The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jill vs. Erykah. Babyface vs. Teddy: Inside the Instagram ‘battles’ that are now must-watch quarantine viewing

Neo-soul singers Jill Scott, left, and Erykah Badu were the first women in a “Verzuz” battle. (AP) (AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

About halfway through the “Verzuz” Instagram contest Saturday night between neo-soul queens Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, one fan complained that the two women were being “too nice.” Wasn’t this supposed to be a battle?

Badu, who spun her best-ofs while a black-and-white Bruce Lee classic played in the background, had some characteristically choice words for the disgruntled listener: This is our thing, she said. Go elsewhere if you want some musical catfight. More than 700,000 other listeners like it just fine.

Created and launched by superproducers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz in late March, “Verzuz” does sound a lot like a battle. Two hitmakers with at least 20 songs under their belt go head-to-head in an Instagram Live in which the winner is voted on by fans. Walks like a duck, right? But the duo behind the idea insist the hours-long sessions are much more than that.

“Me and Tim’s mission is to bring happiness, to help everybody get past this hard moment because we’re all being affected,” Beatz told the Associated Press.

In just two months, the matchups have done more than provide viewers with a few hours of distraction. They’re a mix between “MTV Unplugged,” reality show confessionals and a lo-fi MasterClass. It’s a safe space in the palm of one’s hand.

With the global pandemic forcing music fans to sit still and listen, the showdowns have gained a massive following. The bouts have starred big names (though not always recognizable ones) from the heyday of hip-hop and R&B, such as Scott Storch and Mannie Fresh; DJ Premier and RZA; Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin; Lil Jon and T-Pain; and most recently, Scott and Badu. Ludacris is scheduled to face Nelly on May 16. And the names joining the listening party are even bigger — Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, Adele and Jay-Z are among them.

Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who’d end up as one half of the most tuned-into “Verzuz” to date, initially wasn’t into the idea. The whole thing sounded “kind of cool,” but the 11-time Grammy winner just isn’t the fighting kind.

“Song against song, producer against producer, writer against writer? It’s a very hit-your-chest kind of thing and that’s not my style” said Edmonds, the love-song maestro behind hits such as Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” and Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry.”

It took a group text from legendary music executive Andre Harrell, record producer and mogul L.A. Reid, plus Sean “Whatever He’s Calling Himself Now” Combs to convince the singer/songwriter/producer/covid-19 survivor that going up against a fellow musician on Instagram was a good idea.

The super-trio weren’t taking no for an answer. Harrell, who died suddenly Saturday, just a few weeks after the eventual battle, told Edmonds it was “for the culture,” an unmissable opportunity to shine a light on “black musical excellence.”

Edmonds continued to dodge “almost until fight day, because I wasn’t all the way in.” But after several stops and starts, he finally did show up to the ring in late April to go track-for-track against fellow producer and songwriter Teddy Riley, the soundman behind the ’90s New Jack Swing era, in the ninth “Verzuz” to air.

“Everybody wanted someplace to go and someplace to escape out of where we were and where we’ve been,” said Edmonds, repeating the sentiment that Harrell first told him and has permeated the series: It’s for the culture.

Despite dragging his feet, Edmonds’s duel with Riley was what fully shot “Verzuz” into the popular culture lexicon, adding the videos to the list of celebrity-driven, quarantine-created entertainment that feels more necessary than that “Imagine” singalong everyone understandably hated. Nearly 4 million users across platforms, a record number for the series, tuned in to hear Edmonds and Riley go at it — even after technical difficulties postponed the first date and delayed the second. Folks came back, in droves.

“I don’t think anybody saw it coming quite like this. It’s a beautiful thing that they are doing. It’s not a moneymaker. It’s not that. It’s giving music back to those who may have forgot about it,” said Edmonds.

Most of the artists featured thus far have contributed significantly in a very specific era of hip-hop and R&B, from New Jack Swing to Cash Money to autotune. This was the music that ran the radio before mumble rap. Not grown-folks music, per se — the oldest millennial is 40 — but something close to it.

For Ne-Yo, the 80,000 listeners who signed on to watch him compete against Austin were a necessary reminder that he isn’t done, and that there are still enough ears to fill a stadium or three.

“It put a new fire under my butt to get some new music out there,” said the Grammy winner, who’s gearing up to release his ninth album this summer.

The series is successful not only because of the quarantine’s forced slowdown, said Ne-Yo, but because music — and particularly the old-school brand coming through the smartphone — is sentimental in its own way. (Yes, “Back That Thang Up” can be considered sentimental.)

“We’re going through these records that meant something in our lives, and being nostalgic and just enjoying the moment,” Ne-Yo added. “It gave people a warm feeling when we were filled with such confusion and fear.”

And also jokes. So many jokes. The Riley-Edmonds “Verzuz,” with its technical challenges and “uncle vibes,” was like an Abbott and Costello routine. Riley had a live band, a backup dancer, multiple streaming platforms and a team of potential helpers at the ready for their April 18 faceoff. And yet the audio still wasn’t working. They tried for an excruciatingly long time to get it together while hundreds of thousands watched. “Throw in the tile!” typed singer Tyrese in the comments, an autocorrect (or not) that the singer will never live down.

The technical issues were all the more painful for Edmonds, who was overprepared when it came to the actual music. He and Reid spent three days in Zoom strategy sessions, combing through each artist’s catalogues and handpicking songs to play. A sound engineer even edited the tracks down to the allotted one minute and 30-second time frame.

“I don’t do IG Live,” explained Edmonds. The 62-year-old is hardly a social media savant. Pro Tools, the notoriously complex music software, is a second language to him, but Instagram? “When it came to this little phone, I became a dummy,” he said.

Fadia Kader, a music partnerships manager at Instagram, who has been working with Timbaland and Beatz since their first head to head, provides the artists with best practices. It basically amounts to “keep it simple.”

“IG was not created for high production value. It’s meant for intimate direct-to-fan moments,” said Kader, emphasizing that less is best. From a practical standpoint, she added, “Have strong WiFi and don’t have a million tablets around with every single app open on it.”

Ne-Yo echoed the same simple instructions, reflecting on the experience as a whole.

“Make sure that you have good-enough sound, but don’t go above and beyond trying set up speakers that you ain’t never set up before,” he said. “Don’t overdo it, because there’s no reason to. Everybody is sitting at home in the same sweats they had on yesterday.”

In other words, it’s a vibe. Don’t kill it.