By Jonah Bromwich
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 to compete. 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 topnotch beats, all from the comfort of their own homes. All you need is a webcam and a decent connection. It's Chatroulette, but powered by hip-hop with significantly fewer dicks.
Erik Torenberg, the site's cofounder (T Berg, 71 wins), first conceived of rapt.fm in 2009 after seeing Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, a documentary in which the likes of Mos Def, Black Thought and the 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 rhymes and calling him a rhyme thief. It was a development central to the conception of hip-hop as a competitive landscape.
Torenberg is quick to emphasize the collaborative nature of freestyling. But right now, rapt.fm is structured as a proving ground. By logging into the site through Facebook, users can challenge each other, or choose to watch others do so and vote on the outcome after three rounds. (Though rappers are welcome to face off until they feel satisfied.) A leaderboard compiles wins, incentivizing 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. In the course of watching battles on and off for a week, I saw one rapper named T. Skillz win a contest while rhyming less than half of his lines, and another who was clearly reading his rhymes off of 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. The ex-professional battle rapper Soul Khan is a fan of the site, and has participated in its forums.
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