We first told you about the Detroit-based rap-tech startup Rapt.fm a year ago. Since then, the online platform for freestyle rap battles has amassed a private but growing, loyal community of battlers including both novice and pro rappers alike. Tonight, Rapt.fm is unveiling a public beta that will be open 24/7 to any and all aspiring rappers looking for a little competition, networking, and, just maybe, a chance to be discovered.
As it opens itself to the public, Rapt.fm founder Erik Torenberg says he's positioning Rapt.fm as "the premier place for hip-hop talent to be discovered" by creating an online networking community where artists and fans connect. Much of that involves building cachet by tapping into the "huge ass database of rappers" that Torenberg is constantly referencing to in his attempts to onboard well-known rappers to the platform. So far, it's working—tonight's beta launch will feature live performances from artists including A Tribe Called Quest's Jarobi and Black Sheep's Dres (as Evitan), and Big Pooh of the group Little Brother.
As part of the beta launch, Rapt.fm is promoting a YouTube video rap contest with a unique perk for the winner: A singles distribution deal through Tommy Boy Entertainment, the record label behind hip-hop artists like De La Soul and Queen Latifah. The winning competitor will record a single that Tommy Boy will distribute worldwide through partners ADA Music and Warner Music Group.
Tommy Boy Entertainment president Rosie Lopez tells Fast Company initially the label wasn't even thinking about a partnership with Rapt.fm. But after Lopez saw a few of the live battles for herself, she thought, How great would it be to do a battle, but to make rappers come up with original choruses in addition to verses?
"If you look at the people that have come out of MC battling, very few of these artists can transform that into a lucrative recording career," Lopez says. Rapt.fm's community intrigued Lopez, but it didn't quite scream "star power." So she got the idea to host a video contest in which competitors threw down their best verse and hook. "We thought, what if they focused on coming up with a killer hook, since that's what seems to make music commercial? I think that's what got Erik and his group excited."
Torenberg says he hopes Tommy Boy's example will set a new precedent for record labels struggling to stay relevant and discover the best talent as much of that talent embraces digital technology.
Rapt.fm will now be available 24/7 to anyone who wants to participate—previously, rappers on the platform were limited to a handful of prescheduled live sessions that happened several times a month. As of July, the private alpha site had about 7,000 users. Torenberg's next steps are to install a player leaderboard that will show each competitor how they rank compared to others on the site, and to create a system for archiving past performances. Eventually, he says his plan is to branch out into other genres, similar to the approach taken by another rap-tech startup, Rap Genius, which started out as a place to decode rap lyrics but quickly diversified to include rock, poetry, and even the news.
Torenberg admits it's "not the high time right now" for B2C music tech startups. But between seed money from the startup accelerator Bizdom and creative bootstrapping methods live rap performances, Torenberg's team of four has enough going to find out if they can pass off rap from the masses as a viable business idea.
[Images: Flickr user Aural Asia]