The roster of names Swizz Beatz has worked with in the past two decades reads like a Who’s Who of hip-hop royalty. LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and Drake. Demand for his Midas touch also comes from the more mainstream with credits on tracks by Whitney Houston, Bono, Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, Beyoncé and of course Swizz’s wife, Alicia Keys. His unparalleled success has earned the 38-year-old Grammy Award-winner the accolade of “the best rap producer of all time”, bestowed on him by Kanye himself. But beyond his musical talents lies the entrepreneurial acumen of Bill Gates coupled with an appreciation of art to rival that of Peggy Guggenheim.
“Growing up in the South Bronx, I always had art around me,” he says. “When you walk outside you see graffiti everywhere and I naturally inherited that in my spirit, along with a love of music. You’d go out and you’d have people performing and you wouldn’t pay them any attention beyond thinking: ‘Oh, that’s whatever DJ. That’s cool. How did they do that?’ But as I got older, the lights started to turn on. I fell for the music first because it was the easier one to understand and it was getting the most attention and then, once I matured and bought my first home, the art started kicking in because I wanted something to hang on the walls. I started visiting galleries and couldn’t believe the prices.”
Swizz’s first piece was an Ansel Adams photograph that he bought when he was 18 and still owns today. The parallel of Adams, too, being a self-taught musician and artist is a comparison not lost on Swizz. “I always tell people that I was buying art for the wrong reasons when I first started,” he says. “In the business world, art talk is a different kind of conversation. I never wanted to be looked at as just a rapper – categorised and put into a certain box. I always wanted to be multi-faceted, which is why I do so many things even today. I was buying art at that time just to please people like Clive Davis [American record producer and music industry executive, currently CEO of Sony Music Entertainment].
“The big execs would come to the house and they’d see a Sam Francis on the wall and they’d go: ‘Aren’t you supposed to be doing rap music? What do you know about Sam Francis?’ So, I’d slowly start breaking myself out of these small boxes and the industry came to know me as someone who understood fine art, watches, cars, fashion – all the same things I love now. But I realised that I wasn’t really feeling the works I’d been collecting. I didn’t connect with them. So now, I have formalised my art into the Dean Collection and I have started my own show called No Commission. I am now collecting living artists because I feel that firstly, we should support artists while they are alive and secondly, you should only buy things that you feel in your spirit. Art should be more than a big investment, it should be celebrated and if it happens to go up in value then that’s cool.”
Swizz’s No Commission developed out of his knowledge of other shows. There are no gallerists involved, the artists all represent themselves and keep 100 per cent of what they sell. “Attending shows was a great education for me,” he says. “I exhibited my collection in them but none of it was for sale. Being with other artists allowed me to see deep inside the inner workings of the machine and I was seeing so many things that weren’t happening right – artists were selling out their shows but couldn’t get a ride home or a hotel. I was taking care of so many of them personally and thinking: ‘Wait a minute. You just sold £500,000 of art, what do you mean you can’t afford a flight home?’ I thought: ‘What if we did something that just celebrates the artists? No strings attached. No business. If we do it once a year, artists can sell their work, keep 100 per cent of the sales and then have a back-up plan for when they are doing other shows.’ So that’s how it started, with very simple intentions.”
Each No Commission show is different to the more traditional art fairs. Built around whichever area it is based in, 90 per cent of the artists are local to the home town and music is always integral – Swizz’s position as one of the world’s biggest recording names helping to enlist “some pretty decent performers”. According to Swizz: “Music and art are brother and sister. The business made them go left and right but when you are talking about art, they should always stay together. I have them running parallel.”
To date, No Commission has been showcased in Miami, Shanghai, London, Berlin and the Bronx, has put almost $4 million back into artists’ pockets and generated several million impressions on its website. With no plans to slow down, Swizz says that after three more editions, his game-changer show will have covered the world and is only going to get bigger.
“The show in the Bronx really showed what we could do,” he says. “People were against the location saying we should do it in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The doubters questioned whether anyone would come to the Bronx – and it was for real South Bronx, not cleaned up at all. But it was important to do it there – it was an homage to where I come from, to the art, music and fashion that is the influence behind the mainstream stuff people are doing today. I was determined not to establish No Commission in the rest of the world before thinking about the Bronx.
“It was just my second show. We were coming off some pretty heavy disruption at Art Basel Miami and I was like: ‘You know what? Let’s continue disrupting.’ So, we did and I’ve never seen the Bronx with that vibration – three nights, thousands of people, drinks, performance and not one fight or a single person getting kicked out. It shows that when you do something with good intentions people react. I got to witness business people mingling with guys that would be hanging up the block, models and gallerists. It was the first time I had seen the creative world come together and not have levels and boundaries.”
With the objective of making art accessible, No Commission has free entry and works of art costing from $200 up to $200,000. Known artists hang next to unknown ones and, in this atmosphere of acceptance, Swizz hopes to create a liberating experience. “Berlin was another highlight because of the weather,” he says with a smile. “It rained the hardest it had in 102 years on opening night. We took over a power plant and it was raining in the building. No water hit the art, not one drop and it looked like a curated installation. The German news told everyone to stay at home, there were flood warnings, people swimming in the streets. We were based two hours outside of the city and I was prepared for just a handful of people to turn up, but two hours after opening we were packed. It is then that I realised we had something really powerful – there was a monsoon, it was a state of emergency and people were flocking in and having a great time.”
In the know
For Swizz, all of his passions run side-by-side and he possesses a burning need to educate himself on the history and creation of everything from music to art, cars and watches. “With music, I like to know about the levels, the vocal range, the EQ. With watches, it’s the movement, the speed, the precision. Cars are the same – I posted a video two days ago of my new McLaren. For most people, it would be all over at that point put I purposely lined it up so that I could follow-up with a film of me at the McLaren factory. I encourage people to study what they love, to educate themselves on it and not just buy something because other people tell you it’s cool.
“You take a brand like Zenith and you know people are not wearing it because the taste-makers are, or because it’s mentioned in a song. This is a brand of confidence, and to wear it you need to understand the brand and have confidence in yourself and that’s a message I want to spread. The movements are incredible and all of the pieces are in-house. You still have the heritage but Jean-Claude Biver and his team take this and graduate it and that’s where he is a genius – it’s one thing to have a strong brand but how do you graduate that brand? A lot of big companies get stuck in their old ways and think they can survive on their names – but those days are over, everyone has to move on and bring something new to the table.”
And this is the main reason Swizz first gravitated towards Biver, building a friendship based on mutual respect. “I love that he takes risks,” he says. “We first met almost a decade ago and we have a lot of fun. I guess the Zenith partnership happened naturally. A few months ago, we were talking and he just said: ‘Swizz, it’s time’. I was already wearing the brand and people were confused by what it was. A big hurdle in the US is that there was an old television company called Zenith, it doesn’t exist anymore but the association is still there. But people are crying out for something new and they are going to be blown away when they stop and look and learn about Zenith. It’s coming strong. I don’t want to sound over confident but I can’t help but be very confident.”
The incredible journey
Always influenced by art, Swizz remembers his first wristwatch being a version of the Nathan George Horwitt-designed Movado Museum Watch. Created in 1947, the piece has a strong Bauhaus leaning with plain black dial, interrupted by a sole dot representing the midday sun at 12 o’clock. “I thought I as the coolest guy in town,” he laughs.
From there he progressed to Corum Bubbles (“I still have about four of them – they are sick and my son is trying to steal them from me”); Panerai (“I was attracted by the big movements”); IWC Big Pilots; Franck Muller (“I had his first, round tourbillon”); Audemars Piguet (“I had a Carbon Concept and one of my APs was fully pave’d and was my most expensive watch. Nobody really knew the brand then, but I loved the shape”); Hublot (“I had a bunch of them because I loved the rubber straps mixed with rose gold”); Cartier (“I had a Tic-Tac-Toe and three other Pashas”); Vacheron Constantin (“I have one of the Métier d’Art Les Masques – it’s another sick piece”).
At this point, the sophistication of Swizz’s watch collecting went into overdrive. “I discovered the Ulysse Nardin Freak and went mad for it,” he says. “And then I found Richard Mille where I went crazy. I think it’s an incredibly creative brand and Richard is a good friend, but I need to keep moving and I like discovering things that not many people are wearing. That’s how I started wearing Patek Philippe – they were skewed high and not many young people were wearing the brand when I first got my rose-gold Nautilus.”
Noticeable by its absence is the default watch for many of Swizz’s colleagues in the music industry: Rolex. “I was around it too much – my uncles and all the musicians they worked with. It felt like you get money, you get a Rolex. I never wanted to be put in that box. As a brand Rolex is amazing and I see some great ones – I love the blue dial-green glass Milgauss, it’s pure and clean but I just don’t like to play follow the leader.
“If I’m a partner, then I’m a real partner. It’s how I move. I can’t fake it. I’ll wear any Zenith, anytime, but I will still switch up to other watches on occasion. You don’t want people feeling that you’re forcing them to buy something – it has to be organic, it has to be real. If you’re a watch lover, you’re a watch lover and you have to appreciate the beauty in other brands.”
Blazing the trail
Acknowledging that many people in the hip-hop community see him as a style leader, Swizz says: “I have definitely been influencing the trends for many years – if you read interviews with other artists about their watches, many will say they saw certain brands on me first.” But one person with a watch mind of her own is Swizz’s wife, who he says has “great taste and a pretty cool watch collection of her own – in fact, she had a Hublot before me. And she was the one who bought my Nautilus for me.”
Today, Swizz is often called by friends and fellow artists for advice on buying a new watch. He says he is always considered in offering an opinion, asking what other watches people have and what the purpose of the new watch is. “I tell them they have to love it,” he says. “You have to feel it – like with art. I try to steer people away from ‘buss downs’ too – where you hand a watch over to a jeweller for stone-setting. I know people are having fun but you kill the value of the watch. I did it when I was younger with a couple of my Panerais but I only used quality stones – in fact the setting cost more than the watch – nowadays the setting is like costume jewellery.
“I can’t tell anybody what to do, all I can do is recommend. But you don’t fuck with things like Patek – it breaks my heart. A lot of people don’t have a connection with their watch, they just want whatever is hot right now. But when you know the mechanics, the intricate design details of the case, and you’ve met the watchmaker it makes a huge difference.”
For Swizz, all of his watches have their own moment in time and he sees the next stage of his life as one of the most important. “I’ll be graduating in November from Harvard and I’m in a different space,” he says with well-earned pride. “It feels like Zenith is the right brand for me now. With a lot of timepieces, you have to add sophistication but Zenith is different because the sophistication is already there. It’s a thinker’s watch, a businessman’s watch – it is not a greedy brand, the great thing is the price point and this is where it will win.”
For the past three years, Swizz has had one extra thing to add to his busy schedule: a course at Harvard Business School. Graduating in his late-30s, he believes he chose to go back to school at the perfect time. “A lot of people study without knowing why they are studying,” he says. “I was already working with billion-dollar companies and bringing deals to the table that were changing the dynamic of the businesses, but I didn’t understand the jargon and I was getting frustrated. I was still seen as the Grammy Award-winning producer rather than the business guy who helped a company turnover increase by 30 per cent. It wasn’t the companies’ fault, it was mine because I couldn’t participate in the conversations on an academic level. Once I figured that out I thought: ‘I gotta go back to school, because to be flying this high, I have to have my parachute.’
“My programme was OPM – for owners, presidents and management – there were 280 of us from 48 different countries and the connections I made were out of this world. Most of the programme sharpened me up, but one class in particular really changed my life. It was a one-week elective called Launching New Ventures and it took me from worker to boss. It taught me how to build an idea from scratch and that’s how I created No Commission.”
And now as a business graduate, an artist and a true watch lover, Swizz is working on his own timepiece collaboration with Zenith. “Of course, it is connected to art,” he says, refusing to give too much away. “But I will bring it in a different way.
“A lot of people just want to bring artists in for their name and that’s OK, but it’s a bit predictable and the way I want to do it is more from a design standpoint rather than a physical painting. I don’t feel Zenith needs anything too obvious at this particular time. I want to separate from the noise, keep the lines clean and change certain dynamics. When people see this watch, I don’t want them to think of anything but Zenith.”
Styled by Fatima B for No-Name Management
Fashion Direction: Jo Grzeszczuk
Fashion Assistant: Veronica Perez
Grooming: Tyler @ One Represents using Schwarzkopf Professional
Hair: CK for International Super Cuts