Swizz Beatz Wants to Change the Art World

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Installation view of KAWS 19-foot wood sculpture At This Time, 2013, at Swizz Beatz's home. Photo: @therealswizzz. Photo: @therealswizzz

Next week, the rapper and record producer Swizz Beatz will put another part of his life on display, as an art collector and curator at SCOPE Miami. A selection of emerging artists from his Dean Collection (his real name is Kasseem Dean) will be on display, and he’ll also be throwing the artist Swoon a birthday party at a $40 million renovated Miami Beach mansion. It’s a sample of his dedication to art world. “People have this perception of me that because I come from music, they think I am just some famous person who now wants to do art,” he says. “But I bleed this for real.” He and his wife Alicia Keys own a home in New Jersey that he’s nicknamed Eight Acres of Showtime, with works by Ernie Barnes, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. He paints there, too, but for now he’s still more comfortable promoting other artists than putting on a show of his own work. He spoke to SEEN about why his graffiti tag growing up was “Loco,” choosing buying art over buying a Lamborghini, why he thinks the “art world is the new music world,” and why gallerists are afraid of him.

You’ve mentioned that you were first inspired by the graffiti you would see growing up in the South Bronx.
Now that I am older and I know artists, there are a lot of pieces I can remember. I only knew the work back then, but now I can identify the tomato cans by Fab Five Freddy, which were a dedication to Andy Warhol, and I know now that the little men dancing around a handball court were by Keith Haring. I also remember Stay High 149’s Stick Men, so as I got older, I started to put names to faces, and I have more of an understanding of the works rather than the pieces just being colorful or cool, which is what went with the break-dancing style.

What stuck out the most to you then?
To be honest, the complexity of those works was interesting to me at the time. I would come home from school, and the train would roll by with artwork all over it, and I wondered who in the city would let them do that, or did they have to sneak on the train to do it? Once I found out it was illegal to graffiti, that made it more attractive to me, because it was rebellious.

Did you graffiti?
Yeah, and my tag name was Loco.

Why Loco?
I was the youngest member of a break-dancing crew called GTR, and since I was the youngest, people thought I was crazy to spray-paint and do things like that, so they called me Loco.

When was the last time you saw a Loco tag?
I really can’t remember the last time. We sprayed a lot at this little park in front of my building, 700 East 156th Street, Apartment 2E, to be precise, and that area has since been built up and transformed — even though the place looks like a mess now — and the little park was destroyed. All my tags were erased.

When DMX’s debut album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot was released in 1998, you were 20 years old and had just made that iconic beat for "Ruff Ryders Anthem." That was also when you started collecting. What was that like?
At that point, my life was moving so fast. It was 0 to 100, real quick, as the song would say. I was either sleeping on the floor of the studio or on a thin mattress on the floor in my uncle’s house. Since I didn’t have a place to call my own, I was technically homeless. And then a few months later, I had a million records sold.

Growing up, I always wanted my own things, and I didn’t like people telling me what to do. I am a person who always had problems asking for things. When I saw I could have my own place, that was the first thing I did after putting my brothers through school and getting my mom her own place. My first place was an apartment in New Jersey, and like, in the ghetto, I had 15 of my friends with me in an apartment with no furniture. But then I got into a relationship and living with 15 people was not cool, so I thought, For the amount of rent here, I could own something, so I bought my first place and got really into interior design.

I felt like I was retiring. I got a Benz, a Cadillac truck, and I owned my house, I thought I would live here forever. But I needed to decorate the walls — it was just blank space. I first bought some cool prints and then ended up in David Rogath’s gallery and traveling to Europe and seeing Enrico Navarra and Tony Shafrazi. As soon as I said “art,” my world vision took off in ways I could never expect. Mr. Rogaff showed me all the differences between artworks; he tried to help me understand and justify why this artwork would cost so much money. I was educated on so many different things. Why is this Haring different from this other Haring? Well, it’s because this is a litho and the other is a proof. I just think the art was in me, and I needed something to pull it out of me.

How did you build your collection?
I bought some bad pieces and some okay pieces, but fortunately, those prices have since gone up in value. Then I started to get involved with Chagalls and Dalís, and then I started collecting studies. I feel like as an artist and a collector, when I put something on a sketch, whether a song or melody, that is the original idea, so that’s what I feel studies are like. They are the original of originals, which I wanted to have, so I started looking for studies of Dalí, Haring, and Warhol. I now own mostly all of the studies from Ernie Barnes — I also own the first painting Barnes ever did, which I consider a privilege.

And so you delved deeper into the art world. Did you reach out to other artists to learn more?
When I began going to David Rogath’s gallery around 2000 or 2001, I met the illustrator Peter Max. At this particular time, I was 22 years old and I had the chance to buy a Lamborghini, and I thought I could either do two things with the money I had coming in: buy the Lambo, or get Clive Davis a commission from Peter Max. They were both fans of each other but had never met, so I got Clive to do the commission and I introduced them together. Peter made two paintings and I was supposed to keep one, but I was so excited that I gave Clive both. They cost me something like $300,000.

And after that commission, I began to study with Peter. It was like an apprenticeship. One thing Peter figured out early was how to make money from art, so I learned from him the business plan from the artist’s side. He gave me the nickname "Double Z," to play off Swizz — he would always call me Double Z — and I would sit in his studio while he would find thousands of prints all day. He told me, "I am printing paper, but I am printing money." From an early age, I was learning the art business from him.

Any good stories from your early collecting days?
I remember going to Tony’s [Shafrazi] gallery, and he had a Campbell's Soup suite, both sets all matching numbers. I thought it was cool, but I had almost 60 pieces on my wall with a double set of Campbell's Soup suite. I went back and forth, and someone else caught the bid and I lost it. I remember Mr. David Rogath telling me, "Swizz, it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality." He said it took him 40-plus years to build up his collection, and "You’re not 40 years yet." I wasn’t even 30. He said the key to building successful, timeless collections is patience and timing. And I always would hear the bell ringing in my head.

I lost a lot of pieces, and a lot of Warhols that I could have had. I remember the Warhol revolver that I could have got for $600,000, but at the time, it felt like a lot to spend on something just to put on my wall. I said I wanted to buy it, and I remember them saying at a gallery, "Are you fucking crazy? We need to do other things. This is something you’ll come back and thank us for later." I should have listened to myself because that painting is now over $20 million. That’s when I realized that all accountants and business managers don’t specialize in art. You have to do your own homework to make life decisions.

Do you feel like the the proliferation of artists' names being dropped by rappers perhaps began with you?
Oh, yeah. Ten years ago, no one wanted to be in a gallery. They’d tell me, "Swizz, this is boring." Now Art Basel is here and is the thing to do. Everyone wants to do the cool thing.

You made it your mission at one point to popularize Basquiat. Now everyone from Lil Wayne to Jay Z talks about Jean-Michel.
Those mentions of Basquiat in a song, that just means, "I’m the shit." Translate it to something creative. I would do a dedication to Basquiat, break down his history, life, what he went through. It is what Jay did through “Picasso Baby.” I was telling Jay that it is cool to do that, but break it down with new artists, too. Do a remix and mention the new artists.

Basquiat was definitely a passion of mine at the time, but I don’t do that anymore. It’s the reason why I haven’t posted something about Basquiat on Insta. My message hit. I used to put his face on T-shirts so people could see his face, but very rarely would people recognize the photo as Basquiat. They would think it was Bob Marley, or his son. But now I no longer need to do anything to educate people on him. I used Basquiat as a starting point, and it is why I need to show new artists, because people are closer to affording new artists than Basquiat. I don’t show those super-expensive paintings anymore because it’s not the message to send out. Art is not just for rich people; you can afford new artists. Art is a buildup, and it’s not like if you don’t have a Rolls Royce, you’re not going to drive.

Did Jay like your idea of a Basquiat remix?
When Jay and I talk about art or music, it’s positive. But getting things done sometimes, people get busy. He did it in his own way with Picasso. It’s funny, he introduced me to Chris Martin from Coldplay. He said, "This is my friend Swizz. He is amazing in music, but don’t let him talk your head off with his art shit." Chris Martin said, "What do you mean?" And Jay told him, "He needs to stick to music, but he likes to buy paintings and collect shit." And Chris told Jay that he collects as well, and Jay was like, "For real?"

So you mentored Jay in collecting?
Jay is an artist himself. I didn’t get him into art. He is art. People tell me that I helped him get into art or collecting, but I don’t think so. He mentions Rembrandt on The Blueprint 2.

Looking toward Miami next week — did you approach SCOPE? Or was it the other way?
The SCOPE team has been very observant of my movements for a few years now, and I thought the timing was perfect because it wasn’t just about me. I thought it was great because the Dean Collection is not just Swizz. I am just the curator, and the collection is about other artists, which is where I felt most comfortable.

The five artists you’re showing are Swoon, Cleon Peterson, D*Face, Lyle Owerko, and Sandra Chevrier. Their work is not all in one place at the fair, right? How will a visitor know that a piece is one of yours?
Since I don’t have a booth space — I’m not selling anything — I wanted people to walk the show and bump into them. I painted the walls black so you would know when you were looking at a Dean Collection piece, and because of the black background, I picked pieces based on colors. The D*Face piece plays amazing with black. The Lyle Owerko boom box plays well with a black background. Also, I like it because it ties into the musical component — Swizz is musical guy, so there would be boom boxes here. Much of the work I put into SCOPE are commissions, though the Swoon is from her Brooklyn Museum show.

You’re throwing her a birthday party that weekend, too?
The Dean Collection is giving Swoon a party at the Dean Estate. Google it. This guy bought a property across from the Fountainbleu — you have to take a boat to get to the property — and spent over $30 million remodeling.

Do you ever feel alienated by the art world? As you said, as a musician, it can be hard to break through the barrier.
I don’t think there is an alienation when I am buying, but I would feel an alienation if I wasn’t spending money and trying to participate. If I was just sitting there and doing a canvas, there would be alienation.

But you do paint.
When I paint, it is the only time I am by myself, just like when I make beats. Mentally, I am by myself. The ultimate getaway vacation is to paint.

Did Peter Max influence you as an artist?
I learned a lot about colors from him, but he also encouraged me to paint more. I was already painting at that time, but around 2003, I was working in a studio space in Brooklyn, and I was painting with all these bright colors that I was becoming a baby Peter Max.

People don’t know how really deep my love for art goes. People have this perception of me that because I come from music, they think I am just some famous person who now wants to do art, but I bleed this for real, and that’s the reason I started the Dean Collection, to bring awareness.

So what are you working on now?
I have a wood board that is 48’ by 48’ that I painted matte black. It is just sitting on a table, and I don’t know what to do with it. I’ll go into my studio and I’ll listen to music, but I don’t know what to do with the board yet. I moved my studio to my property from Brooklyn. Everything is here now, it’s Eight Acres of Showtime.

Jay Z owns one of your paintings. When will you put on a show of your work?
I am not ready to do a show, and for me, it is a personal hobby. I’ve never sold any pieces, and I give away a lot of them to charities. People tell me I should do a show, and when the time comes I’ll do it, but there are so many new artists I would rather support. I want to bring awareness to artists like Cleon Peterson and Swoon, who are kicking ass. I get enjoyment from seeing them get recognition. It is their time right now, and a main reason for the Dean Collection is to bring awareness for any artists that have talent. I can show people through my Instagram account a lot of things in the art world that they would never know.

Will you open a gallery?
I don’t plan to compete with other galleries, and the only gallery I have now is in my personal home. Gallery owners don’t know why I am here and what I am doing. They think I am powerful: Oh, he has a lot of major artists supporting him, if he was to open a gallery, we’d be in trouble. I would never tell an artist not to use a gallery, but the art world is like the music industry, like an independent label coming in and showing an artist another way. If an artist wanted to do something with me, I have different rules. A gallery might charge an artist 50 percent, where I would charge the artist 20 percent. Me and the galleries have two different business models — I want to charge the artist as little as possible, just charge for curating, the bare basics to get the show going. With galleries, artists have to pay rent and all these different things.

How do you curate your home?
My place has four different wings, and the Dean Collection is an extension of my gallery at home. Right now I am in the middle of curating not only the Dean Collection, which my KAWS sculpture is the backdrop of, but my whole place. I decided I wanted to do something totally different. I didn’t want to have my Warhols, Basquiats, and Harings at the front of the house, so when someone walks in, it's solidified that I am serious. I wanted to solidify that I am serious with new artists, and I wanted my home feel that something new. I’ll host dinner parties for 50 people, not to sell anything but to bring creative worlds together — sports, music, philanthropy, art — so when these people come in, they can ask, "Who did that sculpture?" The art becomes more of a conversational piece that just recognizing the Basquiat. "Who is this artist that does artwork with cans and frames?" Oh, that is the artist from Morocco. Is that a Lichtenstein?’ No, I switched it — that’s D*Face.

So in the main house is where I keep the Basquaits, Chagalls, Mirós, that’s where you would see that type of stuff. There is a Gordon Parks original photograph, cool pieces like that. Erté’s biggest painting and Ernie Barnes’s first painting.

Why did you once tell the New York Times that the "art world is the new music world"?
The attention paid to the art world is like how the music world used to have it.

How are the businesses different?
Most artists in music and art are financially challenged because of the structure. When I first started, thank God I had family members who ran the Ruff Ryders label. I think of artists, and think gallery owners own them by providing space to express. Art is the freest form of expression; there shouldn’t be any chains on that. Where I see the art world having trouble — I don’t have anyone signed to me as a writer and producer. If I am going to do business with you, I know how to call you. I don’t have to lock you in for 100 years because we did something creative together.

How do you juggle making both music and art?
You can’t expect to do 100 things, so I really focus on art. I am also in a transitional point in my life. I am going back to school [Harvard Business School]. I go back in March, and I am a part of different deals and situations now, which is huge. I have won every accolade I can have in music. I am 36 years old now, have a family, am a husband, do you think I am going to dress cool and jump onstage for the rest of my life? That isn’t cool. If a person chooses to do that at 40, that’s a choice, but I don’t want that. That’s why I’ve invested more time and energy into the business and art world the past five years.