How Verzuz is bridging the musical generation gap

The legends of the past get a cultural resurgence and a connection to younger generations

Superproducers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz fed the need for entertainment and fellowship during the coronavirus pandemic with their hit Verzuz online series. But they also filled a 20-year void in digital music by providing a first-of-its-kind discovery platform for Black legacy acts.

It’s a veterans-only arena, and Black music veterans have traditionally been neglected in the streaming era. Verzuz participants may not be huge streaming artists with significant social media presences, but they all have career histories long enough to have amassed a list of enduring jams.

“To even step on the Verzuz stage, you have to have 20 hits. That’s a lot of music,” said producer Johntá Austin, whose match with singer/songwriter Ne-Yo was the third in the Verzuz series. “It brings out friendly competition, but I tell people that if you have the catalog to participate in Verzuz, no one’s getting killed. A lot of people have forgotten what a catalog, a real body of work looks like. Verzuz showcases the art of songwriting, creating music that can stand the test of time.”

Fans are discovering the seeds that blossomed into relative newcomers such as Ella Mai, H.E.R. and Ari Lennox, plus witnessing some real kings of R&B, and younger music listeners are connecting. Turns out the generation gap in music wasn’t because they didn’t like “old school” artists, but because they didn’t have easily accessible avenues to learn about them.

DJ Scratch performs at The Apollo Theater on Feb. 27 in New York City.

Shahar Azran/Getty Images

Once the music business shifted from a physical retail market to streaming in the late 2000s and early 2010s, urban adult artists and catalog acts (releases more than 18 months old) took a hit. Digital advancement killed several methods of music discovery and awareness. As physical sales declined, brick-and-mortar stores closed, taking product positioning and in-store events with them.

It’s been almost 10 years since Black artists could have a guaranteed TV audience for five days a week. Music video programming was ceremoniously put to rest when BET’s 106 & Park said goodbye in 2014. (MTV’s TRL ended six years earlier.)

Marketing for releases increasingly moved online because it was cheaper, easier and more targeted than print, TV or radio. But an older segment of fans, the primary R&B consumers at the time, were neglected because they weren’t as active online. The generation gap emerged when all of our media moved physical music products to streaming services and the sacred act of perusing older relatives’ collections, reading liner notes or flipping through magazines became relics of the past.

“Unfortunately, [mainstream] radio doesn’t play songs past two years ago, right?” said DJ Scratch, who backed D’Angelo for his special Verzuz celebration on Feb. 27 and supported Redman and Method Man’s How High event on April 20. “I’ve seen people mad that kids don’t know older music, and they say, ‘Well, it’s on YouTube.’ But how do they know what to look for if you don’t know it exists?

“We [ages 41 to 56] know music 20, 30 years older than us, because it was available to us,” he continued. “So this is a source for a younger generation to learn about hit records and classics that were made before their time. Verzuz is a perfect place to introduce this music.”

Changes in the business also resulted in an absence of discovery through music itself. Singles and playlists now drive the industry, so greatest hits compilations, live albums and soundtracks with a mix of new music and classics have become obsolete.

And as revenue from music sales declined from 2002 to 2014, labels tightened their budgets. After 20 years of sample-driven music, producers were looking at the cost to clear a sample – an average of $10,000 per sample by 2008 – plus giving up a larger percentage of the song revenue. Up-and-coming producers instead turned to original beat loops, or sampled sparingly, fraying the connection between old music and new that drove the ’90s and early 2000s. The sheer amount of content vying for consumers’ attention all at once also skyrocketed, and music life cycles shortened. All of this culminated in a culture of immediacy – the fast-food equivalent of music consumption. But the world coming to a standstill gave Verzuz room to grab, and hold, everyone’s attention.

D’Angelo at The Apollo Theater on Feb. 27 in New York City.

Shahar Azran/Getty Images

Verzuz was able to draw fans in and build a community for the collective cultural experience. With this livestream event, current data points used to measure popularity, such as sales histories, chart hits, usage in TV shows, films, and commercials, and years since last release, are irrelevant.

Andre Torres, Spotify’s head of catalog, said of Verzuz: “It’s highlighted the excellence [Black music] has been bringing to the game for so long. Going all the way back to the ’70s with Earth, Wind & Fire and Isley Brothers to your ’90s R&B and hip-hop, it’s really been incredible to see how it’s galvanized so much of everything we love.”

April 2020’s Babyface and Teddy Riley battle, a meeting of two artists/producers whose biggest chart hits occurred more than 20 years ago, was the match that tipped Verzuz from a fun quarantine trend to a full-blown movement. Last year’s Mother’s Day love fest with neo-soul queens Erykah Badu and Jill Scott featured the fewest Hot 100 hits but highest series viewership up to that point. Even former first lady Michelle Obama pulled up and expressed her love for Scott’s “Crown Royal” in the Instagram Live chat (confirming what we all suspected about how she and Barack Obama get down at the crib).

Adult children helped their parents and grandparents navigate the Instagram app so they could watch September 2020’s Auntie extravaganza with Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, and Easter’s gold brocade and silk-populated meeting of the legendary Earth, Wind & Fire and the Isley Brothers. This past Mother’s Day pairing of ’90s girl groups SWV and Xscape had a longer announced lead time than any match to date, and the internet engaged in chatter not only about the two groups and their catalogs, but about the fashion and culture they symbolize for almost a month.

The series has affirmed the viability of Black legacy artists, both R&B and hip-hop, something that’s been disputed and disregarded despite pre-pandemic numbers at events such as the Essence Festival built around veteran acts. The “Verzuz Effect,” the catalog and visibility lift immediately following participation, additionally serves as proof that classic music doesn’t age out. A jump of 50% to 100% or better in streaming in the days following Verzuz compared with the days immediately before isn’t unusual. Some matches, including Badu and Scott, Monica and Brandy, and the foundational dancehall artists Beenie Man and Bounty Killer in May 2020 – the first Verzuz with both acts in one place – increased streaming of each participant’s songs by as much as 400%..

Verzuz has also put a spotlight on the craft of making music. Moments like Alicia Keys playing “If I Ain’t Got You” during her Juneteenth Verzuz with John Legend, and Legend responding with, “That is what you call a ‘copyright,’ ” highlight the difference between just writing some lyrics and a mean pen game. The overwhelming number of recognizable samples in the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire match was a master class in the influence of classic soul, funk and R&B on more current music.

The depth and breadth of competitor catalogs are also reminders that advancements in the recording process have come at the cost of some creativity.

Lil Jon, best known as the King of Crunk, displayed one of the broadest scopes of work in the series when he met T-Pain for their showdown in April 2020. He shocked even his fellow producers watching at home by pulling out dancehall artist Capleton’s 1995 “Tour” remix, went from tear-the-club-up favorites to R&B classics with Usher to electronic dance music smashes.

Method Man and Red Man perform at The Apollo Theater on Feb. 27, 2021 in New York City.

Shahar Azran/Getty Images

“When I started digging into all the stuff I had [to make a song list], I’d forgotten about so much,” he told The Undefeated while on the road for a gig. “My list started at 30 songs, and I still had joints in the chamber. I didn’t even realize how much music I’d touched.”

He went on to explain how he thinks production has changed as the focus has shifted to beat-making. “People send in beats and the artist does whatever they want on the song. I come from the school of being there from the spawning of the idea through every inch of the whole process,” he said. “You don’t get [spontaneous ideas in the studio] when you’re just emailing tracks back and forth. You’re not feeding off of each other, pushing each other. You don’t get everybody’s input. Producers don’t step in and say, ‘Let’s try this or that.’ It’s just a different time.”

Verzuz was part of a larger trend in music consumption during the pandemic. Catalog streaming outpaced current releases in 2020, suggesting consumers were seeking the nostalgic and familiar. Artist catalog has become a hot commodity over the last year or so, with entertainment and financial companies snapping up legacy catalogs at staggering figures. Former Babyface partner L.A. Reid, Verzuz participant RZA and producer No I.D. were among the prolific songwriters and producers selling part or all of their catalog interests to investment companies such as Hipgnosis Songs in 2020.

Catalog music is a stable asset with proven revenue generation, without the cost of new releases. As the value of older music grows, so does the acknowledgment of older fans. Older consumers are a growing segment of streaming service users and subscribers, a trend Verzuz viewership highlights.

Tech platforms have traditionally been a young space: Instagram, Verzuz’s original home, has a predominantly Generation Z (age range: 6-24) userbase. So does TikTok, whose creators also spurred classic catalog moments last year. But Verzuz chose the relatively small platform Triller over a throng of suitors to officially join forces with earlier this year. Triller stood out in part because it considers itself “the adult version” of TikTok, and it wants the broad age range that Verzuz attracts, not just the younger viewers.

Until recently, Triller was primarily known as a music video sharing app (hence the TikTok comparison), but it already ventured into nostalgia programming with a Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr. exhibition during Thanksgiving weekend in 2020.

Triller co-owner Bobby Sarnevesht explained the attraction to the Verzuz brand, “We’re almost in the exact same space. Our audiences probably overlap north of 90%, maybe a little less with some of the older catalog. But it’s all the same, what I like to call, ‘culture graphic.’ ”

With an older demographic in mind, Triller started suggesting and implementing some changes for Verzuz’s new home. It switched to a multicamera shoot, starting with the Isley Brothers vs. Earth, Wind & Fire event to increase the production values for those watching at home. The team is also exploring what future live events might look like as things open up, including potential residencies or Verzuz weekends – Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Memorial Day rematch was a preview. “We don’t have the same kind of [cultural] heroes [Gen X] did growing up. And we think maybe we can bring some of that back.”

Whether brilliant timing or genius foresight by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, Verzuz arrived when the market was primed for it. For the last several years, overall music revenue has been healthy year over year, sampling is back in fashion (and is as prevalent in R&B music as hip-hop now), R&B/hip-hop continues to take more of the musical market share, and the past is in demand.

Verzuz quickly became more than a distraction or a placeholder for in-person entertainment. Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s “educational celebration” connects dots and provides context for much of the recent cultural nostalgia. It’s been our virtual, intergenerational family get-together – a time for trading stories, memories and telling each other “you don’t know nothin’ about this.”

Naima Cochrane is a former music executive and Black music and culture writer in New York City. Since 2017, she's connected urban music's past and present through her #MusicSermon storytelling series on Twitter. You can find Naima in the snack aisle of grocery stores dancing to 90s R&B.