On Monday night (Apr. 20), legendary R&B writer, producer and performer Teddy Riley engaged in the most-watched (and also most-delayed) Instagram Live battle yet put on by the Verzuz team of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland — facing off with fellow decades-spanning great Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
Over 500k watched simultaneously at the event’s peak, with Riley later posting on IG that four million people total had tuned into the event. However, the event was beset with the kind of technical issues — delays, choppy connections, sound discrepancies — that plagued the veteran stars’ first attempt at a battle two nights earlier, when they eventually had to pull the plug and reschedule altogether.
This time, however, Riley and Edmonds were able to get through 18 full rounds of their planned 20-round battle, parrying back-and-forth between timeless slow jams and perennial club-killers — before Riley’s connection was lost, and the writer-producers were unable to rejoin each other’s live feeds. (Riley said that the two “broke Instagram” with the event’s wide viewership.)
The myriad technical difficulties over Saturday and Monday inspired a wide series of memes poking fun at Riley and Edmonds — which Riley got into the spirit of, reposting one of comedian Anthony “Spice” Adams’ imitations of him and right-hand-man Breyon Prescott, and chuckling that he’d “never been roasted” before. But ultimately, the event was primarily a celebration of the musical legacy of the two R&B all-timers, which on Riley’s end included enduring classics from the likes of SWV, Keith Sweat, Michael Jackson, and his own groups Guy and Blackstreet.
Catching up with Billboard a few days after the main event, Teddy Riley talked about bringing classic R&B back to mass audiences, about the couple songs he didn’t get to play, and about some of the misconceptions surrounding the event’s delays.
How are you feeling three days later?
Ah you know, every day is another day, and I’m feeling good today. Two days ago I was on a high — I was just stuck on the Verzuz event — and I had to come down, so I had to take a couple of days to rest, pull myself together and then get on with you. [Laughs.]
What’s been the reaction to the event from the people that you’ve talked to in the days since?
Aw man, the reaction is amazing. They were so happy that I went through with it. And it’s such an honor, you know, to be on the same stage with the greatest writer of all times.
The numbers you were putting up were pretty incredible — three million, four million. Why do you think so many people were tuning in?
Well as Babyface said, and I feel the same way: People are in need of love, and love music, once again. And I feel like with us getting on and showing the example, and being that role model for the new up-and-coming producers — I thought it was the most incredible thing that we can do to help the cause. Which is bringing R&B back, all the way.
Do you feel like that’s something that’s lacking in the culture right now, that appreciation of R&B?
Yes! In a big way! I mean, it’s needed. People are tried of just doing jump-offs. [Laughs.] People are tired of just sex. They want foreplay. They want love. And that’s what we gave back then. And hopefully we’ll get back to love, get back to family — we’ll get back to making the world a better place when it comes to the music. Because for so long, we’ve been dictated to by the industry, and what the industry wanted — not what we wanted from our hearts.
Why do you think that the younger generation doesn’t necessarily have the appreciation for that kind of R&B?
Well, I’m gonna say this, and it’s a true fact: The record companies wanted the gangsta rap. The record companies wanted the guy who talked about the chains and the gold and all of that stuff. And they were pushing that. They’ll give the biggest budget to those guys, instead of the real music-makers. And that is the truth.
And half the reason why artists who were the real love song makers — like Chris Brown — basically transformed into doing the fly-by-night music. And I have to say it that way, because there’s no way you got an artist who can finish 30 to 50 songs and everything is saying the same thing.
Is there anybody out there right now that you think is continuing the legacy that you and Babyface built in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Yeah, you have the new artists — H.E.R., Maejor — you have artists out there who are still making love music. True love music. And Chris Brown as well. But I had said this before. Chris Brown is one of the greatest R&B singers out there. But his transition to hip-hop had moved him over a little. Now he’s back to love. And back to relationships.
Was it frustrating having all the delays before you and Babyface could properly do your thing on Monday?
I’d say, a little. But I could tell you: It was life-learning experience. Because we’re new to Instagram when it comes to doing live. We were like, “Dag… I tried to give people more, and they thought I was trying to do a whole big production for the battle.” No, the battle was just us! It was just a technical difficulty that was told to us by the technical people at Instagram.
They was telling us: It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t his fault. It was basically our hookups. As soon as Babyface got on, because before Babyface got on, I was sounding great, everything was sounding good. But when we started joining each other, that’s when it kind of went out of wack, and we had to stop it. Because we’re perfectionists. We had to make it right for the people to get their — well, it was free, so not [their money’s worth]. Get their hearts’ worth.
The original scheduled date for the battle was a couple weeks ago, and that got delayed — I know there were a couple reasons why, including Babyface’s health, but there was also some speculation that you were trying to move it to a different platform, off Instagram. Was there any truth to that?
No, that wasn’t the truth at all. What the truth was, I didn’t want us to disclose what was happening with Babyface — with him having the coronavirus. It’s not my place to do that. So I just started making up whatever I could, you know, and everybody took it as I wanted to change the platform. No, it’s not my show to change. So that’s a lie. And I just wanted to clear that up, because I was just trying to protect my brother and not say anything.
And I kinda slipped, and said he was sick — and then people thought it was me that was sick. And I was like, “No… let’s just wait.” I don’t want to say no more! Let the truth come out for itself. And when he came out with that, that’s when everybody’s minds had changed and said “Well, Teddy… he was kinda leading to it, and you guys didn’t get the hint. All y’all got what he wanted to change the platform, he wanted to get paid.” And that’s not the truth.
If that was the truth, I would’ve been like Erykah Badu: “You guys give me a dollar, or two dollars, for my concert.” No, I would never charge my people [for that]… I gave that concert that I gave for free. Solely for the culture. Solely for the people.
I wanted to ask a couple questions about your strategy on Monday. So on Saturday, you started off with Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show,” but on Monday you’d swapped it for SWV’s “Right Here (Human Nature).” Why’d you decide to change that up?
I decided to go with SWV because when he came the first night with that ballad [The Deele’s “Two Occasions”], it blew me away. And I said, “Oh God, I gotta hit him hard.” And I came with the SWV.
Obviously both you and Babyface have iconic slow songs, but it seemed like when you were playing some of your later songs — some of your rap collaborations, like Jay-Z and Foxy Brown — he didn’t really have an answer for those. Was there ever a thought like, “OK, I’ll just concentrate on those, and maybe get him on the ropes a little bit”?
Yeah, I had to get one or two in. I didn’t want to ride with it, because I kinda knew that he didn’t have the rap records. It wasn’t about taking advantage, it was just about riding with my brother. I just wanted to ride the wave with him, and give the people what they want — the culture of our music, and how it really made an impact on a lot of people’s lives. That was it. So that’s why I kinda fell back, and just played records along with him. So it was like a listening session, more than a competition.
Because I would never ever compete, or [be like], “I’m going against Babyface.” We had to make it look interesting, like the fighters. And when he came on with that [imitates Babyface’s high-pitched ‘oooooh’], with the boxing gloves, I was like, “Oh, this is so dope!” I was just so excited. And I didn’t want to come back with me and some boxing gloves, I wanted him to have his shine — you know, it was like he was the big dog and I’m the little brother.
I do have to ask about when he brought out the acoustic guitar for “When Can I See You Again.” That seemed like it maybe smarted with you a little bit. Did Swizz and Timbaland tell you not to bring any instruments to the Monday battle?
No, I was just going off the less-is-more [approach], like people were telling me when I did the first night. With all the production and all that. So I said, “I’m scratching everything. I don’t wanna do nothing but push play.”
I’m not a confrontational person, and I’m not one to disrespect, especially my big brother. My real-life brother, who’s Markell from Wreckx-n-Effect, we never ever had a fight or an argument. So there’s no way that I’m going to sit and argue with my big brother, who I look up to, or say anything that is off the [theme] of what we were doing for the people. I just wanted to ride.
So that’s why I pushed that button [on the next song] so fast! I had to push that button so people could forget about the performance! [Laughs.]
For his 19th song, Babyface played Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” and then things went a little haywire. Did you have a plan for what those last two songs you were gonna play were?
Yeah! I had the last two songs, [Blackstreet’s] “No Diggity” and [Michael Jackson’s] “Remember the Time”! I had those waiting; I was like, “OK, I got two aces in the hole.” So that was it. And it would’ve morphed with his — I forgot the songs he said he was gonna play, but I said, “This would’ve been a perfect last four songs for everyone to hear.”
Aside from those two, were there any songs when you were looking back the next day where you were like, “Oh man, I really shoulda gotten that one in there”?
Yeah, it was a couple of the Michael Jackson songs I didn’t play. Everybody’s like, “Man, I know you had another 10-15-20 that you could’ve played.” And that’s what I wanted to do the first night, was play the 20 that I had, and then play 20 or 30 more — jamming with people. But it didn’t turn out right. And had it turned out right, it would have been an incredible experience for everyone.
Have you and Babyface talked at all about it since Monday night?
Yeah, we actually had a talk about it today. We were doing other interviews, and we kinda talked today. I’m always concerned with how he’s doing, and that was my first question: “How you doing? How’s the family?” He’s great.
I have to ask about all the memes that were going around social media last weekend. I saw that you were getting into the spirit of it — reposting the Spice Adams imitation of you on your Instagram…
That’s my boy. Actually, we doing stuff together. Because — I’ve never been roasted. And just to be the first artist to say, “OK, I’ve been cyber-roasted.” It felt good. It’s like being around the block, and everybody got jokes on you. So I’ve had that before — people used to call me Eddie Munster, because I had the [hair] peak. And I was a funny guy. I was a funny-looking guy, too. So I just kinda used that, I went back to that day of when people used to joke me. And rocked with it. I just rocked with the memes.
Have you noticed any of your older music being streamed more in the last week?
Oh my God! It took the whole catalogue up 30 percent.
Do you have any advice for future competitors in the series? Anything to watch out for?
Yeah, make sure you don’t come with a big production! [Laughs.] You come with your computer, and with your headphones, and bang out. But just be you. I was nervous for a little while, but eventually Face made me feel comfortable, when he started talking about the music. When he said, “I’ma drink Kool-Aid to that one.” I said, “Oh wow, what can I come back with?…” It was just smooth sailing from there.
Do you have any advice you’d like to give to Instagram, or different platforms who might be putting on similar events in the future, about different ways they can make things easier for their participants?
Well I know that Instagram, they already know what they have to do. For something like this, they would know technology-wise what they need to do from here. But I know they got it. And it will be some upgrading, where we can have more people — the capacity was limited [on Monday]. But it was cool. It kinda felt like going to a party, and you’re switching wristbands to get your friend in — but then you can’t get back in.
Is there anybody you’d love to see face off in one of these future battles?
For me, I’d love to see the women. Because they’re great, they’re just as great as the men, and some are even better. You’ve got Missy, who’s the extraordinaire. You got Janet Jackson. You got a lot of female producers/writers/content makers… singers… so I would love to see the women.
Who do you feel won on Monday?
I felt like my friends, better known to others as fans. They won. The fans won.