Swizz Beatz on Music: ‘I Never Understood It Was a Business’

These days, he knows better.

By Rahul Lal

Swizz Beatz has been producing hip-hop artists since he was only 16; his first major hit came when he worked on N.O.R.E.’s hit “Banned From T.V.” So, Swizz coming on to N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs podcast was a long time coming. During their long-ranging discussion (which resulted in the podcast being divided into two parts), Swizz looked back on his early days as a somewhat naive artist.

“When I got into music, I never understood it was a business,” Swizz told N.O.R.E. and co-host DJ EFN. “I never understood that it made billions. I never understood that it saved so many people from the street life that we was living. It was just something that I just lived and seen every day growing up in the South Bronx and then migrating back and forth to Harlem. It was something that we would play in our MPVs, Land Cruisers, Nautica Vans, it was just a way of life, naturally.”

Swizz, of course, was part of the Ruff Ryders, and he worked with fellow Ryder DMX on the legendary hit “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” in 1998, as well as records for Eve, Jay Z and Busta Rhymes, among others.

“Most of my records, when they come out, they’re not who they were [created] for,” said the producer. “[T.I.’s] ‘Bring ‘Em Out’ was made for when Beanie Sigel got out of jail, [Busta Rhymes’] ‘Touch It’ was for Eve. DMX didn’t like ‘Stop, Drop’ [Ruff Ryders’ Anthem]. None of my records really went to the people that I thought they were supposed to.”

These days, Swizz is trying to encourage younger artists to learn how to take care of their financial business. “We’re just a part of this environment and we’re creative beings and we do what we feel is right. Nobody ever talked to us about the business and that’s why in 2017 on forward, I’m going to teach the business,” he said. “I went to Harvard just so I can teach the people the business. I want to teach you art, I want to teach you business for free. Education should be free, knowledge should be free. They hold these things back from us and then, how we going to succeed to the next level? We don’t know what we doing. We’re just happy to make a sound. What’s the parameters of that sound to make our families live a better life other than the ghetto where we was brought up in? My whole hood is dead, I don’t know nobody in my hood right now. Everybody want to talk about change but the only change is within. We need to change with each other. What’s going on in Chicago got to change. What’s going on in New York got to change. What’s going on in the world got to change and that’s going to come within. We have to be smart to change those barriers and those rules and put those guns away and think more, let your mind be the change.”

Related: Swizz Beatz Says the Best Hip-Hop is Coming from the UK

He notes that it took him a while to learn about the music industry, and about the various sources of revenue. “I never knew the process of a publishing check,” he admitted. “I never knew the process royalties, mechanicals, all those things. Where do we learn that? Who teaches us that? What are we going to do?”

Artists today have a bit more exposure to the industry but also have more to learn about when it comes to streaming and other sources. While he appreciates today’s artists and producers, he sees a big difference in the creativity and originality in the music. The hip-hop charts today are run by, in Noreaga’s words, “mumble rappers.” He appreciates them for what they are but also sees a stark contrast from the days when he and Jay-Z were dominating the charts.

“We were very experimental,” Swizz said recalling the era of ’90s hip-hop he holds so dearly. “The goal was to be as far left as right as possible. Nowadays, it sounds like one producer and, respect to all those producers, but nowadays, it’s an easy fix. No disrespect to the technology or the people using that technology, I use the technology, but be as diverse as you can.”

Swizz, of course, is married to one of the heaviest hitters of this generation’s R&B era. Alicia Keys. He still seems to be a bit in awe of her and her charitable projects. “My wife is a special person. I remember going to Africa with her and going to four hospitals and seeing her face in these hospitals,” he began. “At the last hospital, I said to her, ‘Babe, why they got your face in these hospitals?’ She said ‘Um, these are my hospitals.’ I said ‘You own these hospitals?’ Man, I’m married to her and she didn’t even tell me that all these hospitals we went to, she built them s—s… It didn’t mean nothing to her because the gift that she was giving back meant so much more. I’m going to Africa and I’m seeing people living and making it off of being 30 pounds and surviving off of a medicine that they’re able to afford and I never knew that my wife was affording them this medicine. She never, ever told me this story. My wife feeds over 300,000 people a year and never talks about it. Her own money, her own grind, her own things and never talks about it. This is her. I’ve got a lot of work to do still today. She puts me on my A-game.”

Listen to both parts of the podcast below.


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