A Verzuz Origin Story: Swizz Beatz and Timbaland Talk to GQ About Their Party-at-Home Hit

Swizz Beatz and Timbaland pose for the November 2020 issue of GQ.
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland pose for the November 2020 issue of GQ.
Photo: Alissa Ashley for GQ, Devin Christopher for GQ

Just in time for the season 2 debut of Verzuz, the Instagram Live music battle showdown, the creators and award-winning producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland sat down with GQ to discuss how this pandemic-themed party became so popular, so fast.

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If you’ve been living under a rock this year, (which, I mean, hey—you might have been. Whatever you need to do to cope with this year gets no judgment from me), the Verzuz music battles have taken over both Instagram and Twitter timelines, thanks largely in part to their stellar and iconic participants: Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight, Brandy vs. Monica, T-Pain vs. Lil Jon, Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, and who could forget the iconic Babyface vs. Teddy Riley? (I know I won’t; the jokes were on 1000 that night.) At the onset, it was just a way for both Swizz and Tim to tease new music and reconnect during freshly mandated lockdowns happening all across the country. But it quickly turned into something much bigger than either of them had imagined.

“Without an announcement, 30,000 people were paying attention. That’s with no flyer, that’s with nothing,” Swizz tells GQ. “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. 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.’” Timbaland added, “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.”

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Looking back though, it’s a good thing they finally did. The battles have been a staple during this pandemic for so many, myself included. The ingenuity, creativity, but importantly, the spontaneity of it all, has been a sort of saving grace during a time that can have you feeling as if all hope is lost every five seconds. But lucky for us, this is just the beginning for Verzuz. “The sky is not the limit, it’s just a view,” Swizz shares. “Exactly,” Timbaland echoes. “It’s so big that I can’t say what I hope for. I just know what it is going to be. We’re just taking the journey as it comes, being organic, being true to the culture. Just taking a ride, taking the gift that God gave us.”

Read their full interview with Gerrick Kennedy and GQ, here.

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DISCUSSION

The one I loved most was the one I thought I wouldn’t even be interested in: Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin. I felt so uplifted by the fellowship on that Verzuz. They also spoke to the mother of Armaud Arbery with the Gram audience, and they prayed, and it made me realize how we have all sustained each other during the worst of times. Keep shining black people.