Earlier this year, singer-songwriter-producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds — known for writing massive hits for Toni Braxton, TLC, and Boyz II Men — received a call from P. Diddy.
Diddy’s job was to convince Edmonds to face off against Teddy Riley on an Instagram-based rap battle. And he didn’t mince words. “He said, ‘Face, fuck that shy shit,'” Edmonds recalls. “‘Go do this.'”
Edmonds agreed. Though he was reluctant before Diddy’s blunt persuasion, his back-and-forth with Riley in the Instagram battle — a musical competition, called Verzuz, in which writers, producers, and artists go back and forth riffing on old hits, vying to outdo each other — ended up drawing in more than half a million viewers.
Super-producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz came up with the idea for Verzuz nearly half a year ago, when Covid-19 started shutting down live events all over. The battles offer a pleasant shot of nostalgia, as veteran songwriters, producers, and artists revisit their classic hits from 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, as well as a chance to catch some friendly competition at a time when the pandemic had mostly forced sports off the air. Verzuz has also proved effective for marketing catalog music, as old singles see a streaming surge in the days after each showdown, and several of the writer-producers who have participated say they are getting more calls for sessions after they display their musical résumé in a Verzuz battle.
Of course, beat battles are nothing new. Swizz Beatz is a veteran of face-offs with Kanye West and Just Blaze; in 2018, he agreed to a showdown with Timbaland at the annual Summer Jam concert sponsored by New York’s Hot 97.
“Me and Timbaland took it to another level,” Swizz Beatz says. “But when me and Timbaland connected, we didn’t just battle each other — we also had a concept, a UFC frame of mind with creatives.” Timbaland prefers different terminology. “It’s a curation, really,” he says. “It’s a celebration. It’s like musical chess.”
Timbaland and Swizz Beatz kicked off Verzuz at the end of March, going back-and-forth for hours, and they recruited a murderers’ row of behind-the-scenes talent to follow them up: Boi-1da and Hit-Boy; the-Dream and Sean Garrett; Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin. The competitions were initially loose and free-form to the point of meandering, but soon they cohered around a simple set of rules: Each writer-producer would have a chance to play 90 seconds of 20 tracks. After a handful of writer-producer battles, Verzus started to invite artists on to face off as well — Erykah Badu against Jill Scott; Brandy against Monica; Gladys Knight against Patti LaBelle.
As the popularity of Verzuz battles ballooned, the franchise hit a few technical snags — notably during Edmonds’ battle with Riley, which had to be rescheduled. “I was having a heart attack, throwing my phone, literally fucking beside myself,” says Gary Marella, who manages Timbaland. But when the glitches were fixed and Riley and Edmonds finally faced off, their battle became the only musical event anyone was talking about. “The social media impact just made us bigger,” Marella says. (Now the company Roland is helping with technical aspects of the Instagram version of Verzuz; Apple Music also picked the battles up for viewing on Apple TV.)
Verzus started as a celebration of the past, but it has also started to shape listening habits in the present. Artists who participated saw their streams jump by 88 percent on average in the three days following the show compared to the previous three days, according to Alpha Data. By comparison, artists who performed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, television’s highest-rated late-night network talk show, in the six months before the pandemic started saw their streams go up by an average of five percent.
“Before Verzuz, I had like 20,000 followers [on Instagram],” says Austin, who has co-written hits for Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige. “The next day, I went up to 80,000. People were saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know who you were before. I do now — you wrote the soundtrack to my high school years.'”
Timbaland and Swizz Beatz are still recruiting more acts to participate. “Every big person you [are] thinking about is on our mind, and most of them on our lines,” Swizz says.
“I thought this was [just] going to be a Covid thing, because people were isolated in their homes and there wasn’t a lot of live television other than the news,” Marella adds. “But I now believe this is going to outlast Covid.”
Additional reporting by Charles Holmes