Swizz isn't the only rapper who appreciates a well-oiled canvas. The 39-year-old tells Billboard that several of his colleagues, including Nas and Beyoncé, have followed in his footsteps and are becoming art aficionados. "People used to laugh at me for collecting art, and now it's the thing to do," he reveals.
Billboard caught up with Swizz to discuss his transition into art curation, plans to release a new "serious" album in 2018, and how life has changed since he graduated from Harvard in November.
How did No Commissions and the partnership with Bacardi come about?
I came up with this concept three years ago in school. I was like, "How can I create something that is going to celebrate the artist 100 percent?" because I was noticing from creating other shows and other fairs that the gallery wins, the collector wins, the fair wins, and the artist kind of has to find their way home. So I decided that I was going to build something where the artist can keep 100 percent. I started building that out and then Bacardi contacted me and wanted to be a partner. I was receptive to that because they agreed to do all the right things and here we go again. We've been around the world since our first show in Miami and we'll be back in Miami for Art Basel this weekend.
The thing that has been so amazing about it has been how many lives I've seen change since No Commissions -- artists going on to big collections, museums, big representation. These are people that some I've met on Instagram, some that have just reached out with a hope and a dream, and they made it happen. No Commissions is not a charity. We are giving people a platform. Everybody here is willing and able to do their thing; they just don't have the outlet. I'm excited about what we bring to the table.
What was the first piece of art that you ever bought?
The first real piece of art that was pretty pricey was Ansel Adams. There was just something about it that made me dream. I got that piece, and then from there I just went crazy. I am still going crazy. It was a black-and-white photograph of a landscape of the Alps. I had never seen a photograph so detailed in black and white. I was 19 when I purchased it. I was like, "Whoa! How can a human take that picture?"
What are some of your favorite pieces in your collection?
My studio is basically an art gallery and I have a lot of piece I there that I love. I have a Michael Vasquez and that's a piece that everybody loves to take photos in front of. I have a Lyle Owerko. He was the photographer that took the Time Magazine cover when the Twin Towers got hit. He also did the Boom Box photography that I've got hanging up in there. I've got a Jonathan Mannion original Biggie photograph, a Dustin Yellin glass sculpture. Zio Ziegler is amazing artist and I have a huge piece from him in there, Damien Hirst. There are a lot of pieces in there. But that is a rundown of some of my favorites.
I think the most expensive piece in my collection now is probably a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. He is the highest selling artist right now, African American. But I collect all living artists right now. That's my thing. I'd like artists to be able to smell their roses while they are here, use their money to invest back into themselves and then give the world more greatness. I've been encouraging people to support living artists so they can enjoy this now. It shouldn't be like oh when that person is not here we want to be into the person. That's backwards as hell!
Tell us about your mission to bring more women and people of color into the art community.
I think that it's important to let people know how important the culture is for real because a lot of people pull from it but it's never really given back in the right place. It's always been a goal to have a diversified group represented in my shows. I'm always like, "OK how many women in the show? How many guys in the show?" It has to feel like a balance. It doesn't have to be 50/50 all the time but everybody should feel important. I also want to represent other minority groups because they have just as much talent. What's great is that African American art is at a super all time high. But even though I collect African American artists, I collect all artists. I'm colorblind when it comes to art but I'm never going to downplay the art that is mainly from my side of the culture as well.
We take artists that are well known and we mix them with up and coming artists because we feel like what happens with these older systems is if you don't have a certain status or a certain income, one can't participate with the other. I'm like why? Good art is good art. That's it. Nina Chanel was in my show in the Bronx and now she just had two sold out shows with Mary Boone Gallery and Jack Shainman. It doesn't get bigger than that. You can be on that main level but still be cool enough to be next to up and coming artists. I think that's the spirit that No Commissions has. I love to see the love and the diversity of the cultures in the room.
Have you given any thought to selling your own art?
I've been making art for years but I only do it for my therapy. I do it for charity. I give art to hospitals sometimes. I've never sold any of my works. My goal is to help at least 100,000 artists before I take my art seriously and show it.
Which of your friends in the music industry are the biggest art fans that people might not expect?
I think most of them are. A lot of them are very quiet about it. NAS, Bey & Jay, Erykah Badu, Carmelo Anthony. Everybody's into the art wave right now. It's different than when I first started. People used to laugh at me for collecting art and now it's the thing to do. It's like "Man I got this piece" or "What's the next piece?" It's a conversation topic. It's right where it needs to be. And I love that more of the culture is looking at this now. I want the culture to have more guidance on what to buy because a lot of people are being misled. A lot of people don't know what they are doing.
Give us the "Swizz Beatz Quick Guide to Buying Art."
1. Buy from your heart. Only buy what you love, what you feel, what you want to live with.
2. Do your research on your style of art before buying. The Internet has everything. Let's use it, not only for social media but for getting the information that you need. Do your homework before you go out shopping so when people tell you things, you have a reference point and they can't just talk you off the ledge to go in their favor. It should go in your favor.
3. Go to gallery shows. Go to openings. Go to shows. Get in the mix. When you get in the mix and you start going to these shows, even if you aren't buying anything from these shows, you sort of get the feel and you start educating yourself directly and indirectly on how the flow happens, how to get your feet wet. It's like "OK do I start with this book? Do I start with this print? Do I start with this title?" You'll know what you want to do.
4. Be careful of investment expectations, meaning galleries putting pressure on your or a person putting pressure on you to buy something because of a guaranteed investment. Nothing is guaranteed. That's why I go back to number 1 – buy from your heart, buy what you feel. You will never lose if that's the case and then if the investment happens, then you win again. So set yourself up to win a few times.
5. Try to buy from living artists. Try to contribute back to the artist that is going to be able to contribute back to the world as well now.
6. Try to come to No Commissions and buy the art from there because the artist gets to keep 100 percent of those sales. If you really want to do something, come and support the artists like that.
How has life changed since you became a big fancy Harvard grad?
I feel very appreciated out in the world, not that I didn't before, but it's just a different type of energy. I am constantly getting approached by people of all ages and nationalities who tell me that I have inspired them. It was like the world sent out an APB about my graduation. It felt like the biggest thing I ever did in my life. I know personally it is. But I just didn't think that the culture would react like that and even outside of the culture. I'm happy that people supported that journey because I wanted the youth and our industry to understand how important education is. As creators, we always want to ignore it and act like we are superheroes. We forget that it's the music business, the art business, the fashion business, the movie business. All of those things have business attached to them but we always want to ignore that part and leave it up to someone else to do the job and then wonder why we are always getting the short end of the stick. So it's like no man, take time out and invest in yourself and you can still have representation but at least be 50-50 with the conversation so you can understand it. There is going to come a time where your creativity is going to hit the ceiling where you are going to have to be able to think past that point. That's what made me go back and put these three years in. It's been amazing. I feel like I'm just now starting in my career. I started at 17. I just turned 39. I really feel like I know what I'm doing now. I feel like I can plan properly. So if people felt that I had done something before, shit I haven't even started yet!
Do you have your diploma hanging up in your house or is it not fancy enough to share wall space with your fabulous art collection?
I haven't even seen it since I graduated; I think my wife took it to get it framed. But that one I'm going to hang up. I'm not really big at hanging up accomplishments or accolades or things like that. I don't need that around me to feel comfortable. It also makes me feel like I made it when I haven't even started yet. That's why I don't have any plaques hanging up in my house. I don't do the trophies hanging up. I didn't even get my Grammy because once it's done; it's done. You know you've done it; the world knows you've done it. I'll probably save it for my kids or something but I want to feel like I have so much work to do because I do.
You won your Grammy in 2011. Does someone at the office occasionally reach out as a reminder with a quick, "Hey. Are you going to pick this thing up?" email?
They've reached out a couple of times (laughs). But they are not sweating it if I'm not sweating it.
What's next for you on the music front?
I'm coming with my record and it's the opposite of everything we just spoke about. All of those things are Harvard and No Commissions and this and that. My album is called Poison. I'm back in mode and the music that I have coming is going to be very very serious, very raw, very real, because I feel that we need it and I want to do it. With all of these different things that I've been doing, I could easily come with a record that's like the No 1 radio smash hit but I'm just not in that space musically. I'm in that space in other areas of my life but musically I want to put my hoodie on. I want to feel a little intense. I want to feel some emotion. I want to feel something that's like "yes!" Like "wow! I needed that!" I want to give people that dose. I want to give people that injection, that poison that is actually going to bring them back to life.
I'm ready to come out with the record whenever but it looks like it will be the top of next year. We have things shut down to prepare for this show and then I was busy finishing school so that's why we postponed it. Even the battle with me and Tim (Timbaland) I've postponed. But we're still doing that. It's still happening. The smoke is going down! Let's make 2018 something special!