How Swizz Beatz Halted "Piano District" Invention With South Bronx Art Fair

How Swizz Beatz Halted "Piano District" Invention With South Bronx Art Fair

Night two of BACARDÍ and The Dean Collection's No Commission art extravaganza opened with a vibrant playlist of Caribbean rhythms that ping-ponged between old school salsa and reggae. The pleasant surprise of Celia Cruz's dulcet vocals echoing throughout a maze of brightly decorated corridors—a hodgepodge of 2D, 3D and cinematographic works—instantaneously brought to mind Swizz Beatz's little-talked about Puerto Rican ancestry. "On my mom's side," he explained, adding that he "listened to that [music] all the time growing up." No surprise there, considering the DJ-turned-record producer spent much of his childhood raised by his mother in the South Bronx projects, 12 blocks from where the fair was standing.

Held at a waterfront warehouse on Lincoln Avenue, where weeks prior the neighborhood was in the beginning stages of adopting its gentrified identity called "Piano District,"  No Commission was twofold, both the birthplace of Swizz and the genesis of the global contemporary art form of hip-hop.

After DJ Runna warmed up a diverse crowd largely of natives, Swizz took the stage and worked his record-spinning wizardry, hurdling over our favorite tracks produced by him. He welcomed guests, expressed his excitement, and gave thanks for the honor of such an experience by joining attendees on the ground for selfies, before turning the mic over to Young Thug.

New York rappers Fabolous and DMX also graced the stage, performing respective hits. X, a longtime friend and collaborator of Swizz, caused hysteria with his presence and signature barking. As a staunch believer of his music and day one supporter (no matter how much I struggle with being a feminist fan of a machista MC), I nearly fell over as I raised my hands and darted ahead toward the stage in manic disbelief.

In the end, Swizz Beatz & Co. gave back to a community that remains integral to New York’s cultural heritage. The No Commission platform is expertly designed specifically to support artists, and forges a direct link between their practices and art patronage. All artists involved were given their exhibition space free of charge, and 100 percent of the sale of each piece went directly back to them. How dope is that?

It's midnight, and Swizz is just finishing up a private tour of the gallery with Fabolous and other select guests. I'm in the other room, completely sober and dead tired now, sitting lazily on a wooden chair in front of a large canvas dipped in kaleidoscopic colors, praying I get a solid interview before I have to trudge my way home. "Hey," Swizz says in a croaky tone as he walks in with a small entourage, "let's start." We adjust ourselves and sit across from each other, the once lively plot outside the warehouse now completely dark and shutdown.

VIBE VIVA: Why are you so committed to the arts, to this project?
Swizz Beatz: Because it’s my life, and the Dean Collection is my life. I’m a Dean. My family has been pushing culture for a long time because a lot of them are Ruff Ryders. This is a graduation from Ruff Ryders to the youth that’s in my family, and the youth [around] this world, to have something else to look up to other than just music. It’s like, you know what, let’s exercise more forms of arts. From fashion, to music, to technology, to education. Let’s not be stuck in this box that people want us to be in.

What does coming back to the South Bronx at this very moment signify? 
Me coming back to the Bronx, even though I’m not just now coming back to the Bronx—I funded a school in the Bronx called Bronx Arts for a long time, but you know how people like to overlook. But it’s cool because, you know, I don’t have a publicist that pushes these things out. I just did an activation on the Bronx museum with unknown artists and projected their work on the Bronx Museum. Just to let them know that your work don’t always have to be stuck on walls. There’s other ways you can show your work and be great. And I’m on the board at the Brooklyn museum, but I [also worked] for the Bronx Museum because this is where I’m from.

Why this location, this warehouse?
I grew up like 12 blocks from here, in St. Mary’s Projects. I almost died in these same exact streets, so to be able to come back and have a celebration and bring people from those streets and to see something that I know they're not going see in them streets. They didn’t have to get on an airplane to see such diverse works, and that’s why I didn’t have only Bronx artists in the show. I have Bronx artists in the show, but my thing is, I’m a global thinker, and if I was from the Bronx, I would want to have my imagination leave outside of the Bronx for five minutes, even though I don’t have a plane ticket to go. So when people was like trying to protest, I spoke to everybody because I knew they didn’t really understand the mission. Most of them after I spoke to them understood it. The rest, they just going to be mad, period, and it’s okay that they’re upset.

Right, because it's being gentrified. 
I said to them, “Listen, I don’t own this property. I’m not a real estate developer. What’s going to happen to this property after this show is already bought. The plans are already done. So let’s go out with a blast at least."

I looked all over the Bronx for a particular space that I knew that would be able to comfortably house such beautiful people and beautiful, talented artists, and this wasn’t [at first] available. The other space where the party that people really had the problem with was available. But I didn’t want to do it at that place. This spot [later became] available.  I commend the landlord, Rubenstein—who owned both spots—because this probably cost him $2 million because he pushed this project back two months, with all the builders and workers and different things just so we could have a celebration.

This project being a developing neighborhood they want to call the "Piano District," right?
I got him to change the name “Piano District,” because I told him the people didn’t like that. So to those protesters I said, “Listen, I know you may not like this guy. I’m still learning him myself, but one thing I can say is he did give us this property to have fun and give back to these streets. He did push his plans back for us to have this property. Also changed [his mind], and said he won’t name this this “Piano District.”

So, he won’t name it?
No. I had him do that in 30 minutes. If I got that man to change his mind in 30 minutes about naming this the "Piano District," what else can we [make] him do? What else can we sit down and have a decent conversation about, instead of protesting and being hostile? You don’t have to protest if a person is willing to listen to you, but some people just got they own agendas.

And some have the right intentions.
If you want to protest, go on and protest. Let me know if you guys need anything, water, or something to drink. I can’t stop you from believing in what you believe in because at the end of the day, we’re here for positive reasons. I have a great partner, Bacardi. Them partnering with me to allow me to do these things is a blessing. I’m in control of over 200 brands under Bacardi, now that I run globally.

Tell me about your new position at Bacardi.
It’s the biggest position that anybody from my industry ever had experience with. I’m in control of like $700 million. I’m not paying people to hold up drinks and things like that. We’re putting the money back into things like this. Do you see how many people got paid tonight? I’m not talking currency. I’m talking about experience. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about hope. I’m talking about dreams. I’m talking about artists being free because if you free the artists, you free the world. And that’s how you invest in the culture. The drinks just happen to be Bacardi. It’s more of an educational thing, and we’re gonna be bringing these activations around the world and we’re gonna be investing in these communities around the world and I’m just happy to be at the forefront of that. Shout out to my Bacardi team, the CEO Michael Dolan who was on the stage in the South Bronx talking to the people. CEOs are not coming to the Bronx. He’s the CEO of the biggest spirits company independently held in the world. What is he doing on the stage in the Bronx? He’s really about that life.

What does your relationship with DMX look like today, what does your musical relationship look like?
I think our relationship now is stronger than ever because we’re both mature people that really understand life now. It took him a long time to understand a lot of things, and right now he’s in a good space and that’s why when he got on stage, I had to say what I said because you know this man has been battling a lot of personal issues, and he still came out here without me telling him to come here. He came on his own. He said to me, “Yo I’m gonna come speak to the people because this is what I stand for.” His music and our music that we’ve been working on is gonna change the game. The people need to see the real comeback. He’s for the have-nots. For real, for real. You never see X stuntin' on nobody.

I want to ask you about Alicia Keys, but I don’t want to ask you about her as your wife. I want to ask you about her as a muse, as an artist, as a partner. How has she influenced you, inspired you?
My wife has totally made me a better person. She made me really conscious of the things that really matter. You have to understand, before my wife, I didn’t really have no guidance on reality. I had a sense of reality from a male standpoint, which is different. I have a very supportive family. We have protocol. I come from real shit. My wife made me realize that things are bigger than me, and there’s a lot of people that can use our strengths.

Explain.
When I went to Africa with her, and I seen that she owns these hospitals and was taking care of all these sick people and didn’t even tell me. I’d been seeing her pictures in all of these places and I’m like, “God damn, why your picture in these places? Do you own these places?” and she was like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “And you ain’t tell me? I’m your husband, like what the hell?” [Laughs] I’ve seen her saving so many lives, quietly, and she just be floating in like an angel. I seen this one kid on this bed and he was gone. Like he was gone. He he must have weighed nothing, and I seen this same kid playing soccer [later] because of what my wife provided for him and I was like, “I gotta get my sh*t together.” That’s why shows like this exist “No Commission.” Give back to the people. Give back to the artists. Use your power to help these people that don’t have a platform. Her platform is health. Her platform is medicine and food and different things like that. My platform is the creative platform because I know a lot about that. And I support her in everything that she does, she is the other half of the Dean Collection. She’s the Dean. She’s Mrs. Dean, and I just thank her for just guiding me with positivity to be able to put this on for the people.

How have you cultivated your children and what have you learned from them?
I’m still learning. Having kids is a constant learning process. We don’t have books on how to be a dad—well, I never had one. I never had a book on that. So what we do is we try to take visual pictures of what good dads are. So with all those things you try to develop yourself in the earlier stages, and then you like fall into yourself, because your kids make you have to fall. My thing with my kids is I want them to see things. I don’t force them to do stuff. My son flew here from Miami because he wanted to be here. He’s taking this in. He doesn’t even know he owns the Dean Collection. My kids own the Dean Collection. So everything I buy in the Dean Collection, I can never sell because I started it as a museum for my kids so they can pass on that. Because music, only I can benefit from that. If I produce a song, yeah the people party with it, but it’s like—I don’t know. It’s something about art that does this. I can help all these people, help all those people, and I want [my kids] to learn that. And I’m easy on them about it because I don’t want them to run from it, but I’m just real with my kids.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?
I wanna just leave a positive legacy behind because I don’t know where I’m gonna go from here. I thought I was done when I was a DJ, way back in ’95. [But] the sky is not the limit, it’s just the view.

Main Image Credit: BFA / Angela Pham