what the Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ cover eventually ended up being?
Julian Alexander: Well, I went home and put together a creative brief based on what he wanted. [And I thought], how are we going to tell this whole story? I felt that [the original] cover [concept], while it’s very sophisticated, only represented the Die Tryin’ part of the title. It didn’t represent the Get Rich at all. So I thought “How are we gonna bring some sort of balance?” I spoke to 50 and Nicole Frantz and suggested “Let’s keep the shattered glass, but let’s switch it up a little bit.”
As we built out the scenarios we kind of started to figure out how to make it work. We were movin’ a little bit away from the hand with the blood [imagery]. We discussed – along with [photographer] Sacha Waldman – why we should kind of modify that a little bit. And then on set we tweaked it.
What we ended up with for the album cover I feel represents [the fuller story]. He’s standing up, he’s standing strong behind that shattered glass. Almost as if he’s kind of bullet proof. Like he’s kind of bounced back. And when you look at the center of the bullet hole, you see [that he's wearing] this diamond cross. He’s got this Gucci holster on and diamond belt buckle. So to me that part represents Get Rich.
What do you remember about 50′s demeanor during the shoot?
Julian Alexander: I think he was just eager to do it. Physically before this album shoot, 50 was a bigger person. He wasn’t cut up. I remember the first time I saw him after he had been shot, he came to Sony and was like, “Yeah man, the dudes who shot me they put me on Super Slim Fast.” [laughs] He lifted up his shirt to show me how he had been workin’ out. Because he was just eager to get [his] body [in shape]. It was something he chose to do for himself, but he was eager to show it off. And he just envisioned [success] comin’ for him. And [this was part of how] he prepared himself for it. You always got the sense that this was a moment for him, y’know what I mean? And he was not lettin’ it pass.
“50 styled himself for the shoot. And…” continues next page…