Swizz Beatz on Kanye West's 'Waves' & Why He Only Collects Work From Living Artists

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Canon
Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys celebrate the 25th anniversary of the EOS Rebel SLR Camera with Rebel With A Cause to showcase #TheUnknowns on Feb. 1, 2016 in New York City.

Swizz Beatz continues to kick down the door into the art world with his red bottoms, proving that the shimmery collector's lifestyle isn't reserved just for the rich and famous. The esteemed DJ/ hitmaker (born Kasseem Dean) turned his interest in graffiti in his native South Bronx to a deep love for the arts -- he curated the No Commission art show in Miami that was free to the public and became a member of the Brooklyn Museum's Board of Trustees. Now, he's building The Dean Collection as a salute to various pieces by artists on the rise.

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Rebel camera, Canon teamed with Swizzy for the "Rebel with a Cause" campaign to spotlight "The Unknowns" (artists without a proper platform for their work) for an art installation that made a splash across the building walls of both the Brooklyn Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Before going on a joyride with the artists on a party bus, the heavyweight producer spoke to Billboard about his Canon collaboration, making Basquiat a prerequisite in his Reebok deal, and that Kanye West album.

Swizz Beatz Goes Back To School

How did you connect with Canon for "The Unknowns" art installation?

Canon reached out to me to be a part of this activation [for their] Rebel with a Cause campaign. I guess they figured that with my work with the Dean Collection, I’ve been acting as a rebel with a cause, which I feel I am and have been doing, but for them to recognize that I thought was pretty cool, especially since I’m very fond of working with brands and art. Brands don’t really technically celebrate the arts. They like to use the name but it’s not really for the right cause but when I looked at this project, I saw I’d be able to continue educating and exploring new artists and sharing art knowledge with different artists around the world like I do already. 

How did you develop your artistic eye to recognize the value in certain pieces?

I grew up in the South Bronx. Art was around me from birth. Seeing those graffiti on the trains and the handball courts, I didn’t pay any attention to them. I just looked at the colors like, ‘Oh, okay that’s nice how they painted it. How they do that.’ Keep it moving but I was building a database internally, visually not even knowing, just like sonically with music, going to the back park and looking at the DJs but not paying attention. Giving them like five minutes then going back to playing but during the time, I built up an ear for music so I just think it’s just been something brewing in me. The art part, the music part came out first - I expressed myself in arts through music first as a DJ then a producer, songwriter then now I’m expressing my talent in art as well and more my love than my talent ‘cause people haven’t really seen my talent ‘cause when I paint I keep it to myself. It’s more therapy for me. 

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For a long time, it wasn’t cool to talk about art even though I’ve been collecting for 10 years. A lot of my peers used to laugh at me, like, ‘Oh he’s putting paintings on his wall. He’s going crazy.’ Those same people have the same amount of paintings on their wall now, which is cool, but I realized it was important for me to let people know art is cool. I started that five years ago when I went to Reebok and made them keep the Basquiat brand. I said I’ll do the deal with Reebok if we do the Basquiat brand at the company. [They were like] 'Why is that so important?' Because by me putting Basquiat on these shirts and doing a Basquiat collection, people are gonna know what Basquiat look like, they’ll know what some of his work look like and they’ll start the research into Basquiat. It got to the point where everybody started putting them into songs and people started paying attention to art a little more. I backed up from it because Basquiats are very expensive so even though I wanted to use that as my entry point in getting it on people’s radar, I knew that wasn’t gonna be my final message to the people because if you can afford a Basquiat, that’s a blessing but that’s one percent of the people in the world that can afford a Basquiat so people automatically feel like art is for the rich. There’s pieces out there -- a hundred dollars, five hundred dollars, a thousand, five thousand, fifty thousand -- it’s all on taste level but I’ve been to galleries where I would pick up a work for fifty dollars, five hundred dollars and I’m comfortable with it.


This is life---- cheers ---- #blessingsonblessings

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For you, it’s not about the price tag.

It’s not about the price and it shouldn’t be about the price to anyone. I used to collect like that. Before I started my Dean Collection, I was collecting Basquiats, Keith Harings, Warhols, Chagalls, Sam Francis, Dalis but I was collecting for the wrong reasons. I was collecting more status -- like, 'oh these business people are gonna come into my house and see this big Chagall over my dining room table and they’re gonna understand I’m ready to do business.'

PHOTOS: Swizz Beatz Portrait by Kehinde Wiley

Do you participate in auctions?

I don’t do that anymore. I only collect living artists. Every artist in the Dean Collection, I know them personally, my family know them personally. It started as a museum that I wanna build for my kids, so whatever I put in the Dean collection, I could never sell so I just fell in love with discovering new artists then I later discovered that by me putting these artists on my social media platform, it would help them tremendously. Then all of these activations started happening like the No Commission [Art Fair] in Miami. It was the biggest show in Miami but it was by the artist. We raised over a million something for the artist and the artist got to keep 100 percent of that. This was free for the people. I did a concert every night -- my wife opened up the first night, the second night had Pusha T and then DMX closed out -- everything was free. I wanted to give everybody an entry [into the art world]. The Dean Collection is a movement so I wanted to do a celebration down in Miami just for the artist. There’s no commission -- I can’t charge commission when I’m not a gallery and I’m not a dealer.

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What kind of art can we expect when on Kanye West’s Waves?

Oh that’s the name of it now? [Laughs]

I'd like to think you know more than me.

I had the pleasure of working on a few tracks for the album. It’s one of the best albums I heard him produce in a while. It’s a sound that I think is very enjoyable. The sonics and the things that people are gonna hear -- I think they should connect to it, like close their eyes [away] from all of the B.S. and think about the music when you listen to the album ‘cause it’s a lotta noise outta there. When you’re that popular, there’s gonna be a lot of noise but sometimes, we gotta put the headphones out, get away from that noise and really listen to the craft and I think that he has a great piece of work on his hands.