Need a gift but don't have the riff? Make a call, give a cheer, Rapagram is finally here

The old singing telegram gets a New York update

Pop Culture

January 25, 2004|By Rafer Guzman | Rafer Guzman,Newsday

Now, why didn't you think of this?

A New York start-up company is updating the old singing telegram with an urban twist: the Rapagram.

The concept is almost ridiculously simple: Instead of flowers or a card, you can send a friend or loved one (or hated one) a personalized rap, written and delivered by one of Rapagram's half-dozen MCs. Choose from the Rapagram, the Dissagram or the Krush-On-U-Gram, among others. And for an extra charge, you can add flowers or chocolates.

The Manhattan company was founded by Gail Powell and Nelson Rodriguez, two struggling rappers still holding day jobs to make ends meet. They met through friends in the fashion business, then worked on a song called "Trash Talk" with the pioneering rapper KRS-One. When the track failed to become a hit, Powell and Rodriguez began searching for other creative outlets.

Powell, 26, who goes by the name Gee when rapping, says she got the idea for Rapagram about a year ago: "It was my boyfriend's birthday," she recalls. "Rather than doing flowers and candy, I wanted to do something different. I thought, 'What if I send an MC over there?' If I did the rap, it's not that special -- but if I sent someone, it could incorporate a lot of personalized information and funny things that happened in our relationship."

Powell and Rodriguez started Rapagram in April, setting up an office in Rodriguez's apartment and recruiting a couple of friends to help set up the Web site (www.rapagram.com).

"We didn't want to invest too much in it, because we don't have too much money," says Rodriguez, also known as Dizzy. "We just said, 'Let's keep it low budget.' Actually, we had no budget."

Word of mouth indeed

Rapagram relies solely on word of mouth to generate interest, which means most orders come from people who work in the entertainment and fashion industries. Rodriguez and Powell don't just answer the phones and take orders -- they also perform some of the raps themselves. Some of their first customers: Staffers at Maxim magazine, Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and Jay-Z's Rocawear clothing label.

For $129.99 per rap, customers shouldn't expect Jay-Z. But most Rapagram MCs have some music and entertainment experience. Take Robert Rickenbacker, a 30-year-old from Elmont, N.Y., who recently answered Rapagram's ad in the Village Voice: He grew up rapping and is also an aspiring actor. When not working as a legal accounts representative for a toolmaking company on Long Island, he delivers Rapagrams under the name "Mr. R."

"I was never a gangsta or a thug rapper," says Rickenbacker, who has the solid build of a football player and a round, friendly face. "I always prided myself on not using profanity."

Recently, Rapagram assigned Rickenbacker to rap at an office going-away party for Courtney Peterson, a publicist at a fashion showroom in midtown Manhattan. After receiving a few personal details about Peterson (where she's from, her best friends, the name of a nasty client who recently drove her to tears), Rickenbacker wrote out a few rhymes on a legal pad in about 15 minutes, he says. Within an hour, he had it memorized.

The performance

A few days later, Rickenbacker arrived at the showroom dressed for the part: Baggy black pants, a plush velour sweater, a fur-lined leather jacket, thick ropes of silver around his neck and a couple of gem-encrusted medallions.

Then Rickenbacker begins clapping and delivers a smooth, a cappella rhyme reminiscent of early Run-D.M.C.: "Congratulations, Courtney, you're doing your thing / You got a better offer, now it's time to swing / Congratulations, now you're on your way / It's time to make moves, show and prove, it's all you ..."

With breaks for applause and the occasional burst of laughter, Rickenbacker's rap lasts a little over five minutes. At one point, Peterson hugs her co-workers, looking a little teary-eyed.

"It had all sorts of personal references," she says of the rap, "even the name of my dog back in Colorado."

So far, Rapagram has delivered about two dozen raps, and Rodriguez says orders are pouring in for Valentine's Day. For now, Rapagram serves Long Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, but the company is hoping to grow, one rap at a time. "If it's a rush order, we'll be right on top of it," says Rodriguez, "even if I have to write out the rhyme and do it myself."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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