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How Verzuz Became the Viral Hit of the Covid Era—and Wrote Itself Into Music History

Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Instagram Live series broke records, set off memes and inscribed itself into the lexicon of pop culture.

Alicia Keys performs at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP) Timbaland performs at the 2019 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Sunday, July 7, 2019, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP) Swizz Beatz attends the TIDAL X: Brooklyn 3rd Annual Benefit Concert at The Barclays Center on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) Jill Scott performs at the 2018 Essence Festival at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, July 6, 2018, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP) Musician and Actress Erykah Badu poses for a portrait to promote the film, "The Land", at the Toyota Mirai Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP) arrives at the InStyle and Warner Bros. Golden Globes afterparty at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP DMX attends NY: The Dean Collection and Bacardi present No Commission - Second Day on August 12, 2016 at The Bronx in New York City, USA. (Photo by Steve Eichner) Kevin Hart, right, a cast member, producer and co-writer of "Night School," poses with his actor/rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges at the premiere of the film, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP) Ne-Yo concert - Birmingham. Ne-Yo performs on stage at the LG Arena, Birmingham. Picture date: Thursday March 14, 2013. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire URN:16045379 Jamaican dancehall singer Bounty Killer performs on stage at his concert in Munich, Germany, 28 March 2008. The concerts in Essen and Cologne had been cancelled due to protests of gay and lesbian rights organisations against some of Bounty Killer's lyrics. Photo by: Felix Hoerhager/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images In this Nov. 6, 2019 photo, Johnta Austin poses for a portrait in New York. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP) Beenie Man arrives at the Second Annual Vibe Awards at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif., Monday, Nov. 15, 2004. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP; Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP (2); Joe Giddens/PA Wire; Matt Sayles/Invision/AP; Felix Hoerhager/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images; Steve Eichner; Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP; Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

DMX and Snoop Dogg’s epic Verzuz battle begins the only way it should—with a prayer.

Gingerly, a healthy and sober X calls for guidance, patience and strength for the world, leading Snoop to put his joint to rest, creating an instantly iconic image that could’ve only happened here. Over two decades of hits follow from the seasoned vets, from crossovers like DMX’s festive “Party Up (Up In Here)” and Snoop’s breezy “Gin And Juice” to heartfelt testimonies such as “Slippin” and “Murder Was The Case (Death After Visualizing Eternity).” Now fans such as Kevin Durant, Missy Elliott and Diddy throw fire emojis seconds apart as Snoop makes an observation. “This is real battle rap from back in the day,” he says. “The type where we would battle and come home to talk about it.” 

Of course, this battle isn’t taking place in an underground club. Created and curated by Swizz Beats and Timbaland, Verzuz is the wildly successful Instagram Live series that pits musical legends of hip-hop and R&B in virtual song battles, as millions of people watch. With tales behind the hits and a joyous trip into the layers of modern hip-hop, the battles were created, the super producers say, to entertain and educate the masses about Black music. And the series has delivered on both counts. Verzuz is not only the Covid era’s biggest viral hit: It has arguably etched itself into the annals of Black music history. 

DMX, left, and Snoop Dog  Photo: Steve Eichner/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Verzuz is a distant cousin of Jamaican dancehall sound clashes and basement beat battles that rumbled in the Bronx back in the ‘70s. With Instagram Live as stage and proscenium, early battles featured producers, artists and songwriters such as Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin and Mannie Fresh vs. Scott Storch, as well as R&B mavens Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott and dancehall heroes Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer. A Juneteenth celebration featured Alicia Keys vs. John Legend.

Each participant also helped mold the presentation of the battle. Ne-Yo and Johntá brought class and diligent 90-second playbacks. T-Pain and Lil Jon welcomed big party energy and Beenie and Bounty ditched the split-screen altogether, inspiring today’s “in the same room” format. It quickly became harder to determine a winner in the 20 rounds, with nostalgia spilling out from an audience that brought plenty of wattage of its own. Former first lady Michelle Obama’s, Rihanna’s and Def Jam’s official account, not to mention media outlets ranging from Complex to this magazine, dropped every emoji under the moon in the comments section.

As buzz filled the early comings of Verzuz, it was Teddy Riley vs. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds that brought it all together—brilliant backstories, unforgettable memes and record-shattering numbers—for the series’ first viral battle. With over 4 million viewers, the session earned the internet’s biggest compliment: “They literally crushed the internet; it crashed,” Claire Graves, executive director of the Webby Awards, tells Robb Report. The annual award show dedicated to all things digital was so impressed that it decided to honor the series with a new accolade: the Crush the Internet Special Achievement Award.

“We were like, ‘This is awesome, we have to do this.’ And then we were really extra thrilled that Jill Scott wanted to present them the award as well,” Graves says. In May, Scott presented the producers with the new Webby Award in a speech delivered from her living room. “Timbaland and Swizz Beatz haven’t just created some of the most bangin’ music of our times; they also spent their career uplifting other artists, which is why they created Verzuz,” she said. “When you’re watching Verzuz, be ready. It can be all-out war, but definitely respect, admiration, behind-the-scenes stories about how the songs are created and music from two respected artists.” 

Graves believes the genius of Verzuz derives from how the series incorporates storytelling. “It’s not only super fun to listen to these artists play their own music together. You get the stories, you get the history and you feel like you’re part of something when you’re listening and watching them,” she says. 

As the format grew, so did the audience, presenting new opportunities and partnerships. Apple Music began airing the battles. Diddy’s Ciroc vodka became “the drink” for the occasion. Streaming platforms such as Tidal and Spotify also took advantage of the moment by gathering the songs in playlist format after every battle. Before Apple Music created its “Cheat Code” playlists for the series, DJ and artist Olivia Dope provided a track-by-track playlist of her own on the platform.

The battles have been a boon for the artists, too, bringing in millions of new fans. According to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, Babyface and Riley saw an instant surge, with their productions and singles gaining 3 million on-demand streams just 24 hours after their session. Shortly after Jilly from Philly and Ms. Badu’s battle, their catalogs amassed 6.7 million streams.

Erykah Badu, left, and Jill Scott  Photo: Tony Nelson/Mediapunch Inc. /IPX/AP; Amy Harris/Invision/AP

And, as you may expect from any phenomenon that commands the attention of millions, the music industry perked up too. “I think labels, and other brands alike, can all learn that it’s not just about the content. It’s also about the conversation,” says Carolyn Williams, executive vice president of marketing at RCA Records. “When they announced Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, you could not escape the amount of memes, gifs and just overall conversation in anticipation of that battle. Same for Bounty Killer and Beenie, even post-battle . . .”

Without a doubt, Verzuz has resonated through the channels of pop culture and across the music business. But for entertainment journalist and co-host of Netflix’s Okay, Now Listen podcast, Sylvia Obell, the real power of the series is its “for us, by us” ethos.

“One thing I love about Verzuz is how it’s created an ecosystem in its own culture in a way where the people who are giving get it back. I love seeing how much love is there between the artists playfully. I really loved that in the Erykah [Badu] battle with Jill Scott. There was so much love between them that we didn’t feel right scoring it. We were like, ‘What are we doing? This is a celebration, truly.’ And I love that the love they give poured out into the audience. That’s what people need,” Obell says. “We’re going through a lot right now; we needed something to make us happy.”

As the novel coronavirus kept millions at home, Verzuz offered a jubilant alternative to the tedium. More than just a distraction, though, the series celebrated Black legacy artists, bridging a gap between the children of hip-hop and lovers of its soulful foundations. 

Instagram doesn’t provide demographic data about IG Live sessions, but Obell thinks that millennials and Gen X are the ones enjoying Verzuz the most right now, with Gen Z checking in here and there. Yet when it comes to audience, she says there’s another, even more interesting dynamic at play. “I love that it’s especially brought back the old sense of social media to me. When Verzuz is on, it feels like old Twitter, like when I was in college. People aren’t worried about hashtags, making a thread, making it make sense or giving each tweet context,” she says. “I think there were points during the T-Pain and Lil Jon battle where I tweeted one word and people understood what I was talking about.”

If Verzuz has inspired a kind of no-context-needed celebration of Black music, that joy was abruptly cut short in May amid the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. As millions of people took to the streets in protest, the Black Lives Matter movement penetrated channels of media, fashion, technology and sports, with companies vowing to implement policies that bring equality for Black people and people of color. It also inspired Verzuz to air a spiritual session, billed as “The Healing,” with gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, taking us back to some of Black music’s earliest forms of social response. 

“Black music has always served as a unifying force, and it’s also been used to galvanize people into political action,” says Dr. Portia K. Maultsby, an American ethnomusicologist and professor emerita at Indiana University Bloomington. “Black music serves multiple purposes, and it’s also popular for multiple songs to be translated into the civil rights movement. The younger generation in the ’60s drew on popular songs like Ray Charles’s “Hit The Road Jack” and “I’m Not Going Back.” They would take these popular tunes and substitute the words to reflect the situation at hand.”

The same was true, Maultsby points out, for previous generations who drew inspiration from [negro] spirituals and gospel. “And that’s the beautiful thing about the various generations coming together; they each draw from the repertoire with which they are familiar,” she says. “And I know this generation’s repertoire draws a lot from hip-hop.”

One unexpected number from hip-hop’s repertoire took center stage at recent Black Lives Matter protests. Ludacris, who battled Nelly during his Verzuz session, saw his 2001 club hit, “Move B***h,” used on the front lines in New York when protesters recited the jam at police in June. Both ends of the Manhattan Bridge were blocked by cops in riot gear and white zip ties, leaving protesters outside after the 8 p.m. curfew and with no choice but to pull inspiration from the legacy rapper.

“Some songs last a couple of years, some songs can last a decade or two, and we’re working on two decades with this song, and it’s still just as relevant, if not more relevant, today than it was when I first put it out,” Ludacris tells Robb Report of the moment. The rapper played the song during his Verzuz battle against Nelly while sharing new songs such as “S.O.T.L (Silence of the Lambs)” with Lil Wayne and an untitled track with Chance The Rapper. He also released a gentle tune of unity and love, titled “Get Along,” as part of his Kid Nation platform dedicated to releasing music for children.

“I think that’s what artists get in the game for, and I’m talking about all artists,” he says. “I’m just so grateful that I made something that can be used for the movement, and it’s not slowing down anytime soon.”

Maultsby likens Verzuz to the role Black DJs played back in the ’60s. “YouTube, Instagram, etc. have replaced radio. The kind of flexibility that [DJs] had in the ’60s no longer exists. DJs themselves have created their own virtual platform to serve the same function—that is, to reach out, to comfort and choose the music they want to play for the community,” she says. “This is such a great platform for that.”

On a recent Friday night, that platform transported us to the gritty glitz of today’s hip-hop with 2 Chainz and Rick Ross going head-to-head. In between the anticipation, Timbaland pitched a public request for soul legends Anita Baker and Sade to join the fun. The producers haven’t missed the opportunity to extend branches to contemporary R&B and dancehall, two genres that are often sampled and watered down on the Billboard charts, but a space still remains for women to dominate the battles. Living legend Missy Elliott has been called to the stage by fans as well as modern R&B staples Keyshia Cole and Ashanti. Beyond the boards are songwriters like Makeba Riddick, Kandi Burruss and Keri Hilson, who pushed their pens to develop hits for the likes of Ciara, Britney Spears, TLC and Beyoncé. Without question, more women are needed if Verzuz is to live up to its mission and offer a counterpoint to the fatiguing treatment women have faced in the music industry for decades. 

In 2009, President Barack Obama tweaked the name of Black Music Month to what we know now as African-American Music Appreciation Month. In addition to including college courses on the evolution of Black music, a touch up to the month-long celebration refocused its mission. “During African-American Music Appreciation Month, we recall the known and unknown musicians who helped create this musical history,” Obama said at the time.“ Their contributions help illuminate the human experience and spirit, and they help us reflect on our nation’s ongoing narrative.” 

As next year brings us the 50th anniversary of this month of recognition, Verzuz is poised to focus its lens on that narrative. Whether it’s helping us stay strong through strange and alienating times, uncovering stunning discographies, or correcting a historic wrong, Verzuz will not only notate joyful palimpsests in our memories; it will add a new entry to the story of Black music. 

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