Looking at the Reading and Leeds festival lineups today, you couldn’t imagine an artist like 50 Cent getting a rough reception. Nowadays, the festivals offer two of the most diverse lineups in the modern UK music scene, packing everything from rap heavyweights and pop icons to superstar DJs and pit-worthy rock and metal mainstays.
In times gone by, however, it was quite a different story. Through the 80s and 90s, before its Northern cousin was introduced, Reading was considered a rock festival first and foremost. Sure, the likes of Cypress Hill, Ice-T, Björk, Underworld and The Chemical Brothers provided some memorable exceptions over the years, but for the most part, the festival’s stages were overwhelmingly dominated by rock, punk, grunge and metal acts.
By the time of 2004, both Reading and the recently added Leeds were in the midst of a shift. The arrival of Download a year prior had meant the twin festivals no longer had first round picks for the era’s biggest rock bands, while the dedicated Dance Stage, first added in 2000, was now becoming a big deal.
Despite all this, rock still undoubtedly ruled the main stage. That year, the festivals were headlined by The Darkness, The White Stripes and Green Day, with the likes of The Offspring, Morrissey, The Libertines, Ash, The Hives, Placebo and The Distillers filling up premium main stage slots. Hip hop did have some presence: Welsh comedy rappers Goldie Lookin’ Chain, respected genre heavyweights The Roots and Jurassic 5 and rising UK rap/garage/grime innovators The Streets all held down main stage positions, their sets drawing positive receptions from a mostly rock-oriented crowd. One rapper drew particular attention, however, and it certainly wasn’t positive: chart-smashing superstar 50 Cent, whose multi-platinum debut LP Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ had become the biggest-selling album in the world just a year prior.
Whether it was his braggadocious, swaggering style of hip hop, his cocky persona or the fact that he was commanding a Sunday night sub-headliner slot that saw him sandwiched between two generational rock favourites in Placebo and Green Day, 50 – real name Curtis Jackson – had seemingly rubbed a lot of Reading-goers the wrong way. Rumours of a backlash growing around the site abounded as the weekend wore on, and despite there being no reported issues with his set at Leeds two nights prior, by the time it got to late Sunday afternoon, there was undoubtedly something a little odd going on.
As Placebo departed the stage to raucous cheers, dozens upon dozens of fans could be seen collecting empty cups and bottles from the littered floor around them. Soon, swarms of teenagers clad in black band shirts and hoodies were making their way closer to the stage itself, armed with armfuls of rubbish of various shapes and sizes. At one point you could even catch glimpses of people carrying bin liners filled with bottles and god knows what else, fighting their way through the crowd to get as close as possible to the front. It was clear: war was about to break out.
By the time 50 Cent’s intro tape began, a venomous chorus of boos broke out across the field, and the first flurries of bottles began flying. 50, clearly aware of what was going on and flanked by members of his group G Unit, bounced out onto the stage, unveiling a table filled with half-full water bottles of his own. Soon, bottles were flying so thick and fast between the stage and the crowd that it felt like the skies themselves had darkened, 50 and his pals doing their best to give as good as they got as he kicked into Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ opening track What Up Gangsta.
What followed wasn’t so much a festival set as a battlefield unlike anything Reading had witnessed before or since. Needless to say, G Unit ran out of missiles a lot quicker than Reading did; in fact, as the set wore on and it appeared that 50 was determined to power through (“We ain’t going nowhere!” he defiantly yelled at one point), the barrage from the army amassed in front of him got even more intense. Eventually, those poor souls who had actually come to the festival to see 50 could be seen desperately fighting their way back through the crowd, many in tears. Soon everything from cutlery to pieces of food to shoes and wellies were making their way to the stage.
“No Cadillac, no perms, you can’t see,” 50 Cent sang during smash hit P.I.M.P., boldly holding his mic out to let the crowd finish the lyric. “That I’m a motherfucking…” “WANKER!” came the unified response. If that wasn’t enough to finally put him off, what came next certainly was: an unfolded camping chair flew onto the stage, narrowly missing the rapper. “Alright, I’m out,” he sighed, dropping his mic and exiting the stage, his crew quickly following suite.
Cheers rang out, the main stage lights came back up and, after just 20 minutes, 50 Cent’s Reading debut was over. Green Day would turn up less than an hour later, playing an extended headline set to fill out the extra time. The “haters”, it seemed, had won.
Of course, 50 Cent is by no means the only artist to have been bottled at Reading. Daphne and Celeste received a famously lairy welcome when they were inexplicably popped onto a main stage bill featuring Rage Against The Machine, Slipknot and Blink 182. In 2006, emo heroes My Chemical Romance got a rude awakening from Slayer fans that had stuck around after the thrash legends’ set to see what all the fuss was about. In fact, the very same day that 50 Cent played Reading, popular 2000s goth rockers The Rasmus got mud slung at them during their early afternoon set. Nothing, however, seemed to match the sheer ferocity and hostility that greeted poor old Curtis.
“50 Cent was very different,” Reading organiser Melvin Benn told Gigwise years later. “He brought the attitude on to the stage of being above and better than everyone and having seen it all and the crowd like their music and won’t be told what to like and what not to like.
“They’re very clear about that and I think it was just an attitude problem,” he added. “It wasn’t a genre problem. We’ve had hip hop and rap at the festival consistently year after year.”
Whatever the reason, 50 Cent is yet to return to Reading or Leeds. And, despite the festivals’ evidently different approach to lineups these days, who can blame him?