Timbaland And Swizz Beatz
Recording artists Swizz Beatz and Timbaland attend The Dean Collection X BACARDI Untameable House Party on December 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
Frazer Harrison

Interview: Swizz Beatz And Timbaland Talk 'Verzuz' Battles, Respond To Fan Requests

The two GOAT producers give some insight behind putting together the viral Verzuz battles.

Phrases such as “do it for the culture” or “push the culture forward” are used so often that their meanings have been diluted. But with their new series Verzuz, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland are doing exactly what those terms mean. Part beat battle and part educational seminar, two legendary producers, songwriters, or artists take 20 of their biggest hits and pit them against each other as the audience watches and comments on Instagram. Timbaland and Swizz competed against each other first, and then they coordinated other matchups: Boi-1da vs. Hit-Boy, Neyo vs. Johnta Austin, The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett, Mannie Fresh vs. Scott Storch, and T-Pain vs. Lil Jon. Each matchup has its own standout qualities - whether it’s Sean Garrett's wacky faces before launching a late comeback, Scott Storch adding harmonious keys in real time, or T-Pain and Lil Jon clowning with each other before previewing new music, every battle is a must-watch.

Coming up next, music fans will be treated to the biggest matchup yet: Teddy Riley vs. Babyface. In an interview with VIBE, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland break down how they came up with Verzuz in the first place, their favorite moments so far, and why they want the culture vultures to slow down for once.

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What made you decide to do the first battle between yourselves?

Timbaland: I think the first battle was something that I can say that me and Swizz had this idea for Verzuz three and a half years ago. The world is so dark right now, I woke up one day just feeling brave and I called Swizz like, “we should do it over IG Live.” As soon as I said it, we just did it, we just had fun with it. We just gave the world something beautiful for 5 hours to take their mind off of what's going on.

Swizz Beatz: We did it before at Summer Jam, so that was the first one, and then Timb came back to me and said,  “you know what, this is the time where we should do it again.” And I thought it was a great idea. Plus it fits right into what we were building anyway

Was it both of you guys at Summer Jam or was it a different battle at Summer Jam?

Swizz Beatz: It was me and him. We didn’t have enough time to do how we did on IG, so IG was the real one. Summer Jam was the warm up. Because we only had like 12, 15 minutes on the set so it was very short but it was effective with 50,000 people there. And we were just celebrating each other, and that's the thing I wanted to tell everybody. It's an educational celebration, even though we talk smack and we make it interesting, cause we gotta have that for fun, but it's really educational and it's really a celebration. So everybody that's been on Verzuz has been an educational celebration. I mean, look at tonight. We got Ryan Tedder vs Benny Blanco, you know that's a whole other side of the music, but those guys deserve to get celebrated as well. I think it's gonna be a great battle, they’ve got big big big records.

So from you guys' battle, what were your favorite moments from each other's sets?

Timbaland: My favorite moment was seeing my friend, and we were both in a great space. He went to the car and plugged up, and was really into the music. It wasn’t about what songs did I play, it was about just seeing my friend and both of us having fun. I think that was a moment in itself for me.

Swizz Beatz:I agree with that. My favorite moment with Timb was his energy. We haven’t seen Timb get loose like that: glass of wine in his hand, his energy was way up, his spirit was way up. This was a crucial time cause the entire world was watching and feeding off of our energy. When we did it at Summer Jam, we wasn’t going through all these trials and tribulations, so people had a lot of other options and different things going on, and not really paying attention as they probably should. But this time, people really got to pay attention ‘cause we all on lockdown, we all sitting down and people got to pay attention to the energy. I think that energy transpired into Hit-Boy and Boi-1da wanting to contribute to that energy and all the others that came because of that. But what we inherited was a real job, Tim [laughter]

Timbaland: A real serious job.

Swizz Beatz: What people don’t understand is, they can be home and type up a wish list. If they don't think we don't want the same wishes they do? They crazy! But everybody not coming outside. It's hard. When we get these people to agree, it's a celebration man cause it's not an easy thing to do. It’s a lot on the line. And a lot of the women are like “we want the ladies, we want the ladies.” Okay, but the ladies ain't answering yet. You think we don't want the ladies? We working on it, you know, we delivered mail to all of your favorites to come outside, and it's looking real good. We got some great things coming, but I just want the people to be patient and know that me and Timb is doing this from our heart, for the people. A lot of people are like “I need JD and Puff,” and I’m like well if it were that easy, it would have been already. … But nobody is gonna be mad, nobody is gonna be mad. At the end of the day, they just gotta trust the curation.

Tell me about the work it takes to make these things happen.

Timbaland: Aw man. It’s transforming the mind of the mindset that was set for so long. People get caught up on the word battle, and I have to remove that and say “look, that's just a context, don't look at that. It’s really a celebration and an education”. And once I say education, the talk slows down. Me and Swizz set the rules, it's 20 for 20, so it's not what you thinking but people always throw other stuff on. Let's just celebrate you, people wanna give you your flowers while you here, and just give people education on who did what, what transpired in the past as far as creation. show your talents, show your work. Let us celebrate you right now. We need feelings right now, we don't have nothing, everybody is on a common playing field, it ain't about no money it ain't about no nothing, just come and let's celebrate this greatness that you presented to the world. That’s when they get it and start shaking their heads, but it's a process. And then i pass it over to Swizz. (laughs)

Swizz Beatz: And then you get phone calls from people who don’t qualify. You gotta have 20 joints, a lot of people wanna just jump into it because they feel like it’s a dance challenge or something, or a challenge we would see on Instagram where everybody is just doing it to get the looks. No, these are real architects that’s on this. Everybody that we’ve officially presented are architects. Now, some might have played the wrong songs at the wrong times and different things like that, but that's not on us. But these are people that got 20, certified. So a lot of people don't wanna come outside that do have the 20, and a lot of people that do wanna come outside that don't have the 20. So we gotta keep this thing curated because once it gets silly, it just gets silly. And a lot of people are doing their own thing, which is cool! But what me and Timb are trying to offer, once again, is an educational musical platform where people might talk some smack, people might get excited, some might lose some might win but at the end of the day the culture wins. These people are putting this on for free, ain't nobody got a dime yet. And all the corporations and everything are all to the table, but right now we just enjoying it like this. It’s 6 million people unemployed, what type of business are we talking about right now? That’s not what this is about right now. This is about healing as we get through this time together.

And of course me and him had a plan, we had to plan for three years for it to be done with businesses and partners and things like that, but right now this is not the time for that. We would look crazy. And a lot of people call us like we not on our game and we got such a great idea that we just letting wash down the road. I don’t feel like we letting anything wash down the road. I feel like 1.) We making history, 2.) It's educational, 3.) It’s for the people and 4.) We hit 203,000 people yesterday on live. That's not a small number, that's a few stadiums. With no sponsors by the way, just the music, no negativity, just the music. And that's what gives us the energy to be on these phone calls with these artists. The artists are hard bro, these people not easy. The requirements and... it's just a lot. My wife looking at me like “I don't know how much longer got dammit” cause this is...you late for dinner now. And we in the house, it ain't like I'm coming from somewhere, I'm in the house [laughter]. But it’s something we devoted to and we gonna keep it special.

One thing that's been really interesting to me in all these, neither the artists or the commenters feel the need to hold back. It’s interesting because sometimes when artists are talking to each other, egos can be fragile. So an artist may not say something cause they dont want to jeopardize that relationship. But i’m seeing artists talk sh*t. So what do you think makes the commenters and the artists feel so free and so open to say what they want in these battles?

Timbaland: Thats a good one. For me personally, I think it's because it's from the heart. This aint bout nothing, it's for the people, by the people. That's how I see it. And you gon get what you gon get. And I think artists are engaged with it and they be in tune because it's a musical history. I believe Meek posted something on Twitter saying that “these battles make me appreciate music way more than i ever did.” Fans just being free. Like Swizz said, we filling up a stadium, but a stadium where everybody can speak their minds. And I feel like right now, in the world, we on one playing field. You ain't talking bout what Range Rover i got, what diamond chain, that don't even matter. So all you have is your opinion. That's it.

Swizz Beatz: I think the comments is a safe space as well. I think it just feels like a community and everybody got a license to keep it real in that community. I thought that was interesting too, because I see people in there talking crazy that, man if it was somewhere else, it would really be these things we talk about. But it's like being at a fight, Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, we gon talk shit on the sideline. Like “Aw man that aint it right there.” It’s like that, vs. pointing in someone's face and talking to them like that. It’s like friends communicating at a showdown. People are looking at it more as a sport than anything, I believe, when they in those comments.

I know that some artists can be very cautious about things that they agree to. And they may be like, "I don't wanna do this because if I lose I’ll look crazy.” Has it taken a lot of convincing to get some of these people to do it?

Swizz Beatz: Man that's what we tryna tell you, this is not an easy job. Like people are overthinking, this is a lot on the line. And so far everybody in Verzuz has been taking it...I spoke to Mannie today and I know that he know that he probably didn’t win that battle, you understand? But in his mind he had fun, he put on for the people, he felt he probably could have played a couple of different records, and he kept a high road about it. Some people say that he won, some people say I won, and you know the energy is good. But everybody can't take that to the chin, and that's what I’m learning. I'm like man, especially a lot of artists in the younger generation, they got all these excuses not to show up. Me and Timb don't wanna just put on shows from a different era, we wanna put on shows that’s from them! But I'm telling you, it's a lot of ego involved. And my message to those artists is “leave your ego at the door, bring your music and have fun.” That's it. It's for the people. But a lot of people that I know wanna jump in but he like “man I can't,” “he saying this one did this, this one did this to me.” Like that's crazy. That's a young mentality. A more mature mentality is like yo, he might win some, I might win some, he might lose some, I might lose some, let’s just do it. It's music, we just celebrating music, it ain't that crazy. So a lot of people requesting all these battles it's like, yeah that sounds easy, now who's gonna go get it done? (Laughs)

A colleague of mine found a lot of similarities between these and soundclashes from the carribean. Are you using that influence on purpose or no?

Swizz Beatz: Not necessarily. At the end of the day, Verzuz is not just about music. We didn’t get into the sports side, we didn’t get into the comedy side. There's other things that we’re gonna do, but this is a well thought out plan and we’re starting it with music because that's our strong point. But we got other things thats gonna blow people's minds that's set up, but this is a very calculated thing. This is a duration, this isn't just for the hype of quarantine. This is for us to have a different platform that celebrates creativity period, not just music. So we would love for people to understand what we’re thinking, cause I see a lot of people tryna pull from what we doing and tryna run with headlines of their own quicker than what we’re doing, but we don't care about that shit, that's not even their type of business, the people that's doing it. They don't got no musical background, no creative background, they just wanna feel like they’re part of something. Which is great. But what we plan on doing is...when you free the artist, you free the world, right? So we plan on giving a lot of artists and creatives the voice that they probably never had, or was never understood. We’re thinking very very big, but right now we like the level that we’re at because we vibing with the people, and we gonna also vibe with the people but right now we just having fun. That's all you can do.

Now Swizz you had also posted on your IG that a lot of companies and corporations are tryna cash in on this right now. What kind of offers are they putting out there and how does it make you feel to get those offers so early on in the process?

Swizz Beatz: Me and Timb were definitely appreciative, but there's a time and place for everything. Not saying that we won't look at everything, we not silly, we gonna look at everything, there might be something that's really amazing. But, and I think I can speak on Timb’s behalf too, but with a lot of people and ideas, people are so short-minded sometimes. They think about what can help their basic now and not their overall period. For me, it's a time and place for everything, and going direct to the artists and all of this stuff here, which all of the companies are doing, which is cool, but I don't like how they tryna play on them as well. Like don't do that, don't do that. Right now, there's no politics involved and we’re having a great time. The minute you see a logo running across that screen, it's just gonna feel crazy. And I think we should be promoting what we promoting: the artists. Period. The creatives. Period. No interruptions. Give us five minutes on that, let the creatives have theirs, five minutes without being interrupted by a logo. That's our vibe right now. Let the creatives get their five minutes without being interrupted by a f***in logo. Let the artists be people for five seconds, you know what I’m saying? Timb, you can expand on that if you want.

Timbaland: Nah you said it right. Just give us a minute. I was gonna sum it down to just let us breathe. We're having fun. Don’t mess up the fun. Just give us a minute. We’ll come to you.

Swizz Beatz: Or put your proposal in now and come talk to us after the quarantine. You can do that now, and then after the quarantine we can get to it. Cause right now we in a very hardcore situation. This is the second of April, so this is a very crucial month. If things don't change this month, there isn't gonna be anything to talk about but survival. It's not gonna matter anyway. We got 6 million -

Timbaland: It’s 10 million now.

Swizz Beatz: It’s 10 million?

Timbaland: It’s 10 million now, Swizz.

Swizz Beatz: Well okay.

Timbaland: 10 million unemployed, we can't even talk about a business right now, like come on.

Swizz Beatz: That's 10 million wolves. That's nuts man. That's 10 million good people that can turn bad.

Timbaland: Very quick.

 

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Attention 🚨 #VERZUZ @scottstorchofficial vs @manniefresh tonight 9pm est on @scottstorchofficial live.........

A post shared by No Breaks In 2020 (@therealswizzz) on

Swizz Beatz: Inshallah, a lot of things need to turn around quick. When I say quick, I mean quick. Everything needs to go in effect now. Because you telling us we cant go outside? And then you saying we can't work, and we can't pay our bills and all this and now you got blackouts happening? All right now. This is a Will Smith movie. And the crazy part is it's for real. The economy is what, 16 trillion now? In four weeks? That's a different type of bleeding.

Timbaland: That's why this is so important. Because even for me, and I tell Swizz this all the time, it's giving me joy for three hours out the day that feels like I left my house. But I didn’t leave my house. It’s that feeling of great music and curation and you don't be thinking bout the offers and...nah man. I'm looking at the people. It can be frustrating because they asking “who next who next,” “I want this person next,” but that means these people are engaged in a time like this, where people are losing jobs like...you can't do that, you gotta give us those five minutes. It’s serious out here. Very serious.

What were some of your favorite moments from the other battles so far?

Timbaland: My favorite moment from Sean and Dream’s battle was Sean kept making them faces (laughs), like what is wrong with you? But then he’d drop a bomb so it's like oh snap! That was one of my favorites from that. And then with Johnta and Neyo, it was like i was on the dance floor just going crazy cause I didn’t know Johnta did all these records and I didn’t know all the records that Ne-Yo did, so every moment of that was amazing to me. My best moment with Mannie and Scott was that Scott saved “Still Dre” for last and it was like “Goodnight, close the curtains.”

Swizz Beatz: My favorite moment was when Hit-Boy and Boi-1da was playing exclusives that people respect in a battle, cause thats a hard card right there. I like that they both had mega records that nobody had heard of, to pull out in a battle. I like that they had exclusives. But big exclusives. Cause it's hard to play exclusives in a battle, people are playing hits. So he had to pull out Drake, Hit-Boy had to pull out Nipsey. So I thought that was amazing. As far as Johnta and Ne-Yo, still my favorite battle so far, for many reasons, for the educational reasons, for the diversity in the playlists, how they were gentlemen about it, how the energy was. But man, to find all these hidden tracks from both of them that I never knew either of them produced, that was the best for me. And then artists calling me for Johnta’s number like right after that; young artists by the way, big ones too. I thought that was super cool, they called for Ne-Yo too. With The-Dream and Sean Garrett, my favorite part was The-Dream playing golf (laughs) and Sean Garrett swinging at the last minute and made everybody respect his name at the end of the day, no matter how we felt at the beginning of the battle, he made a great comeback on that.

I liked that Mannie Fresh had skits, I would have cut like two or three of those skits out, but I liked that he came with character. I like how Scott Storch was comfortable. It was calculated. He said “you got the skits but you aint got the hits.” I just love how smooth he was with his weapons, like he had a dangerous hand of weapons and he was just handling himself like a boss. And Mannie wasn't scared to show up to the competition, which, trust me, we had other people we wanted to go against Scott but people are not coming outside. So I respect that Mannie came outside. I respect that. So when two people say yes we gotta respect that. Cause obviously you wanna see Scott vs whoever in your head. Nine times out of 10, we called that person and asked them to come outside. So that's how we got to have fun with Mannie and Scott. 203,000 people showed up for that and they didn't leave, so we had a great time with that.

So what are you guys expecting from T-Pain and Lil Jon? Who are your early picks on that?

Timbaland: I think we gonna get a lot of high energy, cause T-Pain is a character and Lil Jon is definitely a character.

Swizz Beatz: I think they’re both gonna have everybody on the dancefloor heavy. We felt at the last minute that T-Pain is (accomplished) sonic wise, producer wise, as far as a writer and as an entertainer. I feel that Lil Jon’s energy is gonna be great because, you gotta curate these things as much as possible even tho people were like “aw man we wanted see T-Pain go against Scott Storch” but i just felt like that wasn’t gonna be a fair match for T-Pain and T-Pain would agree as well. But it wasn’t about him backing down, he obviously signed up. But us as executives had to ask “is this really good for anybody?” … Now T-Pain and Lil Jon, the energy’s better with them. T-Pain's energy went up like “Yeah, that's what I'm talkin bout.” When they doing this together, we want it to be an equal exchange and equal excitement ‘cause people feel that energy. T-Pain and Lil Jon just feel a like a party on Saturday, so that's why we did it on Saturday. Let's do a party on Saturday, get the tempo up and energy up. What do you think?

I'm looking forward to it for sure. I think they're both salesmen and they have good energy. As far as who's gonna win, I don't know. In these battles you realize there's these songs that come up that you didn’t know that they did, so it's difficult to predict the winner.

Swizz Beatz: I agree with that. But that's the good part, it keeps you watching. It’s a lot of predictable battles we could do. But it's like it's too predictable. So a lot of the battles people, when they first see them, some they’re gonna agree with but a lot they’re gonna be like “but why?” Certain big names you’re gonna see, and you’re gonna see names as big as those names and you’re gonna be like “Come on Swizz and Timb, how you gonna do that?” but when you actually see it, you’re gonna see why and how we did that, and i just want everybody to trust the curation. Look at Johnta Austin, people was like “Man we need Ne-Yo to go against Dream, thats not a good thing” and next thing, look, everybody got educated on that shit. So we don't wanna do predictable battles, then it starts becoming like a candy store and it's like no man, we took our time with this.

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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