When you’ve been a staple in the music game for 20 years, the last thing you probably want to do mid-lunch at Ace Hotel is be interrupted by a guy with a dictaphone. And yet, when it comes around to talking about art, Swizz Beatz lights up, debating and discussing as if we’re old friends.
Sitting at the top of his game as a producer - from dominating East Coast rap with his Ruff Ryders crew through the early 2000s to working with the world’s biggest artists from Jay Z and Kanye West to his own wife Alicia Keys - Swizz has found it refreshing over the past few years to find himself back on ground level in his work as a painter, curator and creative consultant.
“I love it because you can only go to the ceiling from there. I love starting at a level where growth can happen,” he enthuses. “You should always sharpen your pencil. You should always be open to get more knowledgable in something that you’re doing. I started in music, but then I moved into business. I was like ‘Shit, they’re still looking at me like I’m onstage with DMX, even though I’m bringing these deals to the table.’ I didn’t feel comfortable with it but I understood that I needed to go to the next level in my education to learn the language. Now we can talk about anything!”
He’s currently in the capital to prepare for the London edition of the No Commission art fair - a collaboration between Bacardi and Swizz's The Dean Collection - which began at Miami’s Art Basel last year and followed up this Summer in his home borough of the Bronx. “At Basel, people are there for art, the whole world is there,” he admits. “But people had to come to the Bronx. The mix was crazy, you had people from everywhere there. People that were established, unestablished, billionaires, zeronaires, thousandaires, whatever. They was all in this space.”
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It’s the level playing field that sets No Commission apart, and why it’s so important to Swizz. Given that - as the title suggests - artists can display and sell their work retaining 100% of the profit, the fair sees work available for a variety of price points, keeping things accessible to both rising artists and budding collectors.
“That's the thing that I love, the entry point invites everyone,” says Swizz. “You can find a print that you can afford and feel like you're a part of the show. You don't have to have thousands of dollars if you're just starting out.” He condemns snooty gallery spaces that lift their noses at newcomers who don’t have $20k to shell out on a new piece. “That person that's buying that print is going to be buying the original in five years. But you can kill that person from your entry point.”
Across the table sits 24-year-old Jamie Evans, who graduated at Newcastle University and took his career into his own hands when he skipped the gallery route and independently put on his debut London show earlier this year. Evans ended up being commissioned by Emeli Sande to paint the piano that she tours with, and she linked him to Swizz to get involved with No Commission. He got the call four days ago, and one Megabus journey later he finds himself joining Swizz for lunch.
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Music and visual art are brothers and sisters to me...
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“If you make real art, it’s like selling yourself,” says Evans. “That’s one thing, but if you sell yourself and only take half of the earnings that makes it not even worth doing. It’s a very hopeless pursuit. We need people in positions of power, who have the ability to effect positive change in the world, to actually start doing it; to act like participants in the world rather than spectators. This show is a perfect example of that.”
When hip-hop music hadn’t yet been packaged up by business, it existed hand in hand with visual art. From Swizz’s mentor Fab 5 Freddy and the graffiti on NYC’s subway cars to the work of Keith Haring and Basquiat, brightly coloured artwork was synonymous with the music. The re-introduction of this feeling is another important aspect of the No Commission concept.
“Music and visual art are brothers and sisters to me and they both feed each other,” Swizz explains. “When I’m doing music I’m thinking of visuals. I can be just playing a beat and have the whole thing done; I know what it looks like, I know which paint, I know how big I want the canvas. Then when I’m doing the canvas I’m playing music, coming up with different things and writing down ideas.”
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The previous shows in Miami and the Bronx welcomed acts like A$AP Rocky, Alicia Keys, Pusha T, DMX, A-Trak, Wiz Khalifa and Young Thug to perform in the art space, while the forthcoming London edition will see Swizz performing alongside Blood Orange and Lady Leshurr where the theme of the show is ‘Juxtaposition’.
“I think that London is the juxtaposition,” he states. “You've got the high, you've got the low. Even The Arches, which is the venue for the show, is gritty but then you've got chandeliers in there. I have new artists with very, very well-known artists on the same wall. Even the juxtaposition of that I think is pretty amazing. No matter where they're at in their particular career at this particular moment. We're all one under the art umbrella for those days.”
When he talks about his current favourite artists - Todd James, Kehinde Wiley and Tomokazu Matsuyama all get mentioned - Swizz scrolls through his phone, enthusiastically sharing Instagram shots of his favourite pieces. “I think my journey as an art collector has taken many turns,” he reflects. “At first I was collecting art for the wrong reasons. It was more for status. I felt like I was the only person at that time from my culture, that I know of, that was buying that level of work.”
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I love dealing with creativity, empowering youth and culture...
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His personal collection comprises work by Warhol, Basquiat, Miro, Chagall and Dali, but since buying those pieces he’s reconsidered his motive. “I started the Dean Collection as my personal collection for my kids. I only buy living artists; my main goal is how can we support who we have on the table now? The artists that may not be discovered, the artists that might need one more push to get them over the hump. I'm having fun doing that.”
During our discussion, it’s clear that Swizz has a lot of visionary ideas regarding the improvement of the art and music business; at one point he breaks down a system in which visual artists would retain royalties on their paintings like musicians, rather than allowing collectors to make all of the profits when they sell work on. At the moment however, he’s just happy to have made the first steps with No Commission, delivering a concept that disrupts the art fair model that he believes has been unfairly forced upon artists for years.
“I'm blessed to have a partner like Bacardi,” he reflects. “To be able to bring these immersive experiences to the table for the culture instead of saying, ‘Here, hold up a Bacardi drink and we'll pay you.’ I want to end that mentality with brands and art and musicians. I love dealing with creativity, empowering youth and culture with this big brand that we have and being selfless. Bacardi doesn't own No Commission. Bacardi doesn't own the Dean Collection. The Dean Collection don't own the artists in the show. I want brands to follow in the footsteps of what we're doing. That's important, because a lot of big brands have to own everything. It's a bad effect. You free the artists, you free the world.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
The Dean Collection X BACARDÍ present No Commission: London, December 8th - 10th at The Arches in Southwark, London (Ewer Street entrance, SE1 0NR, off Union St.). Tickets are FREE but there is limited availability. Visit www.nocommission.BACARDÍ.com for more information. Visitors must be 18 years of age or older.