The next installment of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Instagram Live series Verzuz won’t be the first time that R&B icons Jill Scott and Erykah Badu have faced off. As the singers brush off their legendary catalogs in time for Verzuz, some viewers may learn of their long-running history behind The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me.”
Badu and Scott were both female forces of neo-soul in the late ’90s. Their silent rivalry came to a head in 1999, as Badu had become a superstar in her own right following her 1997 debut Baduizm (quickly followed by a live concert album that same year). Around the same time, Scott was a bustling spoken word artist in North Philadelphia. She came to know fellow Philadelphian Questlove during her stint in the city’s spoken word poetry circuit. Invited to join The Roots during a slew of recording sessions for their fourth album, Things Fall Apart, it was in August 1998 that Scott co-wrote “You Got Me” alongside super-producer Scott Storch, hopping on the song’s delicate chorus. “You Got Me” was a recollection of easing a lover’s fears of being led astray despite being physically a part, which Scott spoke to through her assuring and calm vocal delivery.
Considering themselves to have struck gold with Scott’s vocals in tote, The Roots sent the “You Got Me” demo to their then-label MCA Records in preparation for Things Fall Apart‘s release on February 23, 1999. Though Scott was a fresh voice on the rising neo-soul scene — much to the label’s dismay — they pushed for Badu to replace Scott, considering her to be a far more superior, recognizable feature. Hearing Scott’s demo, Badu was confused at the group needing to replace Scott, recognizing her undeniable talent. While The Roots were left disgruntled at their hand being forced, MCA Records were head above water in terms of budgeting their acts, their roster also including Mos Def, Jaguar Wright, and Common at the time. By replacing Scott with Badu, it was a way for the label to recoup costs, along with achieving a mainstream hit.
“It was sort of like the underlying threat of, ‘We are not going to push this record to the hilt if you don’t have Erykah on it,'” Questlove told The Philadelphia City Paper in 2001. “I had to tell [Jill Scott] I’m a slave to my record company, and I don’t really have that much control.”
MCA Records was right. Released in January 1999, “You Got Me” was The Roots’ first hit, with the finalized version of the single including Badu and a then-unknown Eve (also based out of Philadelphia). Just as Scott was removed from the commercial single, Eve went amiss in a similar fashion and was omitted from the song’s music video. Badu, however, was included in the video, spawning a double gut-punch to both Scott and Eve, which The Roots had virtually no control of.
“I felt bad about the Eve situation,” Questlove said in the same City Paper story. “Because I didn’t know that [MCA] was going to milk Erykah’s name and not really give Eve proper credit. [Eve] definitely felt dissed by us … And again, I’ve got to explain that, ‘Well, my record company controls the last word.’ And that’s some emasculating shit.”
Scott still received proper credit on “You Got Me” as co-writer, but felt raw about her removal from the song, feeling exploited by the label’s miscommunication. Attempting to smooth things over, The Roots invited Scott on tour, to which she obliged in preparation for her debut album to come. That tour culminated in the creation of a live album titled The Roots Come Alive, which was released in November 1999. The album included a live recording of “You Got Me,” with Scott reprising her role as the song’s vocalist. As for Things Fall Apart, the album became certified Gold and garnered mass acclaim for its politically-driven, jazz-melding quality. “You Got Me” later gave The Roots their first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 2000, as well as Badu’s third Grammy win. (She nabbed two in 1998.)
Unnerved from their win, Scott had completed promotional touring with The Roots, wrapping up her then-forthcoming debut Who Is Jill Scott?: Words and Sounds Vol. 1. Scott made a breakthrough upon her album’s release in July 2000, with Vol. 1 solidifying her as a soulful force leading the early 2000s poetry-influenced R&B sound alongside artists like Alicia Keys and Floetry. It’s also important to note that the album included a brief but important acknowledgment of her Philadelphia brethren in the form of “The Roots (Interlude).” The track borrows the outro from the live version of “You Got Me” that appears on The Roots Come Alive. Thanks to Vol. 1, Scott became a Grammy-nominated artist in her own right for Best R&B Album in 2001. She was also nominated for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 2001, 2002, and 2003 for songs “Gettin’ in the Way,” “A Long Walk,” and “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat),” respectively.
Six years after the release of Vol. 1, Scott’s version of “You Got Me” was finally released, appearing on a 2005 Roots compilation album. (Four years prior to the compilation’s release, The Roots received a memo from MCA requesting approval to use Scott’s version, which left a sour taste in member Questlove’s mouth. “If we got dropped from MCA, I’d be happy man,” he said at the time. “We’re just numb. I’m not in a rush to give them any of my work. They’ve just proven to me that they don’t care.”)
With Badu having even vocalized how good Scott’s version of “You Got Me” is, there’s no real debate on whose version is better or who “owns” it. Taking ownership of the pen that co-wrote the song, there was rousing conviction behind Scott reassuring her partner that she’d return to them, while Badu delicately recited Scott’s intended lines. “You Got Me” was true to Scott’s poetic retelling of love, which soon became her tradition as she reached notoriety. But, more importantly, the song could have been a well-rounded showcasing of Philadelphia’s burgeoning music scene at the time. From the recording to the music video, “You Got Me” could have been authentically Philadelphia, with The Roots, Scott and Eve serving as the trinity of the city’s early-2000s Black music.
The upcoming Verzuz installment won’t be a “battle,” but a celebration of two women that redefined R&B. And if/when “You Got Me” enters the rotation during it, it’ll hopefully serve as the virtual equivalent of when the pair performed the song together at Dave Chappelle’s 2004 block party.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae
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