Hip-Hop

7 Unofficial Rules For the Verzuz IG Battle Series (i.e. How Not to F--k Verzuz Up)

Courtesy Photo

Babyface and Teddy Riley's Verzuz beat battle rematch on Instagram Live

On March 25th, friends and fellow superproducers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz decided to have a friendly producer battle to entertain fans, and accidentally created an IG Live series -- now called Verzuz.

Over the last month, the impromptu battle has taken the form of a brand, adopting a title and logo; establishing rules of play; creating official social accounts for messaging; and, most notably, exponentially increasing viewership. Tim and Swizz’s initial Live peaked at about 22K viewers. Not quite a week later, The-Dream and Sean Garrett hit 46K. From the first full week of the battles, music lovers, journalists, executives and artists have debated possible matchups, their dream battles, hypotheticals in other areas of music (like singers instead of producers); Verzuz has become a supplement both for sports and live in-person entertainment during quarantine.

As a result, numbers continued to roughly double every couple of battles until, on April 12th, 849K people flocked to IG to witness the greatness of DJ Premiere and Rza. Late Monday night Swizz reported that, according to Instagram, 3.7M people tried to access Teddy Riley vs Babyface. That’s more than half the half the average number of global users on Live daily. As Verzuz has progressed, we’ve seen varying levels of success and adeptness to the spirit and format with participating producers. But this past Saturday, the already beleaguered match-up between writer/producer/artists Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds and Teddy Riley was so rife with issues that it had to be postponed until Monday.

Riley is a showman: If you’ve seen Teddy live in the last four years or so with either his New Jack Swing set or his Teddy Riley and Friends set, there are dancers, there’s pyro, new mixes, sound effects, maybe some smoke -- there’s a lot happening. Those who know Teddy thus fully expected him to do what is colloquially known as “the most" during his battle -- that’s his brand. But everyone was still surprised to log on and see Teddy on a production set, groomed and styled, with an elaborate performance set up, and a full crew of people. After an hour of attempting to solve sound issues -- the source of which are still unknown, but assumed by fans to be on Riley’s side for the sheer complexity of his setup -- Babyface and Teddy announced they were calling it and would try again...again.

On Monday, Riley -- graciously rolling with the jokes, memes and skits that flooded the internet nonstop for nearly 48 hours -- returned with a streamlined set up. His match up with Babyface still experienced issues (a problem allegedly with Instagram’s server bandwidth, not Teddy’s connection), but the night went comparatively smoothly.

Timbaland and Swizz have already established formal Verzus guidelines for participants: 20 rounds, no new material, 1:30 per song, and it seems as though they’ve also told producers to be respectful and complementary of each other’s work and contribution to the culture. Yet as demonstrated by even the most successful attempt at the Babyface-Teddy Riley showdown, there are still some finer points that participants seem to overlook. So for future battling producers -- or anyone else venturing into their own IG Live event -- we’ve assembled an unsanctioned list of best practices to not f--k Verzuz up.

1. Don’t overthink it. The brilliance of Verzuz is in the simplicity. You’re connecting directly with each other and with fans without need for a lot of production, or backline, riders, ground trans, none of that. As Swizz has said, the hits are already made. Fans just want to see producers we admire, admiring each other, and reliving some great musical eras.

But in almost each battle, there’s been one producer who’s D.T.M. (doing too much). Some have had keyboards because they want to play live over the tracks; Mannie Fresh made a bunch of awkward Jerky Boys-style skits about Scott Storch; T-Pain was playing his live show backing tracks (I didn’t mind that too much; they were close to the originals), and Riley was resistant to IG Live as a platform altogether because, as he told radio personality Charlamagne, he didn’t like the idea of he and Babyface just “going back and forth.”

The thing is: We’re all tuning in to watch you go back and forth! Viewers -- and the peers who join in -- want to hear the hits as you produced them. We don’t want a new mix, we don’t want extra instruments or vocals on top of the track. We don’t need senior entertainment execs-turned-hype-men dancing in the background (shout out to Breyon Prescott for becoming a gif, a meme and a legend in one night, though -- also very on-brand for those who know him). We don’t need video monitors behind you. We don’t need a bunch of extra people in the room turning knobs, checking phones and cueing songs (see No. 6). Just tell some stories about the music and press play. 

2. Spend some time on IG Live prior to your match-up: The tech learning curve has been the source of so many fantastic jokes I almost don’t want it to stop, but producers should have some familiarity with how the format works before getting on. For example, Teddy and Babyface couldn’t figure out how to pin the requisite Verzuz message to the IG Live chat, which is apparently a cheat code Swizz has worked out with Instagram to keep the live from cutting off at the hour mark. The cut off in turn interrupts momentum, and creates a lag as producers restart the live, reconnect their opponent, and wait for fans to rejoin. At minimum, learn how to request to join someone else’s live, and how to accept someone’s request to join yours (which has consistently been a point of struggle for Verzuz participants).

3. Have a strategy with your songs: The Verzuz directive is to play 20 of your top hits. But there are chart hits, which got constant radio play and sold tons of singles;  and then there are cultural hits, which evoke the exact same emotion and energy as the day they dropped, and inspire a string of emojis and lyric posting in the Live chat. Lil’ Jon closed his set against T-Pain with the huge commercial single “Turn Down for What,” but left viewers hanging who were waiting to stand on our couches and flip furniture over with crunk jam “Bia Bia.” 

You also have to stack your songs for maximum impact based on your opponent’s catalogue. Babyface, known mostly for midtempos and ballads, came prepared with battle edits of his early work that laid the foundation for Riley’s new jack swing hits, knowing he needed to be prepared for uptempos. Riley, on the other hand, made a couple of questionable calls, maybe wanting to match Babyface’s roster of collaborator heavy-hitters. One was Jay Z’s “The City is Mine,” which he produced and his group Blackstreet was featured on, but which isn’t a strong or popular Jay track. And he left some of his more beloved material unused, like Heavy D.’s “We Got Our Own Thang” and Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston’s “Something in Common” and even his own “Teddy’s Jam” Part 1 or Part 2! The song title says it’s your jam, Teddy! 

4. Resist the urge to go high tech. This is not a live show, and in truth IG Live isn’t actually built for this. Multiple producers have had issues with sound, because they try to add instruments or mic set ups, or use iRigs or Go Mixer Pros -- tech that allows DJs to have clear audio when playing on live, but has impeded sound once adding another user for a dual IG Live. The more things you have connected, plugged in, turned on, etc, the greater the chance of audio issues. During Swizz and Tim’s initial battle, Swizz was in his car, and Tim was in his studio alone, and we could hear both them and their music perfectly.

Since then, we’ve seen studio engineers, assistants, sound techs, and miscellaneous other staff roaming about the live screens helping play the songs, setting up the connection; it really doesn’t take all that. Riley took it to an excessive level with his synthesizer, vocoder, a still-unknown number of people in the studio, multi-camera set-ups (because he was trying to simultaneously broadcast to his website), a green screen, and Breyon.

Meanwhile Babyface -- who both producers acknowledge as the “big brother” of the two -- was in his studio chillin’... and pressing play. Even for Monday night’s rematch, Teddy was genuinely attempting to keep things low pro (or at least his version of low pro), but had connection issues and batteries dying, and exited camera frame to get his keyboard towards the end of the battle. Babyface -- who to be fair, also brought an acoustic guitar to the proceedings for an unexpected (and not entirely sanctioned) live performance -- was left waiting, then the connection was lost altogether, and we never got the final round. Rather than adding to the experience, the extra stuff is distracting for those of us watching.

5. Read the comments: The greatest thing about IG Live is the engagement. The comment feed is quick and instant, and part of the draw in “attending” these battles is to see the producer’s peers, collaborators and friends chime in and be fans right along with you. Imagine a world in which Tyrese didn’t say “Throw in the tile” for 400K people to experience in real time; it’d be sad!

But importantly for the producers, along with Tim and Swizz coaching the battle from the live chat, viewers will tell you when your song choice is off, when you’ve been playing a song too long and need to move on, and when your sound is messing up or there’s another issue on the viewer side. (It took Teddy’s team three rounds to notice fans saying there was an echo on Saturday). 

6. For God’s sake - social distance! The most troubling part about Teddy Riley having a gang of people in his house with no distancing, no masks, no gloves, no nothing; aside from his questionable takes on COVID-19 -- is that Babyface himself had just recovered from the coronavirus. So it wasn’t just irresponsible and reckless, it was arguably insulting. Riley wasn’t the first to have a group of people on deck, however, just the most egregious: Sean Garrett had a team in his small studio, Scott Storch had his assistant right at his side, Ne-Yo had a few friends in the spot. Seriously, the extra people are totally unnecessary -- and probably also want to be at home. (Imagine your boss calling you out of the house during a pandemic to go on Instragram!). Just show up solo with your music cued and press the buttons.

7. This is about you -- but it ain’t about you. Swizz and Tim themselves have said, multiple times, that Verzuz is for the people. When participants lose sight of that and/or can’t put ego aside and appreciate the good-natured sport of it, that comes through in the energy of the live. The-Dream and Sean Garrett, the third matchup Swizz and Timbaland put together, was such a tense, uncomfortable and drawn-out battle that the Verzuz founders created formal rules, including set rounds, set play length, and the aforementioned assumption about sportsmanship.

Dream and Garrett made the battle personal, and totally forgot that the point is to give fans a respite from the heavy reality of the global crises for a couple of hours and to just celebrate great music. Teddy seemed to have missed the point altogether until Monday night. He was focused on driving viewers to his site, TeddyRileyLive.com, supported by streaming and VOD platform OmnisPlayer, in which he’s an investor.

Perhaps because he hadn’t been a spectator in previous Verzuz battles (he popped into the Preemo/Rza bout briefly), Riley couldn’t immediately see the value in reintroducing his catalogue to more music lovers than he could touch in a full tour run -- plus a whole new demographic that didn’t grow up with him. The participating producers may not be getting a cut of ad revenue, but it’s still likely they’ll see streaming spikes in their catalogues (with songs that are 10, 20, or in Teddy and Babyface’s case sometimes 30-plus years old) post battle. 

The bottom line is, artists and creatives are understandably sensitive about their work and how it’s presented. But fans aren’t looking for a perfectly staged and produced experience with a bunch of bells and whistles -- we just want to feel like we’re hanging out with you for a while, watching you trade hits and stories with one of your counterparts. If you keep the energy and the music front of mind, let ego go, and just have a good time, everything else will flow. Don’t be the producer that kills the Verzuz vibe.