Pop Culture

Inside the Unstoppable Rise of Verzuz

Johntá Austin (singer-songwriter, producer): They’ve been talking about [Verzuz] for a couple of years.

Alicia Keys (singer-songwriter, married to Swizz Beatz): I was with the kids and I was doing something, and I checked on Swizz. He has this area downstairs where he’ll DJ and hang out and play music, and he’ll work on whatever. He seemed like he was kind of up to something. I wasn’t really sure what… I was just trying to get the kids to the bed. And then I went looking for him and I couldn’t find him. I was like, “Man, I wonder, where is he?”

Swizz Beatz: Without an announcement, 30,000 people were paying attention. That’s with no flyer, that’s with nothing. That’s just us up there just going. Engagement [on Instagram Live] is usually 30, 40 seconds—not four hours, five hours. People stuck around with me losing Wi-Fi and taking it to the car and going up the hill and doing it from the car.

Keys: Swizz came back hours later. Kids asleep, tired. And he’s like, “Yooo. We didn’t have good reception at the house. I had to drive all the way up to the top of wherever so that I could get reception because me and Tim, just out of nowhere, started battling.” And I’m saying, “What?” I didn’t even know none of this was going on. And he’s like, serious: “We’ve been on a thing for hours. It was crazy.”

It was like three in the morning. I was like, wow, I missed it. I missed the whole thing. It was just amazing to know that this moment, this spontaneous moment—which my husband happens to be really good at—created this phenomenon.

Swizz Beatz: We knew we had something. We started getting phone calls, and then me and Tim was like, “Let’s just keep this thing going and celebrate the writers and producers and the musicians.”


Photograph by Devin Christopher

After Swizz and Tim’s epic soundclash, battles between hip-hop and R&B hitmakers Boi-1da and Hit-Boy, The-Dream and Sean Garrett, and Ne-Yo and Johntá Austin helped get the Verzuz brand off the ground.

Timbaland: Other people started to gravitate to it. The first one was Hit-Boy and Boi-1da.

Hit-Boy (rapper, producer): I was already hype on it from just watching Swizz and Tim. We were obviously on lockdown, so everybody was just super tuned in, and that was the moment for me to watch, like, as a producer, two people I looked up to go head-to-head. Next thing I know, I [see] a tweet from [rapper] Joe Budden. He basically subtweeted me, saying that he wanted to see a battle with me and 1da.

Timbaland: People was talking about it heavy on the timelines. Then I started seeing other people start to create their own battles.

Austin: You know what was crazy is I saw Joe Budden tweet, like, “Man what about Ne-Yo and Johntá Austin? What about that?” I’m a huge fan of Ne-Yo, just as a songwriter, as a creative, as a person. And so I reached out through the back channels, and within an hour I got a call back. His people were like, “Yeah, he’s in. Let’s figure out how we’re going to do it.”

Timbaland: We already knew it could be big, but it just clicked in. We just didn’t think it would be in the digital form. We wasn’t thinking digital…

Austin: [Ne-Yo] and I started talking about it and we were going to do it just on our own, but then Swizz and Tim got wind of it, and Swizz reached out and graciously offered their platform. He was like, “Man, let us bring it up under Verzuz and give it the real curation, the real attention and promotion that it needs.”

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