Culture’s biggest night is almost upon us. Tomorrow, June 27, the 2021 BET Awards (8pm EST) will celebrate Black excellence in all its forms. This year’s event will also feature a special tribute to the late DMX that will be curated by Swizz Beatz.
The annual ceremony has become known for these exact moments, as it often commemorates the contributions of Black music’s fallen legends in ways other award shows could never replicate. Past tributes have posthumously honored the life and legacy of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, and, most recently, Nipsey Hussle. With involvement and oversight from Swizz Beatz, one of DMX’s closest friends and most frequent collaborators, this particular celebration is a can’t miss moment for fans still mourning the loss of the Yonkers native, who died of a heart attack in April.
“We’re going to celebrate [DMX’s life] all year, and continue to do so for many years to come.”
Following a poignant statement made at X’s funeral on the importance of timely homage and tasteful homegoings, there’s no one better suited for this responsibility than Swizz Beatz. And with acts like Busta Rhymes, Method Man and Griselda all answering his personal call to participate, it’s already safe to say the Ruff Ryders super-producer has lived up to the task.
Ahead of the evening’s proceedings, Complex spoke with Swizz about the process of curating the tribute, the possibility of his own Verzuz awards show, and what fans and artists can do to carry on DMX’s legacy after the curtains close this Sunday.
How would you describe DMX’s onstage energy for someone who never got the chance to see him perform live when he was still with us?
SWIZZ: Picture a roller coaster going up in the air very slowly and then dropping. Then it goes up, and then it twists and it turns. And then, before you know it, you’re back at the beginning of the ride. DMX put you on a roller coaster. Whether it was a musical roller coaster, emotional roller coaster, spiritual roller coaster… Dog was dynamic on stage. He was one of one. Go back and look at the Woodstock clip with him in front of a million people. He held every room that he was in.
In curating this tribute, what was the most important aspect of capturing and recreating the twists and turns of that roller coaster? How are you honoring his legacy as a performer?
In a nonconventional way. You see a lot of tributes and you can almost predict [what’s going to happen]. This time we wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to add some curation and [include] different types of artistry. Everybody that’s coming on stage, X had a serious respect for them.
Could you speak to what each individual artist brings to the tribute creatively? Beyond the respect DMX had for them, what was your thought process behind why each artist was specifically chosen?
Mainly for the energies of the songs that were picked. BET picked the songs that did well on their platforms for him. I had different songs in mind, but the way BET picked the songs made sense. Then we just started picking artists who matched those energies. I mean, DMX had his own energy. But everybody is bringing their energy to it as well.
“We wanted to do something a little different. We wanted to add some curation and [include] different types of artistry. Everybody that’s coming on stage, X had a serious respect for them.”
Considering what you’ve done with Verzuz, it feels like this past year and change for you has been about celebrating the work of your peers. Would you ever consider curating a tribute at an award show in the future for some rappers who are still with us?
Yeah, we talked about the Verzuz Awards a couple of times. Although there are a lot of award shows, there can never be enough, you know? There are so many artists we’re overlooking because of the “now” hype, but they put in so much work and we wait until a tragedy happens to give them their flowers. We’re celebrating lots of them on Verzuz, but there are so many more people.
Verzuz gives people their flowers. Me and Timb like to say “their gardens,” actually. So much happens from the Verzuz effect. From streams going up 700% to artists getting new deals and podcasts and show offers. Once you see artists on Verzuz who you haven’t seen in a while, you start to see them everywhere. And that’s amazing. But by us doing the Verzuz Awards, or whatever we would want to call it, it would allow us to give even more people their gardens. Because there are so many more artists who deserve the shine and the light and the love. Although they’re not making the “now” hype, that doesn’t mean they haven’t made history and contributed big time to our industry.
That sounds like it’d be super-dope. What was the process like collaborating with creative director Fatima Robinson for X’s BET tribute? When exactly did you two start production?
We started production a couple of weeks ago. Fatima is a savior, because my mind capacity in dealing with this whole thing—it’s been a lot, you know? I haven’t rested. Even now I’m out of the country and I’m still working on this. But it’s what I have to do, you know what I mean? So, I’m not complaining. But I do need as many great minds as possible—like Fatima’s—to take some of that weight off and come to the table with some creative ideas and take my vision and make it come to life, but still have enough space [for themselves] to be creative.
“A lot of the things I’ve been doing for X haven’t had a sad energy. It’s been energy like he’s still here. I think that’s been the trick—to not celebrate him being gone, but celebrate all of the things that were amazing while he was here.”
Fatima was surprised that I had no changes [to what she wanted to do]. Just because I might have the power, that doesn’t mean I have to change anything. We can give people their freedom to be creative. A lot of people overdo it when it makes no sense to do so. Sis did a great job.
How are you preparing for the emotion of the evening? During your Breakfast Club interview, you mentioned it was still difficult for you to even listen to certain DMX songs. I would imagine these performances would be twice as hard to get through.
Well, that’s why—I don’t know if you’ve noticed—a lot of the things I’ve been doing for X haven’t had a sad energy. It’s been energy like he’s still here. I think that’s been the trick—to not celebrate him being gone, but celebrate all of the things that were amazing while he was here. That’s helped a lot. When you change the dynamic of it and make it a celebration of life, it just feels different. That’s why we’re not really doing a lot of sad moments, you know what I’m saying? I know during the prayer, [I’m] probably going to feel something, yeah. But if it hits me, it hits me, I’m not even running from it at this point, you know?
Even in that celebratory spirit, from the funeral service to the Exodus album rollout and now this tribute at the BET Awards this Sunday, it feels like you’ve been having to process this loss publicly nonstop. Are you looking forward to having some privacy after this?
I want to keep the X thing going, because a lot of people have short-term memory. You know our culture likes to be around for the moment. When he passed away, everybody was there for that moment. But my thing is: Okay, well, take that same moment and go get his album. Let’s keep that same energy. People want 300 tickets to his funeral and all this stuff here, but when the album time comes, you don’t see that same support from people who were posting about dog. If everybody who posted about him purchased his album, it’d be a great time, but that’s just not the time we’re living in.
“DMX put you on a roller coaster. Whether it was a musical roller coaster, emotional roller coaster, spiritual roller coaster… Dog was dynamic on stage. He was one of one. He held every room that he was in.”
I got a different seat at the table with him because he trusted me with his life. So, as tired as I am, and as much as I want a break, I’m not going to be able to go to sleep until he gets to at least gold. So, I urge everybody to go get his album.
What can people do to carry on X’s legacy beyond just buying the album, though? After the lights go out on Sunday and the tribute is over, decades from now, what can we do to honor DMX’s memory?
Well, I think that’s a partnership between the fans, the Ruff Ryder movement, myself, and all of his peers in the industry. I don’t think that’s just a one [group] thing. That’s something that all of us have to do in many ways. Whether it’s [producers] sampling his music or [artists] being inspired by his energy on stage and taking it and adding it into their own show. There are so many different things—whether it’s documentaries or a movie—so many things are on the table.
Even after this, I’m doing [Hot97’s] Summer Jam—I’m doing the New York City DMX tribute on the main stage. While people may think this is something that’s over and it’s on to the next, I’m just not trying to let them do that with this one. I want this thing to sink in a little bit more from a musical standpoint. Not from a sad standpoint, but like a real celebration. We’re going to celebrate [DMX’s life] all year, and continue to do so for many years to come.
The 2021 BET Awards air this Sunday, June 27 at 8pm EST.