Inside Digicel Showdown, The Caribbean's Answer To Instagram's Verzuz Battles The livestream event debuted in 2020, with two soca stars facing off. Even though Verzuz came first, the American series arguably owes its existence to Caribbean music.

Showdown, The Caribbean Answer To Verzuz, Is Part Of A Long-Running Musical Exchange

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the early days of the pandemic, hip-hop producers Timbaland and Swizz Beats created a music industry monster. It's called Verzuz, and it's a live-on-Instagram music battle that has blown up on social media. Well, the Caribbean followed with its own version of the show - appropriate since it's the latest chapter in a long-running exchange between Caribbean music and African American culture. Baz Dreisinger reports from Barbados.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: Picture it - two veteran musicians going at it, tune-for-hit-tune, live on social media before a virtual audience in the hundreds of thousands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALISON HINDS: (Singing, unintelligible).

PATRICE ROBERTS: People walking, coming down - but this is that song.

DREISINGER: That's Digicel Showdown. The livestreamed event debuted last October with soca artist Alison Hinds from Barbados and Patrice Roberts from Trinidad. Andrew Bailey of Perception Management, which co-produced the series, explains why the team elected to showcase soca, the fast-paced child of Trinidadian calypso and the soundtrack of Caribbean carnival.

ANDREW BAILEY: The reason why we went with soca artists was because it was a genre that hasn't been represented in the Verzuz. Dancehall has been represented. So we wanted to do something for the culture.

DREISINGER: Dancehall had been represented in Verzuz by Jamaicans Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. To represent soca in Showdown was an honor, says Alison Hinds.

HINDS: It was actually quite fun to perform in the showdown 'cause it gave me the opportunity to appreciate the other performer's music and to give a little history lesson about some of the fan favorite songs that have become classics.

DREISINGER: Speaking of history, before you call Showdown a knock-off Verzuz, keep in mind that the American series actually owes its existence to Caribbean music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: One song. (Unintelligible).

DREISINGER: The story goes back to Jamaica in the late 1950s, when the streets of Kingston hosted rabid competitions between DJ crews or sound systems blasting imported jazz and blues on colossal speakers stacked high.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing, unintelligible).

DREISINGER: Selectors who chose the sound system's music and chatted raucously over it started getting more famous than the tunes they played. And that's how dancehall stars were born, with the rise of artists like Yellowman and Tenor Saw in the '80s or Mavado and Vybz Kartel in the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST MAN STANDING")

VYBZ KARTEL: (Singing) We are the last man standing. Rifle shot move the gully banking. Gwaan (ph) a your barber shop and trim. Next year no do no more damn sting. We are the last man standing.

DREISINGER: These DJs, as they were known, staged lyrical battles onstage and in the studio, says professor Sonjah Stanley Niaah at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

SONJAH STANLEY NIAAH: Bounty Killer, Beenie Man, Vybz Kartel and Mavado - we have had legendary clashes, so much so that authorities have had to be called into suppressing clashes; prime ministers calling DJs to sit in particular sessions to ease the tension; school students taking sides. So the clash was an animated, exaggerated component of Jamaican life.

DREISINGER: The clash also helped birth hip-hop when Jamaican-born DJs like Kool Herc moved to the U.S. and set up sound systems there and shaped American rapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOOL HERC: Yeah. This is a culture built on music, vibration, peace, love, no color. This is how we do, y'all, hip-hop.

DREISINGER: It all adds up to a kind of cultural pingpong game between the West Indies and the U.S. Caribbean Showdown is born from American Verzuz, which is born from Jamaican dancehall, which is born from U.S. jazz and blues.

STANLEY NIAAH: It goes all the way back to the movement of enslaved persons and, later, freed persons between Cuba, Jamaica, the American South - what becomes jazz, what then gets played on radio, what gets listened by Jamaicans. So that - to really say that hip-hop comes out of Jamaica is to also acknowledge the ways in which Jamaicans were listening to what was being played in the United States. And so that musical cross-fertilization has to be acknowledged.

DREISINGER: Not just Jamaican music, actually. Allison Hinds points out that Trinidadian calypso, which shaped Jamaican music in the pre-reggae days, is grounded in clash culture, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICONG DUEL")

MIGHTY SPARROW: (Singing) Well, Melody, come close to me. I will tell you plain and candidly. Don't stop back and smile because you have a face like a crocodile.

HINDS: There's a style within calypso called picong where calypso artists will verbally freestyle battle. And that can get pretty intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICONG DUEL")

LORD MELODY: (Singing) Sparrow, you shouldn't tell me that at all. I mind you when you were small. Many of the nights I used to mash your head in crossing the boat on your mother.

DREISINGER: So when Verzuz made the cover of Billboard magazine and Jamaicans Beenie Man and Bounty Killer were left out of the photo, plenty of their fans felt slighted. But to those in the know, it's just another chapter in an ongoing musical story.

For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PICONG DUEL")

MIGHTY SPARROW: (Singing) It look as if you want trouble here tonight. All you always looking for fight. I'll tell you this candidly. That is why the jail never empty.

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