The lights were low Friday night at the Hip-Hop Cultural Center on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Hopeful musicians rehearsed their acts, passing around a bottle of Poland Spring in place of a microphone. An 18-year-old rapper called D-Nasty controlled the sound system.
Video Music Box creator Ralph “Uncle Ralph” McDaniels circulated in a fur-lined bomber jacket, instructing participants to “cut it down to 7 minutes 30.” In the dark, the crew prepared for the first season finale of Emcee2Emcee.
Tonight, the spotlights will be on full blast and the cameras will roll as their slick show streams via www.livestream.com/onfumes.
McDaniels launched Emcee2Emcee alongside Curtis Sherrod, founder of the Hip-Hop Cultural Center, in September. The founders believe live streaming has changed the way consumers access music.
The streaming website Livestream broadcasts more than one billion video minutes to 20 million viewers each month, according to company figures. Roughly 50,000 people are tuned in at any given time. The company employs 50 staff members in offices in New York, Los Angeles and Bangalore, India.
Its services have given artists new opportunities, says Sherrod, who recorded his first hip-hop single in 1979. “It levels the playing field.”
With digital technologies, “You can create podcasts, record yourself and use your laptop to make beats.” The music streamed online is appealing, Sherrod says, because of its authentic, underground sensibility.
By offering global access to new music, sites like Ustream and Livestream have prevented the hip-hop industry from becoming regionalized. Emcee2Emcee represents a new way to give hip-hop artists exposure, says participating beat boxer Derick Cross.
Live streaming, MySpace and even hip-hop blogs allow emerging artists to build a following and make money from performances without being signed. “You don’t need a record label anymore to get your voice heard,” says VIBE music editor John Kennedy.
Technology has helped revive the New York scene, preventing urban music from becoming monopolized by Atlanta, hometown of hip-hop big guns Ludacris, T.I. and OutKast, in Kennedy’s view. In recent years some key New York urban music sites have closed.
The downtown record store Fat Beats spun its last vinyl in September. In Harlem, the loss of Bobby’s Happy House, a 65-year-old label headquartered near 125th Street, shocked music lovers, says Debra Harris from Hush Hip-Hop Tours.
But online music is diversifying the industry again, says Kennedy. Atlanta is losing its momentum and non-traditional hip-hop enclaves like Miami and Chicago are becoming more prominent.
For New York, live streaming is another way to market the city’s rich musical and cultural history, feeding the music tourism industry. The set of Emcee2Emcee overlooks 125th Street. “It’s at the heart of New York hip-hop, a stone’s throw away from the Apollo,” says producer Kwamé Holland, who has worked with Eminem, Will Smith and Mary J. Blige.
“It all started here,” says Harris, whose hip-hop tours of New York identify Harlem as a hip-hop stronghold from the 1970s to the 1980s.
Working with this legacy, Emcee2Emcee features performances and freestyles from up-and-coming artists alongside early hip-hop pioneers. “Emcee2Emcee is a welding of the old school with the new school,” said Hip-Hop Cultural Center executive Paul Christie.
Young music fans, for instance, may know Black Sheep from the Kia Soul commercial in which hamsters roll down Amsterdam Avenue in a car. But the organizers of Emcee2Emcee believe a live stream can introduce the digital generation to such 1990s talent in ways that offer more interaction.
Previous appearances on the show have included Grammy Award winners Naughty By Nature, producer Kwamé and the aforementioned Black Sheep. As the show streams, McDaniels tweets and comments, encouraging viewers to respond through social media.
Emcee2Emcee’s audience reaches 200 viewers at peak moments, says McDaniels, who has been producing music television for more than 20 years. Live streaming allows Internet users to tune into live performances.“The music video era is over,” says McDaniels. “MTV doesn’t play videos any more. Justin Timberlake has said it, Kanye has said it.” Fans now expect immediate information.
The organizers hope to use their online recordings as a pitch to television programmers.