While amassing his own collection, the music producer became a crucial connector, and an important advocate for artists of color.
By M.H. Miller
HIP-HOP’S INTEREST in contemporary art is, by now, something of a cliché. American materialism has been at the center of rap lyrics since at least 1982, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five rhymed about stolen TVs and “double-digit inflation.” But long before Jay-Z was rapping about wanting “a Picasso in my casa,” before Kanye West was putting a Takashi Murakami on an album cover, before Kendrick Lamar was restaging Gordon Parks photographs in a music video, before Beyoncé, after having already paid homage to the Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist in a promotional film for her album “Lemonade,” filmed another video with Jay-Z, her husband, inside the Louvre, before Drake cited James Turrell as an influence on the visuals for one of his tours in the same interview in which he said Jay-Z makes too many art references in his lyrics and claimed “the whole rap/art world thing is getting kind of corny” — there was the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, who had his first hit single in the late ’90s while still a teenager, and who used the money to buy an Ansel Adams photograph.
Swizz Beatz, whose real name is Kasseem Dean, lives in a house in Englewood, N.J., that used to belong to Eddie Murphy. Its driveway is long enough that, after a taxi had dropped me at the front gate and I buzzed the intercom, an assistant had to come down in her car to pick me up. Just inside the foyer were a set of 1978 portraits of Muhammad Ali by Andy Warhol. In the living room were a couple of Gordon Parks photographs — one of a Harlem gang leader, from 1948, the other of Ali training in London in 1966. (Dean has the largest collection of Parks photographs in private hands, and some of them will go on view in a show at Harvard this spring.) There was also a Grammy placed inconspicuously on a coffee table. Down a long, glassed-in hallway, I arrived at an enormous white room where hanging on one wall was a 2008 Kehinde Wiley painting, 25-feet long and 8-and-a-half-feet high, depicting a black man in a green hoodie reclining in a position reminiscent of Auguste Clésinger’s 1847 marble sculpture “Femme Piquée par un Serpent” (or “Woman Bitten by a Snake”), which gives the painting its name. In the back of the room was a 19-foot-tall wooden sculpture from 2013 by Kaws, a rendition of the artist’s funereal Mickey Mouse figure, with X’s for eyes and disfigured mouse ears. That the work fit indoors at all seemed to be some kind of logistical miracle. “There’s no way I was going to put it outside,” Dean tells me. “What if it snowed?” This room, he admits, started out as a “man cave,” but once the Kaws sculpture arrived and the Wylie painting was hung, it turned into something more like a gallery. “They became like brothers,” he says.
There is something about the home that doesn’t quite fit with its owner’s personality. It’s not exactly showy, though I also can’t bring myself to call an enormous sculpture of a deranged Mickey Mouse understated. And yet in person, Dean is soft-spoken and almost comically modest. He was wearing a cast when I visited him, a souvenir from the 40th birthday party that his wife, Alicia Keys, threw for him a few days earlier at the World on Wheels skating rink in Los Angeles. He tells me the story: Beyoncé was pulling off some elegant moves on her skates, and so he attempted a spin and fell hard, breaking his arm in five places. But the party had just started — all his friends had come out, and he knew his wife was going to unveil his present soon, and he didn’t want to disappoint anyone, so he downplayed the pain. Cracks appeared in this facade when Jay-Z wrapped his arm around Dean for a picture and the wincing response the gesture received led Jay-Z to believe that his friend may have seriously injured himself. Finally, the group gathered outside, where Keys presented Dean with her gift to him — a new Aston Martin — which husband and wife promptly drove to the hospital.