A student jam session is raging outside the office of the chair of NYUâ€™s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music; inside, Swizz Beatz is bopping a shoulder to the beat of OutKastâ€™s â€œSo Fresh, So Clean.â€ Dressed in a V-neck sweater and dark denim, the megaproducer and rapperâ€”whose many collaborations with the hip-hop elite include one with Jay-Z that just won Beatz his first Grammyâ€”looks more or less like a natty grad student, except for the flashy jewelry on his left ring finger; he was married last summer to Alicia Keys.
Beatz, real name Kasseem Dean, is the departmentâ€™s first producer-in-residence, a post he assumed in November. The job offer came after an overwhelming response to a guest lecture he gave last year. â€œWhen I thought about it, I really love this environment, the students. It wasnâ€™t, like, annoying,â€ Beatz says. He comes in every couple of weeks for personal advising sessions.
Today his first students are Morgan Neiman and Giovonni Lobato, a â€œlo-fi electronica-pop two-stepâ€ act called Etches. â€œHold on a sec, I need my pad,â€ Beatz says. â€œSo do you guys have a business plan?â€ Neiman explains that they hope to make appearances at something called the Dirty Rotten Dance Party. Lobato adds that heâ€™s doing web design.
â€œOkay, so thatâ€™s a business plan for that, but what about for your music?â€ Beatz asks. â€œThe truth is â€¦ I donâ€™t know, really,â€ Lobato replies. The lesson commences. â€œSo, for me, the music comes last,â€ Beatz explains to the duo, now wide-eyed. â€œWell, in my heart the music comes first. But living in this world and being realistic, the music comes last and the business comes first. You might have a hot single, and you might not be prepared for it.â€
Neiman and Lobato have brought two tracks to play. After a quick listen, Beatz assigns their homework: Get registered with an entity like ASCAP, make a CD, and try handing it out at â€œcool-out barsâ€ and lounges. â€œYouâ€™d be surprised how much response you get,â€ Beatz says. â€œLike, you know, â€˜We really love this vibe, can we get a couple more of these?â€™ The first couple are free, and then you start charging.â€
â€œTotally!â€ Neiman says. â€œWe hadnâ€™t thought of that!â€ adds Lobato. â€œThatâ€™s why we here,â€ says Beatz. â€œThatâ€™s why we here!â€
After Neiman and Lobato have left, Beatz talks a little about his own education. He grew up in the South Bronx, bouncing through several schools before moving to live with family in Atlanta. â€œThe funny thing about me being a professor, I didnâ€™t really get along with school,â€ he says. â€œIt wasnâ€™t based on education, it was based on survival. You go in there with a new pair of sneakers on, trying to focus on work, but this person over there is thinking about jumpinâ€™ you.â€ At 14, he honed his entrepreneurial skills as the youngest barber in the neighborhood shop. â€œWhat made me different, I was doing designs in peopleâ€™s haircuts,â€ he says. â€œThen I started giving an incentiveâ€”you buy a design, you get a mix tape. I was charging $30, more than anybody.â€
He says he sees his younger self in the NYU kids, to a point. â€œBut I was a little more realistic. I still have my plan, by the way!â€ The â€œplanâ€ is something he drew as a plucky 17-year-old, a picture of himself in a D.J. booth with a compass next to it, meant to show he could expand beyond the Dirty South sound heâ€™d become associated with. â€œNinety-six percent of the students here are not ready to go off to the races, as you can see.â€ Itâ€™s not that he isnâ€™t sympathetic. â€œI know they want me to sit here and jam to these beats and have me tell them, â€˜That was hot!â€™ But I feel Iâ€™d be wasting their time.â€
Along with this teaching gig, Beatz has been branching out into visual art. (And product design: Reebok has named him curator of its new Reestyle Collective, in a move seen as a bid to recapture some of the brandâ€™s old street cred.) He rolls up his sleeve, revealing an arm full of arty tattoos: a Shepard Fairey veiled woman; Damien Hirstâ€™s diamond-encrusted skull; Andy Warholâ€™s Muhammad Ali; a Keith Haring radiant baby; Basquiatâ€™s face. Heâ€™s a big fan of Kenny Scharfâ€™s wall on Houston Street. â€œI want my art to be up there one day!â€
But first, he has more teaching to do. â€œI have a whole new plan, knowing the scope of what Iâ€™m dealing with,â€ he says, â€œwhere I can have these kids do music and pay off their student loans at the same time. That formula is 85 percent done.â€ He nods thoughtfully, seeming to work it out as we speak. â€œI want to make a real difference, so I can help them and we can help each other,â€ he says. â€œâ€‰â€™Cause Iâ€™m a student too.â€
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