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How Verzuz DJ Battles Became a Lockdown Phenomenon: Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, Jill Scott Explain

Variety — A.D. Amorosi

Swizz Beatz tells a funny story about how he and fellow hitmaker Timbaland came to co-create Verzuz, the weekly, real-time, virtual DJ battle on Instagram Live that pits icons of R&B and hip-hop against each other in (usually) friendly musical competition. The series, which has seen Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds taking on Teddy Riley, Erykah Badu in a lovefest with fellow soulstress Jill Scott, and Ludacris battling Nelly while virtual crowds of hundreds of thousands weigh in on social media, has become a lockdown phenomenon since it debuted in March.

“Tim and I have always been competitive with each other in different ways,” Swizz says from his home studio in New York. “Actually, we didn’t get along for a long time. No real reason — we just didn’t.”

The rivalry is both surprising and unsurprising — it’s the kind of shade that kindred spirits throw at each other during their teen years — as the songwriter-producer-artists built deep musical catalogs and legacies over the past two decades. In fact, they both created the kinds of catalogs that have made for perfect Verzuz sessions, where each player tries to top the other with a classic from their own bodies of work.

Virginia-born Timbaland (Timothy Mosely, pictured above, left) rose in the mid-1990s via a series of hits created with longtime collaborator Missy Elliott, initially for Aaliyah and then with Elliott’s own hits. Over the ensuing years his trademark sound, with its quirky and mechanical-hooks, laid the groundwork for hits by Jay-Z, Jodeci, Usher, Ginuwine, Boyz II Men, Nelly Furtado — and even Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell — arguably peaking in the mid-‘00s with Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds.”

At around the same time, Bronx-spawned teenager Swizz Beatz Kasseem Dean, pictured above, right) burst onto the scene with a flurry of hits like DMX’s “Ruff Ryders Anthem,” Noreaga’s “Banned From TV” and especially Jay-Z’s “Money Cash Hoes.” In the coming years his steely sound, with its rattling snares and dramatic orchestration, graced more hits by DMX, Eve and other Ruff Ryders family members, as well as Mya, Jadakiss, LL Cool J, T.I. and Swizz’s wife, Alicia Keys.

Yet all those years of rivalry came to an end one day in 2007 when Swizz invited Tim to his home for a talk. “In one conversation, we put the past behind and moved forward,” Swizz says. What took place on that day — turning competition into collaboration — laid the groundwork for the Verzuz ethos.

Not long after that auspicious meeting, Swizz went into DJ-battle mode, first with Kanye West on the stage of Hot 97’s annual SummerJam concert in New Jersey, and then against producer Just Blaze a year later.

“People love a good fight, and Kanye, as an artist, was at his height,” Swizz says, “but battles had never been done with producers before. Tim and I started talking then about doing something similar, off-and-on,” and the two did pair off at 2018’s SummerJam.

“But then, damn, this pandemic happened.”

And in mid-March, Tim called out Swizz on Instagram with what Swizz perceived as the bat signal for a battle.

“I loaded up my beat machine and called him out too,” said Swizz. “We went live, playing our best. The audience went wild in real time, talking to us, responding to the tracks. Two hours after Tim called me out, Verzuz pretty much started.”

“Don’t announce it — just do it,” Tim explains now.

The concept behind the Verzuz battles is simple. Timbaland and Swizz Beatz curate a DJ-like Instagram Live event, choosing two icons — usually from the fertile R&B/hip-hop scene of 1990s-early 2000s that they came both up in — to face off in two 10-song rounds during Verzuz’s three-hour sessions. Artists play signature songs and tracks that they are associated with, whether as producers, songwriters, remixers, or performers, although the rules aren’t exactly strict: For example, Nelly played songs by his old friends in State Property (Philly’s Beanie Sigel and Freeway) just for kicks during his session with Ludacris.

While all that is happening on the performers’ side of the screen, a real-time audience that has ranged from 250,000 (for April’s Scott Storch-Mannie Fresh match-up) to 710,000 (May’s Jill Scott-Erykah Badu Verzuz) cheers on the players and comments on the action.

It’s taken on the air of football or basketball game, but one where the players, the audience and the curators can all hear and respond to each other.

“Even though we’re curating Verzuz, we’re in there too, chatting with everybody tuning in, until the screen goes black,” Timbaland says. “When it’s over, Swizz and I are ready for a drink.”

“Swizz is reading polls and comments, listening and pivoting in real time — Timbaland too,” says Fadia Kader, Instagram’s head of music partnerships, who has played a key role in the series.

Along the way, there have also been Verzuz bouts with The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett, French Montana vs. Tory Lanez, Mannie Fresh vs. Scott Storch, Boi-1da vs. Hit-Boy, Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin, Lil Jon vs. T-Pain, two rounds of Babyface vs. Teddy Riley, RZA vs. DJ Premier (“that was my favorite,” said Jill Scott), and last Saturday’s Ludacris vs. Nelly — with two coming this holiday weekend: the first reggae battle, between Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, on Saturday, and the first R&B group battle pitting Jagged Edge against 112, on Monday.

Audience members getting in on the fun on social media have included artists like Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper, Missy Elliot, Snoop Dogg, Tierra Whack, Common, Fat Joe, Tyrese, Busta Rhymes and Jamie Foxx.

Snoop castigated Nelly for his lousy WiFi connection (“Use your phone!” Snoop cried as Nelly’s communication breakdown made his half of the screen blank); another memorable response came from Fat Joe to a seemingly, er, celebratory Sean Garrett during his Verzuz battle with The-Dream: “F— is wrong wit’ this n—a?” Joe said, commenting live on Garrett’s tic of licking his lips.

“Verzuz moved from battle into collaboration, but naturally everyone’s still competitive, just in a smooth way,” Swizz says. “Babyface was a cool, smooth competitor. Nelly was a super-hot dog.”

But it’s the levelling of the playing field, which puts Chance the Rapper on similar footing to the average viewer, that has helped to make Verzuz into must-see viewing among hip-hop and R&B’s cognoscenti, as well as fans old and new.

“Everybody’s in VIP,” says Timbaland, who got in on the real-time action when, during last weekend’s session, Ludacris called him out of the blue and asked if it was okay to play snippets of some still-unreleased songs from their recent studio sessions (including a controversial one that mentions R. Kelly and Bill Cosby).

“I told him to play it, just not the whole song,” Tim recalls. “That makes people want more.”

He’s not wrong: Participating artists have remarked that their streams have shot up dramatically since their Verzuz session, often within 24 hours.

“My catalog jumped over 300 percent by the next morning,” says Jill Scott. “So did Erykah’s.

Often, because of the way radio works, people only know your hits. This was my first time doing Instagram Live, and having watched other Verzuz, I knew this would be an awesome opportunity to share how much music I actually have.”

One unusual aspect of the Verzuz sessions is that it’s drawing an older audience to Instagram — fans who came up on the 1990s/early 2000s artists featured on the platform are generally in their 40s and often not really digital natives — and while that’s certainly the curators’ generation, another reason is because the format requires a bountiful stock of hits to draw from.

“Our catalogs run deep, and the catalogs of the artists we’re curating run deep,” says Swizz.

“The catalog is essential,” Tim adds. “Having 20 great songs is only possible if you have 40 or 50 songs.”

Similarly, the matchups are very carefully considered by the curators.

“Our thing is celebrating creativity, but it comes from Tim and me being music fans,” Swizz says. “You can throw your favorite names together, but, will they work sonically? Ne-Yo was the bigger name, but [songwriter] Johntá Austin had song-after-song in a similar vein, and the audience had a great celebration.”

Speculating on some proposed future battles, he says, “DMX wants to battle Jay-Z, but he’s going to sound better against Eminem. People want Usher and Chris Brown, but, that’s a big brother/little brother thing: What I’d like to see is Usher going up against Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown vs. Justin Bieber. That makes sense to me.”

Timbaland seconds, “The dynamics of sound and personality have to be there: Sometimes they’re similar, sometimes they’re in opposition. You want something that works sonically and is entertaining.”

The exposure has had no small effect on some of the behind-the-scenes hitmakers like Austin and Garrett.

“The young generation is learning from this,” Swizz says. “They’re calling the Verzus artists immediately for features or production work. Babyface’s phone is blowing up, so is Teddy Riley’s and Lil Jon’s. Ludacris called this morning, saying the ‘Verzuz Effect’ is real, that his phone hasn’t blown up like this for years. He’s feeling the love from around the world.”

Indeed, despite Verzuz’s foundation of competition, the sessions are mostly about mutual respect. Jill Scott called her Verzuz with Badu an “emotional collaboration,” as well as an education for its viewers. The pair have a history around the Roots’ 1999 hit “You Got Me”: Scott, then largely unknown, had written the featured female singer’s part of the song and sang it on the original version, but the more-famous Badu sang the part on the final version in the (ultimately fulfilled) hope that her starpower would make the song a hit.

“People though Erykah and I were enemies, which was never the case,” Scott says. “That’s why I was initially dead-set against doing a Verzuz: ‘A battle? No.’ I like when women sing together for the sake of harmony, a fusion of sound. Two birds going at each other never sounds good. I don’t want to try to tear anybody apart or have anybody try to tear me apart. Erykah called me, and I said, ‘If we celebrate each other, honor each other, it will work.’ And we did it.”

And while some artists’ relative lack of familiarity with the technology has made for some awkward moments — Ludacris played his new songs because Nelly was having technical difficulties — the curators and Instagram’s Kader are on the case… as much as possible, anyway.

“Putting together two artists and 20 songs — that’s the easy part,” Swizz says. “Fixing your WiFi, getting on the phone with tech guys, which some don’t do when we ask — that’s the hard part.”

“These things happen,” Kader adds. “Teddy Riley looked into turning his [first] Verzuz into a big production, while Swizz and I advised him to keep it simple. Everything that could happen wrong, did — that comes with over-producing — but Teddy was so humble and open that when he did his re-match with Babyface, he was prepared.”

And although Verzuz’s featured performers are older, it’s obvious from social media posted that many younger fans are tuning in (Instagram declined to share data).

Millennial-age artist Ellen Tiberino loves rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Migos, but checked out Verzuz when she saw it touted on her Instagram sites and ended up seeking out more music by the artists she saw on the platform.

“I caught up when Jill and Erykah were on, and liked the energy,” Tiberino says. “There was history, good vibes, the whole thing was positive. You saw their homes — Erykah had a cool abstract mural painted on her wall, with a projected clip of Bruce Lee, Jill sat around with a glass of wine, talking about musicians she worked with, it was lovely. The Luda-Nelly event was cool too.”

And for the generation that grew up on this music, Verzuz is like a family reunion. Shawn Gee, Live Nation Urban president and Maverick management partner, usually uses Instagram for work, but “I’ve been on every one — not working, but, as a fan,” he says. “The success of what these two built as producers is built into why they created Verzuz.

“This isn’t rubber-stamped by brands with a team — this is from their hearts, and hands-on,” Gee continues. “The culture, young and old, feels that emotional connection. Plus, it’s an education — like, I didn’t know Scott Storch did all those songs. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, my 15-year-old son all tune in every week, he tells his friends and they stream the tracks. That’s the communal part: Swizz and Tim are having a party and we’re all invited.”

As for what’s comes after the two battles this weekend, Eminem-DMX match looks certain, although DMX is practically trash-talking Jay-Z to take him on. And although teaming Monica and Brandy — whose 1998 duet “The Boy Is Mine” is one of the biggest hit singles in history — is on everyone’s lips, Keisha Cole and Ashanti just threw their hats into the ring. Who knows what might come next?

“We hear people want Luda and Nelly to tour, that Kevin Hart wants to do a Verzuz Comedy series, that we should hit other genres,” Timbaland says. “We’re on it. Verzuz is bigger than us.”

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