In the mid-to-late 2000s, the "End of the Weak (EODub)" open mic in NYC was my favorite proving grounds for up and coming talent along with local legends in the rap game. You quickly learned how to rap with your chest out knowing cats like C-Rayz Walz, Immortal Technique, Pumpkinhead, Homeboy Sandman, and Mr. MFN eXquire were up later. Riddled with respect and raw talent, it was the perfect room to get comfortable with rapping in front of others. But no one really tells you how to rap at an open mic right? Odds are, you'll make some stupid mistakes going in blind like I did, so I put together a roadmap for optimizing your next open mic opportunity
You should not perform the first time you're at an open mic. The biggest reason being, you want to make sure it's appropriate for your style of music. Some open mics just aren't that "rap friendly", so you should know that going in. Use the first visit to an open mic to see what kind of songs resonate with the room. Meet the artists, and treat it as if you're an A&R, not a musician. Really strike up a conversation with the artists you like, and exchange contact info. Make an effort to talk to the staff and the event organizer throughout the night.This is a chance for you to support the event, show love, and do some recon so you can kill it as performer next time
Once you know more about the format of the open mic, start choosing your potential songs to perform. Really take the time to recall what kinds of songs resonated with the room. Pick music in your catalog that you feel works for that kind of crowd. EODub was an open mic for lyricists with stage presence. Songs that didn't display enough of both, didn't do as well.
Once you know what songs you want to perform, you should prepare backing tracks if you haven't already. We'll go into detail on how to make these in the future, but for now try to have a version of your song with the lead vocal stripped out, or heavily lowered. Essentially a performance track should have the beat, ad-libs, and potentially the hook lowered, but it's really about what you're comfortable performing. My favorite lyricists can do the entire song with no backing track, so practice towards that goal and find what's comfortable for you. Don't be afraid to rent a cheap rehearsal space with a mirror to work on your craft. Or just buy a mirror and do it at home.
Prepare Your Music
Every event has different requirements for how to get your backing tracks to the DJ or audio technician for the night. Find out ahead of time, and stick to that format. If the DJ likes WAV files in their email ahead of time, have it in their inbox with a few days to spare, and confirm receipt. Bring a backup copy on a flash drive just in case. Where possible, get your backing tracks mixed and mastered for stage. If your set sounds bigger and more polished than the person before you, you've won a big part of the psychological battle in the room.
Promote the Event
Ideally, you start promoting an open mic during your first visit. Post pics and video to social media and tag the event and artists. Continue to do this leading into the day you want to perform, commenting on your excitement. Always tag the event and organizers in these posts so they're aware of your efforts. Proper promotion will lead to a happy event organizer, and hopefully some of your friends will help fill the room too. It's ok to be excited about performing so post about it genuinely!
Followup with Contacts
During your first visit to the open mic, you hopefully picked up a few contacts. Use the time before the next show to followup. Hit up any artists you liked and see if they want to collaborate or if they have any upcoming shows. Shoot the organizer a thank you letter, and use the time to clear any questions you have about performing at the next event. Followup with the DJ and see if they're playing anywhere else soon. A little bit of followup goes a long way when trying to make a name for yourself and get involved in a scene.
If possible, have a friend or fellow artist that is down to help you out the night of the performance. You want someone snapping photos of your set. You want someone making sure your mic is audible from the audience. I promise you, there will be a plethora of things you could use a hand with, so offer a buddy a few drinks, after your set, to give you a hand. You can also speak with one of the other artists that you've established a relationship with and ask them if they're interested in trading services. You two can snap photos during each others sets, and generally help each other out, no cost.
On the day of your performance, get their early. If the list is first come, first choice, get their early enough for first choice. If submissions are online, do it asap. I suggest performing somewhere in the middle of the lineup when possible, but really judge this based on what you saw in the last event. Arriving early also allows time to network. Protip: Check-in with the DJ and ask them if they need anything. Something as simple as a water from the bar can be a big gesture that comes back to you down the line. The earlier you're at an event, the more time you have to check for problems and build up free karma points just by being helpful and supportive.
Be Genuine when Performing
My favorite open mic performers give off a presence that sits comfortably between your peer and a future rockstar. As an audience member, I want to feel like you're my friend who is super talented and about to blow up. Some people have the tendency to overdo the confidence in small open mics, and it comes off a bit snobbish. Confidence is essential in rap music, but quick conversation between songs is a great way to bring things back to earth. You can be as huge and prolific as you want during the performance if you genuinely thank people for their time in between songs. Ask how the crowd is doing, encourage the other artists, and kill your performance.
Identify Yourself On Stage
It drives me crazy when someone kills their performance, and I have no idea what their name is. In a best case scenario, a host or DJ is announcing you, but you should clearly identify yourself before and after you perform at the very least. Ideally, you're repeating your name and or social media a few times before you're done.
Have the Tracks Online
I think every song you perform should be available online for immediate consumption. There's simple logic behind it. Take this following scenario. You finish performing and someone says they liked a song. You thank them. If it's not online, they can't hear it again, and you've wasted an opportunity to get the track in their hands. I use bit.ly to shorten the links to my music. When someone likes a beat or song of mine, I can say "Thanks, can I send you a link to it?". Then I open the bit.ly app and send the appropriate link to the song. Now you have someone potentially sharing your music, and a person you can followup with to see if they'd be interested in joining your mailing list.
Stick Around After you Perform
I despise the person who shows up right before their set and then leaves right afterwards. I'm antisocial and awkward as hell but still fight through it to make sure I'm there for as many acts as I can see. It's respectful and necessary in our culture if we want to continue to progress rap music. We have to support from within. It also makes no sense for you to skip out on the chance to further engage with people after they saw you perform. Give people a chance to provide feedback.
Hopefully you're better primed to rhyme the next time you want to rap at an open mic. I have over 10+ years of helping MCs perform and record, so if you need help getting your set together reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.