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Music

A nightly bright spot: On Instagram Live, hip-hop/R&B hitmakers wage good-natured battle, and fans go wild

The producers Timbaland, left, and Swizz Beatz helped popularize DJ battles between hip-hop and R&B songwriters on Instagram Live for the quarantine era.
(Lori Shepler / L.A. Times, left; Jason Merritt / Getty Images)

As the world implodes from coronavirus and no one’s left the house in a month, music fans in staggering numbers have found comfort by tuning in to Instagram Live and watching Gen X hip-hop/R&B producers playing their hits from their laptops and ragging on each other in the comments section.

After DJ D-Nice’s Club Quarantine livestream became the lockdown’s must-have digital ticket (even for Oprah and Joe Biden), a digital DJ battle from dad-aged producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz became the talk of our shelter-in-place towns.

That battle was a rematch, of sorts, from a 2018 Summer Jam performance outside New York. But afterward, at the producers’ behest, peers like the-Dream, Ne-Yo and Mannie Fresh soon propped up cameras in their living rooms. On successive nights billed like boxing title fights, they live-streamed their DJ battles against pals Sean Garrett, Johntá Austin and Scott Storch on their Instagram accounts. Some face-offs showcased a couple of decades’ worth of smashes from successful but under-heralded songwriters; the-Dream’s ended with him knocking golf balls into his pool.

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“I think it’s a cool stroll down memory lane. It’s showing a new generation where a lot of what we’re doing now came from,” said the singer and songwriter Ne-Yo from Atlanta, a few days after his battle with acclaimed R&B songwriter Austin (they fought to a draw, but Austin was probably the biggest beneficiary, Ne-Yo agreed).

“Right now the thing in hip-hop is to sample songs from the ‘90s, so let me introduce you to Johntá, who was writing them,” he said. “I don’t even know if we kept score, but we had 83,000 people in there. It turned into a moment for everyone to appreciate good music, to shine a light where it was deserved.”

The music industry was one of the first to be devastated by the spread of COVID-19. Major festivals like South by Southwest and Coachella were postponed or canceled; Live Nation and AEG put every one of their tours on ice (though some staging firms made the most of it by shifting to build hospitals). No one knows when or if artists will return to the road, or how many livelihoods have been forever damaged. Already, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of beloved artists including Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr.

In all of this, these R&B and classic rap DJ battles have become a desperately craved bright spot. And perhaps it’s no surprise that, in a time of both existential crisis and unceasing boredom, we turned to the cool uncles responsible for the hits from our youth as we gaze out our windows and long for the club.

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The rules for these battles are flexible, as the-Dream and Garrett’s perhaps not-entirely-sober pileup of a set proved. Younger acts can get in too: A producer battle between Hit-Boy and Boi-1da was an early sensation in the trench war for IG Live supremacy.

But more or less, it’s evolved into this: Each artist goes back and forth playing 20 or so songs he or she had a hand in making, no more than 90 seconds per track. Let the fans fight it out in the livestream to decide who won.

The comments sections can be as entertaining as what’s happening on screen. “It’s a sad day, all around the world. Today I gotta go pick out a casket for my homeboy, Scott Storch,” Mannie Fresh said before their battle (and it was widely agreed that he did, indeed, murder his pal Storch). ”Sometimes people do stupid things, you know, and you gotta pay for it ... But damn, Scott, why? Why would you do it? We gon’ miss you, bro ... He just made that one fatal accident ... He went against Mannie Fresh.”

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Austin and Ne-Yo’s battle was a wildly entertaining lesson in recent R&B history, showing off the contours of their catalogs and reminders of songs that Gen Z fans might only have recognized from samples. Over a couple of hours, Austin brought hits he’d written and/or produced by Ginuwine, Bryson Tiller, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah, and ended with Mariah Carey’s undisputed 2004 hit “We Belong Together.” Ne-Yo uncorked Rihanna, Jeezy, Keri Hilson and Jamie Foxx, and capped it with Beyoncé’s 2006 smash “Irreplaceable.”

“Songwriters for a long time were the guy behind the guy; you knew the songs, but that’s where it stopped unless you read the credits,” Ne-Yo said. “A lot of the time, writers didn’t get the appreciation that they deserved.”

After a few months of these quarantine face-offs, that might well change forever for a whole new generation: Up next are crunk and pop-R&B titans Lil Jon and T-Pain, followed by New Jack Swing leviathans Babyface and record executive L.A. Reid versus songwriter Teddy Riley. All could spin their records for days on end without dipping out of the charts.

But more than anything, these sets are reminders that artists and their families are trapped at home, scared and confused and bored same as everyone. Ne-Yo has a new album planned for later this year, but he admits he can’t get anything done right now either.

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No one knows when this will be over, and everyone misses friends and livelihoods.

“With this, you’ve got artists you grew up listening to, and you get to see them in their living room with slippers on playing their biggest hits,” Ne-Yo said. “Everybody’s realizing that we’re all the same. If the world is sick, we’re all sick, and we’ve got to heal.”


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