With over half a million people watching including, apparently, Michelle Obama and every music industry dignitary imaginable — artist, producer, songwriter and executive alike — Monday’s rescheduled Teddy Riley-Babyface battle was the most epic “Verzuz” challenge to date. A ’90’s R&B superfest, musically speaking, it was the Tyson vs. Holyfield of battles. The concept, dreamed up by producers Timbaland and Swizz Beats: two producers play their hits in turn on Instagram Live trying to best the other, in a good natured way.
Like any epic fight there had to be a villain and in this case it was Teddy Riley’s technological gremlins. The original date, Saturday April 18, had to be abandoned a few songs in after horrific echoes and distortion drowned out the music — it didn’t help that Riley and crew tried to put on a full show including choreography, rather than simply play his hits from a laptop. Two days later it appeared he had forgotten to charge his phone and confusion ensued in finding a charger, while the ever patient Babyface, sat alone behind his mixing board in a red velvet jacket with a glass of red wine. It threatened to derail the occasion after an hour of impossibly great music. Eventually, it would be the sheer numbers of people watching that overwhelmed Instagram sliding the event from its technological tracks.
The music itself was an ode to some of the best songs written over the past three decades. The streets against radio, pavement versus penthouse. Riley set a high watermark, the remix of SWV’s “Right Here”, featuring that unmistakable Michael Jackson “Human Nature” sample. Babyface revealed that MJ once asked him for Halle Berry’s phone number to ask her out on a date, before playing “Love Should Have Brought You Home,” by Toni Braxton from the “Boomerang” soundtrack (in which Berry starred). Keith Sweat’s immortal “Make It Last Forever” followed — from an album that changed the face of R&B in 1987. Bayface’s own “Soon As I Get Home” was matched by Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid.” By now everyone was wallowing blissfully in music nostalgia, the soundtracks to a collective youth. The Whispers’ “Rock Steady”, Foxy Brown Featuring Blackstreet, “Gotta Get U Home”. Another Babyface song, “Everytime I Close I My Eyes” kept things in a romantic mood and was matched by with Guy’s “Best Of My Love.”
Both producers’ personalities started to show through as the event progressed. Babyface was humble, deferential and inquisitive about his opponents’ songwriting and producing prowess, asking Riley about his experiences in producing Michael Jackson and at one point saying, “You brought a movement. I’m honored.”
Riley was eager to get through his catalog, not stopping to chat and inquire about Babyface’s own experiences — though his admiration for Babyface was clear early on — but instead trying to keep to the loose, competitive notion of the event. There was also a degree of disorganization about Riley’s set-up with numerous staffers hovering in the background — showing scant regard to social distancing — technological issues and Teddy being pulled in all different directions that didn’t allow him to focus 100% on the task at hand.
When Babyface pulled an ace out of his sleeve, a live version of “When Can I See You Again” accompanied by his acoustic guitar, the confounding genius of Teddy Riley was apparent with his answer, Blackstreet’s “Before I Let You Go,” surely one of the best records of his career.
Throughout the event, names of former but now seemingly forgotten R&B and hip-hop icons — Tevin Campbell, Karyn White, Guy, The Deele (featuring longtime music executive L.A. Reid on drums) and of course the late Heavy D were resurrected. At one point Tevin Campbell himself, apparently, messaged in, “Tevin Campbell still sings.”
The good natured occasion started to turn into an actual battle as each producer pushed to other to play the best of the best. Riley hit us with Guy’s “I Like”, “Let’s Chill,” Michael Jackson’s “Jam” and Wreckx’N’Effect’s “Rump Shaker” while Babyface produced Johnny Gill’s “My, My, My,” TLC’s “Red Light Special” and Toni Braxton’s “You’re Makin’ Me High.”
It all became too much for Instagram to handle. When Teddy momentarily left the room to deal with his ongoing technological issues, he wasn’t able to rejoin. Babyface, with captive audience of half a million kept five football stadiums of online fans entertained with a brief acoustic version of Eric Clapton’s “Change The World.”
Teddy took to his own handle to play his songs independently, among them: Michael Jackson’s “Blood On The Dancefloor,” which he augmented with live gospel piano playing. And for a moment we were faced with a true ’90’s dilemma. Our favorite shows on different channels at the same time, leaving us no choice but to flick back and forth between the two. It was a little sad that both men played two of their biggest hits — Boyz II Men’s “End of The Road” and Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time,” apart from one another’s audience. But in an event like this, there really was only one winner — music.