Alex Thomas has been entertaining Hip Hop fans for the best part of three decades as a comic actor and acclaimed stand-up, but his biggest role might have come as part of 50 Cent‘s Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
Monday (February 6) marks the 20th anniversary of the G-Unit mogul’s game-changing debut album. Released by Interscope Records in a joint effort with Dr. Dre‘s Aftermath Entertainment, Eminem‘s Shady Records and 50’s own G-Unit Records, the 16-track LP debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 872,000 copies in its first week.
Credited with restoring gangsta rap to mainstream prominence, the album sold an additional 822,000 copies in its second week and would go on to be the best-selling album of 2003. By the end of the year it had sold 12 million copies worldwide.
50 Cent’s juggernaut takeover was helped on by the singles “In da Club,” which was recently certified 9x platinum by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America); “21 Questions,” the love-drunk anthem featuring Nate Dogg; and the Mr. Porter-produced “P.I.M.P.,” a swag-tastic ode to the pimp lifestyle. Other singles released include “Many Men (Wish Death)” and “If I Can’t.”
A fan favorite on the album is the Dr. Dre-produced “Back Down,” a scathing diss record aimed in the direction of 50’s fellow Queens rapper and longtime nemesis Ja Rule, who he’d come to blows with on a couple of occasions prior to becoming the biggest Hip Hop artist on the planet.
The beef between the pair dates back to around 1999, when Ja Rule was allegedly robbed for his chain at gunpoint by an associate of 50 Cent. Things then intensified with a series of diss records from 50 — including “Life’s on the Line” and “Be a Gentleman” — which ultimately resulted in Fif being stabbed by Murder Inc. affiliate Black Child inside New York recording studio The Hit Factory.
Part of 50’s marketing campaign for Get Rich or Die Tryin’ involved his relentless verbal attacks on Ja Rule and his record label Murder Inc. — helmed by brothers Irv and Chris Gotti — which included more diss tracks such as “Wanksta” and “I Smell Pussy,” the latter of which would end up being included on G-Unit’s debut album, Beg For Mercy.
“Back Down” is what many deemed to be the nail in the coffin of Ja Rule’s career, which up until that point saw him celebrated as a chart-topping rap titan. But after 50 went for Ja’s jugular with lyrics about his mother and father, his wife, his “dirty-ass kids,” all while branding him as soft as a Pop Tart, there seemed to be no coming back for the “Always on Time” hitmaker.
The track ends with a voiceover skit. In it, Alex Thomas, who plays the role of a gay Ja Rule fan, threatens to “Jet-Li” 50 Cent’s ass and anyone else who wants to badmouth their “boo.”
“They better not put they hands on Jeffrey, ok?” Thomas’ character jokes over the thumping Dr. Dre production, calling Ja by his government name, Jeffrey Atkins. “‘Cause first of all, they do not know that I am a 12-degree pink belt, okay?/ I will dice his ass up like a little piece of celery, ok?“
Speaking to HipHopDX, Thomas said he had no idea who 50 Cent was when Dr. Dre first asked him to get on the track, and the gravitas of what he was involved in didn’t hit him until after the release of Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
“I didn’t know 50 Cent from a can of paint,” Thomas told DX. “When Dre first told me about him, I was cracking jokes like, ‘His name’s 50 Cent? Are you sure it’s not 75 Cent or $1.22?'”
Thomas, known for starring in The Players Club, The Wash, Two Can Play That Game and many other high-profile films and TV shows, has known Dr. Dre for years having been born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. He hadn’t long wrapped up hosting the Up In Smoke Tour — the groundbreaking West Coast Hip Hop tour headlined by Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Ice Cube — when he got the call about the 50 Cent gig.
“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” Thomas said, recalling Dre inviting him to the studio. “Dre was just like, ‘Hey man, I got $10,000 for you.’ I was like, ‘Shit, for 30 seconds of work? Where do I sign up?'” The payment also came with a pool table for his new house that he had just moved into.
“Dre showed me the album cover [for Get Rich or Die Tryin’]; there’s bullet holes on the album cover, this dude’s a thug, he’s got tattoos, he’s been shot nine times, and I’m like, ‘What you wanna do with me? This muthafucka is gangsta.”
Dre then explained to Thomas the beef 50 was having with Ja Rule. “I knew who Ja Rule was as he was one of the hottest rappers out at that time,” he said. “I’m like, ‘How does he have beef with somebody that no one knows yet and this dude’s a star?’ But it all made sense later on.”
Inspiration for the skit came from an alleged phone call a gay Ja Rule fan made to a radio station to defend the Murder Inc. rapper, which Dre played for Thomas before he went in the booth.
“A lot of albums and skits and sketches that I’ve been on have involved me just coming up with concepts, and me being in the studio with these dudes for a couple hours and hear what they’ve got going on,” he said. “Dre was specifically like, ‘Listen to this.’ I had no idea what I was doing or what the concept was. He was just like, ‘Listen to this.’
“Basically it was a quick little 15, 20-second call in — I don’t know if it was WBLS, I forget what the big radio station was in New York at the time — where an allegedly gay dude called into the radio station. It was like, ‘Y’all better leave Jeffrey alone. Jeffrey Atkins is my boo, leave him alone.’ That was it and Dre was like, ‘You fuckin’ with it?’ And I was like, ‘Ok. So what do you want me to do with it?'”
Dre told Thomas to play off what he’d just heard and gave him a couple of small bullet points, which the comedian ran with. “He just molded the masterpiece of my jokes,” Thomas said before explaining that he wrote the script. “I’ve always been the writer. ‘Big thangs come in small packages. Holla!‘ It was just me being silly.”
Eagle-eyed fans will notice that Alex Thomas is not credited on the track, which according to the comedian was all part of the plan.
“Dre purposely left my name off the album,” he explained. “He wanted people to really think — again, this is the brilliant dude he is — that they got a real tape of some gay dude that was gossiping. They didn’t want to say it was Alex Thomas the comedian, the actor. So for years nobody knew it was me.
“When it blew up so big and went beyond diamond, that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna start letting muthafuckas know that’s me so extra shit could happen for me.’ And then years later Ja Rule found out it was me and he hated me for a while, like, ‘N-gga, you were in on it.'”
Thomas never had any problems with Ja Rule and the two would sometimes run into each other prior to the release of “Back Down,” but it wasn’t that often. However, once the record came out, Thomas said he couldn’t stop running into him — although neither Ja nor his team ever confronted him.
“It just seemed like all of a sudden, everywhere I go around the country I’m always running into that crew. I’m like, ‘Is this a sign?'” Thomas joked. “I saw this dude once every two years and now after the world knows about this, I go to Atlanta, he’s in Atlanta. I go to Miami, he’s in the club in Miami. I go to the mall, he’s in Macy’s also. The food court, this muthafucka’s at Panda Express just like me. [What] the hell is going on here?”
He continued: “It never got to [being a physical confrontation]. Remember, I’m an individual. I’m not like rappers who move with a thousand people and security and all that kind of stuff. I was just always like, ‘Man, I hope 20 dudes don’t run up on me.’ You know what I mean? Because it still kinda wasn’t out there like that. People organically started finding out that it was me.”
Once the song reached the masses and became a huge hit in the streets, many perceived it to be the knockout blow that ended Ja’s career. It was then that Thomas said he started to feel really bad about the situation.
“When I saw the magnitude [of the beef and how it affected Ja] it stopped being funny,” he admitted. “He never came back from it. He literally never came back from it and that’s when I started feeling bad.”
Thomas had no idea that Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was going to be one of the biggest rap albums ever when he laid down his vocals, but today he puts it among his favorite Hip Hop albums of all time. “It was just hit after hit … It was incredible,” he said. “Still to this day it’s definitely in my Top 5 albums of all time.”
Alex Thomas currently stars in the Netflix animated series Motown Magic. You can also pick up his new book, The Funny Don’t Stop!, via Amazon here.