Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight have done it all. "We met a long, long time ago. But we've been like family since," LaBelle said.
Knight added, "We had our babies at the same time, we trying to work, we trying to be onstage, remember that, Patti? You have to be secure enough in your own self to say, 'I can do this.'"
They're legendary singers, with recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And in a cut-throat industry, they remained close friends
LaBelle said of Knight, "I'm her biggest fan. My goodness, when she sings, 'If I Were Your Woman,' that's the sound that makes me crazy!"
Last year, for the first time, they went head-to-head, comparing their greatest hits as part of an online music battle series called Verzuz.
"I didn't know what it was in the beginning," Knight laughed.
"Her son had to let her know what Verzuz was. She said, 'What is a Verzuz?'" LaBelle laughed.
"But see, I wasn't really, at that time, up on the internet, you know? I'm just really getting into it!"
in a Verzuz matchup, two artists come together to play their biggest songs, with people all over the world watching live on social media
Contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked, "Miss Patti, I know you're a flip-phone person, right? Don't tell me that you were watching Verzuz on your flip phone?"
"No, I was watching it on my TV, honey; my son hooks me up!"
Verzuz was created by two pioneering hip hop producers, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. They have worked with just about everyone in hip hop and pop music. In fact, Swizz Beatz is married to Alicia Keys.
During the early days of the pandemic, with concerts shut down, they wanted to give people a show. And they were inspired by a long tradition of musical competition. When reggae DJs go head-to-head, it's called a soundclash. And in hip-hop, there is a history of friendly battling (and not-so-friendly battling), as seen in the film "8 Mile" starring Eminem.
Swizz Beatz told Sanneh, "We didn't even make an announcement. We didn't make a flyer."
Sanneh asked, "You really talk about how it's about bringing people together. It's a celebration. Which is it? Is it a celebration or is it a competition?"
"Definitely a celebration," said Beatz. "But I think that the competitive spirit is always good as well. You wanna play your best songs. You wanna be calculated. Because you wanna please your audience. And so, like, 'Oh, when this person play this, I'm gonna play that.'"
They started Verzuz on a whim, with Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland. Timbaland was in his basement, Swizz Beatz in his car.
And they had no set list arranged in advance. "I definitely didn't!" Beatz laughed. "I was using YouTube, I was using iTunes, and I was just pulling up, like, my name, like, playlists that people made. And I was just picking 'em as he was playing his tracks."
In their match up, Beatz played "Get Me Bodied," one of his hits with Beyonce. Timbaland responded with "Get Your Freak On," one of his hits with Missy Elliott.
Beatz said, "When it's happening, your mind is working so fast. There's hundreds of songs that me and Tim produced each. You know, there's no way we're remembering all the songs."
Now, Verzuz itself is a hit, too.
"I knew it was something special when everybody kept saying, 'Who's next, and what's next?'"
There have been 24 matchups so far, including Alicia Keys vs. John Legend (below). Most recently, the reclusive soul singer D'Angelo came to the Apollo Theater, where he competed against … himself.
But sometimes, these celebrations can be tense, such as the matchup between Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy, two of the great rappers from Atlanta, who have a real history. There's more than 15 years of bad blood between them. In 2005, Gucci Mane was charged with murdering one of Jeezy's protégés, although the charges were dropped.
And now, they were in the same room. Beatz said, "My phone is blowing up. Everybody like, 'Cancel it. Shut it down. Stop now! It's gonna finish Verzuz. This is gonna be a massacre!'"
Instead, the two sworn enemies made peace (As Timbaland said, "'Cause life is too short, put your differences aside"), which made headlines, and made Verzuz less about rivalry and more about respect.
LaBelle said, "We don't believe in trying to outdo. We just do. And that's what we did, and we had sister fun."
A few days ago, Verzuz was acquired by the media company Triller, which plans to keep the matchups coming even once the pandemic is over.
Sanneh asked, "Are we ever gonna see Paul McCartney vs. Mick Jagger Verzuz?"
"We plan on going global with it," Beatz said. "And there's music and genres that we're gonna cover that's gonna be amazing."
The idea is that fans will always want to celebrate their favorite artists, like Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, as well as other music legends, like Dionne Warwick, who joined the two for a song on the Verzuz set.
LaBelle said, "Gladys, remember when we were doing 'That's What Friends Are For'? Honey, I didn't know those words! I don't know the lyrics!"
"I expect for you to make up words," Knight laughed.
"I did!" she laughed. "That's what I do, yes. We have wonderful times, yes."
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Remington Korper.
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