is doing a bang-up job at masquerading a sneaky late September breeze in Newark, NJ. Nestled behind the tree-lined roads of the city’s Branch Brook Park, an unremarkable structure––with gradients of grey brick and black gates that don’t exactly extend an invitation––is doing its own exercise in camouflage. Once beyond the building’s glass doors, a utopia of juvenility is revealed: neon colored walls, arcade games and faux cobweb banners that were hung just in time for October. More than one sign assures that you have arrived at “The Home of the World’s Greatest Birthday Parties.” In graffiti on its brick walls, homage is paid to places that are “Gone But Never Forgotten:” Empire Rollerdrome, Laces, Twin City, Sweet Ruby’s, Dreamland Arena, Metropolis and Park Circle. A dim red light illuminates the focal point of the experience, a skating rink, adorned by tiny specks of light reflecting from a giant disco ball and metallic streamers flailing to the beat of the frigid air conditioning. This is Branch Brook Park Roller Skating Center, a place Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean calls home.
Nearly 40 years removed from Fab Five Freddy, Kool Lady Blue and the “Wheels of Steel” groove that brought The Bronx’s hip-hop scene a little further downtown, the 40-year-old producer is a worthy representation of a rich history: a luminary of the culture with a throwback “four-wheel drive.” Today’s “zone” (easily identifiable as his favorite English language word), is a black, blue and white colorblocked sweatsuit accented by large red stripes that read “FAR FROM ORDINARY.” Swizz’s countenance is slightly disguised by a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Bally Shok-1 snapback, swiveled to the back for an extra dab of cool. He darts past the “Skates” booth, as he’s visibly prepared with his own, a sleek, all-black, heavy-looking pair that he doesn’t seem to mind carrying. While being photographed for this feature, he playfully stretches out balloons and toys with fake swords behind the “Stuff Shop” booth, and it becomes clear that a third act of concealment is taking place: a behemoth of the culture, carefully cloaking a bright-eyed inner child. But for Swizz, roller skating is not an effort to salvage youth. “It’s a form of freedom,” his gravelly voice notes. “Also, what I love about it is, it’s a time when the culture comes together and has movement. The culture don’t move no more. We just wanna sit still, and be cool. Skating brought our culture together with fun, and even brothers holding hands, but in a creative way and in a real festive way. You never really see that in our communities.” For this man in particular, it appears that rhyme and reason are never too far from one another.
Skating brought our culture together with fun, and even brothers holding hands, but in a creative way and in a real festive way.
Fix your lips to call Swizz Beatz a legend or an O.G, and he’s quick to interject with the word “young,” mostly as a signifier that his best is yet to come. With a music career that spans more than half of his life, the Ruff Ryders’ walking emblem has amassed all the necessary ingredients of a job well done: No. 1 records, Grammy Awards, platinum and gold sales, and staple records with music’s brightest stars. From crafting the iconic sounds of DMX, Eve and The LOX, to being the man behind Beyoncé fan favorites, to whipping up classic rap records with Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz is a cemented figure of the late-90s and early 2000s hip-hop zeitgeist––and he knows it. He’s even kept count (580 songs released and 380 million in domestic sales, to be exact). But it’s not often that he actually calls a timeout to check the scoreboard. “I don’t have plaques or anything hung up in my house,” he notes, fully aware that this may come as a surprise. “I don’t need to be reminded of what I’ve done, because I feel what I’ve done, and I am what I’ve done.” How a man of such distinction still finds #goals all these years later, lies in the curbing of ego––a feat that is far from characteristic in hip-hop, where machismo and braggadocio are exigencies.
I don’t need to be reminded of what I’ve done, because I feel what I’ve done, and I am what I’ve done.
is a stark representation of this antithesis. The title’s disruptive denotation leans into the current status of our nation and world––racism, xenophobia, political corruption and its resulting unrest––while its connotation offers a hopeful anecdote. “You look at the news, you look at the images, you look at our current situation of government, all these different things, and it feels like poison,” he begins to explain. “But we can’t turn our heads to the poison and act like, ‘Oh that didn’t happen to me or anybody in my family, so let’s keep it moving.’ In reality, you have to face your poison in order to poise on, in order to move on to the next level.” This idea of chaos and reclamation is illustrated on the album’s cover with a piece entitled “End Of Empire” from Los Angeles-based artist Cleon Peterson. A visual representation of “upending the system, taking power back from the corrupt and fighting for justice” according to Swizz, Peterson’s signature exaggeration of the human form finds evil, blood and scorn in a scene of utter destruction. As black, towering figures wreak havoc on their unsuspecting victims, taking knives to their bodies in visible disdain, uneasiness leaps off the work’s canvas and seeps into the psyche of the beholder. Taking audible aim at such breadth, Swizz first concocted a lengthy project that he believed was complete––until a certain rapper from North Carolina suggested he trim the fat.
In reality, you have to face your poison in order to poise on, in order to move on to the next level.
Swizz Beatz found himself holed up trading sounds in the studio with J. Cole, a stamped leader of a slightly less “new” school of hip-hop, one that is slowly creeping toward O.G.-status itself with the ascension of 19-year-old internet imports. Upon presenting the earlier, lengthier version of Poison to the Dreamville Records founder, Swizz was found on the receiving end of advice he had given many times before: make some hard cuts. What transpired thereafter for the two artists was a case of teacher-becomes-student, marked by Cole offering a slew of suggestions, from platform choices for releases, to video budgets. Along the way, it was a no-brainer for Swizz that his counterpart, though seven years his junior, was playing an integral role in what Poison grew to be. The result? A succinct ten-track offering, co-executive produced by J. Cole. “If I look back and I see all the things I used that really made a great impact on this record, it was things that we communicated about, and he acted as an executive producer, so why not give it to him?” In a culture plagued by generational discord, this reverse tutelage is a less likely practice by predecessors in the game. As the Lil Yachty’s of the world are trashed for believing rap paragon The Notorious B.I.G. to be “overrated,” so too are the Eric B. & Rakim’s calling today’s landscape the “devolution of rap.” The unfortunate tradition is one Swizz Beatz remembers all too well in his infancy, citing most of the criticism aimed at him as the commentary of his forefathers. “It’s insecurities, egos, the same things that apply with our culture and our male culture period, it’s egos,” he says, before broadening the context. “If you look at how many incidents and violence that’s happened between our communities, it’s just egos and miscommunication. Ninety percent of it is not even real beef. So these things are inside very deep.”
I didn’t survive from 17 to 40 just off of hit records. I survived in this culture and industry off of being a genuine person.
But one would be remiss to mistake Swizz’s grace for a silencing of his seniority. “A lot of this generation wants to just treat music and the creativity like a bubblegum factory. Chew it up, spit it out, chew it up, spit it out,” he laments. “Nah, relax. Actually listen to this and vibe. Give yourself the respect to respect.” Ever confident in his expertise, the elder statesmen is still quite comfortable with setting himself apart, namely in the realm of music production. At the height of hip-hop’s musicality, full-on plots were brought to life by the likes of Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre, and a host of other names that became synonymous with turning rap tracks into theatrical events. Somewhere along the way, the art of shaping sound into story was replaced by the regurgitation of similar 808 and hi-hat combinations. The timbre of artists’ voices was masked––sacrificed, even––by autotune, and thematic material was traded in for repetitive rendition. Swizz points to a common culprit for the unfortunate trend. “I think the lines got blurred with the technology. Most of the equipment do the tracks for you now. So I think the lines got blurred because it became so accessible to get Ableton, Fruity Loops, or whatever one may use, and actually make something that’s knocking.” He is clear about the difference between making beats and producing, while still leaving room to learn for today’s young talent. “They can grow from it. I was a beatmaker before, we all start off as beatmakers. So it’s the right path, but it’s up to them to graduate into producer status.” At this stage of his career, the backdrop is just as important as the foreground. While admittedly extracting a few “big” records from Poison’s final tracklist, Swizz Beatz is crystal clear about “quality,” a word he uses a total of 11 times in this conversation. “I’m not going all out just for a No. 1 record, just for a radio record, or just for whatever title of a record, I’m going for a body of work that’s curated, where every artist on it is delivering 100% or better,” he says, the white of his eye piercing through his dark frames for emphasis. “So that’s how people made the cut for the album: they had to deliver the maximum best that you know them for, or higher.” Collaboration was at the pulse for this project, moving Poison’s purpose forward with every beat.
“Epileptic overdose, head-banging lyrical fit—we vibrate on. No man, monster, or attack can attempt contact. This wildfire in your veins cannot be tamed. No spitting in tongues with your back on the ground, shaking. This is your awakening…” – “Poison Intro” (featuring Áine Zion)
It is a complete offering for heads who’ve paid their dues. Who’ve stopped talking to a friend over a rap disagreement. Who’ve recreated their favorite beats on lunchroom tables. Who’ve amped up rap battles in the name of disrespect. Who’ve rewound tapes, CDs and MP3 players to catch flows, metaphors and sneak disses. Who’ve loved hip-hop fiercely, and still do. A fitting first pitch came by way of Lil Wayne’s throwing arm on the album’s first single “Pistol On My Side.” The track finds the beloved “mixtape Wayne” flow activated over a persistent snare, accented by the dainty piano strokes of Swizz’s wife, Alicia Keys. The album also captures Nas at his best, a self-professed “walking observatory of murder stories since a shorty,” painting pictures of poverty, oppression and generational trauma over a sample of The New Birth’s “Echoes On My Mind” (1974). Jim Jones’ bounce is recovered on “Preach,” and the tag-team stylings of Jadakiss and Styles P is merely accented by Kendrick Lamar. Wholly a testament to fruitfulness on the fringe, Swizz and these co-stars prove their prowess to be far from dormant. But Poison isn’t just a mainstay for the seasoned; Young Thug’s lyricism finds vitality on “25 Soldiers,” Giggs brings UK grime stateside on “Come Again,” 2 Chainz pledges allegiance to the lavish life on “Stunt,” and French Montana’s laid-back flow complements Swizz at his most amped on the album’s closer, “SWIZZMONTANA.” Swizz Beatz, a Rap Whisperer of sorts, can do what he wants. And not just because he’s good at it.
A lot of this generation wants to just treat music and the creativity like a bubblegum factory. Chew it up, spit it out, chew it up, spit it out. Nah, relax. Actually listen to this and vibe. Give yourself the respect to respect.
“I didn’t survive from 17 to 40 just off of hit records,” he makes a point to say. “I survived in this culture and industry off of being a genuine person. I speak to all the young artists, older artists, on so many off-the-record conversations about life. And it’s like building a friendship. That’s what I tell producers: listen man, build friendships. Don’t worry just getting a check for something, build friendships. There’s gonna be a time when they’re not gonna call you for music.” This is true of the serendipitous process Swizz enjoyed while creating his latest body of work. While in Miami with Lil Wayne, the two may or may not have talked about coffee and the Hot Sauce Challenge more than they actually discussed their collaboration. With Jim Jones, “Preach” was simply the result of “let’s try something.” Alicia Keys added the piano to “Pistol On My Side” without her husband’s greenlight, taking the initiative while he was in the next room. Kendrick Lamar was a hail mary play after a plan to make a sequel to The LOX’s “We Gon’ Make It.” Hearing Nas’ rich narratives made him abandon drums on “Echo” altogether. In light of cutting songs from his original lineup, Swizz’s creative juices eventually flowed into a four-project series, with Poison leading the way for three upcoming releases: Beauty & The Beatz (an R&B record for the ladies), Return of the Showtime (an album chock-full of big-energy anthems) and Global Mindset (a collection of international sounds). This kind of dance with the Universe can only be learned over time, and thankfully hip-hop seems to be giving its older artists more skin in the game; Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nas and Swizz Beatz himself are all still dropping albums in their 40’s.
I’m not gonna sit here at 40 and act like I’m Trippie Redd or one of them, dressing all different, coming in here all flooded out like what was doing back then.
Swizz says with a defiant shoulder shrug. “That’s one thing that we do in the culture is, we put an age on it. But of you look at anybody from country, to rock or any other genre, they’re still on tour doing their thing. Why does hip-hop have to have an age?” His stance is fair: artists should not be robbed of the right to grow and for their fans to grow with them. He even points to the likes of Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Al Green and The Temptations, who all toured well into their later years, as defense for his argument. He tosses in Jimmy Iovine for good measure, who started Interscope Records at the not-so-tender age of 50. But even Swizz Beatz can’t deny that some separation must be made, especially when it comes to aesthetic. “I’m not gonna sit here at 40 and act like I’m Trippie Redd or one of them, dressing all different, coming in here all flooded out like what was doing back then.” Turn the dial in reverse to “back then,” and Swizz Beatz wasn’t campaigning for artist compensation with his No Commission traveling exhibits, or graduating from Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program, or partnering with large-scale companies like Reebok, Christian Louboutin and Audemar Piguet. “I would disappoint people if I came in not being my true self and people weren’t seeing the growth, and seeing how I mingle with these companies outside of music and conduct my business, spearhead education and all those things, just to come in here looking like 6ix9ine.” Rainbow hair and face tattoos simply don’t match the current motive, and he’s perfectly fine with that. What he’s not okay with, is exclusion. “Most millionaires get that after 50. Stop feeling like we gotta rush to get to an empty destination.”
The Young O.G. assures us all: he’s just getting started.