Coronavirus lockdown is bringing back the live DJ battle

Songs to quarantine to.
Songs to quarantine to.
Image: AP/Erik Kabik Photography/ Retna/MediaPunch
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By no means is Covid-19 a social equalizer. Far from it, as investigative reporter Jie Jenny Zou documents in a recent Twitter thread, and as evidenced in daily reports of how dire everyday life has become for the poor, people of color, and marginalized communities around the world.

The dream of social equality remains as far-off as ever. But not all is lost. The pandemic has pushed us to democratize art in new ways—music, for instance. In recent weeks, as more of the world has gone on lockdown, producers and artists, including Mannie Fresh, Timbaland and Ne Yo, have resurrected the art of the live DJ battle.

The battleground is Instagram Live, and the crowd is you, your high school friends, and Drake.

The fact that we’re watching art unfold as it happens, collectively, even though we’re distanced in our separate homes on our separate devices, brings a new experience to the original spirit that characterized hip-hop and DJ culture in the late 1980s and 1990s (your favorite DJs are “dad-aged” now, apparently). And then there’s the thrill of watching verified celebrity accounts appear along your own to leave comments.

… Is this what it feels like to be in the same room as Rihanna?

Probably not, but you could be sitting on your couch in your most worn-out sweats experiencing the same live performance, with an equally VIP view, as Oprah.

The trend kicked off a few weeks ago when Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, two verified dad-aged artists, brought their standing friendly feud to the Instagram sound waves.

Since then, other duels have played out regularly. Mannie Fresh and Scott Torch traded hits in a particularly memorable session. In a standoff between some comparatively newer names, Toronto producer Boi-1da and rapper/producer Hit-Boy sampled new and unreleased materials from Drake and Roddy Rich, Big Sean and the late Nipsy Hussle, and Nas, while 16,000 or so viewers tuned in.

Most recently, T-Pain and Lil Jon battled it out.

Joy, even in lockdown

Discovering ways to experience joy in a crisis—particularly one as dire, far-reaching, and prolonged as this pandemic—is vital. Finding reasons to celebrate and create positive meaning is part of what keeps us resilient. Staying optimistic boosts immune and cardiovascular health.

Writer Jelani Cobb touched on the importance of finding positive things to celebrate amid the onslaught of coronavirus updates when he interviewed DJ D-Nice for The New Yorker Radio Hour about his nine-hour streaming performance, dubbed Club Quarantine, which he plans to continue after the pandemic blows over, whenever that my be.

“I was trying to get people in there that would make people feel really good,” D-Nice told Cobb. So, he put in an invitation to the Obamas, and Michelle came through. As did Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and, of course, Rihanna.

The phenomenon plays into a pattern of trends that seems to be impacting much of the global economy: The systems we usually rely on—from big tech to state administrative systems to mass retail—don’t always work in a global pandemic. That’s brought on a new type of innovation; not the type we boast about in an elevator pitch, but the kind that necessitates new ways of being in the world when almost everything we’ve come to rely on is suddenly broken. And, as we’ve seen in the revival of live DJ battles, it can also inspire us to rely on resources we already have.

The Covid-19 pandemic has destroyed many of the social norms as we know them. In a reversal of trends, it’s also necessitated a return to some systems that did work once, before the internet and social media changed the way we see ourselves and interact with one another and our cultures.