8mile

Ever since Detroit declared bankruptcy earlier this summer, the tech world has stared blankly into its navel and asked, “Can startups save Detroit?”

Yes.

No.

Maybe.

Of course, the question isn’t whether or not Detroit has exciting startups (it does) or enough venture capital (it’s working on it). The question is, will the financial gains of tech upstarts spread to the rest of the city across the socio-economic spectrum? Can a burgeoning tech scene attract a new generation of consumers and taxpayers and result in an economic boom stretching beyond the technorati?

That’s a much trickier question and one Detroit resident and startup founder Erik Torenberg doesn’t know the answer to. But what he does know is how to run a company that engages with the people of Detroit, and not just the coders and startuppers.

In 2012, while still a senior studying economics at the University of Michigan, Torenberg founded Rapt.fm, an online platform for freestyle rap battles (think Chatroulette for hip-hop). The site leaps into beta this evening, and as an incentive for aspiring rappers to sign up, Rapt.fm is promoting a YouTube rap contest where the winner receives a singles distribution deal through the legendary Tommy Boy Entertainment. And while the site may not solve Detroit’s municipal woes, it’s at least connected to the city’s history and DNA in a way many other of the city’s startups are not.

“We’re doing something that’s relevant to what Detroit is about,” says Torenberg. “We’re engaging with the community in a passion that we all share.”

And that community has largely accepted Rapt.fm. After the site launched, Torenberg heard from a few “haters” from other cities’ music and tech communities. But Detroit has been “super-supportive” he says. And why not? Torenberg, who counts Eyedea, Eminem, and Big Pun among his favorite rappers, is no outsider or pretender to the freestyle rap game. Check out his impressive free association skills:

Rapt.fm came up through the Cleveland and Detroit-based accelerator Bizdom, which was founded by the majority owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert. Torenberg caught Gilbert’s attention at a startup competition in Ann Arbor. Hailing from New Jersey, and with a partner from LA, Torenberg figured they’d set up shop on one of the coasts. But Gilbert convinced them to come to Detroit and join his program.

Tonight’s beta launch at 9 PM ET will bring new features to the site, including a leaderboard and “player profiles.” In an early attempt at monetization, Rapt.fm will “publicize” a rapper’s page for $5 a month. For now, however, Rapt.fm is focusing more on audience acquisition before it starts aggressively chasing after subscription revenues and sponsorships.

But to get that larger audience, Rapt.fm will need to gain traction with users beyond those freestylers confident enough in their skills to rap in front of strangers. To help with that, he convinced established rappers from across the country, including Jairobi of A Tribe Called Quest and Big Pooh of Little Brother, to rap live on the site tonight after it goes beta. But Torenberg says the real appeal for non-rappers is that they get to “put their little record hat on,” voting on and trash-talking rappers, while helping to pick who wins this or that contract, like the Tommy Boy deal.

And sure, even though rap fans can go on YouTube and Spotify to listen to whatever they want whenever they want, Torenberg thinks users will embrace the engaging, live feel of Rapt.fm’s battles. But can the intensity of an in-person match, surrounded by screaming fans, translate to the Web? That will be Rapt.fm’s deciding make-or-break factor.