Artist and producer Swizz Beatz is cutting a new mold, pushing into arenas outside of music. He developed a line of shoes for Reebok. Now he is styling cars for Lotus, the English racing company. He tells us about the challenges of being a high-ranking outsider in huge corporations, what his motivations were for inventing a chrome color palette at Lotus, and why he going beyond the music industry, despite the controversy involved.
Swizz is a huge car guy, as you’ll see below, and unique. He loves twin-turbo Nissan Z sports cars and old-school Shelby muscle cars just as much as long-forgotten oddities like the Chevy Lumina APV minivan.
You had an eventful 2011, winning a Grammy, taking on new ventures—what was your best accomplishment?
My son, Egypt, turned one. But on another note, I just feel like my biggest accomplishment for 2011 was letting my true vibe speak uninterrupted—meaning, all of my decisions are made on my own, all of the planning, all of the execution, you know, I took a lot of risk and just, I think the biggest thing was just overcoming a lot of boundaries that I even thought I had. And that other people would probably think, especially stepping into so many different arenas. And I wanted to be a renaissance man for my generation, so that’s why I became active in so many diversified things.
Because, you know, I’m from the South Bronx, man. I try to tell people, like, if I could do it, you could definitely do it. If I’m successful in one thing, and I’m still not comfortable with that, imagine how hard you should be working to make it to the first level. And, you know, I didn’t do all those different things in a reckless way. I did all of my ventures in a smart way, with ownerships and no really endorsements, but executive-level entries, the way I was coming in on these deals. The cool part about it was I didn’t take a lot of upfront money, because I was more interested in the equity and the growth and the longevity of the partnership, rather than just some upfront money to just sit in front of a car or hold up a sneaker. I can’t do that at this present time in my life.
So what’s the nature of your rapport with Lotus?
I’m vice president of global design. I mean, you know, for me the titles mean nothing. The title is in my work. And I’m a perfectionist. I love things to be super amazing, and one thing I’m big into is vision beyond the norm. So when it came to working with Lotus and an amazing man, Dany [Bahar], the CEO, and I found out how open-minded he was, I challenged him to produce the first chrome-colored cars. And when I say that, like, this is actually paint, this is not a wrap. And, you know, that was my first challenge and we did it. So right now, what we’re doing is green chrome, brown chrome, black chrome, yellow chrome, purple chrome. And we just want to set a new identity in the industry of who we are.
Those chrome colors are available on production vehicles?
Those are going to be for sale. The cool thing is that my name is on every one of them.
What made you think chrome, when trying to come up with something new for Lotus?
Because there’s so many cars on the road that you can identify certain cars by their shapes, certain cars by the bold colors, and I just feel like we got a big statement to make, and Lotus is not that popular in the United States—yet. We want to get everybody’s attention. So when these things start hitting the streets, people are going to be like, “Wow! What’s that?” It doesn’t matter if there’s a million-dollar car parked next to that, it’s going to outshine it, you know, just because it’s something new, something fresh, something that hasn’t been done, something that, even if it’s been done, it wasn’t affordable.
How did you get hooked into the deal with Lotus?
Through mutual friends. I was working with Aston Martin before Lotus, with Marek Reichman [Aston Martin design director] on the four-door Rapide, which was my first car venture. And I think maybe they seen how I was working, and Dany has always been a fan of mine, and he just said one time, he’s going to reach out and make me an offer I can’t refuse. And I was like, “No problem.” And it happened.
What’s your relationship with cars?
Growing up in the South Bronx, I was intrigued by cars, and when I really started paying attention to cars was when they came out with the Nissan Z, the first body. Then I seen the [Jeep] Cherokees, the old square ones, and I was like, “Wow, that’s cool.” Then I seen the Isuzu jeeps and I seen the Wranglers. This was in the South Bronx at the time. They would get the music playing loud, I mean, white seats done up, Gucci seats, all type of crazy stuff, you know, lights under the bottom.
Then they came with the [Nissan] Maximas. Then they came with the Sterlings. Then they came with the Infinitis. Then they came with the [Chevrolet Lumina] APV, which was my favorite-of-all-time trucks, you know, because I was a DJ, and I’m like, “Man, I’ll put all my records in there, you know, put the rims on it.” The APV was pretty cool. Then I started getting into the [Toyota] Supra, which was a game-changer just like the [Acura] NSX was a game-changer to me. And even today, I see an NSX and I want to buy it off the person. Man, but nobody want to sell their NSX.
What was your first car?
So my first car was a Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo, silver with a black interior. I still have it at my mother’s house—my first car. But you know, I paid what, $7,000, for the car and put like $35,000 into it. So all of this was before I was 16, 17. And I was putting TVs in it and doing all these different things. Then I started getting music money and being a little bit successful and started just going crazy and doing car shows and winning the car shows. You know, I had like 13 cars in my garage at one time, one from each brand. And it just was the way I fed my appetite, you know. It was just like something that I would wake up early in the morning and go check and see if it was real, right? And it goes on and on and on. I just love cars.
What’s your garage look like now?
The funny thing is, now that I’m into designing and I’m in the business, I have like three cars. You know, it’s crazy. It’s like OK, I’ve got the family car, I’ve got my sports car, and I’ve got my old school.
Which do you like the best?
My favorite right now is the [Porsche] Panamera, because it’s got room in the back, a bigger space—it’s a family car.
What else do you drive?
I’ve got, you know, of course, the [Aston Martin] Rapide, some one-off Lotuses that have never been seen on the street, one chrome one that I have, and another one I made for my wife. And my old-school, my Shelby Eleanor original.
That’s a ’65 Ford Shelby GT350?
Yep. Like the one in “Gone In 60 Seconds.” And then I got one of those big jeeps.
A Grand Cherokee?
No, no the big Wrangler-looking one. The one that everybody’s driving. You know, like the special-ops Jeep.
The four-door Jeep Wrangler?
Yeah. So half of those cars are my wife’s, and half of those cars are mine. So there you have it.
The Lotuses you tricked out for you and your wife, are they Evoras?
They’re Evoras. They’re stretched and wide-bodied and carbon-ed out. Tight. Chromed. Because, like, our thing is, before we get into our new bodies, you know, we want to just have a nice big bang with the Evora, because I think that it never had its chance. You know, we got it in paddle-shift now, so it’s not only stick. Because in the States, people want to do automatic and paddle shift, it’s not really too much people that are driving sticks now a days, even though we still have that option.
Have you gotten flak for pushing into so many different arenas?
I got criticized a lot and, you know, there was a lot of misunderstanding, because my background is music and it just was, like, super disappointing to see people not being open-minded and understanding that art is art, you know, creativity is creativity. To make a hit record, that means you can probably do anything in the world. A hit record means that you got millions of people to agree on your creation. I’m like, you know what? I’m responsible for 300 something million records and I use my art and my love for art as a tool to educate, to feed my family, to change people’s life.
I just think that our culture and other cultures, or whatever, need to be more open-minded and not judge a book by the cover they know, because the cover they know might not be the cover the rest of the world know. And it just seems like a lot of people, you know, not really understanding. If people don’t understand something, they go against it. This is from the beginning of time. And I just think that we should be more open-minded and celebrate each other, more than criticizing. Because that same person you’re criticizing could be the same person that gives you your future job or helps you out. And, you know, that’s all I’ve got to say.
Are you referring to the way you were treated, coming in as an outsider to Lotus and Reebok?
It’s definitely that. But my thing is, like, I can understand if you don’t understand how I can play a role, or anybody else can play a role, because you’ve been there for 15 years, 20 years, and here is this guy that comes from rap music, pop, R&B, rock and roll, coming in there, getting a bigger role in the company. Of course, you’re going to feel some type of way. But if I was them, I would build a relationship with that person that came in there like that and see what I’m doing wrong. But it’s just how it is, and you go through that with all big companies. Luckily, the people that own the companies and run the companies have that vision, and that’s why they’re where they’re at. But my thing is, I encourage people to have that mentality of not worrying about everybody—focus on how you can make your craft the best that it can be. Because a lot of people spend so much time on other people, they lettin’ their craft slip right by ‘em. And that idea that was just going to get them promoted, they just wasted it thinking about somebody else, or talking about somebody else that don’t have nothing to do with them, you know?
So I encourage people to do this: Focus on themselves a little more and dedicate time for themselves a little more than they do to other people’s business that don’t have nothing to do with them. I just send positive energy, you know. I tell people that: Only entertain positive energy. Negative energy is a waste of time. There’s enough negativity in the world, so focus on positive energy only, right?
What else would you like to say here—thoughts about what’s coming up this year?
I’m working on a mix tape right now. I was just in the studio and I Tweeted, “I feel like making a mix tape,” and it just kind of, like, created a buzz. So I’m in the studio now because people are, like, sending tracks for it, making up names for it. It’s taken on a life of its own. More importantly, I have some super amazing announcements already for this year, which I’m holding off on because it’s all about timing. It’s a lot to digest. It’s like, “You’re doing Reebok, you’re going with Lotus, you’re doing this, you’re doing that.” I want people to understand that there is a plan with all of these things. Everything has a motivational plan to encourage and to send positive energy and to show people, you know, when they look at me, it’s for them to look at themselves and say, “Man, if Swizz can go and be the vice president of this company, then I could probably be the CEO.” Because that means if I’m the vice president, you can have my blueprint to be better than what I’m doing now and become the CEO. That should be your goal.
I’m in the business of inspiring. You know, a lot of people are in the business of showing off, and I’m in the business of inspiring, because we have a generation that’s not seeming too inspired by certain things. It’s like what are they inspired by? There’s no real people out there putting blueprints out there in front of them like that. You know, it’s like the sky’s not the limit. It’s just a view. I tell people that they should think way beyond their vision or way beyond their dreams, because you never know what could happen.