Swizz Beatz Is In A Zone…All Of His Own
Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean has a room in his New Jersey home that is essentially a mini-museum, an art house man cave on steroids. He showcased the same room on his Instagram page in 2017, in a video where he gleefully roller skated with a cigar in one hand and a beverage in the other. Straight ahead in the back of the room stands a giant, 20-foot tall wooden sculpture designed by renowned Brooklyn artist KAWS (its companion piece is currently at the Brooklyn Museum, where Swizz is on the board of trustees). On the right wall is a large, two-panel painting by Kehinde Wiley, the renowned black artist who created Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, and around the room are an assortment of creatively-crafted chairs, chests by luxury fashion line MCM, books and other pieces of art. In the corner stands a modest table with a laptop and two 12-inch speakers resting on top.
Last night, Swizz Beatz deejayed an event in SoHo to honor his cover story in the “Freedom Issue” of fashion’s Spirit and Flesh magazine. The scene was a vivid illustration of the spaces that Swizz operates in these days: a room full of hoity-toity fashion folks and hip-hop heads alike, servers walking around with trays of finger foods, and clothing racks with an assortment of pieces, as Swizz plays early ‘90s bangers from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. With his signature ad-libs (“hanh!”) and energetic, nostalgic song selection, a group of breakers eventually forms a circle with dancers taking turns in the center. “I take hip-hop with me wherever I go!” Swizz triumphantly yelled to the crowd.
A day before celebrating his 40th birthday, Kareem Dean is notably turned down. He opened the door and sauntered down the mini stairway wearing a pair of Bally sneakers, blue sweatpants, and a black hoodie with the word “Poison” emblazoned across the front. He briefly greets me and my colleague and chats about some of the artwork in the room. “This is the biggest one he’s ever done,” he smiles, pointing to the Wiley piece. He then sits down at the table, pours a glass of wine for himself and a rep from his label Epic Records, and explains what to expect from Poison, his first solo record in 11 years.
The album begins with a woman named Aine Zion giving a spoken word poem over searing violins, and is immediately followed by “Pistol On My Side (P.O.M.S.),” the debut single featuring Lil Wayne that he’d release the following day. The song has Swizz’s signature military drums and a piano loop, which later transitions into a beautiful piano solo by wife and 15-time Grammy Award winner Alicia Keys, and the frenetic, hyperactive mixtape Wayne spitting his signature venomous, extra-terrestrial flows. It’s a theme of Poison: Nas, Pusha T, Young Thug, Jim Jones, The LOX, and others all deliver some of their most inspired verses in years, with Swizz offering timely adlibs, anthemic chants and reverent intros throughout. It’s the first of at least four albums he has on the way: after Poison he’s planning to release an R&B album, an “energy” album, an “acoustic” album, and a “global” album. Oh, and he has another album in the can with Nas, depending on if God’s Son ever decides to release it.
“I’m more dangerous now than I’ve ever been,” Swizz says with conviction.
Nine years ago, Swizz Beatz decided to leave music altogether. His legacy had already been solidified. Like all of the other GOAT producers, he had a period of rap that was unquestionably his: the Ruff Ryders era of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, where his thunderous drums and pounding Casio keys sold millions of records for Double R stars like DMX, The LOX and Eve, along with side work for Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and more. He would later add poppier, more versatile sounds for Beyonce and R&B/pop stars like Mya and Gwen Stefani. If there’s a name in black music over the past 20 years, Swizz has probably worked with them. He attributes the trust artists have in him to his understanding of what makes them best.
“I’ve been gifted in that area since day one, which is the reason why most of the artists kept me on the choruses and things like that,” he says. “I know concept and I’m so much of a fan of music that I know how I want everybody to sound, not from a Swizz Beatz standpoint, but from a fan standpoint.”
Hip-hop fans were reminded about the Monster–Swizz’s self-ascribed nickname–catalog in February 2017, when he and fellow hip-hop producer luminary Just Blaze competed in a late night beat battle at an undisclosed location in New York City. The Instagram Live stream was trending in real time, and has since been viewed some 1.3 million times. The battle was one of the purest hip-hop moments in recent cultural history. For nearly three hours, both faced off in scratching, making new creations on the spot, and running through their most popular hits. “Everybody in here, you are privileged to be in this space tonight, where we invited you cause we wanted to keep it clean,” Swizz said, nearly 30 minutes into the stream. “…This ain’t no library. We’re turning up for the culture tonight.”
The two producers went back and forth, playing classics from their respective pinnacles: Just Blaze playing the sample-heavy gems from the nostalgic Roc-A-Fella Records heyday, Swizz unleashing the pounding street bangers from the iconic Ruff Ryders era. The battle was close early on, but Swizz saved most of his best ammo for the second hour, beginning to pull away by getting the crowd to sing along to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Upgrade U,” Drag-On and Juvenile’s “Down Bottom,” and DMX’s “Party Up.” And in the final hour, Swizz brought out the big guns: snippets of an unreleased track with Jay-Z, DMX, Jadakiss and Nas, a quartet of rap royalty who had never collaborated on the same song together. The spectating Busta Rhymes had a stank face that got more dumbfounded with each verse, and the song itself has become the subject of Internet folklore. “They don’t want no f**kin’ problems tonight!” Swizz exclaimed to an awestruck audience. (Swizz told VIBE that he may hold the song to release later, so it doesn’t take away attention from the rest of the album.) The battle was an illustration of just how accomplished his career had been: tons of records produced, loads of gold and platinum plaques, with radio and street classics alike. Both producers had their share of great songs, but Swizz’s treasure chest of hits gave him the victory.
“I’ll battle anybody because I know what I have in my arsenal is my dynamic as a producer even though I never really hired a publicist to talk about it,” Swizz says. “I got respect for all those guys, man. I felt the pressure from all of them at some particular time. When Just came with “P.S.A.” (from Jay-Z’s The Black Album), I went to the studio and probably made about 80 beats. If I hear something that I wish I made, I would go to the studio and make 50, 60 beats until I know that I made five records I could play in the club. I’d go to the studio and make things that I feel personally can compete with that record sonically.”
Despite his usual competitive spirit, for some time, Swizz had grown disenchanted with the music industry. He felt like he was getting exploited by the labels, and the illegal downloads of the pre-streaming era began to take their toll. Swizz was well on his way to his current benchmark of 380 million records sold, and in 2006 he had production on Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” (reaching No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100), and several songs on Beyonce’s hit album B’Day (“Get Me Bodied,” “Ring The Alarm,” “Upgrade U”). There was also the respect of his peers, a steady workload, and the support of his then-future wife Alicia Keys, but he wasn’t happy.
Swizz crafted the future Grammy-winning “On To The Next One” for Jay-Z’s 2009 album Blueprint 3, and considered the song as his exit from the business. “That song was for my album, but I gave it to Jay because I felt his voice was bigger than mine,” he says. He stopped producing music altogether and began to focus on other ventures instead. Swizz wasn’t even touching the royalty checks he was getting from music that he had already released.
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“Theoretically I do what I wanted to do, but on the business front, you’re probably a slave. Getting some up-front money making you feel like you’re doing something but you’re not,” says Swizz. “I had to get off the titty. I had to be a man and really take responsibility for my own life and my kids and my family, and not base it on a fan base that’s not loyal like that and the infrastructure that’s definitely not loyal. The only way to be a boss in this world is to have ownership, so I started creating situations where I had ownership.”
From there, he began to spread his creative and business wings further. Swizz partnered with Reebok, where he launched a collection inspired by iconic Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. “I’m not coming in here as a big shoe icon or a celebrity,” he recalls. “I’m coming in as a student starting at a lower level because I wanted to have more respect.” He designed the Aston Martin Rapide, became a consultant for luxury watch company Audemars Piguet, and began working with luxury shoemaker Christian Louboutin. He would later curate a collection with Bally, a company he still works with. Perhaps most importantly, Swizz enrolled in and completed the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School, where he built businesses like his No Commissions art project (more on that later).
“I didn’t want that to be my legacy, being this disgruntled producer…blaming other folks for sh*t that I know I can change. I knew I had to get my education up, I had to diversify my portfolio as a creative getting into design, getting into my fashion zone, build up just different layers of what I know that I love,” he says. “It took the music pressure off of me as far as like not being happy with the business side of it, and I built it up to where now, when I come back to it, I don’t feel like I’m enslaved.”
The only way to be a boss in this world is to have ownership, so I started creating situations where I had ownership.
Swizz doubled down on his passion for art. As a child, he was inspired by the graffiti he saw around his hometown of the Bronx, and he’s spent the last ten years looking to introduce art to new audiences. “I used to collect for status–Warhols, Chagalls, Sam Francis–to impress guests that come to the house. Now, I hang new and living artists that I know, and it feels better. I collect from the heart.” He and his wife founded The Dean Collection, which loans pieces to museums around the world. But he also aims to give back: this year’s The Dean Collection 20 St(art)ups will give $5,000 to 20 artists, and his No Commissions project with Bacardi combines music and a traveling exhibit where artists can sell their work and keep 100 percent of the proceeds, without the normal commission that art houses or galleries would usually charge.So far, in the six No Commissions shows around the country, 175 artists have sold more than $3.5 million in art while exposing their work to some 50,000 people.
He wants to empower other artists the same way that he wants to empower musicians, by creating a system to give artists royalties. As of now, an artist can create a piece, sell it once, and get none of the future profits as the piece amasses more value over time. He wants to give artists royalties the same way that musicians get them, with artists getting a cut of future sales. Swizz expressed the idea during a speech at the Contemporary Curated sale at Sotheby’s, and according to ArtNet News, art advisor Joel Straus feels the same way: after Swizz’s speech, he revealed plans to share a portion of sale proceeds from a Kerry James Marshall piece with Marshall himself. “It’s always been my belief that artists should be compensated for secondary market sales, just like writers and performing artists,” Straus told ArtNet News. Swizz thinks other art dealers should do the same.
“People are always giving us something and taking it out of the side pocket,” says Swizz thoughtfully. “To be able to give the artist 100 percent, something real, I didn’t see it existing. If you support the art, support it 100 percent. Don’t do it as a business play.”
On To The Next
When he returned to music years after his hiatus, Swizz was determined to do so on his own terms. He signed with Epic Records, but he has an ownership stake in all of his deals inside and outside of music. He considers himself a partner, not an employee: he has multiple calls during the photo shoot with Epic Records President Sylvia Rhone (who he previously worked with at Universal Motown), from boss to boss.
That includes making a record that wasn’t focused on mainstream radio or trying to keep up with trends. Poison features less than a dozen songs, with its guests in street mode. It’s unmistakably Swizz, with its booming bottom ends and catchy hooks, but Swizz also continues to step up his game, even bringing in co-producers from the likes of Bink!, DJ Scratch and Araabmuzik for the first time to push songs over the top. The Nas-featured “Echo” and the Pusha T record “Cold Blooded” feature street narratives over soulful, orchestral arrangements that some may see as uncharacteristic from him.
It’s unmistakably Swizz, with its booming bottom ends and catchy hooks, but Swizz also continues to step up his game, even bringing in co-producers from the likes of Bink!, DJ Scratch and Araabmuzik for the first time to push songs over the top.
“It took so much discipline not to add drums to those [two songs],” Swizz slyly grins. The lack of percussion makes each emcee’s voice even more of an instrument, with their storytelling providing all the movement each song needs. There aren’t the bloated, star-studded collaborations characteristic of a DJ Khaled album; each song allows its one or two guests to breathe and stretch on their own. Someone with Swizz’s pedigree shouldn’t have to pander, and Poison makes that clear: he’s doing substantial work in the art and fashion worlds, but street hip-hop is where his heart is.
“Everybody goes so big that only the announcement happened, but the actual intake of what you’re supposed to take from it never happened past that particular day,” Swizz said. “I don’t need the instant hype. I’ve been cool since 17. A lot of people think I’m crazy because I took off some real, maybe number one fronting records for Billboard. But I feel like when what you do is passionate, who knows what could be a number one? I’m not all of a sudden bringing some f***ing EDM vibe to try and make a pop record. Don’t compromise your craft for status because the people don’t care anyway.”
The approach, he says, was further validated by J. Cole, the album’s unexpected executive producer. Cole and Swizz have a close friendship, and Swizz initially set up a meeting for the two to contribute to each other’s projects. When Cole was listening to the records Swizz had already done, he suggested cutting songs that were potential hits, but that were “f**king up the flow.”
“I played the first five tracks. He was like, ‘Damn.’ Then I played him the ‘big’ sh*t,” Swizz recalls, his eyes briefly widening while thinking about the songs. “He was telling me everything I was [already] feeling. ‘It’s going to go, but I need more of (the previous songs).’ He was the first person to say that. I could see people’s body language say it, but nobody said it. Not even people on my team.”
Cole also suggested a sparse approach to music videos. “I wanted something different, and J. Cole gave me that. Don’t shoot no expensive videos. Drop the video on WorldStar. Feed it to the kids,’” Swizz repeats. “He and my 18-year-old son were telling me all types of different vibes, and I want to credit [Cole] because I used those things. I’m not too cool to give him his props.”
Then there’s the business of the Nas album that Swizz said they completed. He confirms that the Poison highlight and DJ Scratch-produced “Echo” was recorded during those sessions, and it seems like the aforementioned Nas/Jay-Z/Jadakiss/DMX song was as well, with Nas’ chants of “Escobar Season” on the chorus. When Swizz is asked about the album and a release, he responds hopefully.
“That’s his album, so he’s gotta address that. I think it’s happening, he’s speaking positively about it but that’s like something he gotta answer back because he might change his mind,” Swizz says. “But he’s in the musical zone, he’s got super fire. There’s no reason not to do it. Maybe he wants to do another album, it don’t got to particularly be my album. As long as he’s making music, that’s what I f**k with. I’d like it to be my sh*t, but whenever that man’s got a plan, I let him do his thing.”
40’s The New 30
A month after our first interview, Swizz and his team met VIBE for the photo shoot at Jungle City, the Chelsea, Manhattan studio where Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Drake, and other stars record. Like his home, the multi-level location is similarly full of art—beautiful paintings and photos of artists like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and a young Michael Jackson. Swizz walks in around 10 a.m. wearing a Saint Laurent sweater, a dark denim jacket, and Prada sweats, his eyes peeking under a bucket cap. He just touched down on the East Coast after a flight from Japan, where he was working with Bally and connecting with Nas. He uses his iPhone to show the room stunning samples from a video he shot for the Nas collab, “Echo,” at teamLab, a digital museum in Tokyo. He and Esco spit amidst multiple scenes of dizzying, shimmering lights. “You have no idea what you’re f**king with,” Swizz says. “Once we move past the darkness, this is where we poise on.”The hitmaker found his way back on the charts days earlier with his production of “Uproar,” Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V-highlight inspired by the 2001 G. Dep hit, “Special Delivery.” “I thought it was important for me to help (Young Money President Mack Maine) make sure Wayne was straight cause this album was so important for him,” Swizz emphasizes, adding that he gave additional input on the album as well. “Uproar” was done days before the album was released, but it’s an overwhelming success: it has peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, fueled by the viral Uproar Challenge that has people around the world, including Wayne’s own children, dancing to the song on Instagram.
And he hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal for Poison, either. He’s released a new single every two weeks. First, “Pistol On My Side (P.O.M.S.).” Next, the video for “25 Soldiers,” which challenges Young Thug to tap into his harder, lyrical side instead of his signature melodies. Then “Preach,” a sparse, swaggy offering with Jim Jones. He’s also previewing songs that he just recently recorded with Meek Mill and French Montana. When playing the album for people today, he’s not as calm as he was at his home the previous month: he’s more of the “Showtime!” Swizz, shouting and dancing by the mixing board.
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“Swizz said, ‘Bro, I want you to co-pilot this one with me,” Grady Spivey, Poison’s co-executive producer and Swizz’s teenage best friend/business partner shares with VIBE. “After 11 years of [us] not doing a full-fledged studio album, there was a learning curve. We took it very seriously. When we started [this] we were kids 18-21 years old, now we are grown, with focus and vision. We came into this project non-compromised. We wanted to do this album as a contribution to the culture. That was Swizz’s main focus.”
Days later, riding a creative high and still enjoying birthday love, Swizz would glow up on the ‘Gram at a surprise party thrown by Alicia Keys at the World On Wheels skating rink in Los Angeles. As if the party itself wasn’t enough, Keys presented him with a hell of a birthday gift: a stunning, yellow 2019 Aston Martin Vantage (the car reportedly starts at $150,000). Jay-Z would lead a toast to his longtime collaborator at the party, reminiscing on old times. But for Swizz, the celebration will be short-lived—he still has more work to do, as always.
“If I’m not in my son’s top five, that’s a problem,” Swizz insists in the studio. “That’s the real top five. All the other sh*t I did, he wasn’t around for.”