Faced With A Pandemic, RVA Rap Elite Takes The Show Online

by | Sep 16, 2020 | MUSIC

In January, the RVA Rap Elite started their third season of cyphers and rap battles at The Dark Room in Scott’s Addition. In the small venue within the Hofheimer Building, the hip-hop based platform had established a consistent home after spending 2019 going from one venue to another. Then in March, the coronavirus pandemic stopped the world as we knew it. Gyms were closed, some people worked from home, while others were laid workers off or furloughed. And in the local music world, live events came to a sudden and complete stop.

As venues closed, artists lost their traditional way of connecting with fans, and the income they derived from tours and shows went away. In the darkness that the pandemic brought to the music culture, social media interaction between artists, fans, and platforms reached a new level. RVA Rap Elite evolved.

With their venue gone, they replaced their March cypher with a virtual March Madness bracket called Rap Elite Madness, featuring 64 emcees spitting to see who would come out on top. Followers watched videos of each head-to-head matchup and picked the winners in the comments. In addition to the virtual tournament, a weekly schedule of different live events were posted on their Instagram page each week. 

The usual schedule would go like this: 

  • Mondays were for interviews with an artist or battle rapper
  • Tuesdays featured live playlists hosted by Spielburg
  • Wednesday presented a recap of the previous week’s worth of Rap Elite Madness action
  • Thursdays focused on an open beat cypher hosted by producer NameBrand
  • Fridays brought Freestyle Fridays hosted by Radio B

I checked in with one of the RVA Rap Elite staff members and several of the emcees involved in Rap Elite Madness bracket to get the inside information about how the platform has worked to elevate its influence during an unprecedented time. 

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Big B. Photo via @bigb81dreaming on Instagram

Big B was one of the artists featured in the Rap Elite Madness tourney. I had a chance to chat with him on the platform. 

Jay Guevara: Tell me about your take on the March Madness bracket that RVA Rap Elite did. Did you think that it was beneficial for everybody, or just the winners of the later rounds?

Big B: I thought it was a great way to keep the platform going. Rap Elite was at an all-time high before COVID hit. I think they did a great job of still providing a way for artists to get recognized and [get] exposure. It also gave an opportunity for those who might not have been ready to cypher on stage to have access to the platform and be seen.

Jay: How did this push your pen to do better in the later rounds?

Big B: I had to really study my opponents. I couldn’t just write a verse and throw some bars in and expect to advance, so it added another element to the process.

Jay: If the pandemic didn’t happen, do you think the platform could’ve expanded the way it did, via social media with their weekday calendar of IG Live exclusive events?

Big B: I think it was a learning curve that I’m sure they will implement going forward.  These events during the week will keep people focused on Rap Elite for the whole month leading up to the big event. In a sense, that is a good thing that came out of a bad situation. These guys work hard to make the platform what it is, and I know it was devastating for this to happen right when everything was at a peak.

Jay: Who were some of your favorite emcees or surprise contestants in the March Madness bracket?

Big B: I had a lot of favorites.  Loved how O-Z added the visual element. Synse was dope the whole. My sleepers were Jason and Zo the poet!  They came through and did their thing.

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King Fizzle. Photo via @kingfizzle on Instagram

King Fizzle was the champion on Episode 7 of the RVA Rap Elite and was a competitor in the Rap Elite Madness Tourney.

Jay: Please give me your take on March Madness. Do you think it was beneficial for everybody, or just the winners?

King Fizzle: I can only answer that for myself. Emcees will have different goals and expectations for the competitions. If your intention was to build your fanbase or your domain, then can you demonstrate a measurable conversion in follower count or engagement on your platform? What metrics have you decided to use to determine your success?

But what if you went in with the intention to train yourself for combat? How do you anticipate your enemy’s offense? How does the presentation of offense differ from the stage platform? That requires a different set of skills. If your intention was to play the game, and you didn’t make it into your expected bracket, by your predetermined metric of success, the competition was not beneficial for you.

For myself, I had several intentions: learn basic video editing techniques, train my audience on how to listen to my style of writing with the use of subtitles and typography, and among other things, to stay consistently writing. Under that criteria, it was highly beneficial for me.

Jay: How did you push your pen during the tourney and pandemic?

Fizzle: These one-minute raps are great for me to demonstrate how I stretch multis, without the subject of the scheme becoming abstract. If you notice when I stretch a rhyme pattern, I never have any repeating vocabulary. In a competition cypher setting, I don’t get to display the different rap forms I can deliver because certain forms are not appropriate for a given instrumental. For example, in my first round I used this as an opportunity to inject comedy, or I misdirect the audience by hitting them with something they didn’t expect me to say. The deliberate pacing of breath and motor expressions assist in landing that punch.

But this competition ain’t a measure of who really got techniques, fundamentals, or even bars on lock. Strategy for this competition will take you farther than good writing, in my opinion. My success criteria were different, so I didn’t play with strategy, and bad strategy can make even good writing sound like filler. And that’s what happened in my losing round. Out of context, as a stand-alone piece, the verse is alright, but with me and my opponent both being battle rappers, the verse was lacking. And you can tell I wasn’t trying to be savage. I used the word “brethren” in a rhyme against a woman. I clearly wasn’t writing for Zoe, and that was the wrong play.

It’s even deeper when you consider the format of presentation. O-Z done proved that Rap Elite as a platform tests every aspect of being an emcee, and it’s all considered. You could have everything flawless on paper as pun intended, but what overall impression you left on the voter weighs more than what you did with your pen.

Jay: If the pandemic didn’t happen, do you think the platform could’ve expanded more with social media?

Fizzle: The platform did expand as a result of the pandemic. Even purely quantitatively you had something like over sixty artists in the same event, versus a max of thirty we can do for a one night on a stage. Then those sixty people spread it to their domains, and Rap Elite got big looks for that. From an emcee’s perspective, Rap Elite is expanding when emcees are fighting just to make it to the platform/competition. When the competition becomes prestigious.

Like how we talk about how Juice and Eminem came out of the Rap Olympics — Rap Elite is going to do that for our emcees. Selective restriction doesn’t imply expansion, but with standards and a higher barrier of entry comes notoriety, and in that sense, there will be expansion in both the digital space and as a community event. We see all this happening already.

Jay: Who were some of your favorite emcees or surprise contestants?

Fizzle: It’s great to see other oratory artists play the brackets. We have some of the highest caliber poets, so shout-outs to Roscoe. It’s always a dope to see the intersectionality of arts and elements. I watched Synse open for KRS-ONE the year we had that big snowstorm, so when I saw him spit again, I said “Wait, this the same guy?” And it was. Quick follow. Big ups to all the performers who stay on their deen. That’s Jason and CGoss. Love to my homie Robalu, because this is the closest you would see us battle. There were some ill verses in the brackets. Kilroy’s verse stood out to me. I always award points to emcees who can present words differently, and he did that. And you know the emcees who stay consistent on Rap Elite are always a crowd favorite.

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Spielburg. Photo via @spielburg on Instagram

Spielburg is the social media contributor for the RVA Rap Elite platform. His responsibilities range from IG Live/On Site interviews to hosting a weekly IG Live Playlist, on which he plays music by artists from Virginia and the DMV. 

Jay: Was the March Madness bracket successful to you? And what rounds stood out the most to you?

Spielburg: Extremely successful; it drove much warranted traffic towards the platform. Plus, the engagement from the MCs who participated gave RVA Rap Elite a broader audience. The rounds I enjoyed the most were the Sweet 16 rounds and Final 4. The showman and penmanship rose as the competition stiffened.

Jay: If the pandemic didn’t happen, what would’ve been the direction that the platform went next in elevating their influence?

Spielburg: Radio B is constantly seeking ways to expand the reach of RVA Rap Elite. If COVID-19 never happened, there would have been a strong presence from us, not only on IG but on other streaming platforms. 

Jay: When you get submissions in the playlists, what’s a common pattern you hear that artists can improve on?

Spielburg: For the most part, every submission has been well received, but if I’m looking for areas of improvement, I would say sound quality, delivery and content. That’s relative to most of the MCs starting out.

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Synse. Photo via @iamsynse on Instagram

For my last two interviews, I spoke with the two emcees that faced off in the final battle of Rap Elite Madness. First up: Synse.

Jay: How did the tourney push your pen to do better in the later rounds?

Synse: For me it didn’t have anything to do with rounds. It had everything to do with being an emcee. The fact I participated in the tournament itself was all I needed to continue to push myself and my pen. I had at that point already been doing weekly rap drops on my IG; I called them #SynseSundays. I challenged myself to them every Sunday for a year straight.

Jay: If the pandemic didn’t happen, do you think the platform could’ve expanded more the way it did via social media, with their weekday calendar of IG Live exclusive events?

Synse: Anything is possible. I think anyone with great ideas always bumps into the “Now how do I get this to the people” stage. I guess it was a bound-to-happen kind of thing, the pandemic just sped it up.

Jay: With the return of the open cyphers taking place outdoors, how do you see the outside aspect affecting the performers? Do you see it affecting some artists in a way that affected battle rappers when empty room battles became a norm? Some artists and performers thrive from a small or large room crowd, so do you feel like that’s going to affect the emcees and battle rappers at all?

Snyse: Crowd or no crowd always affects an artist. In my opinion, whether it helps or hurts, I believe it depends on the artist’s familiarity to surroundings/settings. It also could depend on what stage of the career that artist is in. Any given night can be a bad night or a good night.

Jay: If you had to formulate a COVID RVA Rap Elite starting five, who would be on the squad? Who would you call the most improved emcee during all this?

Synse: I’m a newcomer so I wouldn’t. I’m still learning the scene and the artists, so I don’t think I know them well enough to begin grouping people. Salute to all those who participated and even bothered to check out the work that I’ve done. Continue to grind, continue to shine. I’m Just Here To Rap.

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O-Z. Photo via @odashz on Instagram

Finally, the emcee who won it all in the Rap Elite Madness tourney: O-Z.

Jay: How did the tourney push your pen to do better in the later rounds?

O-Z: First, I want to shout out RVA Rap Elite. Thanks for having me. Shoutout to @ogmelrose, @rich_homie_rheese, @willjungmusic, @killroyg, @_c_slick, and @iamsynse. These were the guys that inspired me and pushed me. All dope artist and def should be tapped into. 

Honestly, initially, I didn’t know what to expect. For the first two rounds, I used recycled verses. At the time the verses felt comfortable and they fit well with the beats. In my mind, which was the wrong approach totally, I assumed everyone would use recycled verses. I’m sure some did; however, it was very clear to see those that did not. Further along, or more specifically with round 3, the sweet 16, the production inspired me, and I instantly wrote my verse the night it was sent. Ironically, during the very next Rap Elite live recap discussion, they made remarks about artists recycling verses. From then on, I wrote every bar for every round. The competition demanded it.

Jay: If the pandemic didn’t happen, do you think the platform could’ve expanded more the way it did via social media, with their weekday calendar of IG Live exclusive events?

O-Z: Absolutely. With zero doubts. There isn’t much to say besides the simple fact that prior to shutting down we were selling out the Dark Room the past few events. The trajectory was extreme, when you really think about it. I’m talking, the venue is at capacity by 7:30. I haven’t seen that before here in Richmond on a consistent basis. The expansion is still happening. I can promise you that.

Jay: As the champion of the Rap Elite Madness tourney, how does this influence you going forward?

O-Z: Winning the tournament was beyond inspiring. You’d be surprised how many new people you meet when we were all isolated. That was our first time experiencing the kind of environment we were exposed to and being able to come together for such a great experience. You couldn’t ask for better. These kinds of things can’t be written. It’s a story to tell when time passes us all and we look back and say, “Oh yeah!” Or even when we are possibly put in that predicament again.

Going forward, it has allowed me to open up in a way, to where now I’m living outside of my comfort zone. Before I was just stepping outside of it. I’m influenced to live outside of it now, because the idea is to never be comfortable, and to always keep climbing. 

Jay: RVA Rap Elite has been recording private cyphers at the Dark Room to continue with this season’s team battles they’ve been keeping points for. Do you think this is something we’ll see in the following seasons to come? And if so, has this been a justifiable substitute in a time where events in small spaces are restricted due to the pandemic?

O-Z: I think we will continue to see this going forward, and I also expect to see new things added as well. There is always something new going on at Rap Elite. As far as the justification of the events and where [they’re held] due to restrictions… maybe so, but in reality, a lot was implemented prior to the pandemic. So if anything, not being able to have the events with conviction, it will be hard to look at numbers and stats with that same level if we aren’t even able to know specifically when and where the events will take place. That comes with understanding that this is a very unpredictable year we are forced to rely on. Most things we have going on now were things we already had planned prior, and are trying to implement to the best of our abilities. Whether I’m involved or not, I can see the work being done and the measures being made to continue the movement. Big love.

In addition to continuing with weekly Instagram Live events, RVA Rap Elite has recently begun hosting socially-distanced outdoor rap battles around the city. To keep up with what they have going on, stay tuned to their Instagram @rvarap.elite.

Jay Guevara

Jay Guevara

Richmond native, Southside born and raised. Graduated from VCU with a Bachelors in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science, with an Exercise Science concentration and a certificate in community engagement. Writer, currently contributing to The Cheats Movement, FeelGoodRVA, HennyNCoke, and LoveLace Magazine.

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