Rapt.fm Combines Literacy, Beats, Rhymes and Business Savvy

Stevie Soul (left) and Erik Torenberg of Rapt.fm at their offices in the M@dison building in Detroit.

Can you freestyle like me? Freestyle rap that is, my friends. Can you? I don’t think so. I’ll battle you into the ground. Well, in my dreams at least. Because the last thing I’ll ever do is get up in front of a room and freestyle rap. That’s not going to happen.

Here’s the deal. The days of having to go in front of a packed room and battle it out have gone the way of the tube TV. Today, you can destroy the enemy with your verbal assaults from the comfort of your home (or get a rapping beat down from the comfort of your home, as it were), thanks to new startup business Rapt.fm. Rapt.fm is a Bizdom business and is one of dozens of young businesses in downtown Detroit that are leading an economic and tech revival in Detroit.

Rapt.fm is the brainchild of Erik Torenberg and Stevie Soul. They, along with CTO Jamie Pitts, aka The Source, created the company (and soon will launch a website) as a way to do three things: 1) teach and promote the art of freestyle rap 2) promote literacy through rap and poetry 3) make some money along the way. I can relate to all three and I have a good feeling all will come true for these guys. Victoria and I recently sat down with them at their headquarters in Detroit’s M@dison building. Here you go:

CLAYTON: I’m here today with Erik and Stevie from Rapt.fm, a website and a company that basically revolves around freestyle. Why don’t one of you tell us what Rapt.fm is.

ERIK: Rapt.fm is a hip-hop and freestyle company that believes that there’s a certain energy in freestyle that breaks down barriers and brings people together. So we do three things. One is a website where you can freestyle rap with anyone in the world and have a live audience come watch and vote for who they like best. So for all the aspiring Eminems of Kansas, of Pakistan, of China now have a place to meet other rappers, get better and have exposure opportunities. Another thing we’re doing is going into schools and giving freestyle and beatbox workshops. Focused on a connection between a love of hip hop and a love of literature, vocabulary and learning more broadly, we’ll get into that later. A third thing we do is we go into companies and offer freestyle and beatbox workshops, designed to break down barriers, kind of a team building exercise.  Getting out of your comfort zone, adaptability, we think freestyle has a lot of applications. That’s Rapt.fm in a nutshell.

CLAYTON: Great, thanks Erik. Now I want to talk to Stevie Soul. Tell me about yourself. Is it Stevie Soul or Mr. Stevie? I’ve seen both names online?

STEVIE: Yeah, I’m Stevie Soul. Mr. Stevie is homage to my students. That’s where that came about.  I grew up with a speaking disability and had a severe stuttering problem. I would stutter so bad that instead of words coming out when I spoke, strange sounds would come out.  So I used that technique as a way to form sentences, which ultimately helped me overcome the disability.  So, through that, I discovered I had this talent and I’ve been rolling with it ever since I was a kid. Since high school I’ve been beatboxing professionally for a career. I’ve scored countless national commercials. I’ve done stuff for radio.  That’s my day to day. The opportunity for teaching came  in 5 years ago. I have a five year contract and I’m in my last year.

CLAYTON: Where and what do you teach?

STEVIE: I teach at DPS (Detroit Public Schools). In and around different schools in DPS. I teach music production and graphic design.  Arts is my thing. I went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Troy (Michigan) and got a fine arts degree. I tie it all together in my teaching. I was working with Bizdom, kind of on and off on different projects. That’s how I met Eric. We hit it off ever since. We’ve been working together building the Rapt brand. My focus is marketing and outreach. Getting us into schools and businesses.  And bringing this edge of beat boxing to the companies.

CLAYTON:  Did you grow up loving hip-hop?

STEVIE: I did. Actually I grew up loving R&B.  that’s my thing. You can tell through my music that that’s my thing. I’m definitely a hip-hop head as well. Hip-hop inspired me, too. Beat boxing is an element of hip-hop so I understood and appreciated that at a young age which helped me find my sound.

CLAYTON: Yeah, I was going to say you don’t look that old and I remember when I was a little kid there were guys that were beat boxers like the Fat Boys and Dougie Fresh. That was a long time ago. Does anyone do that now?

STEVIE: No it’s not as popular as it was. I think it’s a dying or dead element because technology advanced so much. There’s no need for it. It’s a natural and organic way of making beats and making music that was replaced by technology. I found a niche with that especially finding the Motown, Detroit kind of angle and sound when I perform. So I try to incorporate those elements. But no, I don’t think there’s anyone that does that now. There’s not many people really doing beat boxing like there was back in that era.

CLAYTON: I know we are going to record a video of you two shortly, but is there a place Zing readers can go to and see you doing some of your beat boxing?

STEVIE: Yea, if you go to StevieSoul.com all my stuff is there. It’s the hub of all the interesting stuff I’m working on and my commercials. And actually, I just did a commercial for Fathead so that’s pretty exciting. It’s going to be a national spot. And it should be out in about two weeks.

CLAYTON: Alright, thanks Stevie. Let’s talk to Erik now. Tell us about yourself, how you started the company, and what you’re background is and why you like free styling

ERIK: Sure. So quick add on to Stevie. He’s got amazing videos and one took place at the Quicken Loans Family Reunion. We have that on the video, but haven’t publicized it yet. Second, we have another member who couldn’t make it – Jamie Pitts — he’s the co-founder and the one who does all the technology. We just want to give credit where credit is due. And he freestyles as well. We force him to. laughs

So originally, I’m from New Jersey, big freestyle and hip-hop fan got really into making rap and hip-hop in college. Everything I do I go 100% and I didn’t have a bunch of people to rap with in New Jersey or the University of Michigan, so I’ve had the idea for a couple years. I thought “hey why can’t I find other people on the internet to rap with?” And luckily I wasn’t really in the hip-hop community, I was in the tech and entrepreneurship community. At a Start-Up Weekend, we pitched this idea. It was actually a fluke. They needed more ideas and I wasn’t going to pitch anything, and then they called on me. I pitched two ideas. One was an elaborate plot to overthrown GPA and have a better way of measuring it. The other was chat roulette rap battles and of course that got the most votes out of everything. It was a two day thing, we built the prototype and won the completion. The next day we found ourselves pitching Jake and John Triest and after that we won another competition. Next thing I knew I was graduating and this was what I was doing with my life. Jamie was on board day one. Stevie gave us that edge.

CLAYTON: How did you guys meet?

ERIK: Jamie was at Start-Up Weekend and he actually had just left his job and looking for something else. And Stevie came in because we wanted a cultural presence and some one who knew the community and get them excited about it. We wanted some one to be our VP of marketing and Stevie has really pushed us to that next level.

CLAYTON: Let’s talk about the literacy angle. The thing I find interesting is this concept of you (STEVIE) having a speech impediment and using beat boxing to overcoming that because you clearly don’t have one now or at least I don’t hear it.

STEVIE: I do, yea.

CLAYTON: So can all kids improve speech impediments you know and get better with beat boxing and rapping? How does it help with literacy?

ERIK: To be honest, I hadn’t made that connection before. That’s fascinating but I think we’re exploring what the direct benefits but we see it more so as an attitude perception. Just because you aren’t super talented in one way in the way that schools measure, like a five paragraph essays, doesn’t mean you don’t have talents with words and the ability to tell stories. Kids love rap and hip-hop because they’re telling stories and when kids go to English class they feel so uninspired. We think what are some ways we can use this love of telling stories and of word play and fuse it into English classes telling stories in different way with reading and writing.

There are a few things we do. One is the study of lyrics and the analysis of lyrics. They don’t want to read Shakespeare, but lyrics can be just as complicated, such as messages in 2-Pac songs that they would love to decode and unpack. We think that the critical analysis of these texts will get them excited about other texts as well. The second thing is having them write raps about other texts and have them synthesize and create stories in the medium of rap about other texts they might to read for school. So it’s using rap as a tool to get them excited about writing and reading. And also to show that some of their role models are avid readers and well. I think they are influenced a lot by the perception of their role models and we want to get a favorite book list or how books have inspired their favorite artists. SO those are the three things we try to do.

CLAYTON: So Stevie, do you have anything to add to that? Do you think there’s a bigger win for people who have speech impediments if they did what you did or do you think that’s unique to you because you did something that most people couldn’t do. What do you think about that?

STEVIE: Sure, yea. I’ve taught thousands of kids in my last five years of doing this in the city, and dozens of those kids have had some kind of disability or struggle. I love giving back and I love showing them this alternate outlet that they can have and Rapt.fm really helped focus specifically on that edge and that angle.

I think it’s great any way I can inspire. Everyone kind of has their own goal and destiny. Any way I can inspire my students or kids in general to get out of their shell and try something artistic, I’ll do it. Rap has really given me an outlet to really focus on that because when I’m teaching I have to kind of focus on the overall curriculum. Rapt.fm really focuses on that side that of it. We’re truly inspiring the kids directly. It’s really fun and really exciting.

CLAYTON: So the Rapt.fm site is up on a temporary basis but when do you guys expect to go full time with it and when can readers of Zing click a link and go do a rap battle?

ERIK: As of right now are closed alpha, so if you sign up for our website, you’ll get emails knowing when the once a week private session is for dedicated users and people who want to give us feed back. We expect the site to move forward and open up gradually with in the next month and a half and to launch publicly by mid January. That is the intended goal and we’re excited about it.

CLAYTON: Okay, in a couple of weeks the Zing bloggers and other writers at Quicken Loans are going to be doing on of your workshops. Stevie or Erik tell us what we can expect to do at the workshop. What are we going to do and what will we get out of it?

ERIK: So a few things. One you can guys can expect to really get outside your comfort zone. Most people have probably never free styled before. Have you free-styled before?

CLAYTON: I’ve tried.

ERIK: But for a lot of people it’s something that they’ve wanted to try. Don’t tell me you don’t watch 8 Mile and want to rap after that. You at least want to give it a try. But there’s such a stigma you know. If you’re not good don’t try it. Don’t even try to do it. With dancing it’s understood or with guitar people are like, “Oh you’re going to stink at first until you learn chords and scales.” But with free style, you’re going to be bad at first but you just need to push through it. So don’t expect to be perfect. Do something really fun. Be really uncomfortable, but being really uncomfortable in a space with all of your team mates who are going to support you and expect to free style for the first time and learn, and learn the basics of beat box, how to do it.

CLAYTON: So Stevie, tell me how to beat box. How can a person who doesn’t have much rhythm do it?

STEVIE: It’s so basic. I broke it down into little tricks and techniques to have people learn the fundamentals. For example, we can do something now. So just repeat after me “boots.”

CLAYTON: Boots.

STEVIE: Now say “cats”.

CLAYTON: Cats.

STEVIE: Now say, “Ba ba ba boots. Ca ca ca cats”

CLAYTON: “Ba ba ba boots. Ca ca ca cats”

STEVIE: So now you put these patterns and rhythms together  and you can start beat boxing. And boots and cats is the word break down of a snair drum and high hat. So these little words help break things down that don’t make it as intimidating or scary. But the sessions are really amazing and one of those things were it kind of starts off with people being nervous or scared or uncomfortable, but then by the end session everyone’s now jamming their heads and really enjoying it. We found a cool science of making it work and a lot of fun.

ERIK: People are always like,  “Oh it’s over? The two hours just flow by.

CLAYTON: So I know you guys are just starting out right now, so you’re primarily doing this in the Detroit area, but do you plan on going national with these seminars and classes?

ERIK: Yea. Right now we are getting testimonials and feed back, perfecting our system, and doing it with the Quicken Loans family. As long as we continue to get feedback and as long as there are opportunities, we want to take it as far as we can.

CLAYTON: Where can some one get in touch with you guys if they want information to learn more about these seminars?

ERIK: We will have a separate website for it in the next month or so but email me directly at erik@rapt.FM, and we’ll give you our package.

CLAYTON: Before we wrap this up, any last words for Zing readers?

ERIK: Was that a purposeful pun? Before we wrap this up?

CLAYTON: <Laughs> Yea

STEVIE: I’m really excited that we have the opportunity with Quicken Loans supporting us so much in this whole project. We want to thank the staff, the community, and the whole network. I’m really excited that they get to see the whole story and that they’re one of the first outlets to see we are working on. We are thankful and grateful for Quicken Loans.

ERIK: We want Quicken Loans to be the best not only in mortgage banking services, but also free style rapping, and we’re not going to rest until that happens.

And that’s where my interview ends. We have a special videos to wrap up this post (no pun intended). Erik and Stevie doing a freestyle rap about Veteran’s Day (we recorded this on Veterans Day 2012). I assure you this is 100% impromptu.

Looking forward to rapt.fm blowing up. Yo.

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