Rapt.fm's Erik Torenberg, Phil Fresh & Stevie Soul perform a freestyle rap for BBC Radio's Jonny Dymond in Detroit.
The Detroit-based tech startup Rapt.fm is like Chatroulette with a beat. And starting tonight, like that video chatting platform, it will be available 24/7.
Since last January, Rapt.fm has been growing an audience of rappers and rap enthusiasts in its Alpha testing mode, open two nights a week. Rappers battle over a beat playing in the background, while audiences watch live and vote for their favorite freestyler. At 9 pm EST tonight, the site will go Beta, opening its doors to the public at all hours and debuting new features and a new look. There will also be live performances to mark the occasion from artists including Soul Khan, Yonas, Big Pooh, Chester Watson and Evitan.
Chief executive Erik Torenberg expects it to be a big step forward in making the site a hub for rappers, producers and fans from all over the world.He also hopes that the site can be part of a tradition of online springboards that have helped new talent jumpstart their careers.
For self-made Brazilian mixtape-master and rapper Emicida (featured here on The Creators Project), YouTube was the platform that brought him worldwide attention, after footage of his rap battles garnered millions of hits a few years ago.
"I hadn’t even recorded an album and I didn’t even have a computer yet, but because of technology … my name was already out there," he told The Creators Project.
In that spirit, alongside the Beta release tonight, Rapt.fm will also be launching a video rap contest with Tommy Boy Entertainment. The rapper who posts the best hook and verse on YouTube will earn a singles distribution deal with the label.
But while Torenberg hopes that Rapt.fm will be a career boost for those who want the spotlight, he is quick to emphasize that the site is intended for rappers of all levels and ambition.
"Rapping is very hard and some people try their whole lives and still may not be that great at it. But most people with coaxing can have fun doing it," Torenberg says.
He practices what he preaches. Torenberg can often be seen rapping in the company's promotional videos, and he says all of his employees (and interns) have had a chance at the mic, whether they like it or not.
"We think a huge number are closet rappers in the sense they have the skill but don't even know where to start," Torenberg says. "We're creating a platform that welcomes all sorts of rappers."
Torenberg says the idea for the business came from his own desire to find a community of like-minded wanna-be rappers, which in his home state of New Jersey was a challenge.
"Basically, I didn't think this was going to be a huge idea," Torenberg told Crain's Detroit Business. "I just wanted to get better at rap. I thought, 'Why can't I do this on the Internet?'"
Torenberg says Rapt.fm attracted 7,000 visitors in July. He says 60 percent were returning users, while 30 percent took a stab at rapping live. He's hoping the launch, and another successful round of fundraising, will make the community bigger.
He's also hoping the site's new features will get audiences more engaged. A leaderboard will now track votes and the number of times each user has rapped, and profiles will be available for rappers wanting to promote their material.
More features are in the works, Torenberg says. Rapt.fm will soon allow users to record and archive their favorite performances. The company is also investigating a subscription model, which would give participating users special promotion on the site.