Swizz Beatz has a lot going on: Not only is he co-founder of Verzuz, the popular online DJ battle series, he’s a successful music producer (Jay-Z, Nas, DMX), he’s married to Alicia Keys and the two of them have built a formidable art collection.
Having discussed Verzuz at length with him earlier this year, we reached out, figuring he’d be game to talk about the just-announced second season of the series he started with fellow hitmaker Timbaland, which has become a lockdown phenomenon, drawing millions of viewers watching artists and producers, from Brandy vs. Monica to Snoop Dogg vs. DMX, go head-to-head playing their hits.
Although he gave some clues about Verzuz Season 2 — it’s likely to start very soon and we should expect the unexpected (“You’ll guess the first one, but you’ll never guess the next five”) — Swizz has a different kind of competition in mind.
Camel racing. Seriously.
Bronx-born Swizz Beatz (real name: Kaseem Dean) is not only the first African-American but the first Westerner to own a camel-racing team based in the Middle East. His team — Kaseem Abu Nasser, comprised of 12 fast camels — won its first race on Thursday in Saudi Arabia, and while this story was being written on Friday, it won another — fortuitously, on the same day he launched the link to his Kaseem Abu Nasser merchandise at http://www.thechinatownmarket.com
And if it seems somehow out of character, Swizz is yet again proving to be an innovator as well as a global ambassador.
Swizz spoke exclusively to Variety about his camel-driven feats.
Are you enjoying the thrill of victory?
Yeah. The race was at 5:15 a.m. my time, which means that I haven’t been to sleep since yesterday. Once the race was over, the adrenaline started pumping all over again. But then, the kids have to go to school, so you have to get them ready. I’ve been on a cloud of excitement ever since.
Where was the race that you won?
The races happen in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi – all over the Middle East. It was amazing, though, to win the race in Saudi Arabia, because my stables are in [the capital] Riyadh. To win your first race – your only race so far – in racing’s home is crazy. We were in eighth place for a long time after the race first started. Then Nicole — the camel named after my daughter — just went for it. Wow. What are the odds? No team has ever won their own race — forget about me being from America, a Westerner. No Saudi team ever won their first race. What’s funny, though, is that there are Arab and English versions of the race that you can watch, and when the announcer was yelling, “Nicole, Nicole is showing up. Miracles can happen!,” my daughter was freaking out. Talk about screaming and yelling — my voice is gone. (See video of the race below, after the ad.)
What made you want a camel team to begin with?
I had it in my mind for so long. My friends out there have teams, friends’ parents’ families in Dubai have teams. That’s how I had access to knowing what to look for, how to pick your fleet, understand the bloodline, find the best trainers. I did extensive research and was there for a month straight doing it. I had the heads-up for a while but didn’t push the button until COVID. It sounded big, amazing and a lot of work, but I just wanted to do it. It feels like it came fast, but it was a long process.
Can you offer a tip about how to buy a great racing camel?
Before you buy camels, you get to observe them. There’s test races where you can get to understand the attitude of the camels. Say, for instance, you’re seeing a camel suddenly go from the right lane to all the way across to the left — you can tell that that camel has a bad attitude. That might not be your best camel out of the gate. You want a camel that is focused, that listens to commands. You want camels from great homes and breeders. They get treated very well — amazing food, massages. Camels have to feel the love to give the love. You can’t have stressed-out camels in a race. Camels are sacred over there.
How were you able to enter this race as a first-time team owner so quickly?
That’s the thing, it wasn’t that quick. I’ve kept it quiet until I understood everything that I had to about the camels and racing. I did my homework. That said, this is something I was always interested in. Any time I go to the Middle East, I see camel racing. I come back home and never see anything about the sport. Watching them race, it’s always a celebration — like the NBA. I started knowing the teams by their jackets and the coverings that the camels had on. I got to know the teams, their reputations. So for my birthday, I had a goal: to make it happen, to buy a team. This was something my whole family could participate in.
How will we know your team when we see it?
That’s easy, the Ruff Ryder “R” [referencing the label Swizz came up on, with DMX, Eve and others]. I did that on purpose so that people would know me.
What are the tracks like?
There aren’t tracks, per se. Just roads – long strips [around five miles, with camels running between 25 and 40 MPH that are regulated as a track. My trainer and jockey are riding in a car on the side, everybody’s jockey is riding on the side, the other side of the highway, going in the same direction as the camels in open desert. The race goes on for six minutes. There are 14 rounds. My race this morning was in the third round, the one for the gold cup. To win the gold cup your first time up is also bananas.
Do the jockeys ride on the camels’ backs?
No — there are robot backpacks that go on the back of the camels. I love that there is technology involved. Previously, it was just like horse racing, where you had a jockey on the camel’s back, but that slows them down. Now, my jockey and trainer can speak to the camel during the race through a walkie-talkie in the backpack. That’s how you give the commands. My backpack has the Ruff Ryders logo on it, and there’s a microphone in there giving the camel direction. It’s like telling a dog during training, “Sit down.” It’s serious stuff.
Has your family hung out with the camels?
They actualy haven’t met the camels or been with me during visits, due to COVID. I’ve named all of the camels after my family members – my mother, my grandmother, my wife, my children and me. I also named one of the camels, ‘Bronx,” as that is where I started. It’s a nice reminder. There’s a family element to the whole venture. My camels’ trainer, he’s treating my camels like he would another family member. He kisses the camels on the mouth. That’s real love. And the news media is all over this team over there. So much love.
Do crowds and trainers know who you are?
They don’t know. They keep saying “Kaseem Abu Nasser” from the U.S. My oldest son is Nasser, my name is Kaseem, and the team stands for “Son of Kaseem.” It’s not on any of my sites either. Not one news clip. You’re the first.
You created merch for the Kaseem Abu Nasser team with Chinatown Market, the LA streetwear brand who’s worked with LeBron James, Puma and Converse. How did you use your previous merchandising know-how for camel racing gear? There’s not much precedent for this here.
When I was going through this, I wanted people to have fun with it, make it a lifestyle and not just a sport. At first, I wanted a higher-end brand, but knowing people would laugh at me for having a camel racing team — friends thinking I’m crazy — I wanted something with character and that was accessible. Chinatown Market embraced that. They’re not afraid to do quirky things. Plus, my family got involved, and it was almost as if we were doing arts-and-crafts together, rather than just be something you go “okay” and sign off on without seeing.
You say friends might think you’re crazy, but I’ll bet Jay-Z is looking to buy a camel team right now.
That’s funny. Jay wrote this morning to congratulate me and said, “Goddamn, we’re really global now.” Nas phoned right after him to do likewise. Look, people know that I like to be disruptive. That’s what I have fun doing. If it’s something that everybody else is about, you’re going to have a hard time getting me to be excited. Once I knew that no one else on this side had ever done it, that we could have fun and educate people about the culture, that’s how I knew it was for me. My idea of forwarding the culture is that we can be anywhere we want. Learning about cultures and traditions other than our own can forward ours even more. It’s like liking an artist that no one knows. At first you’re afraid to admit it, then all of your friends co-sign it. You liked it all along, but you had to be cool about it. Our culture does that a lot, but that’s okay. You have to stay on the journey and look toward family and fulfillment.
What’s next? More races?
I have four more races coming up this week. Up at 5 a.m.! My wife, Alicia, is racing tomorrow, and so is my grandmother, Mabel. My mother is funny. She wanted to know how we picked the names for each camel. She wanted to know which camel was faster than hers, or if I went and gave her a slow camel. She’s hilarious. It’s a male and female thing. It doesn’t work like that, Mom.
Looking at something like Verzuz and how you and Timbaland turned that into a phenomenon, is camel racing something you’d like to introduce here?
I was thinking about that. Never say never, right? What I like about camel racing is that people could be familiar with the concept from horse racing, but in its purest form, wouldn’t it be nice to make it a goal, to go and see it in its natural setting? Or a bucket list item? Go to a desert, experience it for real? I want the culture to explore. That’s how I got here, and what brought me to a global mindset.