“CUE UP THAT EIGHT-MINUTE JOINT!”
Twelve songs deep into previewing his new project, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean looks like a kid on Christmas. Nestled into his “lucky room,” Studio E of Midtown Manhattan’s famed Sony Music Studios, on this March evening, the 28-year-old hip-hop veteran’s been bouncing with excitement and wearing a big ole candy-cane grin on his face since “Product Man,” the album’s high-octane intro, came on over an hour ago.
Lucky as it may be, Studio E is cramped quarters. Maybe 12 by 15 feet, with a wall-to-wall soundboard, human-sized speakers and a large leather couch, the place doesn’t leave a lot of room for its assorted guests—the bespectacled engineer playing the music on a laptop, the reporter with his minirecorder, and a large, silent dude in a black hoodie referred to only as “Cannon” (not the Atlanta DJ). Still, Swizz is up and animated, lip-synching and shadow battling along with every song.
As the “eight-minute joint” begins playing, a jazzy cascade of horns and strings sets the mood on instant cool. Think Busta Rhymes’ “New York Shit” (a DJ Scratch–produced track that Swizz guested on) but more subdued. Untitled at this point and expected to feature Q-Tip in, as Swizz imagines it, “Midnight Marauders flow,” the track is pure, organic hip-hop. Then Swizz comes on and proceeds to freestyle for, yes, eight minutes straight. No main topic, no jaw-dropping lines, just flow and flow and flow.
Swizz is geeked, shouting over the music. “They’re not ready for this shit!”
He’s probably right. MC Swizz Beatz is likely to catch a lot of people off guard. A highly sought-after producer since his largely sample-free, synth-based sound was first introduced on Lox’s “All for the Love,” from 1998’s Money, Power & Respect, the in-house music maker for Yonkers, N.Y.’s once dominant Ruff Ryders movement has co-created a bounteous trove of major hits: DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” Eve’s “Love Is Blind,” Jay-Z’s “Money, Cash, Hoes,” Styles’ “Good Times,” T.I.’s “Bring Em Out.”
So his beats are beloved. His vocals? That’s a different story. Known for hyperactive ad-libs (“Swizzy!”) and overly amped cheerleading (“Get it up! Get it up!”), Swizz’s voice has come to be many a listener’s least favorite element in his otherwise successful recipe. That’s why it seems very weird, and incredibly bold, that he’s done what he’s done—recorded a full-on solo album, One Man Band Man, with his own rapping on every track. Then again, we’re living in a time when some of the biggest rap stars boast about their lack of lyrical skills, when a No. 1 hit song starts off with the line, “I don’t gotta rap, I could sell a mil sayin’ nothin’ on the track.” If that’s the case, why shouldn’t producers cut MCs out of the equation? Hell, if Diddy, Kanye, Pharrell and Timbaland can do it, why can’t Swizzy?
“NOW, I’M REALLY ABOUT TO FK YOUR HEAD UP!”
Suddenly, the gothic church organs of “The Funeral” fill the room. Swizz’s delivery intensifies, and his subject matter turns serious—untimely death, a child-molesting ex-priest—solemnity matched by the song’s no-frills structure. “No hook, no ad-libs, nothing,” explains Swizz confidently. “I made this song for people to hear and say, ‘Who is this, and what the fuck is this?’”
Swizz is aware that comparisons to other producers turned rappers are inevitable. It doesn’t faze him. “I’m not competing with nobody,” he says. “I’m just trying to make history and push the envelope a little further…Honestly, I’m not trying to be the most lyrical; I just want that ‘Most Creative’ award.”
If you were to check his high school yearbook, you might see Swizz’s mug next to the award for “Most Likely to MC.” Transplanted from his native South Bronx to the Atlanta suburb of Stone Mountain at the awkward age of 14, Swizz used hip-hop to overcome his new-kid-in-town status. “It started from beating lunch tables,” he says. “If you ask people who went to school with me, they knew I was going to be the best rapper. They knew that I could freestyle forever.” Besides rhyming, he had skills on the wheels of steel, and, under the moniker “DJ K-Swiss,” he spun his way into popular ATL nightclubs like Atrium and Club 112 while still in his teens. He gradually developed his beatmaking and, then, his own sound—an ingenious marriage of Atlanta’s adrenaline and New York City’s grit.
Meanwhile, in Yonkers, his uncles Darrin and Waah had started a record label. When they heard what their nephew was doing, they flew him back up north, and Swizz’s beats became the sound of Ruff Ryders.
The rest, as they say, is history. Through nearly a decade’s worth of hits, Swizz has solidified his legacy as one of hip-hop’s most successful producers. Save for those boisterous hooks and the scattered verses, though, on his commercially neglected 2002 compilation, Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories, Swizz’s lyrical chops have only been heard by those fortunate enough to share studio time with him. “I always had to write somewhat,” he says. “I’ve always had to come up with concepts and hooks for these artists. I’ve had the flows and everything down since day one.”