MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios across the decades. The latest instalment features Swizz Beatz, who has produced hits for a long list of greats including Jay-Z, DMX, Beyoncé, Eve and Kanye West. World’s Greatest Producers is sponsored by Hipgnosis Song Management.
Over the last few years, Swizz Beatz has, he tells us, been preparing for his career 2.0. The first twenty years, during which time he’s produced for the likes of Jay-Z, Eve, DMX and Beyoncé, were just a “warm-up”.
“I haven’t even started yet,” he says. “You start when you understand what you have and what your power is. Now it’s a fair race because I own my power.”
That power has been realised as a result of gaining a greater understanding of business by spending three years at Harvard University Business School, which Beatz says will be leading to him launching new platforms and ventures.
One of those has already arrived — pandemic hit Verzuz, which Beatz started as an online live music battle series on Instagram in his garage with Timbaland.
After evolving into a livestream platform of its own, Verzuz was acquired by TrillerNet last year and is on track to go public as TrillerVerz via a reverse merger between holding company SeaChange and Triller.
He’s also recently executively produced the soundtracks to TV series Godfather of Harlem and Queens and is now back in the studio working on new music, which he says he’ll be using to collaborate with artists soon.
Beatz explains: “What I like to do is make like one hundred new beats and then I sit down with the artist. I want to make sure I have what I need first to present — I want to call the artist because I’m excited.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Beatz was surrounded by music from an early age and he first started out as a DJ.
“The DJ is what caught my attention because the DJ was really controlling the crowd, for the audience and the rappers,” he remembers. “I was like, that guy has a lot of power and that’s a cool job, you’re able to play all the hits.”
While making his mixtapes for DJ sets in his mid-teens, Beatz started making his own intro beats, which caught the attention of other DJs who started asking him to do theirs.
His uncle, who co-founded US label Ruff Ryders, suggested that Beatz start taking production seriously and the idea was planted.
“there weren’t a lot of producers at the time that I was looking up to. The producer was like the engineer — way, way, way behind the scenes.”
He says: “I was like, ‘What’s producing?’ because there weren’t a lot of producers at the time that I was looking up to. The producer was like the engineer — way, way, way behind the scenes. But that’s how it started — as a DJ and then I got into producing by default.”
Beatz learned his production skills by spending time with the equipment while in his room (“a lot of time on punishment”). His early career involved producing for artists including Noreaga, Busta Rhymes and Jadakiss before a summer trip to New York resulted in the hit that changed everything.
Beatz was invited to spend time at Ruff Ryders, which is when he met DMX. The two struck up a friendship and the first track they worked on together was DMX’ Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.
He says: “That was the game-changing song. I remember sitting on a fire hydrant, listening to every car passing by on 125th street playing the song and that’s when I felt like I finally did something big.”
Here, we chat to Beatz about growing up in the South Bronx, his approach to production, working with artists and much more besides.
I read that you had a difficult time at school. Can you expand on that?
I didn’t have a difficult time in school academically, I had a difficult time at school because of the environment that I was in. I got into a little bit of trouble here and there, which comes with the area that I lived in and the person that I am. I wasn’t going to let [people] run all over me and have their way because then it would lead to a bigger problem.
What was it about the school environment that was difficult for you?
It was the South Bronx and a very low income area. When I would defend myself, I would have to go to another school so I was moving further and further away from my comfort zone. That made it even harder because those people that I was going to these new schools with, I didn’t have a connection with. If I’m pushed to three other schools way out, I probably know like 2% percent of those people, they’re all familiar with each other and I’m the outcast and then I’ve got to defend myself from being the outcast. It’s just a revolving door that you can get caught up in growing up in those particular areas. But thank God that music led the way and that I knew how to carry myself and survive in the jungle. Music has always been my safe haven, it kept me off the streets, it kept me occupied and it kept me dreaming big.
How do you approach production? Do you have a specific process?
The process is just being free in the studio. I don’t have any pressure on me going in — I’m not like, ‘I’m going to make a hit’ because if you say that, eight, nine times out of ten you’re definitely not going to make a hit. If you just let it flow, you know what people want and you can feel the elements, it will naturally happen.
“I’m not like, ‘I’m going to make a hit’ because if you say that, eight, nine times out of ten you’re definitely not going to make a hit.”
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I draw inspiration from everything. I listen to all types of music from around the world and I don’t listen to too much rap because it helps me when I produce rap. Trying to be like everyone else on the radio and trying to give people the same thing, which a lot of people actually want, I can’t help with that. When I did Stop Drop [DMX’ Ruff Ryders Anthem], everybody wanted Stop Drop and I was like, ‘That’s done already, I can’t give you that’. That was one of the things I learnt early — not to have the pressure of your last hit because it might be your last. You’ve got to move forward.
Is there anything you’ve learned about how to get the best creatively out of the people you’re working with in the studio?
Honesty. I tell artists, no matter how big they are, ‘I don’t think that verse is special’ and I’ll tell them why as well. I have great communication with the artists, not necessarily telling them what to do, but explaining the creative process of art. It’s like, ‘When you did this cadence, it sounded better like this, but when you did this, it took me away from the song’. My thing is, ‘You can try it and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and if you don’t want to try it, you don’t have to try it either’. I always leave it in the artist’s hands to do what they feel is best but I’m going to say what I need to say because that’s why I have my job.
“You have to know when to get in and know when to step out — that’s part of being a real producer.”
A lot of people will just say anything to be on the song but I’ll decline being on the song if I don’t feel that it’s right. I remember hearing Jay-Z’s 4:44 album and he was like, ‘Do you have anything for it?’ but I thought the record was so perfect there was nothing for me to do. Most people would jump on the record and ignore that it’s already a perfect project. You have to know when to get in and know when to step out — that’s part of being a real producer. Most people just want to do anything and that’s not what’s going to help you in the long run, you have to do magical things.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?
Maintain, stay humble. A lot of people start believing what people are telling them they are instead of actually knowing who they really are. A person could tell me whatever, I know who I am so I’m good.
Do you have a most memorable studio session or artist that you’ve worked with?
I would definitely say every session with DMX is memorable, crazy and fun. We’ll listen to a bunch of old school music, he’ll sing a bunch of old school songs and that’s how we got into our vibes. We’ll create the zone and then he’ll be ready to go. With producing, you can’t just throw artists in cold. You’ve got to warm up the studio session, you’ve got to warm up the energy and I know how to do that with him, with Jay, with Buster, with everybody. It’s about creating a friendly environment and then taking it to the next level.
Do you have a toughest production job? If so, is there anything you learned from that experience?
Doing things that your gut instinct is telling you not to do — sometimes that’s a tough thing. You sign up for something which you know you didn’t really want to do but you’re being nice and that whole session and energy is just dreadful. I don’t do those any more. You have to listen to your gut because it’s not worth it, not even the money. It’s like, okay, the money is cool, but how do you feel? You feel silly. Some hits came out [of those kind of sessions] but I know the backstory on a lot of them and I’m like, it could have been better. But I’m a Virgo so that’s just me naturally.
Your career came of age during a historically legendary time for hip hop in the US. What do you make of the modern hip hop music scene?
It’s amazing. Everything is going to take its turn, if everybody was doing today what we did yesterday, that means there’s no progress. I love today, it’s a whole new sound, a whole new look, a whole new energy. It’s up to us to keep up with that progress.
Verzuz has been a huge success story during the pandemic — what’s the future for the series and how are you navigating the challenge to keep it relevant now the world is opening up again?
That’s not a challenge for us — the world’s been open and Verzuz is not a thing of the past. We already proved that it’s not just a pandemic moment. It’s gotten so big that we’re in the middle of setting up our structure and hiring amazing people, like Steve Pamon [as President].
“We already proved that verzuz is not just a pandemic moment. It’s the biggest online platform for performances, period.”
We have so many verticals and mega big Verzuz that we’re about to announce. It’s the biggest online platform for performances, period, and we have to staff up quick and take time out to really respect and represent that because it’s not just a show that’s on Instagram anymore.
Here’s a big picture question that we ask everyone: what would you change about the music industry and why?
The only thing that I would change about the music industry is the [royalty] splits with streaming. I feel that we should sit down, as an industry, and have a conversation about certain ways things are paid. We know that labels put a lot of money into artists, so they definitely have to recoup, but what’s the plan after that? Perhaps we could come up with different strategies that mean when you perform on a certain level, it unlocks different things. I’d change the old programme and bring some new energy to it.
Are you hopeful that will change in future?
Yeah, I just hope that the conversation with the creatives and the business counterparts gets closer because right now, there’s a lot of people in the middle so the artists don’t get to know 100% [what’s going on]. But artists have also got to be willing to learn and understand the music business. I know you want to do music all day but this is business, so I encourage all artists to learn the business, not only thinking about it when it’s too late, when you’ve signed something you don’t like and you’re disgruntled and it’s become uncomfortable to do music. Don’t wait until it gets to that point. Have some representatives sit down and make sure they explain it to you so you have an understanding and there’s no surprises.
Did you have a handle on the business side of things in your early career? Or was that something you had to learn the hard way?
None of us have a handle on business in our early career because we never even knew we were going to have a career. I’m telling you to prepare because I wasn’t able to prepare for it, I was just having fun. Most people coming in, they are having fun and they sign away thirteen albums and on the fourth album, it’s like, ‘I’ve got the No.1 record in the world and I don’t have any money’. That’s when everything hits you. I went to the Michael Jackson play with my kids the other day and the one thing that keeps coming up when we see [the stories of] all of these greats is financial problems. When I look at that, I’m like, man, we all fell short with the educational part.
Aside from learning about the business side of things, is there any other advice you’d give to someone starting out as a producer today?
The reason why I’m here is because I was being as original as possible. If somebody had anything close to what I was doing, I would erase it. The same goes with Timbaland, Pharrell, Kanye, Dr. Dre — all of us have individual sounds. So for all of the producers, create your own energy that the world will know you by and if it’s done, it’s done already.
“Doing things that have been done already can get you in the door real quick but the journey is going to be real quick as well. Take the risk.”
Doing things that have been done already can get you in the door real quick but the journey is going to be real quick as well. Take the risk. I took the risk and stopped sampling and started messing with synthesisers and that’s what made my sound different.
You’ve achieved a lot in your career but do you have any other ambitions you’d like to tick off?
I haven’t even started yet, that was just a warm-up. The reason that was a warm-up was because I was so young I didn’t understand but now I’ve invested in myself by going back to school. I was at the Harvard [Business School] programme for three years and I know how to strategise. So now, it’s a different story. I’m like, ‘How can I have started then when I didn’t understand what I was doing?’ You start when you understand what you have and what your power is. Now it’s a fair race because I own my power.
What can we expect as a result of that?
Amazing platforms like Verzuz and many more things. Verzuz started in the garage and we’re talking about an IPO. That wasn’t a freestyle, you have to know how to do that. That’s why I always say education is important because without education, Verzuz would have been gone, it would have been something just for the pandemic but the reason why it’s not only for the pandemic and we survived a year strong after the pandemic and moving forward is because of education.
MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management. Music Business Worldwide