The first time I tuned into a “Verzuz” — the pandemic-approved Instagram Live brainchild of producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz — I recognized the format. Two celebrated musicians going back-to-back and hit-for-hit for a couple of hours, with a remote audience choosing the winner.
It was eerily similar to something I experienced on Saturday nights in Detroit in the late 2000s with Mix 92.3’s “Battle of the Old School,” the WMXD program hosted by “Old School House Party” radio personalities Gerald McBride, Theresa “Lady T” Hill and Andre Key.
In many ways, “Battle of the Old School” and “Verzuz” are each an ode to how Black culture and its endless, timeless, bridge-building output continue to bring us together no matter how isolated we are. The music takes us back to all the moments of mindless, mundane and essential gatherings that once tied us together.
A bridge, an adlib, or an intro to your favorite song summon weddings, parties, graduations and vacations. For a few sacred, captivating hours, all of us become the chorus, calling for better days and bigger bubbles.
“I wasn’t the first one who did this. But I guess I was the only one in Detroit who… decided to bring it back,” McBride told me. “It became so popular that eventually, other radio stations wanted me to do the battles on their station.”
McBride’s program is now broadcast on more than two dozen radio stations across the country.
Decades on the airwaves
Whether on the airwaves or talking to me over Zoom on a random Tuesday afternoon, McBride sounds like he is speaking to a sold-out arena or an all-white-clad audience under the white tent of Chene Park (now the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre) on a summer night.
His voice holds importance and authority, but there’s still a smile beneath it. In 1975, he was a representative for Mumford High School for the Soul Teen Reporters, a citywide weekend reporting program that let aspiring radio hosts and producers work at the WJLB headquarters (then located in the David Broderick Towers). The program was led by famed broadcast hosts Donnie Simpson and Cheryl Hudson, the current owner of ad company Ntouch Communications. McBride enjoyed being the voice of his school. Friends would request shoutouts, and he got used to being behind the mic pretty quickly.
McBride said he “kind of got bit by that radio bug” and went on to Specs Howard after graduating from Mumford.
He worked his way up and down the radio dial in Detroit between 1979 and 1991, with stints in Rochester, New York and Flint before landing at WMXD, where he’s spent almost the past 30 years.
Birth of a Detroit institution
What began in 1997 as “Saturday Night Live” low-pressure weekend programming from 7 p.m. to midnight soon morphed into a late-night Detroit tradition.
McBride started off playing some of his favorite songs on the radio for a couple of hours on the weekend as he was building his voiceover business. One night, he decided to host a face-off between some of his favorite artists, and “Old School House Party” was born. (“Old School House Party” is the 5-hour show that airs each weekend on Mix 92.3. “Battle of the Old School” is one of the show’s signature features.)
McBride credits Chicago radio DJ Herb “The Cool Gent” Kent’s “Battle of the Best” show and “Star Wars,” a battle format from Detroit’s The Electrifying Mojo, as notable inspirations. He met his local collaborators while teaching voiceover classes at his alma mater — Hill and Key, also Specs Howard alums, attended the class. Hill invited Key to co-host a taping of her “After School Groove” radio show on 90.9 FM. McBride heard the show and invited them both to co-host “Old School House Party.”
“The chemistry with the three of us is what makes it. You have the three of us, the music and the callers — they are the key. What they say matters because we’re doing it for them,” Key told me.
A welcome distraction in COVID times
Flash forward to 2020. An Instagram revamp coupled with buy-in from music’s powerhouses gave a fresh feel to the battle format. “Verzuz” began as a welcome distraction as a pandemic that claimed so many members of the Black community. It reached new heights when musical artist Ashanti, who was scheduled to go up against Keyshia Cole, contracted the virus.
The December duel was rescheduled twice, finally hitting phones on Jan. 21, when a record-breaking 8.1 million viewers tuned in.
“Verzuz” tapped in early to our pandemic boredom and anxiety, building a loyal audience. For “Battle of the Old School,” decades of listener engagement meant they could easily swap in-studio banter for remote recording streamed via iHeartRadio.
Usually, a rambunctious in-studio trio of Hill, Key and McBride egg each other on and share fond memories associated with the songs. They haven’t been allowed to enter 92.3’s studios since lockdown, so each of them has retreated to their home studios.
Before the pandemic, you could hear basements and living rooms full of folks calling in to cast their votes. Now, listeners send a voice message via the “Old School House Party” website to be broadcast on-air during the show.
“Every time people call in, I have a book, and I write down every battle request. We’ll go back through the book, and we’ll pick the battle,” Hill said.
For the fans
There still isn’t a true formula for how the “Verzuz” matchups are created. It seems to be a mixture of industry connections, longstanding artist comparisons and feel-good reunions. “Verzuz” tends to pair two complementary artists together — ones who took turns trailing and leading one another on the charts or in real life. Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Gucci Mane and Jeezy. Teddy Riley and Babyface. Nelly and Ludacris. Patty Labelle and Gladys Knight.
“Battle of the Old School” has been on the air for almost 25 years now, so they have had to mix things up a bit — sometimes pairing artists from different eras together, and other times challenging their seasoned listeners to judge artists down to the vocal technique. Their matchups include The Whispers vs. New Edition, George Benson vs. Al Jarreau and Anita Baker vs. Sade.
The most distinctive quality of “Verzuz” is that the artists duel one another live: initially in low-fi productions from separate households, then with big, in-person productions, then back to artists’ households for heavily sponsored broadcasts. The point of the matchups is less about determining the winner — music fans view “Verzuz” as an act of affirmation.
We’re not really watching to be swayed; we’re tuning in to prove to ourselves that our faves are just as great as we remember. We want to be validated and soak up the nostalgia while we long for live shows.
“Verzuz” “is a little different than what I’m doing because you get a chance to see the artists there, of course, having conversations with each other,” McBride told me. “And it’s just good to see them, you know because we haven’t been going to concerts lately.”
But in true Detroit fashion, there is a definitive winner among the “Battle of the Old School” pairings. The hosts carefully tabulate call-in votes and share the score to select a definite winner. If you call 1-866- SOUL-JAM, you can cast your vote to McBride directly. According to Key, Detroiters typically hear the matchups live on the radio before they are sent out for syndication in other markets. Besides Detroit, it’s particularly popular on WDZZ in Flint and WDKX in Rochester, New York.
“We grew up here in Detroit and we can truly speak to our audience from the experience of listening because Detroit is a music town,” Hill told me. “If you grew up here you can’t help it. It’s the camaraderie we have with our listeners, even though our show is syndicated nationwide. It’s our love and passion for the music.”
‘The beauty we are all still aching to find’
One night in January, folks in Detroit with their radio dials tuned to 92.3 were asked to choose the best falsetto, that lighter breathy tone that some singers can achieve. The contenders? El DeBarge of DeBarge, Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations and Russell Thompkins of the Stylistics, with hits like “I Like It,” “Just My Imagination” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” playing back-to-back.
For “Battle of the Old School,” the hosts also dig deep in the crates and posthumously pair records/recordings from different acts together, frequently reviving the everlasting battle of Michael Jackson vs. Prince. And they capitalize on other, more imaginative radio mashups like Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige, two divas at their heights during different eras of R&B.
Despite fans’ requests, neither Chaka Khan nor Mary J. Blige has appeared on “Verzuz” and likely would never be booked as a dueling duo on the millennial-minded show. “Verzuz,” with its technical difficulties, delayed start times and unforgivable intermissions, takes us back to where we used to be: Seated in a crowded stadium at a concert or surrounded by our friends, getting lost in a moment we could afford because we knew there would be more of them.
That’s the beauty we are all still aching to find. With “Old School House Party” and “Battle of the Old School,” we are immersed in a deep nostalgia. Whether we were there for an artist’s initial ascent or not, we are invited to get familiar and enjoy ourselves.
“Any of us, you included, can play on old music for our enjoyment, right. But when you play in a foreign audience of people in several markets, you’re trying to touch that spot in them. That’s mainly the memory button, right?” Key explained. “When you hear a song from the past, it takes you back there. So what we’re doing is transporting all these people back to when they were growing up when their mother was cooking, and she was playing that song.”
Imani Mixon was born and raised at the magnetic center of the world’s cultural compass — Detroit, Michigan. She is a long-form storyteller who is inspired by everyday griots who bear witness to their surroundings and report it back out. Equal parts urgent and essential, her multimedia work centers the experiences of Black women and independent artists.