Swizz Beatz: ‘DMX was a hero. He would give clothes off his back to the homeless’

The superproducer is married to Alicia Keys and has made hits for Jay-Z and Beyoncé – but his current role is custodian of DMX’s legacy. He explains the particular power of the late rapper

Don’t call DMX’s Exodus a “posthumous album”. Its executive producer, Swizz Beatz, is adamant about that. “I keep seeing that, and it’s so annoying that I can’t correct everybody,” he says. That description suggests a project pieced together from odds and ends to make a quick dollar, but DMX completed Exodus before he died on 9 April, aged 50, after a heart attack. It is the final pillar propping up a broad legacy: DMX was the first artist to have five albums in a row debut at No 1 in the US, and Exodus will surely also top the charts this week.

Swizz Beatz’ phone contacts is a list of musical aristocracy – he’s made key tracks for Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Busta Rhymes and more, and is married to Alicia Keys – but his name has always been tethered to DMX like no other: he produced two of his biggest hits, Party Up (Up in Here) and Ruff Ryders’ Anthem, and handled the majority of the beats on his second album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. “For me and him to go back in the studio like this, we had to go big,” Swizz says, speaking over Zoom. “He deserved it to be big, and he accepted it to be big. That’s the thing: you can have a big plan for someone but if they don’t have that plan for themselves, it’s just you having a plan. The key with this is that he was ready.”

DMX. Photograph: Clay Patrick Mcbride

Exodus breaks a near-decade album drought for DMX, born Earl Simmons. The latter period of his life was marked by personal setbacks: prison terms for offences including tax evasion, drug possession, driving charges and failure to pay child support, and problems with addiction and bankruptcy. It took an appearance last year on webcast series Verzuz, co-created by Swizz, to end the recording drought. After squaring off with fellow 1990s veteran Snoop Dogg on Verzuz, he rode the momentum into Snoop’s studio in Los Angeles after “seeing all the love and the feedback from the fans,” Swizz says. “It made him really excited and it put him in a very collaborative space”. DMX was transformed once more into the sneering, barking ball of energy you heard on his peak-era records, his voice a little thicker and more weathered than before but his flow well preserved.

He and Swizz crafted a prestige album featuring high-end production, a broad spectrum of themes, and starry cameos: Jay-Z, Nas, Lil Wayne and Usher among them. Even Bono appears on the song Skyscrapers; he later sent some personal drawings to the rapper along with a letter calling him “DMX the BMX”. “If you look back on the history of DMX albums they weren’t feature-heavy, unless it was artists that were in the family,” says Swizz. “He decided to embrace his peers, artists who had love for him.”

Tragedy struck out of the blue. Swizz describes DMX as being in a “great space” towards the end. There were plans for him to take up a two-month workout programme in preparation for the album release. Yet on 2 April, DMX was rushed to White Plains hospital, New York following a reported drug overdose, where he was placed on life support, and died a week later. The final time Swizz spoke to him was just before boarding a flight, with DMX asking if they could connect soon. Three days later, Swizz received an unusual text.

“[He] just wrote [to tell] me how appreciative he was for everything I’ve done for him. I’m like, ‘Why is he writing this?’ Then I wrote him back. I sent him this old school hip-hop playlist, and that was the last time I heard from him … It was very quick.”

Swizz is now overseeing the rollout of Exodus, and telling the world of what he sees as the rapper’s true nature. “I know there’s a lot of negative stories, but DMX was a humanitarian. He was a hero for the people. He would give clothes off his back to homeless people and walk home in his boxers. He would pull over the car and talk to a homeless person, or a mother that looked like she needed help with something. He was doing this every day. It wasn’t for press or social media. The way you’d find out what DMX was doing was through other people posting it, never him. He never posted any of these good deeds at all or talked about them. I feel like that’s what people should know: DMX was a giver.”

Kanye West once declared that Swizz “may be the best rap producer of all time”, and Swizz’s work can be defined by its sheer scope: symphonic but often with a hard edge, his beats are the kind to reach the corners of an 80,000-seater stadium. Think of a song like Jay-Z’s On to the Next One and its tornado of swirling electronics, or the Rocky-appropriate horns on TI’s Swing Ya Rag. Swizz may not cultivate a profile on the scale of other superproducers such as Dr Dre and Pharrell Williams (though he does frequently jump on the mic, and has released solo albums) but he’s proved just as reliable a hit-maker.

Born Kasseem Daoud Dean, his origins are in the neighbourhoods that birthed hip-hop. The 42-year-old grew up in the Bronx just a few years after the advent of the genre and bore witness to its origins: as a kid, Swizz was part of a breakdance crew called GTR – Guaranteed to Rock – and he dabbled in graffiti. He fondly remembers hanging out in a local park where art, music and community spirit would alchemise.

“Guys would be DJing and rap battling right then and there, but it’s like a basketball game is happening at the same time, kids are playing tag at the same time, they all went together. It wasn’t even like a special moment to hear music playing because it was just something you heard. And you’d see art everywhere.”

Swizz began music production to create intros to his DJ tapes; despite being aware of old school pioneers such as Marley Marl and Scott La Rock, he admits he was once unsure of a producer’s role. He caught a break from uncles Joaquin “Waah” and Darrin “Dee” Dean, co-CEOs of Ruff Ryders Entertainment, home of DMX. Not yet 18, Swizz sold a beat that would become Ruff Ryders’ Anthem, from DMX’s classic first album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, an instantly chantable hip-hop hymn that smashed like a granite fist. “I just knew I hadn’t heard a sonic like that,” he says. “Although it was basic, there was just something about it that was electric. I remember people turning down that beat. I tried to sell that beat to like two other artists at that time. Boy, they kicked themselves after that.”

Swizz parlayed his role as one of Ruff Ryders’ key producers into work for stars including TI, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj and Gucci Mane. He contributed to Beyoncé’s second album B’Day, forging cuts including singles Ring the Alarm and Upgrade U. “Each artist that I work with, they’re different individuals, they’re different creatives. Drake is more melodic so Fancy [a single from 2010] will work beautiful for him. DMX, his vocals can take up a lot of space so you can give him something as stripped down as [Ruff Ryders’ Anthem] and it becomes the anthem. Busta Rhymes, who is animated, I tend to want to change the drums and do things I wouldn’t do for other artists for him because his capabilities are so high. I just curate each show so it fits.”

Hip-hop mogul Dame Dash has spoken approvingly of an octopus business strategy – having multiple ventures – and Swizz certainly seems to have eight arms. He holds interests in fashion, art, even camel racing; has served as executive music producer on the Forest Whitaker crime drama Godfather of Harlem; and with rolling lockdowns stifling creatives and entrepreneurs alike, he adapted to the pandemic by creating Verzuz alongside Timbaland, a genuine pop cultural smash that sees two prominent producers or performers “battle” live on Instagram to decide who has the better body of work.

“The world is a big place – it’s good to have different vertices,” he says. “But you’ve got to be careful of being a jack of all trades and a master of none. If I’m getting into something, I know where the victories can be. You can have a bunch of things but if you don’t have no time to perfect them, they’re just things.”

Swizz Beatz and his wife Alicia Keys speaking at the NAACP Image awards in March.
Swizz Beatz and his wife Alicia Keys speaking at the NAACP Image awards in March. Photograph: 52nd NAACP Image Awards/BET/via Getty Images

For now, he’s fully focused on being the custodian of DMX’s legacy. Exodus includes the song Letter to My Son (Call Your Father), a direct soliloquy to his eldest child Xavier that takes on particular poignancy in light of his death: DMX acknowledges that his use of drugs taught Xavier to avoid them, and heartbreakingly tells him: “We could’ve been best of friends all along.” For Swizz, it was right that he invited Xavier to the studio to be among the first to hear the album.

“X was supposed to play him the song, but he didn’t get to play it for him, so I had to play it for him and make sure he was OK with everything. His energy was great. That’s a pretty hardcore song and for him to still keep the energy up and be like, ‘Man, this is so great Swizz, wow’, it made me feel really good.”

In Swizz’s mind, the song is indicative of a more thoughtful DMX, a man who was settling into his seniority and finding new means of self-expression. “As he was getting older he was opening up the books more on his life to people,” he says. “I’ve heard X speak like this on different occasions, but they were poems, things that he would have to the side in his book [of rhymes]. But to see him give the world Letter to My Son, that was powerful of him.” A giver, then, to the end.


Dean Van Nguyen

The GuardianTramp

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