Battle Rap for the Masses 

Detroit startup allows users to rap with people across the world.

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When I was in middle school, one of my best friends was obsessed with rap. It was around the time Snoop Dogg reigned and rap was making a play for the mainstream — much to the chagrin of suburban moms everywhere.

My buddy, fancying himself a rap artist, wanted to express his creativity, finding an outlet by way of a website that allowed users to rap against each other, albeit not in real time and only through written communication. One person would write a verse and post it; the “opponent” would respond and the process would go back and forth until a winner was declared. As you can imagine, it nearly set the world on fire.

While not the visceral experience my friend had hoped for, the concept was sound — and now a Detroit-based startup is bringing to real time what was before more academic. Rapt.fm, founded in 2012, has plans to set the world on fire.

On Rapt.fm, people of all skill levels can rap with anyone around the world, either collaboratively or in battle, in real time, through a Skype-like video feed that allows users to see each other. A session lasts three rounds; with each rapper getting 45 seconds to lay down a verse accompanied by a random beat.

Those who don’t want to throw their rhymes in the ring can observe the sessions and vote for their favorite rapper, helping the artist earn points.

The idea was the brainchild of Erik Torenberg, known on the Rapt.fm street as “T-Berg,” which is a second incarnation; Torenberg first started out known as “Rap Roulette,” but due to the similar-sounding anonymous chatting site, Chatroulette — and its many penises — the change was necessary.

Back then, he had no idea what the concept could become.

“I didn’t think it would be a business,” Torenberg, 23, says. “I didn’t know how many people there were like me who wanted to rap. At first I was thinking about this as a passion project.”

That was before the Rapt.fm team took the idea to Startup Weekend Ann Arbor, where it won first prize and got the attention of Bizdom, a startup accelerator founded by Quicken Loans magnate Dan Gilbert.

Torenberg says it was Bizdom that made him think about Rapt.fm as a business, and one that could be built in Detroit. Neither Torenberg nor his business partner, Jamie Pitts, are originally from the city and the initial plan was to base the startup on a coast. Bizdom showed the two that there was real opportunity in Detroit for tech startups; 18 months later and Rapt.fm is still here, with plans to stay.

“We came because there was legitimate opportunity,” says T-berg. “I had no friends or family in Detroit before I came and I’ve built something. We love Detroit personally and professionally, and if we can build our business here, we’re going to do it.”

Since early 2013, Rapt.fm has been in its alpha stage, open to the public only six hours a week. The numbers in the outfit’s first six months have been, according to Torenberg, promising; last month 7,000 users engaged the site, 60 percent of whom were returning users. The site seems to be building a loyal fan base, one that continues to visit despite battling through kinks and bugs.

“We want to share a love of rap and creative expression with people,” Torenberg says. “Of all levels and experiences, and create a platform for them to engage and interact via a love for rap.”

And change is a-coming. The beta version launches at the end of this month, bringing a complete redesign and opening it to the public 24-7 on Aug. 28.

After launch, the next few months will be the company’s litmus test. How the beta version of site performs will decide whether the business is viable.

In 2012, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in Rap Genius, a site dedicated to the annotation and interpretation of rap lyrics.

“We see them as a shining example. When we speak to investors, the first thing they have in their mind is the success of Rap Genius,” Torenberg says. “In a lot of ways, it’s opened the floodgates for Rapt.fm to be taken seriously.”

Eric Walters is a freestyler and a MetroTimes editorial intern. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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