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How 50 Cent scored a half-billion

THIRST FOR SUCCESS: Not content with album sales alone, the rapper branched out into Vitaminwater, backing the Formula 50 flavor.
THIRST FOR SUCCESS: Not content with album sales alone, the rapper branched out into Vitaminwater, backing the Formula 50 flavor. (Boris Grdanoski)
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What better way to collaborate, Oza suggested, than to have 50 Cent endorse this new product?

But Lighty didn't want an endorsement deal. He didn't want cash. "We want to invest," Lighty said.

By 2004, 50 Cent was undoubtedly one of the world's biggest pop stars. But it took some amount of convincing on Oza's part to overcome the trepidation of Glaceau CEO Darius Bikoff and president Mike Repole. 50 Cent's association with gunplay presented a problem: What if their chief spokesperson ended up dead in a rap beef?

But the 50 Cent who showed up for his first meeting with Bikoff was surprisingly different from the rapper's public image: calm, respectful and deliberate, without too many flamboyant flourishes. Lighty was the rapper's perfect business complement.

In the weeks and months thereafter, Lighty and Oza hammered out the terms of a deal. 50 Cent would take a stake in the privately owned company, one that would graduate over time and escalate if the company hit certain numbers. The two entities - 50 Cent on one hand and Glaceau on the other - signed an agreement of mutual confidentiality. Still, word got around that Lighty had negotiated something close to, but not more than, 10 percent of the value of the company.

During these discussions, Lighty and 50 deliberated the attributes of their new product. Oza presented the pair with several flavor options for Formula 50. For Chris Lighty, the choice was simple. Despite the high-minded science of Glaceau, their product was basically a smarter, more upscale, more aspirational version of the ultimate ghetto beverage on which Lighty and 50 had grown up: the "quarter-waters" sold in every bodega, deli and convenience store from Queens to Compton.

The quarter-waters (so named because they once cost 25 cents) were just like the Kool-Aid everybody drank at home. But nobody drank wild flavors like strawberry and kiwi in the 'hood. They drank grape. Formula 50 had to be grape.

Oza hated the comparison to such base beverages, but he had to admire the thought process of his new partners.

The 50 Cent-Vitaminwater deal was announced in October 2004. Behind the scenes, the relationship between the two parties wasn't always smooth. When Lighty, in one of his first interviews about the deal, spoke of building the brand with the ultimate goal of selling it, Darius Bikoff phoned Lighty, screaming at him for disclosing the strategy. Within a few hours, Bikoff looked up to find a livid Lighty in his office, glowering at him. Lighty had driven from Manhattan to Queens to tell Bikoff one thing.

"Don't curse at me," Lighty said, a heartbeat away from becoming a Violator once more.

Once they understood each other, Bikoff and Lighty, Vitaminwater and 50 Cent built a strong alliance. Soon billboards and bus stops across the country linked the images and joined the fates of two upstarts from Queens - one a scrappy, new-age beverage company; the other a pugnacious, provocative rapper with an eye for opportunity and a history of hitching himself to winners.


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