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“We do not choose our cultures, we belong to them” ― Aimé Césaire
“500 what?” Snoop Dogg asked 42 minutes into his Verzuz against DMX. Viewers of the livestream couldn’t see who the question is toward. “500 what?” the Long Beach legend repeated, this time adding “thousand” as he exits his seat, stepping toward the device broadcasting their song-for-song face off.
“What does 500,000 look like?” Snoop wondered aloud, crouching to view their digital audience. “Five hundred thousand?” X chimed from his chair. “Thought it was like, 10.” The two laughed in unison. “I got to take his word for it,” the New York rap phenom continued, “You say it’s 500, I believe you.” “I believe you too,” Snoop agreed, “I don’t think Swizz be making that shit up” before teasing, “You ain’t fluffing the numbers, are you Swizz?”
There’s a certain innocence to their exchange. Here you have two hip hop giants, both turning 50 next year, performing their most iconic rap records for 500,000 people they can’t see or touch. Livestreams weren’t a plausible alternative to concerts in 1993 when Snoop’s classic debut, Doggystyle, was released on Death Row Records. Nor was it possible five years later when DMX and Ruff Ryders Entertainment shook mainstream hip hop at its core with his classic debut, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot.
Hip hop’s golden 1990s was a shiny, yet hard knock time. Poetic, profane, and physical. The music had a punch people could feel, a rhythm they could dance to. DMX vs. Snoop was a call back to that time — before social media and smartphones — when the right song in a room of 500 could feel like 50,000. “Gin & Juice’’ is such a song. As well as “Get At Me Dog’’ and “Down For My Niggaz,” “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” and “Party Up (Up In Here).” Their entire two-hour Verzuz was an exchange of era-shaping singles from the 1990s and 2000s by artists who experienced 20-plus years of hip hop outside.
After nine months in a pandemic, one starts to appreciate any nostalgia of life before lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Mandated masks and COVID-19 testing. Lifestyles, thought patterns, all forms of physical interactions affected by the need to quarantine. With nearly two million dead worldwide and over 75 million testing positive throughout the Coronavirus spread, it’s safe to say 2020 has been a collective disaster for humanity. Creating a more distant, isolative, and digital society. Verzuz is a by-product of the sudden physical separation and social media’s digital landscape.
Looking back on the inaugural match up between Verzuz founders Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, the March 24 battle wasn’t promoted with an announcement or any pre-planned marketing. There was no 20-round structure, alcohol sponsors, or corporate partnerships. They didn’t have a name either, just the desire to do it. Over 20,000 viewers arrived to spectate and a great number stayed throughout technical difficulties, location adjustments, friendly banter, history lessons, and the two super producers playing hit after hit. Five hours worth.
Vibe called the match historic. Joe Budden highlighted on his podcast how Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland was there for him at peak quarantine boredom. He wasn’t alone. People were bored around the world. DJ D-Nice comes to mind as the pioneer hip hop entertainer who first reintroduced himself through IG Live as a one-man outlet for quarantine entertainment. The Verzuz duo were not far behind.
To their credit, beat battles weren’t a new terrain for them. When they went head-to-head for 15 minutes in front of 50,000 people at Hot 97’s 2018 Summer Jam, that was something of a starting point. By then, Swizz Beatz, born Kasseem Dean, had a growing reputation as a fierce competitor after prior duels with Kanye West in 2007 and Just Blaze in 2017. The two-hour match against Blaze was put together to be shot as a scene in the Netflix hip hop docuseries “Rapture,” but a last minute decision to publicize the exchange live on IG drew them a virtual crowd.
Undefeated staff writer Justin Tinsley was in digital attendance and he believed, even back then, that they were on to something. “This battle series seems a casual, intimate kind of organic social thing. Not a lot of bells or whistles — just music that has become part of the soundtrack of our lives,” he wrote three years ago, taking them at their word that more battles would be produced. They weren’t. Not until Coronavirus created a need to reimagine the relationship between artist and audience.
Three days separate Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland and the next showdown: Boi-1da vs Hit-Boy. By then, the super producer pair had chosen the name and built the social media pages. There was a Verzuz every day between March 27 and April 2 followed by T-Pain vs. Lil Jon on the April 4, RZA vs. DJ Premier seven days later, and then, on the 18th, match number nine: Teddy Riley vs. Babyface was scheduled. Up to that point, Verzuz fit the casual and intimate description of Swizz Beatz vs. Just Blaze. For better or worse, the competitors were at home, connected through unpredictable Wi-Fi, following a loose format.
Every match from The Dream vs. Sean Garrett to Scott Storch and Mannie Fresh, all the ones mentioned and the unmentioned, had their own personality and charm, producing viral moments while gathering a larger live audience. The consistency leading up to the heavyweight bout between Riley vs. Babyface legitimized the web series as a growing phenomenon and not a fleeting fad. Having the two ‘80s and ‘90s R&B icons gave Verzuz its biggest ticket match, and famously, Riley attempted to make the series something it wasn’t yet: A big production.
“He had a keyboard, a DJ, what looked like a drummer in the cut and a hype man dancing a la Flavor Flav style,” wrote Datwon Thomas for Vibe, detailing how the new jack swing visionary made something simple into a spectacle. Thomas clocked more than 300,000 viewers were in attendance to watch the Verzuz within the first eight minutes, but due to all the extensive effort put into Riley’s production, the match was ruined by an unbearable echo and rescheduled for April 20. Despite falling short of expectation, the jokes that followed made the mishap a communal moment. Online is where even disappointment will bring people together if memes can be made.
December marks four years since Instagram launched the IG Live feature. As Instagram’s music partnerships manager Fadia Kader told The New York Times, “You don’t come to IG for high production value experience, you come for the direct connection with your fanbase.” Although the series developed beyond home-bound battles into public face offs, allowing them to eliminate technical issues, accessibility and connection is what has made Verzuz an ideal platform for a society in quarantine.
Every battle following Riley vs. Babyface has helped to sustain excitement, boost their viewers, and elevate the profile. From no promotion to coverage by CNN, Associated Press, Vibe, Okayplayer, and REVOLT, outlets have assisted in amplifying the series from an editorial standpoint. Gerrick D. Kennedy for GQ wrote the oral history, while pop culture writer Jon Caramonica included the two Verzuz founders in his New York Times op-ed: “How Hip Hop Royalty Found a New Home on Instagram Live.”
Michelle Obama has joined the countless celebrities who watch and reply from the battles’ comment section. Who can forget a virtual Stacy Abrams using the high profile bout between Gucci Mane vs. Jeezy to promote voting? Speaking of votes, a “What’s Your Favorite Verzuz Battle Matchup?” poll can be found on The GRAMMYs’ website. Alicia Keys vs. John Legend are currently in the lead with 44% of the votes, followed by Brandy vs. Monica.
It’s hard to say anything is for the people with so much advertising and marketing in this day in age. Yet, in a year of campaigning politicians, Verzuz doesn’t feel forced upon the public. Yes, with Apple Music as a partner, the production value has increased, the battles are taking place in more elaborate settings, and it’s growing by the day. But, what has kept the series wholesome is accessibility. It’s still worth watching on your phone, sharing with your timeline, and enjoying amongst each other. Celebrities may add to the cultural capital, but the true power is with the people who are at home looking to be entertained and educated.
Finding and maintaining a digital community became as essential as self care as the months rolled on and COVID cases continued to rise. Verzuz grew into a communal event in a way that makes each match up feel like a family function. You gather round a screen — rather its a phone or tablet, computer or TV — to watch as well as react.
A friend pointed out the pros and cons of digital communities. “It’s fun to do in group chats and social media, but it reminds you of the true experience. Of the community you really miss.” He went on to praise the educational aspects of the series, and the celebrations of mainstream icons and lesser known subcultures, specifically the instant-classic dancehall match up between Bounty Killer vs. Beenie Man, but ultimately concluded, “Like anything else in this pandemic, we’re still stuck on the screen. Stuck making the best out of a bad situation.”
What he said isn’t wrong. Verzuz exists because of loss. But, the way I see it, if you grew up on “Rap City,” “106 & Park,” and MTV Jams, or even further back, “Yo! MTV Raps,” “TRL,” “The Music Box,” you remember the feeling of being glued to your TV screen over interviews and music videos. Those were the forums for how the hottest songs and biggest artists were discovered. Whatever they showed, we saw. Worshipped. Downloaded and regurgitated. We made memories with those series. They were touchstones for our relationship with music and celebrities. There was the radio and television before it was concerts and clubs. Verzuz is a return to those days when artists used platforms to share themselves with us, but even more directly.
The saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is true for content creators adapting to a society migrating online for entertainment. Although Rome wasn’t built in a day, Verzuz only needed one battle to solidify that it was on the cusp of something bigger than its singular bout. Nine months later, the online program has created a new ecosystem that provides entertainment for the bored, history for the historians, post for the bloggers, stories for journalists; and attention for artists no matter their genre, age, relevance.
Verzuz has been successful in building an audience invested in watching Verzuz in its entirety — no matter if it lasts two or three hours. Most viewers have no idea when it’s going to end or what surprises might follow a match: an unreleased track, or remix, a new record. In that way, Verzuz is equivalent to entering a great room on the audio app Clubhouse. The best rooms, especially when it pertains to musicians, are the ones you don’t want to leave because it’s enriching to absorb stories from the storytellers who lived every word. You feel closer to history.
The digital landscape has reinvented what access means. Access to culture, celebrity, and the trend-setting moments likely to be inseparable from how we remember these days, weeks, and months. You might forget what you tweeted, but you’ll remember how the content made you feel. The touch of a song, the rush of a verse, remembering the nostalgia that comes with art from a time before COVID. We can’t separate ourselves from how much has changed. Yet, Verzuz provides a reminder of what was and the artists who provided the soundtracks from those days. The hits that made us dance, sing, and commune. It may not be the true experience, but as Snoop said during his battle with DMX, “That motherfucker feels good to ya so it must be good for ya.”
We may forget if it was 500 or 500,000 live viewers; but we won’t forget how watching these artists made us feel. Verzuz feels good. Some days that is all you want in a year like 2020 — on or offline.