It’s become a quarantine-era tradition: Spending an evening zoning out on your phone while you watch two middle-aged men struggle with technology, talk shit to each other, and take turns playing their own classic rap and R&B hits. This whole thing began last month, when Timbaland and Swizz Beatz spent a few hours attempting to prove their own dominance and spinning off a little entertainment mini-genre. Their Instagram live back-and-forth was a social media hit, and this led Swizz and Timbaland to start Verzuz, a series of battles where iconic producers from different eras go head-to-head, attempting to figure out how to operate Instagram Live and, after a fashion, putting their legacies on the line.
The best of these battles — and it will likely remain the best for as long as human beings draw breath on this planet — was the RZA/DJ Premier showdown from a couple of weeks ago. These two were both titans and contemporaries. They both love each other’s work. They both have been responsible for bottomless catalogs of bangers. This one went on for hours, and it could’ve been longer. It was magical. Somehow, the technical difficulties — Premier repeatedly telling RZA to scroll up, RZA continually disappearing and reappearing with what he hoped would be a better audio setup — only added to the charm. It’s hard to find an exciting way to pass a night under quarantine. This was one.
The other battles have been a mixed bag. For me, at least, there’s a ceiling on how amped I can get watching two R&B hitmakers, even legends like Babyface and Teddy Riley, playing gooey slow-jams at each other and nodding thoughtfully while they do it. (Their battle last week was a make-up, since Riley tried to bring in a whole live band the first time and ended up with garbled and impossible sound. Showmanship in these battles is great. Riley tried to do too much, giving us fun chaos instead of anything coherent.) Lil Jon/T-Pain was cool but too dependent on Euro-club cheese. Mannie Fresh/Scott Storch was a little ridiculous, since they weren’t really contemporaries and since Storch kept playing songs where he wasn’t even the credited producer. Imagine having the temerity to take credit for “Cry Me A River” when you’re on Timbaland’s own platform! He’s a real producer! You just a piano man!
And yet this whole format has so much potential. It has potential beyond even the rap and R&B worlds. I want to see Diane Warren vs. Glen Ballard. I want to see Nile Rodgers vs. Trevor Horn. I’ll happily go line-for-line with any music critic who’s been working since the mid-’00s. In the absence of any actual sports, it’s fun to get lost in our shared cultural past, to dig through these treasure troves of half-remembered monsters. The next announced Verzuz battle is DJ Paul vs. Krayzie Bone, which is perfect. Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are long-running rap institutions with deep legacies and surprising levels of crossover success. On top of that, they once had legitimate heat with one another, in the mid-’90s moment when Three 6 accused Bone of copying their eerie occultist singsong murder-rap style. (They squashed it pretty quickly.) This one is going to be a blast, assuming everyone has at least a working idea of how to operate their phones.
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Timbaland and Swizz have been talking about bringing together a Pharrell/Kanye West battle, which would be a beautiful thing to witness. Diddy, meanwhile, says that he’s in talks to do one with Dr. Dre, which would also be great even though Diddy didn’t actually produce most of the great records that come stamped with his name. Swizz is talking about doing that one as a pay-per-view, which sort of mitigates the whole magic of this spectacle. But I don’t know. I could probably talk myself into spending money.
There are a whole lot more battles that can happen. I’ve come up with a list of 10 fantasy matchups. Some caveats: I’m only going with rap producers here — not songwriters, not guest hook-singers, not any of the other credentials that participants have been using to try to get an edge. The producers involved have to have actual hits; this is why it doesn’t make sense to try to throw someone like Madlib into the mix. It’s probably even harder to keep people’s attention when they’re staring at blurry phone footage than it is in a club. The producers I’ve picked all have the instantly-recognizable serotonin-trigger anthems that the exercise demands.
I’ve tried to match up producers who were, more or less, peers, and whose aesthetics are similar enough that the battle would be at least a little bit cohesive. Also, they have to have deep catalogs. The Verzuz rules are that they have to have 20 tracks ready to go. A whole lot of great producers don’t have the 20 hits that you’d need. But I think everyone below does. These are the battles that I would like to see.
Marley Marl Vs. Rick Rubin
Plenty of the great rap producers of the ’80s didn’t have long careers or establish brand names for themselves. Others, like Larry Smith, are no longer with us. But Marley and Rubin would be able to do something interesting. Marley Marl, the man behind the Juice Crew, would have late-’80s heaters for days: “Eric B. Is President,” “The Symphony,” “The Bridge,” “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” “Vapors,” “Road To The Riches,” “Young, Gifted And Black.” He also revitalized Rubin’s old collaborator LL Cool J with “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the sort of song that you would save for last in a Verzuz battle type of situation.
With Rick Rubin, there would always be the possibility that he would play some Red Hot Chili Peppers or Dixie Chicks and fuck the whole process up. (It would be cool if he played Slayer, though.) But the man also has an ironclad back catalog of sample-riff-and-booming-808 tracks: “It’s Yours,” “I Need A Beat,” “My Adidas,” “It’s Tricky,” “Paul Revere,” “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn,” “Run’s House,” “Going Back To Cali.” And then there’s also “99 Problems” or, if he felt like it, any of those recent-ish Eminem songs that were way bigger than they should’ve been. I don’t know how competitive Rick Rubin is, but he could get some damage done.
Hank Shocklee vs. Q-Tip
This one would be fun since Hank Shocklee and Q-Tip are the two musical masterminds of beloved, canonical New York rap groups. Shocklee would have to stand in for the Bomb Squad, the Public Enemy production group that also included his brother Keith, Chuck D, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler. (Maybe it would make more sense for a Chuck/Tip rapper/producer face-off, but my sense was always that Hank was the main producer in the Bomb Squad.) The Bomb Squad’s hectic, visceral sample-collage style drove every Public Enemy classic, and god knows there are a lot of those. But Shocklee would also be able to play other people’s records: Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World” and “Teenage Love,” 3rd Bass’ “Steppin’ To The AM,” Bel Biv DeVoe’s ” “BBD (I Thought It Was Me)?,” Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and “Who’s The Mack?,” the remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Juice (Know The Ledge).”
Q-Tip was the driving force behind the Ummah, a Tribe Called Quest’s production collective. If this battle was just Shocklee and Tip playing PE and Tribe songs, it would be great. Tip would have his own “Vivrant Thing,” too. But Q-Tip also produced huge record for Nas, Mobb Deep, and Busta Rhymes. He’d be able to pull out recent tracks from Danny Brown or Roc Marciano or Pusha T or Solange. And if things ever got dicey for him, there would always be Mariah Carey’s “Honey.”
DJ Quik Vs. DJ Muggs
Dr. Dre gets all the glory as the architect of the West Coast G-funk sound, but Quik and Muggs were both right there, shaping their owns signature takes on the genre in the space of time between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic. Both have had remarkable consistency, and both are still plenty active. DJ Quik is a great shit-talker, which helps with this particular institution. He’s never been a massive star as a solo artist, but he has songs that I would love to hear in this or any other context: “Quik Is The Name,” “Tonite,” “Safe + Sound,” “Jus Lyke Compton,” “Can U Werk Wit Dat.” There’s his work with 2nd II None, AMG, and Suga Free. And then there’s 2Pac’s “Heartz Of Man,” Tony! Toni! Tone!’s “Let’s Get Down,” Adina Howard’s “(Freak) And U Know It,” Truth Hurts’ “Addictive,” and any number of others. (He should probably stay away from “Justify My Thug,” though.)
Muggs would have every Cypress Hill hit ever — “Insane In The Brain,” “Hand On The Pump,” “I Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That,” “How Could I Just Kill A Man,” “Hits From The Bong.” He’d have “Jump Around” and “Check Yo Self” and Goodie Mob’s “Inshallah” and a couple of Funkdoobiest joints. He’d have random-ass Simply Red and Super Cat and Pearl Jam collabs. He’d have his whole recent Alchemist-style revival as an underground-rapper mentor. He might be too temperamentally reserved to really go against Quik, but he could put up a real fight if he wanted. Muggs and Quik have styles that aren’t really anything alike, but they both come from the same time and place, and I’d love to see them put something together.
Pete Rock Vs. Easy Mo Bee
Pete Rock is largely regarded as one of the all-time great rap producers. His real ideal opponent would be DJ Premier, but Preemo already had his battle. Pete Rock, meanwhile, has all these warm and full and understated jams: “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You),” “The World Is Yours,” “Down With The King,” “The Bitch In Yoo,” the “Shut ‘Em Down” remix, and recent-ish stuff like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “The Joy” or Ghostface Killah’s “Be Easy.”
Easy Mo Bee isn’t as well-known, but he’s just as crucial to the sound of New York in the ’90s, and “Flava In Ya Ear” and “Warning,” just by themselves, are a lot more than any other producer could manage. Mo Bee also has the songs that he made with the Lost Boyz, Das EFX, 2Pac, and Alicia Keys. He could use the format to point out that he made the RZA and GZA’s earliest records, or that he worked with Miles Davis at the end of the man’s life. He’d be able to put together a real history lesson.
Organized Noize Vs. Beats By The Pound
This one would be hard to manage, since entire crews don’t really translate to this format and since Organized Noize don’t really have any peers. Organized Noize have way too many universally-acknowledged classics from OutKast and Goodie Mob, as well as Dungeon Family affiliates like Cool Breeze and Backbone. They also made hits for Ludacris and En Vogue and Brandy. They made TLC’s “Waterfalls,” for God’s sake. It’s really not fair.
But Beats By The Pound also helped define the sound of Southern rap in the late-’90s moment when Southern rap became a huge commercial proposition. As the team behind No Limit, they made earthshakers: “I’m Bout It, Bout It,” “I Miss My Homies,” “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” “It Ain’t My Fault.” Group member KLC went on to do C-Murder’s “Down For My N’s” and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” and T.I.’s “What They Do.” A lot of those songs would basically turn the Instagram comments into a riot.
No I.D. vs. Mike Dean
This would be an interesting one: Two enigmas whose careers span decades but who are mostly famous for their association with Kanye West. No I.D. mentored Kanye in the late ’90s, but before he did that, he more or less discovered Common Sense and produced almost all of Common’s 1994 masterpiece Resurrection. Later on, No I.D. became a straight-up hitmaker: Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” Kanye’s “Heartless,” Drake’s “Find Your Love.” In 2017, he did all of Jay-Z’s 4:44 album, another triumph. He’s on the new Jay Electronica. He could take us on a real journey.
Mike Dean’s had a fascinating arc, too. He started out in Texas in the early ’90s, and he worked with Selena before he even got into rap production. (Can you imagine him throwing a fucking Selena song into a beat battle?) Then Dean became a huge part of Rap-A-Lot Records, working with Scarface and UGK and Devin The Dude and Z-Ro. After that, he became part of Kanye West’s braintrust and co-produced “Stronger” and “Power” and “Niggas In Paris” and “New Slaves,” as well as Beyoncé’s “Partition” and the Weeknd’s “Tell Your Friends.” He’s also done a lot of work with Travis Scott, and he’s got pieces of “Goosebumps” and “Sicko Mode.” That’s a hell of a run.
Just Blaze Vs. Trackmasters
This almost seems disrespectful to Just Blaze, who is a huge name with a gigantic sound and a real historical legacy. Just helped define the sound of Roc-A-Fella Records when the label was on its biggest run. His “PSA” is the track that gets the loudest reactions at Jay-Z shows, and it wasn’t even a single. He made “Oh Boy” and “Roc The Mic” and “What We Do” and “I Really Mean It,” as well as non-Roc tracks like Fabolous’ “Breathe” and Joe Budden’s “Pump It Up” and Usher’s “Throwback.” He made a #1 hit, T.I.’s “Live Your Life,” that almost seems like an afterthought to his historical run. In the pre-quarantine days, Just did have a great beat battle with Swizz Beatz on video. He has to be in the running to do one of these. The question is who even matches up with him.
But the Trackmasters, Poke and Tone, pretty much defined the flossy New York sound in the pre-Just days. Their name isn’t as big, but their hits are legion: Biggie’s “Juicy,” Nas’ “If I Ruled The World (Imagine That),” Mariah Carey’s “The Roof.” They have a lot of utterly ridiculous songs that they could bring out: 50 Cent’s “How To Rob,” Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From The Block,” Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women (Part 1).” They made “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”! “Candy Rain”! “I Shot Ya”! “Horse & Carriage”! Their brand might not be as strong, and they didn’t typically yell their names at the beginnings of songs, but they can hang.
Zaytoven Vs. Drumma Boy
These two are both architects of the Atlanta trap sound, and they’ve both been making music for longer than a lot of people realize. Zaytoven produced Gucci Mane’s “Icy,” the track that launched Gucci Mane and kicked off the Gucci/Jeezy beef back in 2005. Zay has kept working with Gucci these last 15 years. He’s also done OJ Da Juiceman’s “May The Trap Say Aye,” Migos’ “Versace,” and a lot of early Future mixtape tracks. Also, he could play piano during the battle, like Scott Storch did.
Drumma Boy also made his first big moves in 2005, when he produced Young Jeezy’s “Standing Ovation.” Since then, he’s specialized in churning, gothic anthems: Jeezy’s “Put On,” T.I.’s “What Up, What’s Haapnin,” Gorilla Zoe’s “Lost.” Drumma Boy helped 2 Chainz stage a major late-career comeback with “Spend It.” Most importantly, Drumma Boy, like Zaytoven, played a major role in Gucci Mane’s mixtape hot streak in 2008 and 2009. I could watch those guys match each other with Gucci gems for a long time.
Lex Luger Vs. Mustard
These two didn’t really have anything to do with each other, but they both introduced new sounds to the rap mainstream around the beginning of the last decade. Lex Luger’s career hasn’t sustained the way Mustard’s has, but Luger has anthems. Luger’s first few years were just upsetting: Rick Ross’ “BMF (Blowin’ Money Fast)” and “MC Hammer” and “9 Piece,” Ace Hood’s “Hustle Hard,” Gucci Mane’s “Richer Than Errybody.” Most importantly, Luger did almost all of Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli. He could just hit play on that and let it rock. Also, he has a wrestler’s name, so we know he’s built for battles.
Mustard, meanwhile, was partially responsible for YG’s rise, and he pioneered the sleek and propulsive LA synth-snap sound that some of us still call Mustardwave: Tyga’s “Rack City,” Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid,” Tinashe’s “2 On.” Mustard has also proven durable and capable of switching his sound up. This whole time, he’s been making hits: 2 Chainz’ “I’m Different,” Jeremih’s “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” his own recent Roddy Ricch collab “Ballin’.” I don’t think Mustard has anything as monstrous as “Hard In Da Paint,” but he could go a whole lot deeper.
Mike Will Made-It Vs. Metro Boomin
These two have defined the sound of Atlanta, and thus rap at large, for the past decade. Of the two, Mike Will got a headstart, going on an insane run at the beginning of the ’10s: Kanye West’s “Mercy,” Future’s “Turn On The Lights,” Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back,” 2 Chainz’ “No Lie,” Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” Ace Hood’s “Bugatti.” Then he signed Rae Sremmurd and produced all their hits, of which there are many. He had a big hand in Miley Cyrus’ moment of dominance. He also did Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” and “DNA,” and Beyoncé’s “Formation.” He took trap music and turned it into pop. His legacy is no joke.
Metro Boomin is younger, and he came in later, but his streak is insane. He’s brought dark, flickering rap evilness to the mainstream, and he has an insane number of hits: iLoveMakonnen and Drake’s “Tuesday,” Future and Drake’s “Where Ya At” and “Jumpman,” Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” Migos’ “Bad And Boujee,” Post Malone’s “Congratulations,” Future’s “Mask Off,” the Weeknd’s “Heartless.” Metro did all of Savage Mode, 21 Savage’s big breakout, and all of Future’s Monster, the mixtape where he went full guttural and recaptured a lot of hearts. He might be the only producer on this list whose drop became a meme.
Apologies to a whole lot of people — Prince Paul, Havoc, Toomp, Noah “40” Shebib — who belong on this list but who don’t really have any good opponents I could think of.
1. TisaKorean – “Bate Onna Bo”
TisaKorean’s hyperactive dance-raps are usually a hit-or-miss thing for me, but this one hits real hard. It’s got this explosively goofy energy that never lets up even as the beat keeps switching, and its accompanying dance video is a stupid amount of fun.
2. Young Dolph – “Sunshine”
Here, we have one of the hardest rappers in the world bemusedly taking stock of the current situation, counting his blessings, reconnecting with his family, wondering what the fuck is going to happen next. Cover art of the year, too. I wonder if we’ll get more songs like this, where rappers going through the same stuff as the rest of us attempt to work out their own feelings through writing.
3. Jamo Gang – “The 1st Time” (Feat. DJ Premier, Slug, & Tyler Kimbro)
Jamo Gang is the new group led by West Coast rappity-rap legend Ras Kass. With this song, they become the first people to put Atmosphere’s Slug on a DJ Premier beat, which feels like a weird little historical moment that probably should’ve happened like 17 years ago. Obviously, Slug takes the opportunity to rap about pissing on the floor of a bar.
4. Grimm Doza – “Pool Sticks” (Feat. Hus Kingpin)
I usually think it’s weird when a producer is the lead artist on a track, when the rapper who does all the vocals is merely a featured guest. This time, it’s earned. I really like Hus Kingpin, a Long Island hardnose in the Roc Marciano vein. But the thing about “Pool Sticks” that sticks with me is the dreamy, floating boom-bap beat from New Jersey producer Grimm Doza. Bonus points for the looped-up evil laugh.
5. Benny The Butcher – “Da Mob” (Feat. Rick Hyde & Heem)
Benny The Butcher is part of the Griselda crew, but he’s now trying to get his own BSF crew off the ground, too. He is incredibly kind to let the other two guys rap before getting his own shit off: “At the lot and I’m copping, ain’t nothing to guess ’bout this shit/ I don’t even know the price or need to test-drive the whip.” (Important note: Heem is not Heems from Das Racist. It’s a different guy.)
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) April 25, 2020