Last month, superproducers Swizz Beats and Timbaland have acted as organizers, coaches and promoters building one of the most engaging live entertainment events to emerge during the quarantine: the Verzuz Instagram Live series.
The friendly battle, which started when Swizz and Tim had an impromptu brotherly song-for-song bout for fans on March 25, pairs storied producers to trade hits for 20 rounds, while fans, artists and fellow producers cheer on from the comments. Verzuz has grown from around 20K viewers for Swizz and Tim’s initial battle, to a reported 3.7M people attempting to join during the most recent—and most legendary to date—battle between Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Teddy Riley.
Verzuz participants have included regional sound architects like Mannie Fresh, T-Pain and Lil’ Jon; hip-hop production giants like RZA and DJ Premiere; songwriters like Jhonta Austin and Ne-Yo; and mega-hit songwriter/producers like Sean Garret and The-Dream. Verzuz’s first female focused match up is Jill Scott and Erykah Badu on Saturday, May 9.
The series founders and wranglers are aware of the disparity, and Swizz told CNN prior to the Riley and Babyface event, “We are definitely about to launch Verzuz Ladies because we feel the women play such an intricate part in creativity, period.” It’s not their fault, however, that it took so long to put the women in the Verzuz ring; it’s the result of industry-wide underrepresentation of women involved in the creative process. In 2018, USC Annenberg released a study on Inclusion in the Recording Studio, looking at the artists and personnel behind 600 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between 2012 and 2017. The study revealed that only 12.3% of songwriters and 2% of producers were women. That number decreases even further for women from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.
Out of the women who do write and/or produce, many of them mostly write their own material (like Faith Evans and Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Mariah Carey). But there are enough sisters representing behind the boards to put together some solid match-ups. Once we cheer on Erykah and Jill’s upcoming round, we assembled a fantasy line-up of more women we’d like to see get their shine and props.
1. Angela Winbush vs Patrice Rushen: The Veterans
These two ‘80s staples were also heavily present in ‘90s music through the volume of their written and produced work sampled in R&B, hip hop and even gospel.
Winbush started learning her way around the studio watching Stevie Wonder while part of his Wonderlove backing vocals, and was a co-writer and producer along with creative partner Rene Moore on Janet Jackson’s 1982 self-titled album songs. She co-crafted all her hits as part of Rene and Angela, and once she went solo, Winbush wrote and produced hit songs for Lalah Hathaway, Stephanie Mills, then-husband Ron Isley and the Isleys. Her timeless Rene and Angela bops have been sampled by Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Biggie Smalls and Kirk Franklin.
Rushen, a queen of the Boogie era, wrote, played on, arranged, and co-produced or produced most of her jams. Like Winbush, her material is widely known through ‘90s samples, including an interpolation of Rush’s “Remind Me” for Mary J. Blige’s debut “You Remind Me,” and the roller skate jam “Forget Me Nots” as the sample for Will Smith’s “Men in Black.”
2. Missy Elliot vs Esther Dean: The Writer/Producer Heavyweights
Missy went on record early that she didn’t want to participate in Verzuz (hopefully she’ll come around), but she and Esther Dean could hold their own against any other writer/producers; no segmented series necessary.
Elliott’s pen game was officially certified in 2019 when she became the first female rap artist inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. As producer she’s worked both alongside other heavy hitters like her longtime partner Timbaland and solo with artists including Mariah Carey, 702, Total, Destiny’s Child and Whitney Houston and more.
Dean has quietly spent the last 16 years writing and producing hits for powerhouses like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, T.I., Chris Brown, Teyana Taylor, Keyshia Cole, Ciara, Trey Songz and Usher.
3. Kandi Burruss vs Victoria Monet: The Chart Toppers
They’re not direct contemporaries, but these songwriters both have a gift for pop hits.
Multi-hyphenate Burruss and producer Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs were the writing and production team behind two of 1999’s biggest Hot 100 hits, TLC’s “No Scrubs” (along with fellow Xscape member Tiny Harris), and Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Thanks to Ed Sheeran’s interpolation of the “No Scrubs” chorus in “Shape of You,” Burruss can also take partial credit for the top Billboard Hot 100 single of 2017.
Frequent Ariana Grande collaborator Victoria Monet helped the former Nickelodeon star land her first and second No. 1 singles back to back with 2018’s “Thank You, Next” and 2019’s “7 Rings.”
4. Andrea Martin vs Crystal “Cri$tyle” Nicole: The Consistent Deliverers
You may not recognize Martin and Nicole’s names immediately, but you know their work.
Martin helped bring these ‘90s R&B classics to life, including Monica’s “Before You Walk Out My Life,” En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go,” and Toni Braxton’s “I Love Me Some Him.”
Nicole has co-written both R&B and Pop faves from the aughts including Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” Monica’s “Love All Over Me” and Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World.”
5: Tayla Parx vs WondaGurl: The New Generation
Taylor “Tayla Parx” Parks and Ebony “WondaGurl” Oshunrinde wouldn’t quite be an evenly matched pair: Parx is a singer/songwriter and WondaGurl is a producer. But these two young talents are evenly matched in the level of heat early in their careers.
Parks signed to Warner Chappell Publishing at age 19, and in her eight year career has already written for and with Christina Aguilara, Anderson Paak, Janelle Monae, Chris Brown, Demi Lovato plus more, and racked up several Top 10 hits including Normani and Khalid’s “Love Lies”
The appropriately named WondaGurl landed one of her first major track placements at the age of 17 on Jay-Z’s 2013 Magna Carta Holy Grail. Two years later, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Two Late featured two of her songs. Oshunrinde’s a frequent collaborator with Travis Scott, and has also gone on to produce on projects for artists including Rihanna, Usher, Lil’ Uzi Vert, Bryson Tiller, Lil Yachty and Bryson Tiller.
There are a host of other women whose storytelling via songwriting and song crafting via production deserves recognition, from established legends down to emerging stars: Valerie Simpson, Seidah Garret, Marsha Ambrosius, Faith Evans, Priscilla Renea, Makeba Riddick-Woods, Jazmine Sullivan, Diana “Wynter” Gordon, Sevyn Streeter, Nija Charles, TRACKGIRL… and these names don’t even scratch the surface. It may take some time before the playing field in the studio is more balanced, but recognizing the contribution of these women and shining a light on their talents is a step in the right direction.
Naima Cochraine (@naima) is a cultural critic and founder and curator of Music Sermon.