There’s no question that Swizz Beatz is a super-producer, perhaps one of hip-hop’s first to be appointed as such. Not the revisionist history kind of decoration where we pay homage to predecessors with a contemporary accolade for all they’ve done for the game, but a more honestly labeled megastar that checks the boxes, or, in his case, defines what the title even means in the first place.
For Swizz, that status has held true for the majority of his 20-plus years in the industry, helping to build the sonic landscape for rap titans like DMX and Jay-Z among many, many others, as he’s pushed hip-hop’s sound and steered some of its most prominent voices by crafting some of most recognisable songs across eras.
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Despite all the work he’s put in for other artists, Swizz - real name Kasseem Dean - is only on his second studio album, ‘Poison’, his first being 2007’s ‘One Man Band’: a bold, braggadocios collection of head-nod anthems for the club and the whip, which saw the producer front and center as a lead vocalist.
But now at 40-years-old, his latest offering is the opposite, with Swizz forfeiting the spotlight, instead returning mostly back behind the curtain to orchestrate a pithy, potent 10-song selection with a select group of collaborators that includes French Montana, Jadakiss, Jim Jones, Styles P, Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne.
“Before I was using the word ‘sacrifice’,” Swizz begins, from his spacious private room at New York’s Jungle Studios. “But I wouldn’t even use that word no more, because I didn’t sacrifice anything. I didn’t compromise anything. I’d done things on ‘Poison’ that probably none of my peers would have did at that particular time in their life.
They would’ve probably went straight to the penthouse, with the biggest streaming artists, and the biggest records that can just make listeners think that they’re at a particular [status] at that time in their life.” “For me,” he continues, “it was like, I don’t need that co-sign to know where I’m at right now in my life. All of the things that I could chase, I got already.”
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Swizz has indeed been to the summit. The multi-platinum artist has amassed a handful of Grammy nominations and taken one home (for his contribution to Jay-Z’s 2011 ‘On To The Next One’), as well a BET Hip-Hop Award, across a discography that has resulted in genre-defining, era-shaping hits as both a producer and vocal artist, in hip-hop and R&B. These are the types of achievements many in his seat would boast about, and surely continue to pursue. But he’s been there, done that. As a creative and elder statesmen, he’s found a new carrot to chase.
“I feel like my biggest contribution to music now is quality,” he states. “If I can take a group of people that I respect and do some quality with them, and some other people vibe with it, and it just adds some longevity and some meaning to what I’ve done, that shit is dope.”
Swizz isn’t ignorant to where he sits in the game, and that ‘Poison’ holds a lot of weight for him. He observes it from the perspectives of someone in the stands and a player on the field. When speaking about defining success through the charts, and trying to live up to a certain perception he plainly states: “Most people’ll come back just swinging wrong and just miss the whole shit. ‘Poison’ didn't have to be number one on the charts, or number one in the first week. It ain’t even about that shit no more, honestly. Who’s judging number one? The fucking system of numbers that nobody got control of? For me, I’m platinum on the streets. I’m platinum with the people. That shit feels good, to be honest. You could be platinum [in sales] and nobody cares.”
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Do I want to be successful? Fuck yeah. Do I want to make paper? Fuck yeah.
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The freedom to run his own race and to judge his music solely on feeling is a theory he’s gleaned from the art world, where he’s spent the last decade equally as a participant, collector and organiser. While that may be true, he offers something much more practical. “I’ve built up a structure around myself where I didn’t depend on music for my lifestyle, which is why I can take the type of risk that I did with my record,” he explains. “I pride myself on taking that time out from music to build so many other lines in my portfolio where I can really just come and have fun. Do I want to be successful? Fuck yeah. Do I want to make paper? Fuck yeah. But I don’t have to base my deliveries on those particular things. Or y’all would have got a different album. I didn’t really have to do that with ‘Poison’. Ninety percent of artists on the album are non-streaming artists. Who the fuck would make that bet?”
His decision to go against the grain, in a time of widespread homogeneity has opened new doors for him. He’s almost giddy as he discusses the aftermath of the release - the response of a man who has seen a plot play out as planned.
“For people to actually feel that, it means everything to me,” he reveals, proudly. “More of the youth are coming to work with me now because of ‘Poison’. They are like, ‘Yo, we’ve seen what you did with Wayne that led to ‘Uproar’. Then what you did with Young Thug. We ain’t never even knew Young Thug could do that!’ It worked. I wanted the youth and the artists that’s coming up today to look at me as a different type of answer. If you want to be different, come fuck with Swizz.”
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Swizz carries himself like a man who has much to give and enjoys the act. He wants to offer his skills, perspective and resources to the new wave of talent that’s been brewing over the last half decade or so. His aim is that he can share his battle-proven accuracy, and combine it with purpose to instill into the youths of the game.
“If I could take all these artists that people are saying, mumble, fumble, whoever, whatever, and put them in a situation like [‘Poison’] then I'd be adding back to the fucking culture and it’s like, ‘Yo, it could be a wave to really say some shit if it’s done right,’” he says hopefully, referring to the wave of drug-fuelled emo rappers that are currently performing well across streaming platforms, before presenting a bleak alternative: “Or it could be the wave to say nothing and just have fun and just talk about drugs all day. And watch motherfuckers die, know what I’m saying? I can't particularly be on that side of the fence. I can’t tell people what to do, but I’m just not on that side of the fence.”
Swizz’s activism around the preservation of hip-hop is drawn from a lineage that can be traced back to way before Clive Campbell ever threw a party in the Bronx. He remembers vividly the moment that he first felt connected to a higher power during a recent trip to northern Africa. “I haven't been the same since my trip to Egypt, real name Kemet,” he states, sincerely. “The things that I’ve seen from my ancestors that was written in the wall - forget seeing - what I felt. When I touched the wall I could feel a vibration in the tombs, in the pyramids, like a nine volt battery. I know that’s like some cliché shit to say, and I’m a very skeptical person, but I can say I felt it and I’m telling you I came back very powerful with a wave of spirituality and eye-opening and actually understanding of our power.”
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Right now, today we have to know our power and we have to know how to align and believe within...
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Since that experience, he sees a direct line from black ancestry to contemporary culture, and the issues that continue to face the black community to this day, explaining that it’s due to the reality of that strength, as well as a lack of understanding around that power. “When I went there, there was no questions about our power,” he remembers. “It was just like, ‘Oh this is why education is not given to us. This is why our race is being most attacked. This is why we’re the number one, most targeted in the world.’ It’s because we’re that
Photography: Dom Smith
Fashion: Ronald Burton
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