When Swizz Beatz grabs a microphone, his voice induces crowds to lose their inhibitions and be moved by his music. But on a brisk fall evening in Manhattan, Swizz Beatz kept his words to a minimum and allowed his art to evoke responses during an unveiling of a piece that will be displayed at Bellevue Hospital.
The painting is that of a multicolored V on a white canvas. “The V stands for victory over everything that’s a struggle in your life,” Swizz Beatz said. “The sky is not the limit, it’s just a view. That means you can make it higher than your wildest dreams.”
Raised in the South Bronx and Atlanta, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean found ways to use his imagination as a youth to take him beyond some of the rigorous circumstances of his neighborhood. He developed an entrepreneurial spirit early in life and learned to cut hair, DJ and create mixtapes to sell to friends.
By the time he was 17, he had honed his production skills and eventually became the key producer for his uncles’, Joaqin and Darrin Dean, Ruff Ryders record label.
His signature sound helped to propel the label in the early 2000s and he played a pivotal role in the successful careers of DMX, Eve and Jadakiss. Elite artists such as Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Chris Brown and T.I. have called on Swizz Beatz to score them a hit as well.
But music only serves as a singular form of expression for Swizz Beatz. Along with being a father, husband (he recently married singer Alicia Keys) and an accomplished producer, he’s mastering visual art, serves as VP of creative design for Lotus, creative director for Reebok and is New York University’s first producer in residence.
Hip-hop needs a Renaissance man and Swizz Beatz is the perfect candidate. He is a man who has the ability to evolve without sacrificing his credibility in any field that he chooses to delve into. During our interview, Swizz Beatz revealed how he made it to this point, and the victory achieved by daring himself to make the unthinkable his reality.
Being a producer, you’re used to making your music available for the world to hear. But art was somewhat private for you. Why did you finally decide to bring it to the public?
I was inspired one day in my art studio. I realized that if you don’t show people, it’s like you never did it. I also use art as a tool to inspire other people [and] let them know that there are other mediums of creativity out there that they can have fun with. … People think it’s just music and it’s not just music. There are all types of things that form under the art tree. There is music, graphics, photography, painting and designing. There are so many lanes out there that it seems like people are only chasing the lane where people feel like they can be a superstar. But you still have to put the same work in to be the best artist. It does not matter whether you are painting or being a producer or a rapper, you still have to put in the same work. I just want to encourage people to get into art. It’s my medicine. It’s like the only time I have alone. So instead of doing drugs or other unhealthy things, I paint. Painting also helps me in my music and designing. So I want to get behind art and promote it to let people know that it’s fresh to do art, just like how it’s fresh to do a dope beat or a dope verse. Having an art piece is a timeless thing.
You talk about the importance of creativity. You were named VP of creative design for Lotus. How did that come about and what will you be doing with that company?
I’ve been into cars since I was 17. As you get older, you understand it’s time to graduate your brand and graduate your passion. My first gig was teaming up with Aston Martin to design their four-door Aston Martin. We did amazing work with it and then I got a phone call from the CEO of Lotus. He wanted me to be the vice president of global designs. A lot of people asked why I went from Aston Martin to Lotus. But I have love for both brands. With this, I have more space to express myself. Lotus is definitely a brand that’s still on the come-up and I like to be a part of the underdog situation. We can both express ourselves the same way and it’s just fun.
How did you collaborate with Reebok?
Fashion has always been a part of my dreams. While growing up in the South Bronx, I was a part of a break dancing crew. We were all about fashion. As I got older, Tommy Hilfiger became one of my mentors. I’ve had the opportunity to be around many successful people in the fashion world. I eventually got approached by Reebok and they wanted to do something new and innovative with someone who would could touch different audiences. I thought it was a cool way to touch my direct fan base of the youth and the demographic that’s into the fresh designs and art. I went in there and I made it a part of my deal that we have to buy the rights to Jean-Michel Basquiat. So I was able to do fashion and educate people at the same time.
Why is Jean-Michel Basquiat important to you and what are you doing with his work?
He is our generation’s Picasso. When people think of art they think of Picasso and Andy Warhol. Basquiat was running neck-and-neck with those names. But his time got cut short and I hear a lot of artists talking about Basquiat now. But do they know who he really is and what he looked like? Do they know that he ran away from home just to follow his dreams? Basquiat’s culture got taken away from us. You see his exhibits in Paris, it’s very extensive. But over here, you only see two or three exhibits and people don’t even know who Basquiat is. So I’m just on a mission of letting people know who Basquiat is and it’s more of an educational thing than a fashion thing.
During the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards, you came out with DMX and the crowd went crazy. What part will you play in his comeback?
DMX is my brother. I have known him for 16 years and so I have to support the dog. He is an important piece to hip-hop. I looked out at the audience and saw the way they stood up out of their seats. I knew that he is what is missing from hip-hop. But it’s all on him at the end of the day. I am a rider for life, but I can’t force him to do something he doesn’t want to do. So when he’s ready to ride, I will be right there by his side.
Are you guys currently working on new music?
Yes, we put a freestyle out called “It’s Over.” You can listen to it on swizzworld.com. But he is hungrier than I have ever seen him. He is super ready, so people might be in trouble.
What will your accomplishments mean for this generation?
My main goal is to be a Renaissance man for our generation. I think that we haven’t had that person [that] gives our next generation a blueprint to take risks, try new things and be different. That’s why my hands are in so many different pots. It’s not because I’m just scattered all over the place, it’s because I want people to see that I was a DJ, producer, worked with Aston Martin, Louis Vuitton, Lotus and Reebok. I’m from the South Bronx, so there is no part of it that you can’t do. A Renaissance man is a man with many traits. I want to let people know that the sky is not the limit, it’s only a view.