Swizz Beatz On Going To Harvard, Hip-Hop’s Origins, and All-Nighters With Kanye West

"We were in the studio three days, no sleep."

Photo by Mike Coppola / Getty Images

Out of all the mega-producers working in hip-hop, Swizz Beatz has emerged as the music industry’s Mr. Miyagi when it comes to venture capitalism. After becoming a millionaire by eighteen and founding his own label imprint, the rapper-turned-entrepreneur produced hits for everyone from Jay Z to Bono, and struck business deals with Aston Martin and Reebok (a company where he currently serves as VP of Sports Style Marketing, Design, and Brand Music Development). In 2014, Swizz enrolled in Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program, where he learned to consolidate power alongside the world’s most successful CEOs and heads of companies in a 9-week intensive course. 

The producer’s newest collaboration is with Canon’s Rebel With a Cause campaign that showcases emerging artists through Sotheby’s auctions and museum installations. Somehow, between all these endeavors, Swizz collaborated on two tracks from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and is currently executive producing his wife Alicia Keys’ upcoming album. He also owns an extensive collection of art that boasts original Basquiats and Warhols. We called up Swizz Beatz to learn the ins and outs of charity outreach, business deals, and hip-hop’s reawakening.  

What’s some advice you’d give to a young artist entering the industry?
Be original. Be as innovative as possible. Try new things, take risks, be able to be diverse in your craft. As artists, we always think that it’s about us—and it is—but our creativity is the language between us and our audience. You have to figure out a way to create the merger so that your expression is being picked up. By that happening, you’re being celebrated as an artist. But at the same time, your expression should be coming from your artwork or your music so people can comprehend, understand, and connect to it. And you’re going to probably get frustrated because you’re not going to get the response that every artist wants and that success.

What do you look for in talent?
I think what I look for is mainly the feeling, the energy being organic through whatever the creative work is, and the passion—you can tell if an artist has the passion. And the dedication, as well. Those are what I check off when I look for talent. A lot of people can be good at things, but it’s a different level. It’s like with musicians; you have a lot of people that can sing, and then you have people who are superstars. Sometimes that’s coming from more dedication, sometimes that comes from the time that’s put in, sometimes that comes from studying. Every artist brings something to the table, but the world is a critical place.

How do you specifically choose which charities and outreach programs you involve yourself with?
The way that I choose charities and issues that I align myself with is that I have to feel it personally. There’s a lot of places in the world that can use help, a lot of charities that can use this type of connectivity with the demands and uses that I have. I’m very careful on how to use those resources because they don’t come easy, and you want whatever you’re doing to have an impact. I make sure whatever component that I’m aligned with, I know 100 percent that it’s going for a great cause because you’ve got a lot of people out here who don’t have good intentions. They have great platforms, but not good intentions, and I can’t be a part of any of that. 

How has your perception of business and the alignment with specific brands changed since first enrolling in Harvard Business School?
I think that since going to Harvard, I’ve definitely sharpened my pencil out on the business front way more than I ever expected. It’s helped me to have an idea, plan it, and execute it. Before I was at Harvard, [when] you had a great idea, you thought that the magic was going to fall from the sky because it’s a great idea, you know? So now, I know the reality of those great ideas and how to evaluate those great ideas, and how to set up the blueprint and the platform to execute those ideas, which is very, very important because I would usually have to hire a bunch of people to tell me how I should do my idea. Now, I can hire a bunch of people and tell them what my idea does. It’s a big difference.

It’s an issue of actually owning your ideas rather than partnering to get your ideas executed. 
Yeah. I think it’s very important because you leave so much on the table, and you give so much away in the beginning when you [entrust] partners with your ideas, but you don’t understand how the business of your idea works. You leave so much on the table, and then by the time your idea gets picked up and on and rolling, you realize that you’ve diluted the company. You know your shares are the least amount of shares in the company because you have to keep going the different rounds, and every round, you’re just giving up ownership of all these things and forget what you worked hard for. It was your concept, your idea, and you get the least amount of compensation for it at the end of the day. 

What was it like working with Kanye West on The Life of Pablo?
It was a fun, amazing experience Yeah, it was an amazing experience over the three days. We were in the studio three days, no sleep. Pretty, pretty happy with the way that I’ve been on the album. "Ultralight Beams:" It’s a controversial record.

There was a recent article in Vox Media discussing how hip-hop in pop culture is political again, whereas in the early and mid-2000s, politically conscious rap music seemed to be pushed to the underground. But now, with the wild success of Kendrick, especially his Grammy performance, and Killer Mike’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders, do you think that we are seeing a resurgence of hip-hop’s core values in mainstream culture?
Everything comes back around with different generations, and it starts with somebody starting it up, and it being the “okay” or “cool thing” to do, and then it starts spreading. So now, after Kendrick’s performance, you’re probably going to see more people having more substance or more political things to say. Hip-hop started as something where you could speak your mind. People started having fun with it, and were silly with their songs, but hip-hop started as a rebellious thing. The voices told you stories of how it was going down in unfortunate places, describing the living situations, hip-hop started like that. I think it’s coming back to its original form, if you ask me.