Heads are nodding in the control room at Monza Studios in midtown Manhattan, where 26-year-old hip-hop producer and label mogul Swizz Beatz is blasting a track from his latest project. Standing with him around a waist-high bank of rackmounted outboard gear are Layzie Bone and Wish Bone of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, both listening intently as their layered vocals spill out of the speakers over a bright-sounding horn section and an infectious four-on-the-floor swing beat. As the song builds to its chantlike chorus of “I can toast to that” (vaguely reminiscent of the Hall & Oates classic “I Can't Go for That”), Beatz hoists an as-yet-unopened bottle of Hennessy in the air. Everybody cracks up.
“You won't hear nothin' on the radio like this,” Beatz says confidently, and given the play-it-safe, cookie-cutter nature of the airwaves these days, there's really no debating him. “That's the disco feel I'm trying to bring back, where you can vibe with it even if you never heard disco music in your life. So we've got that and about 12 or 13 other tracks we've been working on for almost a year now.”
And what a year it's been so far. By his count, “The Monster,” as his close friends call him, has produced more than 80 songs for a slew of mega-Platinum artists, including Busta Rhymes (whose forthcoming album The Big Bang features a Swizzed-out track tentatively titled “Touch It, Feel It” that purports to be the bomb), Beyoncé (for her next solo album, which includes the single from the upcoming Pink Panther film), Eve (in collaboration with Dr. Dre), Usher, Nas, Nelly, Fat Joe and more. Since the year began, Beatz has had at least a half-dozen jams in heavy rotation, among them DMX's “Pump Ya Fist,” T.I.'s “Bring 'Em Out,” Memphis Bleek's “Like That,” Cassidy's “I'm a Hustla,” Young Gunz's “Set It Off” and Mashonda's funky club hit “Blackout” (with Nas and Snoop Dogg). And he's still planning more for his own label, Full Surface — including the long-awaited follow-up to his solo debut, G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories (Dreamworks, 2002) — as 2006 looms on the horizon.
After nearly 10 years in the game — on a run that started with the Ruff Ryders in the mid-1990s and later got him in the studio with Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Metallica, LL Cool J, Angie Stone, Ja Rule, Lil Kim, Jadakiss and just about everyone who's anyone in pop, rock, soul and hip-hop — it might seem like Beatz has nothing left to prove. But as he does in all his other endeavors — which include photography, painting (under the tutelage of New York pop artist Peter Max), fashion (with a new line of Pro Keds coming out soon) and exotic cars (through a dealership he co-owns in Las Vegas) — Beatz always finds it impossible to do anything but move forward.
“I'm on my phase two right now,” he asserts. “This time, it's more calculated than the first round because you can't do what you did the first time. And that's got a lot to do with hip-hop right now. You got a lot of artists that are stuck in their ways and got their own way of moving, when it takes just a little more time to be creative. Everybody can do what's on the radio right now. Anything on the radio right now, I could do. Let me hear that, I'll have you something in 10 minutes. But how am I changing the game if I'm doing what the next person already did? For me, musically, it's just about the drive to keep doing something new.”
EVOLUTION OF A BEAT ADDICT
Beatz caught the rhythm bug early, spinning records at local parties in the Bronx as a teenager and getting deep into mixtape culture. He soon got his hands on his first drum machine (a Boss Dr. Rhythm), and by the time he'd moved up to an Akai MPC60, he was crafting beats that so impressed his uncles Joaquin “Waah” and Darrin “Dee” Dean (co-founders of Ruff Ryders Entertainment), they hired the 17-year-old prodigy to produce tracks for their breakout artist DMX, and the fuse was lit. Almost immediately, the spare, thick-sounding snares and deftly syncopated rhythms of the “Swizz Beatz sound” — exemplified in the uptempo funk of DMX's “No Love 4 Me,” from Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (Def Jam, 1998), and the cut-time pulse of the Ruff Ryders' “Down Bottom,” from Ryde or Die, Vol. 1 (Interscope, 1999), featuring Juvenile and Drag-On — had become a permanent entry in the hip-hop lexicon.
“With Pete Rock and all the SP  users, their drums would always come out harder,” Beatz recalls. “But I didn't like the way the SP pads had no way to bang on the beats. So I found a way on the MP to make my drums just as hard by cranking up the levels of my samples and then just hitting the pads hard. The rest was just about feel — I don't use SMPTE or none of that stuff. All my beats that you hear are freehand. It swings, it's not too perfect, and it's not too quantized. And just being real about it, I never learned how to do that shit anyway. I was just trying to do a lot of different patterns with the drums. I got tired of doing the obvious things, so I started making the beat double-bounce and triple-bounce and stay in rhythm. I ended up actually creating a style where I could make beats in 10 minutes because I know the MP with my eyes closed.”
Beatz still uses an MPC3000 as his main source for beat sequencing and will sample just about any sound and turn it into something percussive — or he'll tune the sound and spread it across the machine's 16 pads, transforming it into something melodic. “It's a pretty basic trick,” he says, waving off the patience that it takes to tune a sound cleanly. “Let's say you have a violin playing a long [continuous] note. I'll sample myself on a keyboard doing a hit, and I'll put that on 16 pads and play it like it's a piano or something. Then, I mix the 16 outs together with the violin. It's really just straight clean with the machine. My tricks come with what I do with the music when it's in the machine.”
As for sampling itself, Beatz prefers for the most part to rely on his own catalog of sounds. “Now, I'm comfortable [to the point] where I'll play a couple of samples to fill another person's spot on a particular album I'm working on, just so I don't get hit with a $100,000 fee,” he says. “It's like, ‘You know what? Fuck it — I'll play the sample on this one.’ You know what I'm saying? Eighty-nine million records sold, who cares if you do your own samples? So I just bust it.”
ROCKING THE VOX
Back in the control room, after Beatz and Bone Thugs have copped another listen to the playback of “I Can Toast to That,” Beatz steals away to the vocal booth to do a few “hype” takes, dropping strategic whoops and name checks to give the track some added flavor. An Avalon mic preamp paints in a hint of compression to his voice, which blends seamlessly with the melodic lines and rhymes sung by the Bone brethren.
One revelation that emerged from his 2002 artist debut, G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories, was that even among guest luminaries like LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes, Beatz is a damn fine rhyme specialist by himself, as the album's title cut demonstrated so forcefully. For his next solo outing (due sometime next year on his Full Surface label), he plans to step out even further. “It will be a big progression,” he says. “This time, I'm more comfortable with my flow, my delivery, and more comfortable in the booth and even hearing myself. That was my biggest problem — I used to hate hearing myself on a mic, rapping.”
Nevertheless, Beatz will still resort to running his voice through various effects and filters if the feeling is right. “I need to hear my voice a certain way,” he says. “If I'm doing hypes or rapping, I need a little bit of reverb and compression; it just seems to tune my voice to where I'm sonically comfortable with it. But I'm a vocal freak, too, and I love trying weird shit on the voice. I mean, even that Roger [Troutman] stuff, the vocoder — I love all that stuff. I did a song for Cassidy called ‘The Pump’ that had a vocoder sound on it. The record company didn't understand it — they loved the whole song, but they didn't even know what I did. It still ended up coming out underground about a year ago.”
Beatz points to a work-in-progress called “I'm on My New York Shit” as what he hopes will become his signature track on the new solo album. “It's breaking down everything in New York,” he explains. “Kid Capri, DJ Red Alert, riding on the trains, Latin Quarters, Do the Right Thing — I'm talking about everything in this song. There's a lot of speculation about New York right now, and I feel we need to find ourselves. Everybody wanna rap South, and that's all right if you're from there, but New York never followed nobody. We gotta stand on our own two feet.”
THE FOUR HORSEMEN
When the conversation turns to how Beatz made the transition from DJing to producing and whether the former influenced the latter, he doesn't hesitate. “DJing unknowingly trained my ear,” he says. “If something's off the beat, I hear it in a split second. If something's not bouncing right, I'll hear it. My senses for beats are instant because in DJing, you have to go by bpm to keep the party moving, or you can lose your whole crowd. I was also a master at keeping my dancefloor because I talked on the mic. I communicated with the people and made them feel a part of the song — just like I do now with my beats.
“So DJing helped me with my mic skills and my beat skills,” he continues, “because I can hear something and be like, ‘That's not gonna rock in a club, or they won't play that.’ Like, let's say you have a long intro to a song. A DJ's not gonna play that unless it's a big-name artist — then, you can have all your drama and all that shit. But if you're trying to get your shit going, you have to have the drums get right to it — one, two, boom. And then, as a DJ, you can blend that in with something that's more popular, and the crowd will feel it, and you can break a record like that. If you're stopping a whole big intro for a song they don't even know, nine times out of 10, you're gonna lose your damn set.”
It's this instinct for what will move a crowd that has not only kept Beatz operating within the higher echelons of one of the most competitive, lucrative and demanding (some might even say ruthless) cliques in the music business but also won him the trust and the respect of the artists he works with — even when he pushes them in what might seem to them to be an unfamiliar direction.
“Most of my artists … I call everybody ‘my artists,’” Beatz says — and you get the feeling he uses the term not out of any sense of propriety, but of loyalty — “I like to challenge them. They respect me enough to take that challenge in a positive way and come up with the fire because they don't want to let me down, and they know they got something to prove out there. Working with a new artist, for me, is a fresher feel. It's like, yes, finally, somebody that don't got no fuckin' ego or that don't got so much money that they're too cool to even focus. It's rare that that happens anyway, but as a producer, it's my job to let the people out there that's doubting know — like in working with Bone now — that this is the most talented artist in the world to me.”
Beatz breaks down the keys to success in hip-hop into four crucial areas that a person can exert their individuality: “It's DJing; graffiti writing; producing; and, weirdly, cutting hair.” Cutting hair? “It's weird, I know, but a lot of DJs and producers I know used to cut hair,” he says.
Strangely enough, Funkadelic overlord George Clinton started out as a hair stylist. “Yeah?” Beatz asks, as though the idea just confirms what he's thought all along. “I didn't even know that. His hair is always nice and in place.” And he nods slowly, with just a glint of amusement in his eye.
MONZA STUDIOS: THE WAY OF THE WU
If ever a recording space were blessed with the creative energy of its past occupants, it would have to be Swizz Beatz' Monza Studios. Originally part of Skyline Studios, which from 1979 to 1994 was the scene of recordings by everyone from Al Green to Miles Davis to Brian Eno to Mariah Carey, the space was acquired by RZA and Wu-Tang Clan soon after Skyline closed and was rechristened 36 Chambers. (Skyline has since reopened in the same building.)
Beatz took over the studio this past year (with Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers recording studio and offices having opened a few blocks away) and, in the process, got his hands on RZA's Neve/Amek 9098 console — quite likely the only 9098 in New York City. Although the board is currently being refurbished, Beatz looks forward to making full use of a warmed-up analog system with state-of-the-art digital capabilities.
“I always want my sound to be unique,” Beatz says. “Right now, the [control] room is at about 50 percent, but when I get it to 100 percent, it's gonna be unstoppable. It's an expensive setup, and it takes a lot of tuning to get it right, and that comes with the modules of the Neve being on point, too. We're almost there. I'm just looking for everything to respond so that it can be loud without hurting your ears — a nice comfortable sound where you can hear the vocals and everything clearly.”
For now, Beatz gets an analog boost by routing his Digidesign Pro Tools sessions out to multitrack 2-inch tape (on a Studer A820 MKII) and then back into the computer. “We just reuse the reels we have,” he explains. “It's a good trick because it just gives it that incredible sound for when we go back into Pro Tools. I hear they're trying to invent something that gives you that analog-tape sound in a program, but I want the real effect. And we also master back to half-inch. That's mandatory on almost every session now.”
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware, interfaces:
Amek/Neve 9098 console
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.7GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 2 recording system, 192 I/O interface
Studer A820 MKII 24-track 2-inch tape recorder, A820 2-track half-inch mastering deck
Synths, software, plug-ins:
Korg Trinity, Triton Extreme workstation synths
Roland Fantom-X8 synth
Waves Native Platinum Bundle plug-ins
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC3000 Limited Edition sampling workstation
Pioneer CDJ-1000 MKII DJ CD player, CMX-3000 dual CD player
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Avalon Vt-737sp mic preamp/compressor
Eventide DSP4000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Lexicon 480L digital reverb
Neumann U 87 mic
Tube-Tech EQ-1A equalizer
Dynaudio AIR Base — series active subwoofer