About 30 minutes into his Instagram Live beat battle with Scott Storch on Wednesday night, Mannie Fresh dropped “Real Big,” the lead single off his 2004 debut solo album. If you’re unfamiliar with the song or haven’t listened recently, it’s worth revisiting—it’s ominous and triumphant at the same time, with horror-movie keys and pounding drums backing up the earworm synth line. It’s not one of the legendary producer’s most popular beats, but it’s among his most signature. And from all the sounds coming out of the Triton to the voice rapping over them, it’s a purely Mannie Fresh composition.
“I see you, I see you,” Storch said as soon as Fresh hit the stop button. “Imma just pull out one of the cards I’m holding right now.”
That card: a multiplatinum track he isn’t even the credited producer for.
In a move that summed up Wednesday’s battle, Storch responded with “Cry Me a River,” the 2002 Justin Timberlake megahit (and top-50 all-time breakup song) produced by Timbaland. Storch is credited for cowriting the song and playing its (admittedly infectious) clavinet line, but at that point in his career, he was best known as the former Roots keyboardist and Dr. Dre collaborator. On Wednesday, however, he claimed “Cry Me a River” as his own. He sat at his keyboard with his trademark sunglasses on, replaying his part with a blunt lodged between his right middle and index fingers, as buddies (and one-time clients) like Lil’ Kim, Fat Joe, and 50 Cent cheered him on in the comments. The round—and to many, the entire matchup—seemingly went to Storch. But would you rather win the battle with questionable tactics or win the entire war on the strength of your individual work?
The Mannie-Scott showdown was the latest entry in an emerging online trend of these early days of coronavirus quarantine: live battles, which have typically pitted beatsmiths going track for track, but have expanded to include singers and rappers in the past week. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, two of the most influential producers of the past 25 years who have sparred in the flesh before, kicked things off on Instagram on March 25. Since then, the pair have become the hosts of these unofficial throwdowns, recruiting contemporary superproducers Boi-1da and Hit-Boy, songwriters The-Dream and Sean Garrett, and rappers French Montana and Tory Lanez, among others, to participate. Up next this Saturday: Lil Jon vs. T-Pain, an underrated producer in his own right who was originally slated for the showdown with Storch. (T-Pain dropped out after saying on IG that Scott Storch would “curb stomp” him.)
These friendly competitions are the perfect antidote to shelter-in-place restlessness: In the absence of live sports, they sate our hunger for competition. But judging the winners can turn into philosophical debates about music: Are radio hits more important than street anthems? Should we celebrate singular breakout successes or sounds that defined a regional movement? Does a beat count as yours if you had a handful of coproducers? Does presentation matter as much as substance? There are no one-size-fits-all answers, but it’s clear a lot of people want to get in on the discussions, especially as they related to Wednesday’s competitors: Scott Storch and Mannie Fresh dominated Twitter’s trending topics throughout, and their battle drew upward of 200,000 viewers on Instagram at its peak—nearly 10 times as many as Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s did the week before. (A full video of their stream, which will surely be taken down before the night is over, can be viewed here.)
In many ways, the nostalgic, snippet-driven format was the perfect environment for Storch to thrive in. The 46-year-old Philadelphia native and virtuosic keyboard player rose to prominence at the start of this century on the strength of his contributions to Beyoncé, Fat Joe, and 50 Cent singles—plus assists on a few of Dr. Dre’s biggest productions of the era—before falling out of favor by the close of the decade. He became something of a punch line: a man who squandered a $70 million fortune, left with nothing but a $3,000 watch and some petty cash. He’s clawed his way back, somewhat, though he’s struggled to produce anything as big as he did in his heyday. (Before the battle, arguably the most visible thing of his last 10 years was getting a haircut while smoking a Newport and playing sub–Martin Garrix EDM.) His Malibu’s Most Wanted–meets–Jersey Shore goonishness comes across even on our phone screens: Watch as he replays his most famous works with a constant stink face and always-on aviator frames dwarfed only by the enormous cloud of smoke hovering around him.
All of this makes Storch fun to root for in a beat battle—an underdog you want to simultaneously laugh at and cheer on (and certainly never spend any time with). It also makes him a perfect foil for Mannie Fresh, the New Orleans producer whose work forced the mainstream rap world to take a regional movement seriously. The architect of the Cash Money sound, Fresh helped make Juvenile a household name, gave a young Lil Wayne his canvas to paint with, and crafted hits of his own. His production discography is both workmanlike and spectacular, and his run of singles produced from 1998’s “Ha” to 2006’s “Top Back” is among the greatest in hip-hop history. If Storch was a hitman for hire in his prime, Fresh was a one-man army with enough ammunition to single-handedly take over an entire nation. They’re peers in the sense that they both had a hand in some of the ’90s and ’00s biggest hits. But Scott is a role player; Mannie Fresh is the backbone of one of the five most important rap labels ever. (“You take me away, and you don’t have a certain era of Roc-a-Fella,” longtime Jay-Z producer Just Blaze said on Instagram on Wednesday evening. “You take Kanye away, and you don’t have a certain era and sound of Roc-a-Fella, but the label still exists. You take Mannie Fresh away, and you have no Cash Money.”)
In the world of the Instagram beat battles, however, none of that seemed to matter. Fresh, a last-minute fill-in, couldn’t match Storch’s sound quality, and Storch’s questionable decision to play slower tracks like “Me, Myself and I” and “You Got Me” seemed to pay off. Even Fresh’s world-shattering “Back That Azz Up”—which despite what some said after Wednesday’s battle, was not simply a regional hit, and was not improved upon by Drake—couldn’t get Mannie over the hump. Storch responded with “Still D.R.E.,” a song he coproduced with Dre and Mel-Man. Judge Swizz Beatz declared the round a draw, and ultimately, Storch the winner of the battle.
Of course, this was just a frivolous way to spend a Wednesday night under lockdown. There was no cost of admission, there were no stakes besides bragging rights, and neither of the competitors seemed to take the outcome too seriously. There will be many more iterations of these battles—and surely, many more accompanying debates—the longer the global health crisis lasts. (Maybe we’ll even see that Pharrell-Kanye battle people are pining for.) But Wednesday was an unexpectedly triumphant night for Storch, someone who probably could’ve used a triumphant night or two. That it came against someone like Mannie Fresh was shocking; that it happened on the strength of tracks Storch can’t fully call his own wasn’t surprising in the least.