One of the few things making life bearable during the time of coronavirus is the Verzuz series. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have been setting up a series of battles on Instagram Live that have provided some of the best pop culture and musical moments of the past few weeks. The mega-producers started by getting in the ring themselves, then went on to set up a series of producer and songwriter battles—most recently the epic Lil Jon versus T-Pain bout.
The next battle is sure to appeal to anyone with a record collection and a pulse: RZA pitted against DJ Premier. On Saturday April 11, the legendary producers will get 20 records to show their stuff, and the assembled crowd—likely to number in the hundreds of thousands, if recent battles are any indication—will decide the winner.
"This is kind of like a sporting event," RZA says. "You've seen the flyer. You got Godzilla and King Kong, yo. Goliaths, man. This is mammoth."
We caught up with RZA by phone on Thursday, as he was getting ready for the weekend’s matchup. We got the inside scoop on how the battle came about, why he decided to jump in the ring, and what his plans are. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did this battle between you and DJ Premier come together?
Swizz reached out. This is something we’re doing for culture. People could take it as a fight, a battle, whatever they want, but it's more about us celebrating the culture of hip-hop. I'm a big fan of DJ Premier. I watched him do so many things in hip-hop and work with so many great artists over the years, and he’s an icon. I've also made many songs that inspired so many people in our culture.
Swizz and Timbaland, they've got this unique way of putting these energies together for "friendly competition," whatever you want to call it. But yeah, they reached out to me, and I was like, "Yeah." I don't really do Instagram Lives, but I thought it'd be fun. Premier’s a good comrade of mine. I really appreciate him.
Premier was already famous for what he was doing before I was able to break into the industry. I was an unknown producer trying to get my feet on the ground, and I was hanging out with him in East New York, with Masta Killa and GZA, all from the same hood and shit. Or hanging out at Branford Marsalis’ house. [For a period around 1993, DJ Premier and his Gang Starr partner Guru lived with jazz legend Branford Marsalis.]
So the cool thing is that we're still here as icons, and as foundations of hip-hop in many ways, and for us to get together and show people where that energy came from in hip-hop. Hip-hop always been this kung fu thing anyway, this swordsman mentality. So it all plays into what it is. I'm just bong bonging, ready to just have some fun.
I read an interview with Swizz and Timbaland where they said a lot of people they asked to participate in these battles are scared. They’re worried about their egos and worried about losing. Why did you agree to do it?
At the end of the day, it's for the culture. Let me just say something about me: I've been kind of out of the culture, musically, in a sense. You don't hear a lot of production from me, a lot of songs. You see me making movies, making TV series. I've taken my energy, and I sought to expand hip-hop culture through film and TV. That seems to be my trajectory, and that's what I'm doing.
I'm not in the game every day. I can't go up and tell you the top 10 songs right now, because my days are spent studying film. I got a whole writer's room of eight people and I'm the show runner. So my days are spent in a totally different world.
But hip-hop culture is the foundation that got me to this level in my life. So when Swizz says, "This is for the culture," I was like, "All right. No problem, dog." I'm doing it for the culture of hip-hop, and whatever happens, happens.
The culture is the foundation for so many of our lives, and so much of our business. When you start looking at some of our top comedians, some of our top actors, some of our top films, hip-hop is the foundation to it. So I'm giving back to the culture.
In terms of the kinds of records you make, do you think Premier’s a good match for you?
I mean, I don't know. We'll find that out, right? I do know that when I was behind those boards doing it from my creative mind, I was in a chamber that the world hasn't seen yet. And I know when he was doing it, he was in the chamber the world hadn’t seen. So now in these two chambers, you'll get a chance to ping pong off each other.
Do you have a personal favorite beat by Premier?
"N.Y. State Of Mind." That's a crazy one, baby.
“When Swizz says, ‘This is for the culture,’ I was like, ‘All right. No problem, dog.’ I’m doing it for the culture of hip-hop.”
You're a chess guy. You're used to thinking ahead, thinking strategically, responding to opponent's moves. Are you planning on bringing that skill set to this competition?
I don't know yet. I don't have my total game plan. I got to figure out some technical shit. How the fuck you get my shit hooked up? I don't do IG. I'm the guy sitting here writing scripts and getting movies ready. So I've got to get the technical thing. I'm going to spend Friday just making sure that the technical part is covered, that it's good sound quality. From there, everything else will probably be natural for me.
Can you see yourself in the heat of the moment responding to what Premier does? Or will you just make a plan and stick with it?
Look, I got a lot of powerful songs in production that's unique in their capacity. When you start thinking about some of my production, you got to think about the different emotions that they strike, right? I think that's one of my specialties.
If you check my stuff, you won't find the same beat twice. You listen to ODB, you get one vibe from me. You listen to Method, maybe another vibe from me. I don't think there's no other producer that's been creatively diverse as me. And I think that that's gonna be a good energy to share with the hip-hop community.
How far back can you see yourself going in your catalog? Pre-Wu-Tang? Prince Rakeem days? Gravediggaz? How far back are we going?
My man said Gravediggaz! You know what? I forgot about a “Diary of a Madman.” Do you remember that song? That's a crazy fucking beat. It's a crazy song, it's a crazy energy of hip-hop. It was a whole trend when the Gravediggaz sparked some light.
So yeah, I'm going to spend some time going through what I should do. But the most important thing for me right now is the technical part. DJ Premier’s a DJ, he DJs every day. So that's a whole nother thing. I got to get my stretching on quick.
Are we maybe going to hear maybe some unreleased stuff on Saturday? Either old songs, or stuff that may be released in the future?
I don't know. Is it legal? I mean, if I could. I got to talk to Swizz to get all the rules and regulations of this shit, yo. But I actually got some ODB stuff that nobody has. I wonder if I could play that shit. I guess there's probably some legalities to this shit. A lot of things that I got to be conscious of. We got a call tomorrow [Friday]. In a boxing fight, they tell you the rules in the dressing room. So I guess they'll get me in a dressing room, and they'll tell me all the rules. No kicking in the nuts, protect yourself at all times, you know what I mean?
“I’m going to spend Friday just making sure that the technical part is covered, that it’s good sound quality. From there, everything else will probably be natural for me.”
Do you think you're going to take a look at the comments during the battles? Do you want to see what people are saying?
Yeah, of course, if there's time. If the format is song, song, song, song, that would give me time to just look at what people are saying, and maybe say what up to some people.
Actually, I don't do Instagram Live. My wife every weekend zones into the D-Nice [streams], and plays it through my phone or her phone. I like the vibe of what he does and how he communicates with the people that's online, and he plays good music. Club Quarantine has been my weekend thing to go to for the last couple of weeks. This is something totally different. This is kind of like a sporting event. You've seen the flyer. You got Godzilla and King Kong, yo. Goliaths, man. This is mammoth.
Without giving away any spoilers, have you picked your last song of the night?
Nah. I've got to get my first song, bro. I'm thinking, what's the good way to start the party, to start the vibe, and start the chi?
How are you holding up during life in quarantine?
I mean, it's started to get to that point where I kind of want to go out for dinner. But the family needs to be still and be compliant. I haven't been outside in just over three weeks now. I haven't even went to the store.
What are some unexpected ways life in the pandemic has changed things for you?
Wow. Well, there's been a lot of big things. One of the biggest things—it's disappointing to me personally, but I understand based on the situation this world is in, and our country is in—my film was scheduled to come out April 10. I put a lot of work into the film. It's called Cut Throat City. And we was ready. The trailer was out, we had a premiere coming by at South by Southwest. We had a premiere in L.A., I think April 7, and we had all this preparation to put my newest movie out. This took me three years. So for me, seeing that it's had to be shut down and put into limbo, that's tough. You put so much time into something, you know what I mean? I put over three years into this film, and I'm very proud of it. I think it's a good film for the people to see, but you won't be seeing it unless they figure out another way to share it with the public. So, that's my biggest personal thing. Cut Throat City now has to find its way to the people.