Time and time again, Swizz Beatz proves everything he touches turns to gold. Following countless accomplishments and accolades, and a music career that’s old enough to drink, Swizz’ latest feat includes him switching to see if his film hat still fit — as he takes on the role of executive music producer for EPIX’s new series, Godfather of Harlem, starring the legendary Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson.
Today (Sept 11), Billboard premieres the series’ opening credits, which features the freshly released Swizz Beatz track “Just in Case,” featuring Rick Ross and DMX.
The series’ gritty and raw storyline hits extremely close to home for the veteran producer, as Bumpy Johnson’s stomping grounds in Harlem are located adjacent to the very streets that raised Swizz in the Bronx. “It’s truly an honor to do this. I’ve been approached [by] so many shows and many things, but my heart wasn’t in none of them sometimes,” he tells Billboard. “This is a Bumpy Johnson story about being in The Bronx, and Harlem being so close to The Bronx, we share stories.”
Godfather of Harlem tells the true story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson. After a decade in prison, Johnson returns to his neighborhood, which he once ruled, to now be controlled by the Italian mob. During the brutal quest to take back the home that was once his, he forms an alliance with Malcolm X. The series is set to premiere on EPIX on Sept. 29.
Beatz’s aspirations for this project stretch far beyond just the walls of uptown. He plans to use the soundtrack as a vehicle to push the series to a global scale, incorporating sounds from all over the world. “I was just working with artists that I felt could fit the scenes fit, fit the show, still be timeless, still be heritage, still fit today’s world,” he says. “It wound up being an interesting mix. My idea is to make the show global, sonically.”
Swizz recently stopped by Billboard to discuss his role as executive music producer for Godfather of Harlem. Check out the full conversation and watch the opening credit scene below.
How did you first get involved with this role for the series?
Well, I got a couple of phone calls that this show was coming out of Harlem. And it was sorting out a lot of producers, but all the producers weren’t from New York, and that kind of seems crucial. Pharrell called me about it, actually. He said, “There’s this show called Godfather of Harlem. You should look into it. They need a New York producer to do it.” And I’ve always been a fan of Forest [Whitaker]. So I got on the phone with Forest’s management I think at the time, then got on the phone with Forest. Then, I sent them a track. Before you know it, executive producer.
In what ways did you approach this differently than if you were crafting a Swizz Beatz album?
The really good part was I was able to play a bunch of characters musically, right? Meaning that I can do things that people are not used to me doing. Even the first track, “Just in Case,” most would say sounds like a typical Swizz track. But then, you go to “Hallelujah,” and you might notice me, you might not notice me within in it. You get to all the different songs that everybody’s going to start hearing, and some of them you’re going to notice me and I like that. I was able to have fun and take risks and actually pair it with the show.
How did you go about selecting the roster for this project?
Actually, I did work sessions where I would have different tracks going on in three rooms and I was like, looking at the show on the screens. I’d ask myself, “Wow, who would fit this?” What I didn’t want to do is make it so mainstream that it turns out kind of corny, either. A lot of shows, they would just get what was the hot song at the time, and throwing all the stars in there. Even Jidenna, this was before his new album came out — the tracks he has on here are pretty amazing.
I was just working with artists that I felt could fit the scenes, fit the show, still be timeless, still be heritage — [and] still fit today’s world. It wound up being an interesting mix. My idea is to make the show global, sonically. When we start shooting the rest of the stuff, you’re going to see a bunch of changes happening there as well.
That’s going to be amazing, because even though it’s a New York-centered plot, the soundtrack is going to take it global.
It’s because New York is the hub for all cultures. It really is. And I know I can help expand this project to reach new areas.
In your New York Times interview about art, you go into galleries and specifically ask about their younger artists — often artists of color who maybe hasn’t had a show in a while — and keep pushing for them. Would you say you have a similar approach to this in terms of putting younger rappers or producers on?
It’s the same process because, to me, art and music are brothers and sisters, so they really go parallel. If you hear a young artist that’s doing anything amazing, I’m inclined to want to work with that person and give them a shot, and give them opportunity in a way that’s very unique to their style, but also giving them a challenge. But as far as artists and galleries and non-galleries, my whole support is for living artists, especially young living artists. Because that’s the future.
As a Bronx native, how does it feel to be a part of a project that’s fully dedicated to telling such a legendary NYC tale?
It’s truly an honor to do this. This a Bumpy Johnson story about being in the Bronx, and Harlem being so close to the Bronx, we share stories. I spent a lot of time with my family because they live in Harlem. Also, to know that Forest Whitaker was playing Bumpy was truly just the icing on the cake. Then I learned Chris Brancato, who did Narcos, is also a huge player in this — so I was like, “Okay, this is the all-star team.” Then I told myself, “I can absolutely add value to this.”
I also want to shoutout Markuann Smith, who really brought this Bumpy Johnson story to life. He’s one of Forest’s main guys in the film. Just to see the idea come to life with such an all-star cast feels so amazing to be a part of.
What’s one standout track from the whole series that encapsulates and represents everything you know the soundtrack should be? The one that made you go, “This is the one.”
The “Just in Case” with myself, DMX, and Rick Ross. I just love the way it’s like, [sings] “open up my window again, open up my window again.” It’s just really getting back to it. It moves you. I love the way Ross narrates the story, and I love the way X is coming in, really bringing that grit to it. It doesn’t feel safe, and the show is definitely not safe. It paints the picture and sets the tone for the movie, as people will see in this premiere coming up. It’s a lot of good songs, but that on right there may be the one. As I said, they’re really all different vibes, but that one right there made me say, “Okay, Bumpy’s back.”
Is there a song that challenged you in any way?
Maybe the Emeli Sandé song. She’s from the U.K. Super amazing singer. Just the emotion of the song that we did for this show and where it’s placed, this moment was super special. Bumpy’s daughter is on drugs, and Emeli’s song comes in and kind of narrates that whole discovery, which people will see. I’m realizing I shouldn’t really give away that part right now. [Laughs.]
After experiencing this process again, and also knowing you’ve already made your mark in the music industry, would you say delving full force back into the film world might be the next move as Swizz?
I’ve been in the film space before. I scored Any Given Sunday and Biker Boyz, and so I do have it in the resumé to be scoring films. I did step away from it because it takes up a lot of time. The cool thing with this project now is I came up with a process on how to turn around and deliver fast. I was finishing songs in like three weeks. There were different writing and production rooms going on at the same time while the show is going on, and just inviting everybody down to come vibe out. That’s how we went with the songs we picked. I plan on working on this show for the life of the show.
The first time I interviewed you was back in 2017 about your No Commission art show in Miami. I remember you explaining to me the concept of keeping it completely free, so both the artists and the guests enjoy the experience for what it truly is, and profit wasn’t even in the equation. How do you keep the fire burning that makes you want to create events like this, that push the culture forward?
The people, really just the people. Just like how you’re bringing it up now, you know how you felt when you seen it and you heard it. I’m proud to be able to create a new entry point for the new generation in art and for the artist to be celebrated 100 percent.
That’s why I came up with No Commission, because you see all these shows claiming they’re about the art, but the artist is probably getting the least out of the whole thing. I thought to myself, “What if we do events that celebrate the artist 100 percent, and they also get to keep 100 percent?” People also get to get in for free, so now they have that entry point, and we put on this show where the drinks are free and the food is free. We’re truly celebrating the artist. We took it around the globe, and I have plans to take it even bigger.
To wrap up the topic of film — if there was a biopic made about Swizz Beatz, could you describe to me what your opening scene would be?
The intro scene would be me riding a bike in my hood in The Bronx. I would make it be a GT Performer because I always wanted that bike so bad but I couldn’t afford it. But I got one now finally. Then, my grandparents would be calling me outside the window to come back inside. That’s why I never really rode by my window, honestly. [Laughs.] “Kasseem, get your ass inside!”