Monday, December 27, 2010
Swizz Beatz, “My World” [XXL Magazine Excerpt]
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS SHONTING
WORDS BY ADAM MATTHEWS
A few hours before his debut as producer-in-residence at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean commandeered a computer at a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, photo studio during a XXL shoot. There he conducted a meeting on Skype with a major athletic shoe and apparel company he’s been recently partnered with where he oversees the brand’s initiative to utilize 1970s graffiti artist turned downtown gallery star Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art to sell sneakers. As a well-known collector of both kicks and Basquiats, Swizz advised the footwear giant on how to tastefully incorporate the late painter’s work into their shoes. The hip-hop producer has a more permanent deal in the works with the line so is hesitant on blowing up their name before any ink is dry.
Swizz and his longtime business partner Monique Blake examined potential design mock-ups. As a rule, Swizz prefers simple backgrounds that don’t distract from Basquiat’s iconography. He looked through a few patterns and okayed them. “The yellow/black one, that’s 100 percent good to go,” Swizz said enthusiastically. At the end of the meeting, Swizz held an iPhone up to the webcam, with a picture of a Pump silhouette featuring a graphic that recalls the Twilight Zone logo, which he designed himself on his own computer.
The new moves in shoes is part of the extension of Swizz Beatz the brand. He is, of course, the superproducer who has crafted hit beats for almost every star in hip-hop from Jay-Z, to T.I., to Drake. Over the last 12 years, Swizz’s sound has evolved from the Ruff Ryders era’s popping drums, repetitive keyboard riffs and shout-along choruses (typified by DMX’s “Rough Ryders’ Anthem”) to a template that is decidedly varied, often futuristic, ever growing and far harder to predict. As Swizz explained later in the day to NYU students, he now considers himself a full-fledged producer, and not just a beatmaker. This means he oversees his own team of producers—situated under his new entertainment company Basquiat Music—which includes The Individuals, Ty and Snagz. So his songs are as likely to include a left-of-center drum-based track, like they did on Nicki Minaj and Eminem’s “Roman’s Revenge,” as they are to feature the classic Swizz Beatz sound, as on Jadakiss’s “Who’s Real?” The latter features Swizz on the chorus but was actually co-produced by Snagz along with Ty.
Swizz has applied these same curatorial instincts to the world of high-end goods. He’s locked in a deal as a designer and consultant for the British luxury car brand Aston Martin. In addition to the partnership with the sneaker giant, he has designed shoes and menswear for Christian Louboutin and a watch for Audemars Piguet. He is also developing his own art career as a painter. He began studying with the pop artist Peter Max five years ago and has since studied with the French gallerist Enrico Navarra and built relationships with his contemporary art counterparts Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch, both of whom are known for creating art stars.
Swizz says Deitch, who runs the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and founded SoHo’s legendary Deitch Projects gallery, has even encouraged the budding artist to hold his own exhibit. But Swizz felt the time wasn’t right yet. “When they see my paintings, Shepard Fairey can say Swizz has been down for a while,” Swizz says. “[Graffiti artist] StayHigh 149, who is a legend, he can tell you that Swizz, he’s one of us, in a way.” He was also balancing the goodwill of his primary brand with his latest offering. “I want to be accepted, not because I am Swizz Beatz, but because I am Kasseem Dean, the artist.”
The common thread in all of Swizz’s endeavors is timing. “I like to be stealth,” he says. “I like to pick certain things at certain times… You give people time to digest, or all this work you are putting in will go right over their heads.”
A few hours after the shoot, Swizz slides out of the silver Aston Martin Rapide he designed himself, takes two quick bites of a sandwich and strolls into the Davis school. He prepared for the occasion by donning a letterman sweater and offers students an update on a lesson popularized by one of Davis’s other famous protégées, Whitney Houston: that learning to love one’s self/brand is the greatest love of all. “Everybody is their own brand,” Swizz says. “And every check is not good for your brand.”
Over the last two years, the Swizz Beatz brand has been juggling the complicated personal life of Kasseem Dean the person and the public scrutiny that comes with the more success he garners. He’s dealt with rumors of an affair with songstress Alicia Keys; gone through a tough divorce with the mother of one of his three sons, R&B singer Mashonda Tifrere; married Keys; and, on October 14, 2010, welcomed his fourth child into the world, he and Keys’s son, Egypt Daoud Dean. “I am just learning how to be a public person,” Swizz says. “Like, You know what,
I can’t do that, because of this. All bets are off the table with bullshit… Dealing with my previous situation, which is the hardest situation I dealt with in my life, just dealing with people looking at you in a way… That’s not what you’re used to. That’s not your everyday play. That’s not your character. So to have to deal with something that people don’t understand, don’t care to understand, but they finally have their chance to have something on you.