Stories From the Making of DMX’s ‘Exodus,’ Told by Swizz Beatz

Swizz Beatz sits for an interview to explain how DMX recorded his posthumous studio album 'Exodus' in two months following last summer's 'Verzuz' battle.

DMX poses for Complex interview photoshoot
Complex Original

Photo by David Cabrera

DMX poses for Complex interview photoshoot

It’s been a little over a month since DMX, whom Swizz Beatz affectionately refers to as his brother, passed away. And now, Swizz is only days away from presenting the late rapper’s eighth studio album, Exodus, to the world. As you can imagine, the process of planning a rollout for his close friend and collaborator has been an emotional experience.

“I’m a little drained,” Swizz admits, although he assures he’s in a good space overall. “It’s been a long few months, balancing sending my brother home and taking on the task of completing the mission with this record and making sure the world gets it immediately, how he wanted it to be. I’m hiding in the creative, but am I destroyed? Yes. Am I hurt? Very. It’s going to take time, but I can’t think about myself right now. I want to think about continuing my brother’s legacy and giving the world what he put so much time and energy into. I’m just making it all about him.” 

For Swizz Beatz, working on Exodus was a labor of love. Though he’s been tasked with the responsibility of finalizing the project, he clarifies that “100 percent of the album” was made while DMX was still living. The rapper and producer duo started work on the project after DMX’s epic Verzuz battle with Snoop Dogg in July 2020. Over the course of two months, X knocked out what Swizz Beatz tells Complex is a “masterpiece.” 

Exodus is the first DMX studio album that has been released in nine years, and it has the most features the rapper has ever had on a project in his career. Among the collaborations include new Griselda verses on the single, “Hood Blues,” the Lox, and vocals from Usher, Alicia Keys, and Bono. The album also features a collaboration with Jay-Z and Nas on “Bath Salts.” “That’s a real New York staple moment,” Swizz says.

When he was recording Exodus, Swizz remembers DMX constantly referred to the album as his final body of work. But the producer is also entertaining the idea of releasing additional posthumous music, including a gospel album, as long as it is properly curated and handled. For now, though, when fans listen to Exodus, or any of X’s previous work, Swizz wants them to remember: “He gave everything. This whole time, he gave his life to everybody that he came in contact with. And if you came in contact with X, that was a blessing to you.”

Complex spoke to Swizz Beatz about the making of Exodus and DMX’s legacy. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 


How have you been feeling having to finish up this album without X? Has this process been therapeutic for you? 
I mean, the record was finished when he was here. This is not a record after he passed. He worked on that record when he was living, 100 percent of it. The only thing we changed was the Pop Smoke verse on one of the songs, because the verse was used. So, we put Moneybagg Yo on a song called “Money, Money, Money.” That was the only thing that was changed. Other than that, everything was the same.

You’ve said that DMX’s Verzuz battle was a big motivator in getting back in the studio. Why do you think that ignited the passion again? 
A lot of artists—not just X—when they get up in age a little bit more, they start doubting things and their art. That’s why Verzuz has been so amazing. Because when he went on Verzuz, he saw the love people still have for him today. Imagine, you don’t have no music out, and you’re not on the level where you’re used to being on. Of course, when people see you in the street, they show you love, but you don’t really know what that means. But when he went on Verzuz, he saw all his albums going back to No. 1 and breaking records and entering the streaming game and artists calling him to work with him. Maybe it just gave him an energy that was the official launch of this project, because we stayed in the studio and recorded the whole album right after that Verzuz.

When he stepped into the studio, did he convey the vision he had for this project? 
One of the great parts was he did embrace his age at 50. I thought this project was brilliant and masterful because it allowed him to be him. You see a lot of these legends, they come out with something and it’s just not them. They’re trying to be too cool and too down instead of just being themselves. But music is timeless; music doesn’t have an age limit on it. I think you age yourself when you try to not be yourself. And X just went at it. He said, “Yo, I’m going to just do me, and that’s it.” 

“We stayed in the studio and recorded the whole album right after that Verzuz.”

What was your main priority as executive producer on the album? 
As executive producer on the album, I just wanted a classic from him. When we were first coming out with the music, it was very curated and it was very together. And then when my brother got super big, other people wanted to work with him and different things like that. And I went on my way to do different things and they would call me for singles and things like that, which I would do. But it was nothing like us sitting in the room and being Batman and Robin or Quincy and Michael, masterminding how we want to put this art out to the world. To be able to do that with him on his last days, I just think it was a blessing. Seeing him and getting to spend that back-to-back time together, it was pretty amazing. We haven’t spent time together, like consistently, for over 15 years or something like that. 

How long did it take to finish the record from start to finish? 
It was two months. DMX doesn’t take long to make records. As a producer, you have to know who your artist is, right? So for me to get things done with my brother, I knew we had to be in the studio at noon, and let him have the rest of his day at like 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. X doesn’t work well when it’s feeling like work. He works well when it’s fun and creative and easy. So, that’s our formula. I come in here, play certain things. “You like this? No?” He’ll start writing or he’ll have some things written already. And we don’t even really talk like that. The music speaks for itself. 

Swizz Beatz

What was the atmosphere like in the studio? 
It was one big celebration. X was so happy to see Usher actually roll up in the studio with him and spend time. And Alicia, my wife, coming into the studio. You could see it in his face. It felt like he was at the level where he belonged around the greats. Even Griselda, who is on the record that just dropped today… What I like about that record is he went to their space and did it. He was happy to celebrate and he was happy that we wanted to celebrate him. So, it started with him feeling good from Verzuz, and I knew we had to bottle that energy and get to this place on the record where we are today.

How did this album process differ from previous projects you guys worked on together? 
He always was an architect at his craft. He was always a master and took what he did seriously, whether we liked the song or not. He never played around with it. He might get lazy and try to use something that was used before, but that’s when he’s in the studio and doesn’t want to be in the studio. Once again, you’ve got to know who the artist is. His whole thing was, he kept saying, “Man, I’m not going to let you down.” And I said, “We not going to let me down. We about to lift each other up. This is not about letting nobody down. It’s about lifting you up to a level that you need to be on and that you should be on, and that you should stay on. Don’t worry about me.” Because you know, sometimes he came in the studio and he was tired and I could see it. And I’d say, “Let’s just hit it tomorrow.” Sitting in there, forcing him to do the vocals, it’s going to come out onto the track and we’re going to have to do it over. We created an amazing environment because it wasn’t forced. It wasn’t work. It was me with my brother and it was a super honorable and respected energy, which we’ve always had since day 1.

“My brother, Jay, my brother Nas, I really commend everybody for coming together and putting the egos to the side. X had a certain vibe with Jay, but Jay looked past that. X was past that at this point, too. It was just good to see real hip-hop on some fire beats.”

How did he go about selecting each feature? 
X is not the person to ask me for anything. He might mumble under his breath, “Man, it would be great to work with this person,” but he’s not going to ask. He don’t even know how to ask somebody for something. I don’t even think I ever heard him ask somebody outside of the family to get on a record. So as a producer, I had to help him with that curation. I had the record with Bono, but I thought that it fit better with this project with X. X is a rock star, Bono’s a rock star, and I wanted people to see this side of him as well. They don’t want everything to be, “Shoot ’em up, kill, kill.” We got to the street parts, but X was a serious poet, too. “Skyscrapers” is a very serious song. Bono actually drew him up a photo for the song, and wrote him a poem. X was so moved by that. He was like, “Bono took time out to do this for me?” He was just super grateful. 

As far as the song with me and my wife, “Hold Me Down,” X would always say, “Hold me down, baby!” So, “Hold Me Down” was a very easy one to do. And him working with my wife, he would never ask her, but he’s a big fan. I’ve got this video—I was up with them, and she played piano of his favorite old songs and stuff like that. It’s a very cute, cute friendship with them and he’s blushing. I was making fun of him, because he’s a superfan. And for her to show up to the studio on him, and for them to have that moment, I think that’s why “Hold Me Down” got the magic. On the song, he felt free. The words he expressed on that song are super real. But every feature on the album, he had to approve.

There’s a collaboration between Jay-Z, Nas, and X on the album. What do you think is the significance of having them together on one record? 
That’s a real New York staple moment. Jay, Nas, DMX, you hear those three names and you almost wonder what that album would sound like with them. So, this song was just a glimpse of that. And thank God that we were able to get that done and everybody was cooperative. My brother, Jay, my brother Nas, I really commend everybody for coming together and putting the egos to the side. X had a certain vibe with Jay, but Jay looked past that. X was past that at this point, too. It was just good to see real hip-hop on some fire beats.

Wait, they were all in the studio together? 
No. That would’ve been a movie. It could’ve happened in LA, but just… you know… Everybody was in their comfort space, and I was cool with that. I sent the beat, so you never know when you’re going to get what you’re going to get back. 

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You mentioned Pop Smoke earlier. Is there any chance of something being released between them?   
No. They used the Pop Smoke verse that we had. So that’s why we couldn’t use it on the album. So we just put Moneybagg Yo on it, because the song is called “Money, Money, Money,” and X wanted to have some of the younger energy as well. He didn’t want to just keep it so nostalgic, although that’s on there, too.

Can you talk about the vulnerability that DMX showed on this album? How do you think songs like “Letter To My Son” will impact fans? 
Oh, man. X was so raw and real. I use the word curated a lot about this project because it’s art. It’s pure art. That’s the way I looked at this whole project. Even from the trailer that we just put out, it’s curated art. Everything has to feel a certain way because that’s what we were going for. But, I had to let his son hear the album before I played it for anyone, out of respect, particularly because of [“Letter To My Son”]. So I called Xavier and said, “Are you free? I’ll send you a car. You can come see me.” And he said, “No, I’ll drive myself.” So, he came down and he listened to the album and he was jamming the whole way. I was sweating, and we had two more songs before we got to this damn song that I gotta have him hear first. And we get to the song, I press play. I was a little uncomfortable, because I don’t know how things are going to play out… No, actually I asked, “Did you hear ‘Letter To My Son?’” He said, “Nah, everybody else heard it but me. I didn’t hear it yet.” So, I said, “OK, let me know what you think.” You could see him going into deep thinking and wondering what it could be about. Then I played it and he just lit up. His energy lit up and it was the opposite of the way I had it in my mind. He wasn’t sad. I asked him if he wanted to play guitar on it, because he’s a great guitar player. And he said, “Nah, I think it’s beautiful. I like it the way it is. Man, this album is a masterpiece.” He clapped. Man, it made me feel so good. Even with the hard message that was sent to him from his dad, he took it. I really respected that.

“They used the Pop Smoke verse that we had. So that’s why we couldn’t use it on the album.”

The tracklist is very tight. What was the intention behind keeping it to 13 songs versus 20? 
Yeah, it broke my heart to take songs off the record, but I had to make it. I was playing the album way before I started opening it up to the public. I was playing the album for regular ears, just monitoring the temperature, and I always felt like we were three songs too long, four songs too long, two songs too long, one song. I actually had to step back and let other people help make the tracklist. I didn’t come up with the tracklist all by myself. I came up with a tracklist [with] multiple people. I had a whole other song for the intro coming in with some super action, but they were like, “Yeah, that’s crazy, but when you hear that thing start off with Jadakiss, we know what type of song we’re in.” And then we pass it off to Jay, then you get into Wayne, you don’t leave no air.

How much did you and X take into consideration what the fans would want and expect from this project? 
When he did Verzuz, he said, “The only thing that I wish is that the fans had something new to hear from me instead of only my old songs.” So we took them into consideration. But there are many different sides of X, and we wanted to channel all of those sides on this album. The only thing that we didn’t channel on this was the gospel side, because I feel like that’s a whole other type of a project. Me and X spoke about that. We decided to keep the gospel vibe because it means so much. So we didn’t want to just throw it in as another thing. Let’s keep it as another body of work. That was the plan. That was his dream, to have a gospel album come out after this or sometime in the future.

So, there is still a possibility of a gospel album being released down the road? 
Yeah. We have a lot of material on X, but for me to be a part of it, it has to be a level of what you heard [on Exodus] and above. I don’t want to just put things out just because it’s X. No. Is it magical? Is it going to add to his legacy? Other than that, I can’t have nothing to do with it. If it can add to the legacy and it is allowed to be curated, like we did on this record, then the people are definitely going to get some more magic.

During the private album listening session, you mentioned that X kept saying this album would be his last. Did he elaborate on his desire to retire? 
Yeah, very heavy. At the beginning, he kept saying it, but I feel like towards the end of the album, he was more open to getting back in and turning around another one quick. I kept telling him, “Look at what Nas is doing. This is how people move these days. We can’t wait another three or four years to put music out. We got this momentum. Let’s keep it going.” So he was like, “We will work on that time when that time comes.” But he definitely said there’ll be no more albums after this. He said he was tired.

“It was his dream to have a gospel album come out after this or sometime in the future.”

How much music would you say DMX still has in the vault? Is there potential for more albums? 
Only if it can be a masterpiece, which it can. But sometimes these things get in the wrong people’s hands, and people just be doing silly things. I don’t want to be a part of none of that. I’m so particular with X. I hate when people post silly photos of him. I’m a Virgo, and I try to protect X’s brand like it was my brand for years now. Even with this album, curating the cover and curating these videos… I’m constantly on the team, like, “This doesn’t feel big. X is a giant, don’t get humbleness mixed up for who he really is. He’s a giant, so we’ve got to make him as a giant.” Everything has to feel cinematic and epic, because he deserves it. So, that’s my main thing. When people do anything just to say they did something, I don’t like it. It drives me crazy. So hopefully, the vocals and things that’s not in my hands and in other people’s hands, they’ll be responsible with it and make sure his family is taken care of as well.

When you play back this album—or any of his music—what do you remember most about DMX? 
He was a humanitarian. He was the most giving person I ever met. I watched this man take his shoes off and give it to somebody in the street—take his jacket off, his clothes off. He didn’t care. He prayed for people more than he prayed for himself. He loved people more than he loved himself. He was a little kid at heart, playing with remote control cars and four-wheelers. He couldn’t care less about other things that people chase their whole life. He was very minimalist. He gave away his money. I’ve seen him give away everything. This whole time, he gave his life to everybody that he came in contact with. And if you came in contact with X, that was a blessing to you.

Do you feel that Exodus has accomplished everything it was intended to? 
Yes, honestly. I’m very picky. I’m so hard on myself and the process and art. That’s why these listening sessions help me, because I’m watching everything. Especially doing them on the Zooms, where you can’t control the environment, you get to see real reactions. It’s crazy because I’m thinking people are tuning out, and then at the end of it, everybody got two hours’ worth of things to talk about.

What’s the most important thing we should know about Exodus and DMX? 
Man, just know that X purposely put his all into this. I’ve seen him give it his all. I’ve seen him anxious for the people to hear it. And I think that he deserved a celebration, not only for what he’s doing now, but things that we didn’t even see that he’s done for people’s lives. He says on “Letter To My Son,” “I don’t know what you thought about my use of drugs, but it taught you enough to not use the drugs.” I felt that it was so serious. Although X had an addiction, the amount of people that he stopped from having addiction… That man saved so many people. He saved other people before he saved himself. That man got so many people off of drugs. And it was just deep to see how he was put on Earth to be used as a vessel to help people. I just want people to understand that side. We know the craziest stories, and that’s going to get all the attention. But I’m telling you who he was. He was a God-fearing man from day 1. He was the first person to make a whole stadium cry. Thugs, you name it, everybody was crying, and he was in there praying with people. How are you going to follow up a prayer on the stage? Now, when you go back and listen to the songs, they hit different, because now you really listen to what he was saying. You listen to “They Don’t Know Who We Be.” Look how long ago he did that song, and for us facing the injustices we have going on today… He’s been on that page. He just wasn’t political about it. He just gave his message, and he went about his business.

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