Swizz Beatz on Being Back in His Music Bag With the New ‘Godfather of Harlem’ Season, The Grammys’ Hip-Hop Celebration & The Future of ‘Verzuz’

Swizz Beatz has nearly three decades worth of platinum plaques, corporate partnerships and inroads into the world of fine art under his belt, but he knows that hip-hop is the foundation for what he does — so he rides for the culture every chance he gets. He’s just as much of an hip-hop ambassador as he is an artist and producer, so he moves and speaks with purpose. And with the genre celebrating its 50th birthday this year, he’s doing all he can to make sure that it gets the respect it deserves.

He’s three seasons in as music producer for the television series Godfather of Harlem, enlisting veteran MCs (Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes) and young talent (Lord Afrixana and ADÉ) alike to help tell the story of 1960s crime boss Bumpy Johnson, as portrayed by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker. He also took the stage with The LOX at the Grammys last month as part of Questlove’s blowout hip-hop tribute, a star-studded performance that included everyone from Method Man and Public Enemy to Lil Baby and GloRilla. Behind the scenes, he’s been working with Timbaland to retool their Verzuz series, which went quiet after a lawsuit against their partner Triller which was eventually settled out of court. And he hasn’t forgotten about his own music, either, partnering up with Lil Wayne on the newly-released track “Kant Nobody,” featuring his late friend DMX.

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In a conversation with Billboard, Swizz shared how he dives into the mind of Bumpy Johnson, why how hip-hop needs to advocate for itself with the Grammys, and the status of Verzuz.

You worked with Wayne on “Kant Nobody.” He was featured in the top 10 of the Billboard GOAT list. What were your thoughts overall on the list? 

It didn’t make me mad. But you know, the way I would have did it — which, you know, y’all can do how you want to do it — but I would’ve said, “in no particular order.” I know those are hard lists to do. It’s never gonna be the perfect list, you know?

But if it’s in no order, people won’t read it, man.

They’re gonna read it, bro. I’m telling you. It makes it go viral by doing the numbers, I understand that whole side about it. But I feel it would have still made the same impact, and people would start making their own assumptions of who was this number and who was that number. I’d rather the artists celebrate the list as well. Now the artist is quick to make a decision. But it’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s all hip-hop. Everybody on the list is blessed.

When was the last time that your top 10 rappers list changed?

It changes a lot, because I don’t base my top 10 off of too much old things. It’s an all-time [list], and it’s a current [list]. That current one changes all the time, depending on the performance of what they do.

Who’s the youngest artist in your top 10 list?

I’d say Durk. You know why? Because for me, it’s not just about bars. It’s about believing those bars. When we first started coming up with Ruff Ryders and The LOX, what they was rapping about, they was really doing. It was really about that. It wasn’t for views, it wasn’t for an app, it was to express their surroundings. That’s what Durk does. When you hear him rap, you know that he’s actually been through what he’s talking about — some fortunate situations, some unfortunate situations, but it’s almost like an autobiography in real time. That’s what Pac did, that’s what X did, that’s what B.I.G. did. The people we call the best of all time — not comparing them to him, but they used their experiences. A lot of artists do it, but I particularly like the way Durk does it.

A lot of the music that you make is basically created to take over a space — whether that’s a club, the car, wherever. Is it a different creative process for Godfather of Harlem, where music is often made to work in the background of a scene, as opposed to dominating at the forefront?

I feel like in the beginning, I would make a track in the studio. But then I came up with making the music a character in the show. Technically, the music you’re hearing is what goes on in Bumpy’s mind. So once I made the music a reflection of what Bumpy and the characters are thinking, it just gave me a whole ‘nother way of looking at producing the music for the show, rather than just placing songs and things that look cool. I would have the mic in the studio, and I’ll record vocals while I’m watching the scenes so it matches the scene and it matches the energy. Once I started doing that, it just took like a different turn, a different twist. It just opened up another freedom box for me creatively and it’s been it’s been so amazing.

When you’re trying to capture the mindset of a character like Bumpy, how much do you think the script tells you directly — versus you trying to figure out something that the script may not necessarily tell you overtly?

Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein are the ultimate writers. These guys did Narcos, and so many amazing movies and shows, that their writing [level] is an educational autobiography masterclass on Harlem. It’s been very easy to work, because the stories are so compelling that I don’t even need to know any more information — they painted the picture so vivid for you already. I’m not even wondering about things no more. I’m like, “OK, got it. This makes sense. Got it.”

What kind of guidance do you give the artists with these songs?

I give them a story on what we’re shooting, how we’re shooting it. Some of them, I’ll let them see the scenes that we’re thinking about. But everybody that’s on the soundtrack now. They’re fans of the show. Season three, the theme song is “Hustle, Repeat” by Jadakiss, because Bumpy’s gotta start all over. All the dope burned down in season two, so now he gotta start all over. He almost was running the whole thing – he almost got the Italians out of the way. So now in season three, he’s gotta get money, hustle, repeat. He’s gotta get back on his ‘za. So that’s why we chose the Jadakiss song for that. It fits perfectly. And now, you’re gonna see different parts of Malcolm vibing with Castro, the whole Cuban connection. You’re gonna see a lot of a lot of great things.

Are there any other TV shows or films whose music inspired you for this, or that you watched to prepare for the challenge?

No, I didn’t do that for the show. I just got all the way into it. What I did do was, I listened to all of the songs like “Pusherman” [by Curtis Mayfield, for the film Superfly], “T Plays It Cool” [Marvin Gaye, for Trouble Man], “Shaft” [Isaac Hayes]. I listened to all the songs that represented the bad guys, or the superheroes, or whatever at those times. All of these guys had theme songs and stuff like that. I did listen to those, to see what it’s like to make music for such a large character.

Has this given you any opportunities to work with artists who you haven’t worked with before, or any ideas that you have that wouldn’t fit anywhere else?

This has been fun, because I’ve been working with a lot of unknown and up-and-coming artists, as well as known artists. We don’t have the pressure on us to just go out and get who’s making the biggest hits now. That’s the one thing that I’m happy to have: the freedom to do as I feel… putting other artists in places where you might not have seen them, and giving them the opportunity.

And then, giving a person like Jadakiss the shine to set off the series. We know what he did on Verzuz, we know what he is as a member of The LOX, we know what he is as a lyricist. But artists like that don’t really get that much chances to be on the big screen, which is why I had them on that Grammy stage and had that Ruff Ryder flag in the air — because that was the first time I think they ever performed a song [on a stage like that] that was actually their song. They would be on those stages to do other people’s shows, when it’s kind of safe. But this was a great excuse and reason to be like, “Yo, we’re gonna do ‘We Gon’ Make It’ and I’m gonna hold the Ruff Ryder flag, and we’re just gonna let the world see what it is — even if it’s for eight bars — who cares, right? So that’s how it feels with the show as well.

Let’s get into that Grammy performance. With how crazy that setup is, how much do you actually get to watch and enjoy the tribute, as opposed to just focusing on your performance?

I have to go back and watch it, because you’re right, we’re in that moment. It’s so much preparation, even for the small period of time that we was allowed to be on there. It’s rehearsals, this, that — you can’t really watch the show. It’s a lot, so I actually have to go back and watch it.

I mean, I must give the props to Questlove, I must give the props to [Recording Academy CEO] Harvey Mason Jr. from the Grammys, I must give props to [Grammys executive producer] Jesse Collins, and Jazzy Jeff. I don’t know how the hell they pulled this off, because rap artists are serious – I know that from Verzuz. A couple of people couldn’t make it, a couple of people pulled up the last minute, but they still kept it tight. They still kept it strong. And I commend them for pulling that off, because you’re dealing with all different types of energies, but hip-hop looked very strong on that stage. It was amazing.

You just said that was the first time that The LOX performed their own joint on that stage. Do you think that they get enough credit?

I think they started to get more credit from the Verzuz, when people got to see them with Dipset. Their sales went up a lot, their show dates went up a lot, their streams went up 700%. It goes to show you that the talent just has to be in front of the audience. There’s no such thing as an old artist if that artist is still creative, if the artist is still delivering, if the artist is still putting out great music. I don’t think there’s an age limit on creativity.

Look at Marvin Gaye, look at Barry White, look at all of the artists that were allowed to age gracefully with their craft. I just don’t understand this age limit thing like, “Oh, this person is old, we’re not listening to that.” No, you listened to everything. I listen to the new artists, I listened to the older artists, I listen to the artists that’s not even on Earth no more. Music is timeless. There’s no age limit on great music, there’s no age limit on great art. That’s where I think that our culture needs to be realigned. And that’s why Verzuz was such a strong platform for that, and still is.

What the Grammys did was another reigniting of that. They had Lil Uzi on there, they had Lil Baby on there, and they also had Salt-N-Pepa on there. That’s how it’s supposed to be, because we all fall under the genre of hip-hop. When they’re representing hip-hop’s 50th, they’re not just saying the old-school people, they’re saying everybody. So let’s keep that same energy moving forward. Hip-hop should not have an age limit on it. No genre of music has to have an age limit. Look at the country singers, they’re 80 years old busting out awards. We got to stop putting limits on our greatness, and stop putting limits on our people based on what’s now and current. Let’s embrace the current, but also let’s embrace what gave energy to the current, and that’s the people that came before us.

In terms of allowing hip-hop to grow up and for artists who have already been around to get their respect, where do you think we are like in that journey? It seems like we’re getting a little better at giving artists their props and embracing newer narratives. 

I feel that it is getting better — but the egos are the killers, right? The egos always play a big part in these different things. I think the artists that came before us need work to do, I feel that the artists that are coming today need work to do. We all need work to do with respecting each other and loving each other.

Hip-hop is a very competitive thing, and it’s very heavily ego-driven as well. Everybody feels they’re the king or the queen, everybody feels like I’m that guy or I’m that woman. That’s how hip-hop started. It was a rebellious act of expression. When you couldn’t express yourself, you went to hip-hop. It started like that, so I understand why it’s like that. But we as a genre need to know how to do like what we did on that stage, times a billion. We need to be throwing dinners for each other — not only when it’s Hip-Hop 50; we need to be representing each other on a Tuesday. We need to come together ourselves, not because the Grammys say so, but because hip-hop says so.

I gotta give props to LL and Rock the Bells, they’ve been great with preserving what may have been lost from his era. D-Nice has been great in the mix. Me and Tim with Verzuz. We need these things that are cultural movements that are gonna bring us together.

The Grammys and hip-hop have had a fraught relationship over the years; it always feels like the Grammys just don’t get hip-hop. Do you think that an attribute like this can make things more promising for the future?

Yeah, I honestly do — and I wasn’t a big fan. But I was there, in rare form. I went to every event on purpose. I watched everything this time around, because I heard about the different changes. But I wanted to see things myself. I seen how they was moving. I know a lot of people wasn’t happy with certain results, and different things like that. But the overall intentions, I feel it is moving in the right direction.

But I also feel that us as artists need to be more vocal with the people that’s in charge. We can’t just expect to get all these different things, and we don’t even communicate with nobody from the Grammys, and we’re leaving it up to the labels and we leave it up to other people to speak on our behalf. Call up Harvey and get in touch with him and be like, “Yo, I would like to sit down with you and show you some stuff.” Don’t just show up to the Grammys and just think that it’s gonna all be gravy.

That goes with anything that you’re trying to excel in or be a part of; you got to be into it. Relationships go a long way. That’s why when you see the person that wins and we don’t know who that person is, it’s because their team lobbied, they got out there and set up the situation for their audience to vote. And you didn’t do that. Your people didn’t vote, your people didn’t do the right ballot things. It’s like, this is the biggest song but nobody submitted it. It’ll be things like that. We just gotta get educated on the system, if we care to learn. Some people don’t care about it, but the people that do care should learn more about it and get active in it. I think they’ll get better results they’re looking for. I just feel like you gotta go through things the proper way.

What’s the status of Verzuz right now?

Rebuild. Well, not really rebuild. What we’re doing right now is taking the first half of the year to reorganize. It became so big that we had to restructure how we were doing things, how we’re moving, how we want to relaunch. We feel that it’s so unique that when we come with what we’re getting ready to come with, people will understand me and Tim’s decision on how to move as entrepreneurs and as creatives. And hopefully, it will be a blueprint for people on how to do things.

Is the Diddy vs. Jermaine Dupri battle still happening?

We’re gonna show you better and better than I could tell you. I’m gonna leave it like that. That one is exciting. The people want that one, so why not?

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