American superproducer and creative, Swizz Beatz, speaks to Helen Herimbi about Ruff Ryders and rallying around South African artists
Swizz Beatz is tired. With interviews running about two hours behind schedule, I am not surprised. The One Man Band Man star whose production has defined entire eras of American hip hop has had a lot to say. Having partnered with major brands like Reebok and now, the Bacardi house to bring more light to musicians and artists, we also had a lot to ask him.
He was in Johannesburg ahead of a headlining performance at the Bacardi Holiday Club in Mpumalanga and when I finally catch up with him long after the sun has bid us farewell, he’s over sitting at a large table in a boardroom at a super luxe hotel. We settle on a small couch in the corner of the room and I notice the temple of his dark sunglasses has the signature gold Basquiat crown on it.
Naturally, the first place to start the interview is: his partnership with Bacardi to host his No Commission art fair that cuts out the middle man and all proceeds of the art goes directly to the artists. “A lot of brands say they’re for the people, they’re for the culture,” says Swizz Beatz. “So let’s be about it, let’s do it.”
“The cool part about what No Commission did is that it has put a lot of cool people in front of Bacardi that…it probably would have been very hard to get those people in front of them. But I’m cool with it because it’s fusing and fuelling the artist. I couldn’t be a part of a partnership that’s paying artists to hold drinks (in ads). You shouldn’t have to trick people, there should be a cause. I create that (link) directly for them globally. I’m moving stealthily.”
Over the years, Swizz Beatz, whose real name is Kasseem Dean, has been collecting art from all over the world. “I don’t sell any of my art but the value that I’ve accumulated in my portflio from art versus the value from property is, like, ten times,” he tells me. “Everything that is in The Dean Collection is… my kids own it so I can’t sell it. I’m building The Dean Collection Museum that the kids will run and it will be accessible for people to see as well.”
What has been easily accessible so far is his incredible repertoire of music that traverses changing the sounds and moulding the soundscapes of the likes of everyone from DMX to Busta Rhymes to Whitney Houston to Beyonce and even Jay Z. One of the most iconic songs that Swizz Beatz created as a teenager is the Ruff Ryders Anthem.
With DMX as the flagship artist for the label that was founded and run by his uncles and one aunt, Ruff Ryders had a great run in the late 1990s and early naughties. But at first, DMX was not feeling the Ruff Ryders Anthem beat. “Yeah! He didn’t want to do it,” Swizz Beatz throws his head back as he laughs. But DMX lost a bet to Swizz Beatz’s uncle, D and that’s how the song got done.
“I don’t even remember the bet because I wasn’t there for that,” the producer-rapper shares. “I just remember I came back and he was about to prepare vocals. I didn’t take it personally. Even though my uncles own Ruff Ryders, people thought I had it easy but I actually had it harder.”
“I technically had to go outside and prove myself as a producer in order to be taken seriously by the inside. That’s why those earlier records were with Camron, Flipmode Squad, Noreaga and then the team was like: ‘oh, shit! He can produce.’ Then my family and the artists started taking me seriously.”
Another artist who definitely took him seriously – although he didn’t play any of her songs at the Bacardi Holiday Club – was the first lady of Ruff Ryders: Eve. In fact, most of Eve’s biggest hits – from the hardcore to the ballads – were produced by Swizz Beatz. He tells me an interesting story about one of her hits, Got A Man. Apparently, the song was initially Aaliyah’s song. “I think she did record it,” he says. “It would be dope to actually find that recording. I think she recorded three of them. I was super cool with Aaliyah but we never got to work in the studio together. I would send her some beats but they kept everything super tight over there.”
Even while Babygirl was alive, Swizz Beatz’s production was so good that just the intro would get artists hooked. It’s the reason why when you listen to Jigga My Nigga by Jay-Z and Scenario 2000 by the Ruff Ryders, you can hear that the two are related. Swizz Beatz tells me: “Banned From TV was another track where people heard the whole track but that was actually just the intro. The artists just wanted to write to the intro and the beat didn’t even get to drop.”
“With ‘Jigga,’” Swizz Beatz pauses here and puts a finger to his lips. “Oooh, I get to tell you some good stuff here,” he says. “What happened was – you know, it was a very competitive time back then – the Ruff Ryders had (the song) Jigga first. It was actually supposed to say Jada as in Jadakiss. But they didn’t take it.”
“So Jigga got it and it became super big and everybody was like ‘holy shit’ and they couldn’t believe the success that was coming from it. And so it caused so much mayhem that I thought: ‘you know what, I’m going to just take the intro to that beat and make another beat and put it on Secenario then everyone can just leave me alone!’”
Nostaligia aside, Swizz Beatz is readying his third solo album, The Poison, and he says that should be coming this year. For now, he is intent on helping African artists realise their potential. “I think in South Africa, all the creatives need to understand that it’s business,” he tells me. “You need to equip yourself in whatever you’re doing because it is a business. You got to watch everyone – including America – shoot their shot and fuck it up. There’s so much culture here that this can be the biggest place that owns its culture. The only way you can own your culture is to be educated in what you’re doing so that when everybody starts coming in and wants to do this – it can’t be a robbery, it has to be with respect. That artists aren’t being taken advantage of. From the outside looking in, I can see that this could be serious but don’t make it a waste of time. You don’t want to be unable to participate in it 10 years from now and it’s like ‘damn, we built that but none of us own it.’”
I tell him he’s linked up with the likes of musician, Black Coffee and fine artist, Nelson Makamo and they’re phenomenal business people so we’ll learn from them. “Or me too,” he says as he sit ups. I explain that we might not be receptive to that – especially knowing America’s imperialist nature on land, culture, the arts and more. The air is suddenly prickly between us.
Then he counters: “It’s not an African or American thing. It’s a creative place that I’m coming from. I am a part of this culture and that’s why I love it so much. We’re a lot of our own problems. We want change but we don’t like to accept it sometimes.” There’s no denying that Swizz Beatz’s presence in the upper echelon of the mainstream Mzansi music scene in the last week has left an indelible mark on those he spoke to. Here’s to hoping those artists thrive even more.