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You enter the room and they're already there. Some of the names you recognize: Randa the Rhyma (45 wins), Gig@ntic (48 wins), and Novice Raps (53 wins). You've checked the boards obsessively, but you've only ever been here before anonymously, as a guest. This is your first appearance in competition. You're nervous. You signal that you are open to a battle and, before you know it, Unlimited Barzz (49 wins), has challenged you. You're about to make your debut, rapping against one of the best. You should probably put on some clothes.
Welcome to rapt.fm, a new website on which rappers can face off against each other over a selection of top-notch beats, all from the comfort of their own homes. All you need is a webcam and a decent Internet connection. It's Chatroulette, but powered by hip-hop and with significantly fewer dicks.
Erik Torenberg, the site's co-founder, (T Berg, 71 wins), first conceived of Rapt in 2009 after seeing Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, a documentary in which the likes of Mos Def, Black Thought, and prolific freestyler Supernatural build rapid-fire rhymes out of thin air. Torenberg was already interested in learning how to rap, and seeing the documentary accelerated that desire.
"What excited me was the improvisation of it," he says. "The excitement that came with coming up with something on the spot, whether it was competitive or collaborative."
Freestyling is closely linked to the birth of rap. One of the genre's origin stories concerns DJ Kool Herc, Melle Mel, and others improvising simple rhymes over breaks at parties in the Bronx in the early '70s. A decade later, competitive freestyle had become recognized as a way for emcees to prove themselves. At the Harlem World Christmas Rappers Convention in 1981, Kool Moe Dee cemented his place as one of rap's earliest superstars by directly challenging Busy Bee Starski in a freestyle battle, insulting the latter's skill and calling him a rhyme thief. It was a development central to the idea of hip-hop as a competitive landscape.
Torenberg is quick to emphasize the collaborative nature of freestyling. But right now, Rapt is structured as a proving ground. By logging into the site through Facebook, users can challenge each other, or watch battles and vote on the outcome after three rounds. (Though rappers are welcome to face off until they feel satisfied.) A leaderboard compiles wins, encouraging users to rap as much as possible in order to push their way to the top.
Winning can be easier than you might expect. Much of the rapping on the site is execrable: Users trail off, ignore the beat, mumble, and jack rhymes from famous rappers. Watching battles over the course of a week, I saw one rapper named T. Skillz win a contest while rhyming fewer than half of his lines, and another who was clearly reading from a sheet of paper that he was holding directly below his camera's sightline.
But there are talented rappers to be found on the site—some more practiced than others. Torenberg has reached out to the underground rap community and has found support from like-minded professionals. Ex-professional battle rapper Soul Khan is a fan of the site, and has participated in its forums.
"Not everyone is lucky enough to live or grow up in a hip-hop community," Khan says. "This could be a great way to bring those folks together to hone their abilities."
Also a fan: Queens rapper and underground legend Dres of Black Sheep. He says he was pleasantly surprised by the Rapt community. "Everyone was anxious and open to the experience," he says via e-mail. "I enjoyed it."
Rapt is linked to a larger trend of rap populism as exemplified by the website Rap Genius, which transcribes and annotates rap lyrics. Rap Genius made a splash last year when the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz decided the site was promising enough for an investment of $15 million. Rap Genius and Rapt operate under similar, seemingly noncontroversial premises: Everyone is entitled to understand rap lyrics and anyone can rap.
Though the two have no formal relationship, the sites are complementary—when Rapt launched, a promo song Torenberg and his developer made was placed on the front page of Rap Genius. That's no small gesture: As of September, the site was receiving about 24 million unique visitors a month. The investment from Andreessen into Rap Genius helps Rapt too, with money men always more eager to write checks for fear of missing out on a hot new something others have already deemed worth the risk.
"Their success in the tech world kind of paved the way for us," Torenberg admits.
Rap was colonized by corporations decades ago. But rapping itself has long been thought to be the province of a select few. Sites like Rap Genius and Rapt seek to decode what, for some, seems sacred. They take hip-hop off its pedestal and present it to anyone interested, as a kind of hip-hop populism.
But there's a difference between the way the two sites interact with the music. Rap Genius rubbed a lot of people the wrong way when it debuted, as its founders often seemed to be treating the music with a kind of ironic distance, mocking and monetizing it in the same breath. Its founders didn't have to participate—they could sit back, let users do the actual work of explaining lyrics, and watch the cash roll in.
Torenberg, though, thinks of himself as a rapper, and that affects the way he interacts with his site.
"The reason I made the website is because I wanted to learn how to rap," he says.
Bronx rapper YC the Cynic, one of the better up-and-coming rappers in the city, vouches for Torenberg's talent: "I participated in a real-life cipher with [Torenberg]. He's incredible. And I never say that. He's one of the best at freestyling that I've ever heard in my life."
Torenberg's attitude toward hip-hop informs the community that he's created. Every employee at Rapt is encouraged to use the site and learn about the rap community. The emphasis is on sharing and empowering those who might be too timid to participate in or lack access to hip-hop communities. Not to mention that Rapt encourages rap meritocracy. All that matters is how well you perform.
"Just seeing this is joyous," says Dres. "It very well may become a tool that sharpens the new generation of emcees."