Lush yet still head-rattling, simple but deceptively complex, horny and consensual: There are few songs in existence better than “Back That Azz Up.” Juvenile’s 1999 song has it all — the New Orleans rapper kindly requesting his paramour “back that ass up” instead of demanding it, a blistering Lil Wayne feature, and, just as importantly, a galaxy-rich Mannie Fresh beat. Nevertheless, deep in the comment sections of Instagram Live, a cavalcade of adults (many of them celebrities) acted like a cheerleading section as they demanded Scott Storch play “Still D.R.E.” (an inferior but very popular song, also from 1999).
On Wednesday night, Fresh and Storch were embroiled in a beat battle watched by over 200,000 people who tuned in live. Storch swayed the crowd with nostalgia plays and Top 40 hits from Beyoncé to 50 Cent. Fresh was a champion of regionalism, his extensive work with Cash Money Records laying the foundation for the past 20 years of popular music. The battle was successful on multiple fronts — launching debates about the importance of cultural impact and influence versus quantitative achievements, momentarily distracting thousands of people from the pandemic raging on outside, but — most importantly — giving two producers, who typically don’t get to take center stage, an extended moment in the spotlight.
The moment was everything the orchestrators of the event, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, imagined. In late March, the two legendary producers held an impromptu challenge, going back-and-forth on Instagram Live with their biggest hits to a rapidly growing audience. “It’s a curation, really. It’s a celebration,” Timbaland says over the phone. “It’s like musical chess.” But both producers are quick to note that beat battles are far from new.
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“Me and Kanye battled in 2007 on Summer Jam Stage. That was amazing, because I was celebrating him, and he was celebrating me,” Swizz Beatz says. “I think that Just Blaze and our battle was in 2009, shortly after. Then me and Timbaland took it to another level [at 2018’s Summer Jam]. 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.”
That initial Instagram battle began a trend that’s seen the pair unite a star-studded run of competitors: Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin, The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett, T-Pain vs. Lil Jon. The battles are clearly ad-hoc operations, with the songwriters, producers, and singers tapped to participate broadcasting from their homes. Sometimes, that backfires: “We had some wild ones with Sean Garrett and The-Dream. That was a wild match,” Swizz says. “At the end of the day, it was still a celebration.” In the absence of set rules and structure, The-Dream began to play golf after dealing with an opponent many viewers speculated was inebriated. Garrett spent much of the battle licking his lips and seductively staring at the camera to the point that Kelly Rowland — a frequent Garrett collaborator — responded, “Sean (I love you but) if you lick yo’ lips one more time.” Another reply by Fat Joe — “Fuck is wrong wit this nigga” — captured the general sentiment of the spectators.
The next battle between songwriters, Ne-Yo and Johntá Austin, was an improvement, and proof that the songwriting battles, for as long as there’s an audience, will continue to evolve. There were some implicit rules (refraining from excessive lip-licking) and more explicit ones. “It was myself, Johntá, and Swizz Beatz, we all came together and we decided on 20 songs apiece, a minute thirty per song, keep it pushing like that and then the winner is decided by the people,” Ne-Yo says. “There was already more structure. That’s one of the reasons why I feel like it went over as well as it did. Not to mention Johntá is a classy guy. I’m a classy guy. We wasn’t about to get on there and be ignorant no way.” While most people knew Ne-Yo from his solo career, Austin isn’t as recognizable a name, despite his legendary work with Mariah Carey (“We Belong Together,” “Shake It Off”), Mary J. Blige (“Be Without You”), and Aaliyah (“Miss You”).
“A couple of people had told me they automatically had me pegged to win,” Ne-Yo says. “I know that this man was writing at least a good 15 years before I even got started… At the end of the day, I can’t compete with some of the classics. He pulled out the Aaliyah records and I was on the ropes a little bit. I can’t lie.”
As the battles draw more viewers, the demand for specific producers to square off against each other has become overwhelming. Two names now loom large over the proceedings. “Believe me, Pharrell is on our minds. The Neptunes are on our mind. Every big person you thinking about is on our mind, and most of them on our lines,” Swizz says. Both Swizz and Timbaland are adamant they’ve been working around the clock trying to set up each battle, losing sleep and missing time with family to bring the Instagram Live sessions to life.
“If you think we could easily get Pharrell to battle Kanye, we wouldn’t just snap our fingers and make it happen? No, that’s a work in progress, because both parties have to agree,” he continues. “Just know that those big, big ones that they’re looking for, which I think is Pharrell, they’re coming. This is only week two.”
A byproduct of the battles has been an increase in industry attention and a potential wave of new work for those involved. The viewers of each Instagram Live session generally clock in at low six figures and often put a face to the producers and writers that haven’t necessarily capitalized the social media age. “I’ve been tuned in every day,” Shawn Barron, VP of A&R at Motown says, “Timbaland and Swizz Beatz are putting the eye on all the older songwriters and producers. That’s helping music, because those are real songs those guys have — they’re not no bullshit. Hopefully, when we come out of this, the quality of music will be much higher.” Even the contentious battles have had positive outcomes. “People now know who Sean Garrett is,” Swizz adds. “He’s getting phone calls to do more work.”
Hit-Boy, who joined a satellite battle with Boi-1da, is among the younger producers to follow the trend. “What really jumped it off was when Joe Budden, he kinda like halfway subtweeted me,” Hit-Boy says. “I had Vince Staples call me, and that was the final straw. He was basically like, ‘They tryna say you not really serious.’” Despite Hit-Boy’s run of hits with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Beyoncé, even he’s seen a wave of new attention that he suspects will be good for his bottom line.
“I’ve already had heavy hitters emailing me, texting me, reaching out, having their management reach out for beats. I knew that part was going to come,” Hit-Boy continues. “[People will] see this new hot artist put out a project and they got these producers, so these are the guys. But it’s like you got motherfuckers that really put in legit work that sometimes get downplayed.”
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland plan to continue the battles through the nationwide pandemic and, hopefully, beyond. They call their business, Verzuz, an “educational platform” meant to educate viewers on the artists behind-the-scenes. What form it will take when the population gets to emerge from quarantine is hard to tell but, for now, the pair are just glad they can provide a momentary distraction.
Swizz and Timbaland do, however, want to make one thing clear: They hear all the chatter about fans wanting a new generation of producers included, and they don’t think all the names popping up in the Instagram Live comments section are necessarily going to make the cut.
“To even qualify, you gotta have 20 hits,” Swizz asserts. “You got to have 20 bangers just to enter.”
“When you start looking at peoples’ catalogues, some [producers] that people want to see just don’t qualify,” Timbaland adds.
“They don’t qualify!” Swizz exclaims. “Right, so they might got a popular name or it might sound good, but in boxing or UFC if you don’t qualify — your weight class, your this, your that, you don’t pass your drug test or nothing — you can’t fight. A lot of these fights that they want to see, people are just not qualifying.”
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