Swizz Beatz on His 'Poison' Album, What Separates DMX From Tupac & Kanye's Return to Producing

Timothy Saccenti
Swizz Beatz

"There's never been a DMX on his worst day."

"Zone, zone, zone,” yells a zealous Swizz Beatz inside his plush man cave. Nestled in the affluent community of Englewood, N.J., Beatz’s youthful exuberance rings loud and proud, even as he inches toward celebrating his fourth decade.

Donning blue sweatpants, the producer has a child-like smile, which stretches ear-to-ear every time a new song from his elusive album, Poison, blares through the speakers. Hours away from his 40th birthday, Beatz is reveling in the idea of not only beginning a new chapter in his life, but also in his music career. "For me, it means new beginnings, new growth," says Beatz about turning 40. "It feels like I'm just now getting started. New wisdom, new mindset, new goals, new frequencies, new moves to be made, new records to break, new history to make. Zone, zone, zone, zone!"

Since 1998, Beatz has trounced the competition with his precocious skills on the boards. Not only was Swizzy busy grooming DMX -- whose dogged determination cemented him two No. 1 albums within the same calendar year with It's Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood -- but he also was creating rap's lyrical juggernaut with the Ruff Ryders crew. In addition to that, he deftly masterminded hits such as JAY-Z's "Money, Cash, Hoes," DMX's "Party Up," Drake's "Fancy" and Beyonce's Hot 100 chart-topper "Check On It." 

Surely, Swizzy's stout resume would make any music producer blush, but he isn't pressed about receiving accolades. "A lot of people think I'm underrated, but it's because I don't have a publicist praising me every time I'm doing something, says Beatz. "I feel highly appreciated, but it's also a secret sauce to my longevity."

Beatz surely doesn't need a publicist to send e-mail blasts regarding his torrid run as of late. After freeing his firey single "Pistol On My Side" with Lil Wayne last month, Beatz deleted any doubts with his Young Thug-assisted record "25 Soldiers" on Wednesday (Oct. 3). To keep the proverbial pot boiling, Swizzy partnered up with Wayne once more on Tha Carter V standout "Uproar," where he nimbly sampled G-Dep's 2001 bop, "Special Delivery." 

Hours before his 40th birthday, Billboard and Beatz connected for an interview about his first album in 11 years, DMX's legacy, J. Cole serving as his project's executive producer and whether that mythical Jay-Z, Nas, and Jadakiss track will ever be released and more. Check it out below. 

I was a freshman in college when One Man Band came out in 2007. When you listen to that project now, and you play back your new album Poison, how would you compare your sound and where you were at as an artist in '07 to where you are now?

Thankfully, I don't really compare those two. I was younger and still in a different matrix. It was probably the blue pill and I'm probably on the red pill now. It was just a different dynamic. My goals were different. My family was different. My mentality was different and my education was different. I was still playing the game a little bit at that particular point. I'm not playing a game now. I'm actually making the rules to my own journey instead of playing a particular game. Boys and kids play games and men don’t play games. I think there's a big difference as far as sonics. Naturally, I've grown throughout my travels to different countries and really vibing with different genres, backgrounds, and music. It really helped my ear develop.

A lot of people think they can be masters out the gate. The only thing I can tell people is that it takes time to develop greatness. We don't have patience, so for me, I'm just now understanding those different things. I have a different treasure chest that I'm coming from, which is why if you were to take me to the range of what you just heard, it's pretty accurate shots on those artists you just heard. I really knew the targets that I wanted to hit and I practiced for those targets. It's not no freestyle. Everything is purposeful.

Before, I used to just get whoever. It wouldn't really matter to me. I would just be like, "Yo, I got such and such on the track. Who cares how it goes with the track?" Now, it's more curated, being that I'm more into the art side of things. I've learned patience on "less is more" as well. It shouldn't feel like I'm pressing you to love the vibe or vibe with the album because the attention span is too short. I don't feel comfortable with giving 17 records.

It's crazy because you hear that level of maturation now. Back in the day, you were coming with "Money In The Bank" but now, you don't need to chase that single anymore. You could hear how liberated you are on the album and how willing you are to just let everybody eat.  

I was chasing something different here. I was chasing actually being an artist at that point, as a lyrical artist, which is cool. I feel like the newest me is "Pistol On My Side" with me and Wayne. It’s like, let the masses do what they specialize in. With what you get more experience in, you let the architects be the crafters of their craft. If you don’t know how to build a house, why the fuck are you playing with construction? But if you know David Adjeye, who’s one of the best architects, bring him in and y’all work together. I mastered what I mastered, and you mastered what you mastered. That equals positivity.

J. Cole is the project's executive producer. We’ve seen what he can do as an artist, but as a creative in the studio, what intrigued you the most or surprised you the most about what he brought to you as a creative?

I can’t say that we sat down in the studio and master-planned some shit. That’s not how it went. It was more organic conversations and just happy to be in the studio at the same time. He came to my record and pointed out different things, and just being on a phone call with him giving me different advice as a young spark in the music industry and me not being too cool to listen to him. Instead of just being like, “Oh, that’s what’s up” and being like, “Let’s give him some credit for what he really did.” As executive producer, some of my thoughts on this particular record really shaped and molded big areas wasn’t all “you should get this person to do it.” It was like “you don’t need to put the big records on there” or “you don’t need to do this” or “what about this?” Things that you’ve heard that feels like a body of work. I feel like he contributed some decent gems to that.

That’s so dope because a lot of older artists are so hard-headed and stubborn. They refuse to listen to the young cats.

Because they’re not students and they’re stuck in their ways forever.

With you taking the Jay and Nas track off the album, did that alleviate any stress or pressure that you may have had?

It did. It made me complete a bit because I know people were looking for it, and I know if I give it to them, it's going to compromise the real energy that I was putting in this particular record. Each song on Poison goes into the next one seamlessly as a curated body of work on purpose. I'm not saying I couldn't have put that song in there, but I just know our culture and once we get that, we're not really going to pay attention to nothing else because we're going to say, 'What's bigger than that?' You know, I might still give it to you and I might still put it on at the end of the day, but right at this particular moment, I don't wanna give it to you like that. I love what I have and other people love what they hear so far and they're not missing it.

The last time I spoke to you was at the Roc Nation brunch on the red carpet. I remember 6ix9ine was in the studio with you. I remember you gave him the sticky fingers comparison and you kind of called it early because “GUMMO” was killing it. With you being a legendary music head, why do you think he’s killing the game the way that he is. 

I just think he’s unique. People like disruptives. If you’re not being disruptive as a new artist, you’re not doing your job. Everybody that came out from X to you name it, they were disruptive. They’re looking at a kid with color in his hair and they don’t know if he’s this or he’s that. He’s popping around with shit, but he’s actually backing it up with the talent, the shows and the success. Let’s not ignore those particular things and a lot of people go into his past and not give him props and I’m like, everybody’s got a past. Name one rapper that don’t got a past. Don’t use that to undermine the fact that what he’s doing is genius and it’s working. Fuck his personal life, I’m talking about his creative shit. I’m a fan of that. I don’t judge people on their personal shit because everybody got personal shit. Some people got personal shit that’s out there, and a lot of people got personal shit that’s not out there. I don’t got nothing to do with that.

When Chris Brown went through his thing, I loved both of them. I gave him “Transformer” at that time. I can’t judge him on that because I wasn’t there for that and I don’t know the whole story. It’s not my job to judge either party in those situations. People are like, “Well, he got kids.” Listen, if somebody gonna violate my kid, they’re gonna die. There’s no compromising with that. Don’t put me in that particular situation. I wasn’t there for that and I’m respecting him as an artist. He’s a good kid honestly.

Ruff Ryders were some disrupters, too, back in the day. 

When I see people mention greatest of all-time, I see they like to leave out DMX and they like to leave out Ruff Ryders a lot. Like, we came in and disrupted. People still haven't mimicked a movement that we started. It was short lived due to how aggressive my family was, but we set the tone that nobody has been able to fulfill. There's never been a DMX on his worst day still today. 

'98 was considered a golden age in hip-hop. People my age bracket are aware of what X did with It's Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, but why do you think the younger generation has a misguided sense of his legacy and who he is? 

Because, you gotta understand, man, we fucked up a lot of people's money. Facts. We came and disrupted on all levels from a street level, a business level, a sales level, a marketing share level that nobody could predict. There's this guy with a dog from Yonkers and a bunch of guys on bikes actually selling millions of records and then got the nerve to do it two times in one year and then have the nerve to keep going from there and then have the nerve to really be real, so you couldn't flex on him and have respect everywhere. They just weren't comfortable with that shit. I really feel like my family got blackballed.

I know they got blackballed because the industry couldn't really control my family and that was something they wouldn't compromise on. So my family rather go with their integrity and leave the situation and then deal with people that were disrespectful. That's where the clashes were happening. As far as the X story, people weren't really happy promoting X like that because they didn't own him. And he wasn't cool with you like that. [Laughs] I remember he said he wasn't going to the MTV Awards. I was like, "What you mean you ain't going to the MTV Awards?" He would do shit like that and not show up and not give a fuck. 

I heard he was turning down tours too back in the day.

Turning down anything that he didn't feel, which makes him real. One thing about Dog is that it never really mattered about the money. You never seen X in a fancy car, you've never seen him with an excess [amount] of jewelry on. X gave his money away to a lot people. People don't do that. X is just a different type of person. That's why I still support him and his family to this day as my brother no matter what he's dealing with or whatever. We've slept on the floors together. We did real shit together. X is just unique. 

They like to compare him to Pac, but X been through it a little bit more than Pac. X just been through real different things. Like, Pac was a great poet and we respected his craft, but him and X did different things. Pac knew how to put on a show, X was really sleeping in abandoned buildings, writing lyrics, where we had to go find him and handle different things with him in the streets. This was before money. I'm talking about from out the game and consistently in the game with 30 million in your bank account, writing raps in abandoned buildings with candles and shit. I ain't see nobody do that. Until I see somebody do that, they can't fuck with Dog. Name a rapper that had grown men crying while they're with the girl. You crying as a man. Gangbangers. Name me an artist that does that and then talk to me about Dog. So to not put him in those top fives or particular things is just a miscalculation. I'm just not riding with it. 

I remember last year Kendrick said on Instagram that he used to love flipping through album booklets and seeing “Swizz” in the credits. Fast forward to now, and he’s on a track with The Lox. How crazy was that for you guys to connect?

Kendrick is one of the brothers in music that I speak to a lot. I give him books to read and vibe on a human level. A lot of people in the music industry, you don’t vibe with on a human level. We just want to call each other when we want some shit, and that’s when the connection is made. Nah, a connection should be made on an overall level, on a human level, not just from a music “what can I get from you” business level. Me and Kendrick developed that relationship over the years. I remember I’d be in the studio with Dre and Snoop way before he was Kendrick and we kicked it even back then.

Now, when I speak to him, it’s just always enrichment and education. When I came back from Egypt, I was just explaining to him and I know he already went, but I gave him some details on how he should go back. Just giving him tools and just communicating and he’s giving me tools and just building on a natural level instead of “I need this hit record.” I just put him on the chorus and I didn’t even exploit the whole relationship like, “Yo, I need the verse.” It was like, it fit, let’s go. He liked the song and sent it back to me immediately and there wasn’t really anything left to talk about.

I'm curious on your thoughts about Kanye in terms of him making beats again. From a producer’s lens, if you could give him a letter grade based on production he has done during G.O.O.D. Music's five-week run, what grade would you give him?

I’d give him an A+. What the fuck do you want him to do? Who am I to judge him on the particular experience he wanted to give people? A lot of people, they take power into themselves. Who are you to have that power to judge? I can’t judge Ye on his idea. I wasn’t in his brain and I don’t know his plan. I give him an A plus for doing the fuck he wanted to do.

In terms of Nas, after the release of Nasir, fans were pretty upset with the album. Where do you think he's at lyrically in his career at this point?

I think Nas is in a good space. I think he’s got a resurgence happening, for sure. He’s another one I think is just starting because you have to remember, he went through so many different phases, starting from Illmatic to performing under the bridge in Queens with 'Ye and Kim and this whole new generation. That in itself is a trophy. That’s going to make him produce something different. I’ve heard him now talk about music more than I ever did. It’s kind of hard to get him in the studio but he’s like, “Yo, send me this” or “Yo, are you in?” He’s shooting videos right now.

Do you feel like you’ve fulfilled your goal as far as accomplishing the East Coast Chronic with this body of work?

Yeah. The East Coast Chronic thing is personal and not something I’m declaring. In my mind, that was one of the goals that I wanted to do to make us feel at home again a little bit. If other people agree with it, that’s what’s up. If they don’t, that’s cool, too.

Which artist challenged you the most creatively in the studio?

It’s not really a challenge for me in the studio. I’ve done enough sessions of curating my environment from the energy. When people come to my studio, it’s a party. There’s no stress. As you could hear from the lyrics, everybody had the freedom to be themselves. I’m not telling you what you can do and what you can’t do. I might not agree with everything and accept everything, but you gotta let the artist live. You can’t go in there and force something or you’re going to hear it in the product.

Every song that you heard, we had a party. It was just vibes and natural energy and that’s why everything sounds great. You could hear the pitch and tone of the voices that people did what they wanted to do. It’s not that they wanted to get the verse over with. When they hear everyone else’s verse, it’s like, “Nah, I want to talk my shit on this record.” That’s what was dope because that’s how it used to be. People were like, “Let me hear everybody’s verse.” People cared about positioning lyrically on the records and they did that for the first time in a long time.

Which young producer right now would you say embodies the skill set and the hunger you had back in the day when you were coming up?

There’s a lot of producers embodying that energy. I like what Metro [Boomin] is doing. I like what one of my prodigies Araab [Muzik] is doing for sure. He embodies me the most I think as far as the energy and those things. He’s on my album and he’s on the Wayne joint with me. He’s on the Young Thug joint with me. I didn’t do all those tracks by myself. I got Araab, Avery which is one of my main producers, you got Ty [Dolla $ign] who’s playing instruments throughout the album. You got DJ Scratch who worked with me on the Nas joint. It was different elements that I’m comfortable bringing in. Before, I wouldn’t do collaborations. It’s like, let people vibe with you if you got a chemistry with them. I thought it was dope to have those producers on it with me. Zaytoven’s doing his thing.

All those producers are doing their thing in their own lane. There’s a lot of producers that are just killing it. Once again, I can’t judge them on my particular taste. I have to judge them based on the craft they’re doing and that they’re successful with. They all look up to me and I speak to all of them and it’s all love. As long as nobody disrespects me, I love what everybody is doing. I’m a critic. I’m either going to listen to it or I’m not. There might be a producer that I’m not a fan of on Tuesday, but on Friday, motherfucker might have some shit that I vibe with. It’s just like that. I don’t really go around judging producers and shit like that. It’s different than when me and Pharrell, Timb and 'Ye were out. It’s a different type of game so I can’t charge this game to that game.

If you could pick one song or album out of your discography to serve as the soundtrack of your life right now, especially since you’ve turned 40, what would it be and why?

That’s a dope question. One would probably be Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” just because of that comfort zone that he had while he was making that album to the point where he was recording while he was laying on his couch. That’s how I feel when I’m doing what I’m doing, I feel that comfortable to even present people Poison in order for them to poise on and poise sons of the most high. I feel that comfort zone of Marvin when he did that, whether people agreed with him or not at that time because it wasn’t mainstream. It was talking really about the political landscape of what the fuck was going on for real. I feel like that.

The other thing is maybe Fela Kuti “Expensive Shit” to where he was just like, once again, being in his skin and celebrating at the same time, but not leaving his roots for one from those roots can relate to. Those two pretty much sum it up. We can get in to Bob Marley as well if you want to go there.

If you could pick one word to title this chapter of your life, what word would it be and why?

If I could pick one word to title this chapter, I’d say "starting point." I feel like I didn’t start yet. It’s a new starting point. Everything was like the pre-lens. The warm up. My thing is, if y’all thought that shit was special, trust me, we didn’t even start yet. That was the salad.

The appetizer.

That was the appetizer. You got to think, Jimmy Iovine started Interscope Records at 50. I’m just starting. I started at 17. I’m supposed to feel like an old fucking man, but I really feel like I’m starting. I still got a 10 year head start on Jimmy Iovine when he started Interscope Records.

That’s that Kobe Mentality.

Facts.

If you could compare yourself to any NBA player, who would you choose and why?

No disrespect, but I don’t want to compare myself to no one. I pride myself on being different than any species you see walking on this earth. I walk different landscapes and I circumferenced over a lot of different things and I just know my mind is different. Not that I don’t respect other athletes and other people who are doing great things, but I don’t really compare myself to people. When people want to battle me and shit and do different things, it’s nothing because I’m really competing against myself even though I have another physical person in front of me.

I’m really sparring against myself and how can I creatively out-box something that’s coming in my atmosphere and get back to my atmosphere and equal it as a learning experience? I learned a lot about myself that I wasn’t paying attention to. Use those challenges to power yourself. I can’t compare myself to no NBA players or anyone, ‘cause I ain’t seen nobody like me yet.

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