Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson was on tour for his career-launching 2003 album Get Rich or Die Tryin' when he first learnt of the Black Mafia Family (BMF) – the subject for his new eponymously-titled TV drama, which premiered on Starzplay on Monday.
By then, the drug trafficking and money laundering organisation was already an established cocaine distribution network across the US. Founded in Detroit in the late 1980s by the Flenory brothers, the group had more than 500 members and was also directly involved with the Mexican drug cartels.
The group remained nameless for more than a decade after its establishment, and had only just branded itself as the Black Mafia Family when 50 Cent first heard of them.
The organisation branched into the hip-hop industry, starting BMF Entertainment, which would go on to serve as a front for the group to launder their earnings from the drug trade.
BMF Entertainment helped support several emerging and established hip-hop acts, even launching the career of rappers such as Young Jeezy. But perhaps more than that, they were known for their parties, glitzy and lavish even by hip-hop standards.
50 Cent says he was in a “different headspace” as BMF rose in popularity in the music industry, and did not attend their get-togethers. The rapper says he made more than $38 million from his first tour and was no longer involved in “things that easily fit my prior MO [modus operandi]”.
“I kind of learnt of Black Mafia Family from other talent around,” 50 Cent tells The National.
“I wasn’t as social. I wasn't out in the mix or at a party. Anywhere that I wasn't scheduled to be, I wasn’t there. So I didn’t interact with them in the early stages; it was the other talent that was around that would go out, party, have experiences with them and then come back and have these stories about the Black Mafia Family.”
“It was at the same point when I’m moving up and they are at the financial point where they can do anything and everything they want,” he says. “We couldn’t miss it really.”
Looking back, 50 Cent says it would have been easy for him to get wrapped up in the world of BMF, especially “because I went through a kind of similar experience”, he says, alluding to his early life selling drugs in New York City during the 1980s.
“But not to the magnitude of what [BMF] were doing. They definitely exceeded what my experience was like on the street.”
However, BMF’s heyday in hip-hop was brief, as the group was indicted by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005. The Flenory brothers – Demetrius "Big Meech" and Terry "Southwest T" – were arrested and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment each.
While the group’s drug operations and associations within the hip-hop world made ample fodder for an arresting TV show, 50 Cent says he was more captivated by the fraternal aspect at the heart of the group. Black Mafia Family, he points out, tries to bring that to the forefront.
“The show is about two brothers that make a decision,” he says. “Really it’s the older brother and then the decision of the younger to follow. That happens so often. I don’t know if this is because they can run faster than you or jump higher than you, that you just want to be like the older brother so you’re doing the same things, but that’s a family story.
"It’s about a real family and what their experiences were like growing into the position that they’re known for.”
That’s not to say the show will shy away from the opulent and Dionysian lifestyle the group was known for.
“When you say BMF, a lot of people don’t think Black Mafia Family, they think Blow Money Fast,” 50 Cent says. “It’s all of the aspirational portion of our culture that understands and loves the idea of no limitations. They completely gravitate to the story for those reasons because they’ve seen it.”
The show stars Lincoln Heights actor Russell Hornsby, Law & Order: Organized Crime actor Steve Harris, The Rickey Smiley Show actress Alijona Alexus and The Wire actor Wood Harris, as well as rappers Snoop Dogg and Eminem.
Terry is portrayed by Da'Vinchi, whereas Demetrius "Lil Meech" Flenory Jr takes the role of his father.
"Lil Meech is playing Big Meech in the series, and it's exciting for me because I looked around when I got the first draft of the script," 50 Cent explains.
"I hired two very big casting agents in LA to show me the younger guys that would be ideal for the role, and none of them kind of met the description. And then I looked on social media. I was on Instagram and I saw a picture of Lil Meech."
“I'm looking at him, thinking 'he should play his dad.' We only see that happen when O'Shea plays Ice Cube in NWA in Straight Outta Compton. In The Sopranos, James Gandolfini’s son played a younger version of him," he says. "In this particular situation, I had a long time, so I sent Meech to acting classes. I moved him from Atlanta to California so he could take acting classes consistently. He really did the work. He went out there."
50 Cent, who also helmed the TV show Power, says he’s been wanting to bring the story of BMF to the screen for a while, having bought the rights to the project in 2015.
“It’s one of the best stories to tell,” the Many Men rapper says. “They’re very close to music culture. A lot of times street culture is very close to hip-hop culture. Everyone’s very, very close together. The time period is when hip-hop shifted from the east coast sound or the west coast sound to a more southern-based song, and dance culture became more relevant at that point. It’s where we are now musically.
"When you think trap music ... it's hustle music. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s really BMF music.”