"Verzuz" Keeps Winning, But Golden Age Rap Ain't At the Party
By Stereo Williams
Fat Joe and Ja Rule went toe-to-toe at Madison Square Garden's Hulu Theater on Tuesday (Sept. 14), and for anyone who came of age in the early 2000s, the nostalgia quotient was high. Ja Rule reminded everyone just how many big hits he has; while Joe didn't shy away from his street bangers, playing hardcore rap cuts alongside his shiniest radio songs. Add guest appearances from Jadakiss, Lil Mo, Nelly, Vita, Remy Ma and Ashanti, and you have quite the night for thirtysomething-year old rap fans.
It's no overstatement to call Verzuz a cultural phenomenon. Born of a beat battle between Swizz Beatz and Just Blaze, and branded via the interminable boredom of quarantining in 2020, the battle series has rejuvenated careers and reminded audiences just how dope so many Hip-Hop and R&B legends are. We've seen the scope of DMX's catalog and marveled at just how raw The LOX have always been. Elder soul legends the Isley Bros and Earth, Wind & Fire got to remind anyone who missed it just why they remain legendary after decades in the game.
But the success of Verzuz hasn't managed to reach Hip-Hop artists of a certain era.
As of right now, Verzuz has even gone back to soul divas of yesteryear like Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, but it hasn't showcased "Golden Age" rap artists, even names as big as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy have yet to be spotlighted in Timbaland and Swizz Beatz's successful battle series. Make no mistake, Verzuz is great for Hip-Hop. By why are certain eras of Hip-Hop still waiting to be let into the party?
The perception, it seems, is that a brand that's been built mostly on Millennial nostalgia can't go back quite that far. When it comes to Hip-Hop, the Millennial sweet spot for nostalgia seems to be 1994-2004; and anything before that is marginalized as "old school" in their collective consciousness. The Gen X audience is generally, smaller; as such, anything that stretches past Millennial awareness isn't seen as having a large enough draw.
The "old schooling" of pre-1993 Hip-Hop isn't new. Things have been like this since the late 90s; when an influx of R&B fans, pop fans and southern rap fans shifted mainstream Hip-Hop's lens. That's not an indictment, the South had to fight hard to gain it's stature and it has been more than earned. The only downside to that shift was the audience of southern rap fans didn't have the same connection to names like KRS-One and Rakim. Nor did the R&B and pop fans who got introduced to rap music via the shiny crossover hits of Bad Boy and So So Def. They weren't going to check out classic Kool G Rap songs or put on It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back.
As a result, we now see a long-standing divide in the way we see Hip-Hop's history. There's almost an "Old Testament" vs "New Testament" quality to it; and it's especially detrimental because it's led to legendary artists being somewhat marginalized by their own culture.
What's happened with Verzuz and it's lack of Golden Age Hip-Hop isn't the fault of the platform; it's the result of a culture that's been conditioned for this kind of indifference. "Classic Hip-Hop" is a term we're only now starting to see more regularly, and as Hip-Hop grew into mainstream music with mainstream coverage, the artists who peaked just before that mainstreaming have often be reduced to preamble.
Even artists as iconic as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy.
Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy are two of Hip-Hop's all-time preeminent rap groups. Run-D.M.C. were famously Hip-Hop's first true global superstars, with gold, platinum, and multi-platinum albums under their proverbial belts. P.E. is like the Stones to Run-D.M.C.'s Beatles; a little scarier to the establishment at the time; a lot longer-running as an active group, and possessed of one of the most iconic frontmen in music. And a just-as-famous foil.
Why not these titans in a Verzuz?
Those two iconic groups have enough well known songs for Verzuz. Run and Dee could bash through everything from "It's Like That" and Run's House" to "Mary Mary" and "King of Rock." They could throw in D.M.C.'s guest appearance on "My Downfall" by The Notorious B.I.G. and Run's verse on Jagged Edge's "Let's Get Married" remix. P.E. comes armed with classics like "Fight the Power" (recently named the second greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone) and "Shut 'Em Down;" moving into Flav showcases like the House Party favorite "I Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man," and his signature hit, "9-1-1 Is A Joke." Public Enemy could bring out Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane to do "Burn Hollywood Burn" and take things all the way back to "Public Enemy No. 1." They could even perform their 2020 single "STFU" with DJ Premier.
To wit, Big Daddy Kane shared in 2020 that there had been at least some attempt to pair him up with "The God MC" Rakim.
“In all honesty I would doubt it [happening]," Kane told the KDAY Morning Show last year. "Swizz Beatz asked me about it back in April, maybe two nights after the Babyface, Teddy Riley battle. He asked me would I be willing to do it and I said make it happen.
“You know, from what I understand, he has relentlessly tried to make it happen.”
What about MC Lyte Verzuz Queen Latifah? Or Rakim Verzuz KRS-One? If we can't make Run-D.M.C. Verzuz Public Enemy happen, maybe pair one or the other up with the Beastie Boys? DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince Verzuz Kid N Play? Does it seem that far-fetched?
Now, we may not expect a Verzuz featuring Hip-Hop's pre-1984 pioneers. Maybe their reach wasn't quite wide enough, their runs maybe not quite long enough. It's unlikely that we'll see a Funky Four+One and Fearless Four face-off; or that the Cold Crush Bros would recreate their rivalry with the Fantastic Freaks. But for the greats who came later, the icons of the Yo! MTV Raps era, who have the catalog and who we regularly call legends, they should be in the conversation a lot more than they are.
But as Verzuz breathes so much life into legacies, it's hard for this rap fan to not feel a little frustration over the lack of pre-1993 greats. It's not the fault of Verzuz that we've relegated an era to the margins so effectively that the general public doesn't know how to see it any other way. But, as more platforms recognize the timelessness and greatness of this music, here's hoping that we remember that Hip-Hop greatness doesn't begin with 1994.