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NPR Arts & Life

Ludacris And Nelly To Face Off In Virtual Hip-Hop Battle



On Saturday night, two heavyweights of early aughts hip-hop are squaring off live in a musical bout. In one corner, the St. Lunatic from St. Louis, the rapper Nelly.


NELLY: (Singing) If you want to go and take a ride with me, we three-wheeling in the fo' with the gold D's. Oh, why do I live this way?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hey, must be the money.

MARTIN: In the other corner, the rippin' rapper from Atlanta, Ludacris.


LUDACRIS: (Rapping) Cadillac grills, Cadillac mills. Check out the oil on my Cadillac spills. Matter fact...

MARTIN: It's latest battle on Instagram Live's popular Verzuz series. Since the pandemic began, it's become appointment viewing for fans of hip-hop and R&B. Reporter William E. Ketchum III has been writing about it and watching. And he joins us now. William, welcome.

WILLIAM E KETCHUM III: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: OK. For those who have not watched, can you just explain how these battles go down?

KETCHUM: So the producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz thought of it. And they did the first one back in March. And since then, it's just sort of blown up. Basically, it's like an old-school rap battle, except there isn't really much rapping. And it's way more lighthearted. So most of the contestants are producers or songwriters. And they're going back and forth, playing recordings of their best songs. The contestants appear on split screen. So you can see them grooving and reacting to what the other artist is doing. And, of course, there's a steady stream of comments from the viewers.

MARTIN: Right, which is part of the fun. So who's done it so far?

KETCHUM: It's a pretty long list of major names in hip-hop and R&B. There was Babyface vs. Teddy Riley, T-Pain vs. Lil Jon - most recently, Erykah Badu vs Jill Scott.


KETCHUM: And, of course, with Swizz Beats vs. Timbaland. So let's listen to a little bit of their battle.

SWIZZ BEATZ: Let's work. Let's work. Let's work. That's that Swizz Beats - go.

TIMBALAND: OK. You did that [expletive] - I got to give it to you. But I did this [expletive], too. Something like this.


MISSY ELLIOTT: (Singing) Me - I'm super fly, super dupa fly. (Unintelligible) super dupa high.

KETCHUM: So you heard Swizz Beatz at the top there singing along to a song that he did for DMX. And right after that there was - Timbaland played one of his songs that he did for Missy Elliott. So it's kind of low-tech, but it's also, like, really fun to hear them play old favorites, to see them interacting, get to hear them talking about their music.

MARTIN: Right. So they're called battles. I mean, is that real? Does someone win? Is there a winner at the end of these things?

KETCHUM: I mean, not really. So there is some, you know, trash talk between the artists. And they are trying to impress. But there's not really a consensus about who the winner is most of the time. It's really just something that's fun for the fans to debate, although I suppose you can make the case that the real winner is Instagram Live, which has gotten a lot of buzz from this. And they've had, you know, hundreds of thousands of viewers during each battle.

MARTIN: Right. Well, my social media feed totally lit up after the Erykah Badu-Jill Scott one. So it's definitely catching fire for a lot of people who are just hungry for entertainment and some kind of collective activity during the pandemic, right?

KETCHUM: Yeah. There have been some, like, really great match-ups. And the viewer comments are hilarious. You know, like, when you watch, you realize that there are all kinds of celebrities watching and commenting right along with you. So it's like this amazing virtual party where you're mixing with all kinds of people from around the world in what somehow feels like a really intimate setting.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's what's cool about it. So the pressing question at hand - Team Nelly or Team Ludacris. William, your answer.

KETCHUM: I'm a little biased. So I'm going to go Team Ludacris. I bought all of his albums as a kid.


MARTIN: Reporter William E. Ketchum III. William, thank you so much.

KETCHUM: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: May the best man win. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.