You may have heard Swizz Beatz and Timbaland‘s names mentioned a lot more than usual as of late. It’s not because they’ve released any new music, instead they’ve created an online cultural movement put together to entertain the world as it sits in quarantine due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
An extension of rap’s battle scene, VERZUZ puts fans and artists together in one (virtual) room as some of music’s most talented creators take turns playing 20 of their biggest hits trying to outdo their opponent. Kicked off by the super producers themselves when they faced off against each other at the end of March, battles since have included The-Dream vs Sean Garrett, Hit-Boy vs Boi-1da and Ne-Yo vs Johnta Austin.
Here, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz speak exclusively to NME about the online series, the most requested match-ups, and live music’s digital future.
Why the decision to turn your initial battle into a series?
Timbaland: “Well, it’s not really a battle – it’s a celebration of our heroes in music, the ones who make us feel a certain type of way. Given what’s currently going on in the world, it’s a way to give back. It’s also an education, it’s educating people on the music, its creators and where this feeling comes from.”
So what are the rules exactly?
Swizz Beatz: “Each artist plays 20 hits. They get to play a verse and a chorus and there’s no rewinding songs. We would prefer less talking but we can’t stop people from talking; a lot of people talk when they get nervous.”
Why do you think VERZUZ is so popular?
Swizz Beatz: “It’s authentic. It’s educational, it’s interesting and it’s music. People love music, and they love good music. So what we wanted to do was celebrate the architects of good music – whether it was the writers, whether it was the producers, and we’re about to take it to a lot of different areas and a lot of different places.
“With me and Tim putting our name on it, fans know that they’re gonna get quality, and I think that has a lot to do with it because there are a lot of channels and a lot of people doing the same things on Instagram Live and a lot of people are trying to copy what we’ve been doing, which is cool, but we’re really into the curation and we’re really into the quality and making it special and keeping it special.”
Do you see this type of thing being the future for live music and events after the coronavirus quarantine is over?
Timbaland: “Absolutely. I feel like this is the way the world’s going to be. We’re currently fighting an invisible enemy and it’s changing everything. When I saw Chris Martin playing songs on IG Live I was like, ‘Wow, this is different’. But it was so personable and I feel like we’re going to see a lot more of it.”
What are some of the most requested battles so far?
Timbaland: “We see a lot. We see JD and Puff. We see Kanye and Pharrell. We see it all. People have a lot of requests but I don’t think they realise that we’re really doing a lot of work to give them what they want. We’re on the phones every day calling these people, it’s not easy.”
Swizz Beatz: “I love that everyone thinks that we have a magic wand that we can just put on things. People need to understand that if it was that easy it would have been done already. People are like, ‘C’mon Swizz, get Kanye and Pharrell already’. That’s King Kong and Godzilla. Sure, we know them but I can’t tell Pharrell to come over here and watch my kids. We know them very well but this takes work and the bigger the names the harder the work.”
Could Kanye West vs Pharrell actually happen?
Swizz Beatz: “We’ve reached out to everybody. I’m just gonna leave it at that.”
You’ve mentioned before that you’re calling a lot of artists, but many of them don’t want to get involved. Do you think they’re scared?
Swizz Beatz: “I think that some of the artists don’t have 20 songs to put up on the table. For other artists it’s about their reputation. If there’s a one percent chance of people saying that they didn’t win – even though everybody wins – some people just can’t take that.”
Phonte of Little Brother said this week that he thinks Pharrell is the only producer who would stand a chance against Quincy Jones in a battle. Do you agree?
Swizz Beatz: “Quincy Jones is Quincy Jones. What is anybody gonna do when he plays ‘Thriller’?”
Do you think Scott Storch vs Mannie Fresh was an even battle given that Scott is a global hitmaker and Mannie is known more for his cultural anthems?
Swizz Beatz: “Mannie Fresh is the only one who wanted to come outside and play with Scott Storch. We reached out to who we thought would be a more even match-up, but like I said before not everybody wants to come outside. So of course, we had other people in mind but those people didn’t want to show up so we went with the person who wanted to show up. We knew to change T-Pain to be with Lil’ Jon instead of Scott Storch for sure, but Mannie Fresh was the only one willing to step up to the plate so we had to go with that one.”
Some fans feel like Scott Storch shouldn’t have been able to play some of the records he did because he only played keys on them. What’s your stance?
Swizz Beatz: “Scott played what he felt he produced regardless of other people feeling a different type of way. I can’t tell him don’t play ‘Still D.R.E.’. At the end of the day, we’ve gotta let those guys do their thing.”
This Sunday there will be a huge battle between Teddy Riley vs Babyface. How many hurdles did you have to jump to make it happen?
Swizz Beatz: “Shit, we’re still jumping them. It’s a lot of work to make this type of thing happen. We’re dealing with some big, big, big, big icons, legends. Everything has gotta be right: the energy, the attention. But it’s always a work in progress until that bell rings. That’s what people don’t understand, it’s not, ‘Now the flyer is made we can go to sleep.’ No, you’ve gotta be on these things until the bell rings, until it’s showtime.”
Who do you think is going to win?
Swizz Beatz: “I think they both are. With those guys, that’s a different level. What I do know it that the people will definitely win.”
Timbaland: “Exactly. The people are gonna get a gift that night.”
You’ve had battles between producers and songwriters. Are there plans to include DJs, engineers or even performers?
Swizz Beatz: “There are a lot of categories we’re gonna jump into, but right now we’re just taking our time with it. This is not just something for quarantine, this is something me and Tim are building for after quarantine. It’s a real thing it’s not just something for Instagram right now, we’re building something for the future. And we’re not just going to be doing music, we’re going to be doing different things on the platform. We’ve started with music because that’s what we do the best but there are other things we’re going add that are going to shock people.”