Netflix's new series Rhythm + Flow is the first televised talent competition dedicated exclusively to hip-hop and rap. With rap icons Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and Tip "T.I." Harris as judges, the show seeks to discover hip-hop's best unknown talent by holding auditions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta. (Los Angeles is the filming location; the other cities are the judges' respective home towns.)
Contestants compete in different challenges such as battle-rapping, performing live, participating in a cypher, recording songs and filming music videos, for the chance at a $250,000 prize.The first four episodes of Rhythm + Flow, which cover the auditions, were released on October 9, with more episodes scheduled to drop October 16 and October 23.
Old Man Saxon, aka Saxon Kincy, started rapping as an eleven-year-old at Denver's Smiley Middle School. "I would rap-battle at lunch," he remembers. "I was relatively quiet, but I saw the attention that I got being able to put words together. Eventually it grew into not doing it for attention, but because I found some sort of peace in it."
After graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder, he moved to Los Angeles and has been making music professionally for about eight years. Nonetheless, he spent most of 2014 living out of his car — but he used his experience with homelessness as inspiration for his first official EP, Perils.
Before recently moving back to Colorado, Kincy was a professor of rap at the Musicians Institute in L.A. His boss there, Debra Byrd, had been a voice coach for several television programs, and told him about Rhythm + Flow.
Kincy says the show was a welcome opportunity to grow his fan base. "For me, it's always been about making music and music videos, and the common theme for everyone that would comment on my videos was, 'Man, this should have more attention, I don't see how you don't have more views,'" he explains. "And I'm not good at promoting, doing those extroverted things that you need to do to succeed as a rapper. I would make my music, go to my room and just see what happened. So I feel like this was a way for me to bring more attention to what I make."
With a tailored suit, round glasses and an unmistakable air of confidence, Kincy caught the attention of Rhythm + Flow's judges, as well as guest judge Snoop Dogg, at the show's L.A. auditions. Impressed by his lyricism and stage presence, they unanimously voted him through to the next round.
"The fact that it happened so fast made it so surreal," says Kincy of his time on the show. "It's like one day you're working in a restaurant, and the next day you're in front of Cardi B. So it was very tiring, surreal and amazing, all at the same time."
Campbell started freestyle rapping at ten, using it as an emotional outlet for a traumatic childhood. He started writing his own music at thirteen and recording by fourteen.
"Music really has just been my passion for as long as I can remember," the now-21-year-old says. "And that really stems from some of my life struggles and things that I've seen. That's how I got into writing music. Because I done seen and been through a lot. My father was a drug addict and an alcoholic, and he would beat my mom a lot. So as I got older, I just needed a place to vent."
While most of the contestants on Rhythm + Flow submitted audition tapes online (that were then screened by producers before the live auditions in front of the judges), Campbell's road to the show began with none other than legendary rapper Ludacris. Campbell's manager used to be Ludacris's road manager, and he got the young rapper a meeting in Atlanta with Ludacris and Shaka Zulu, who together founded Disturbing Tha Peace Records.
Campbell says had no idea the meeting would lead to Rhythm + Flow. "It was just a weird thing," he explains. "We just went out there to show him some songs, maybe catch his interest, because he's a big person in the game. I had no clue when I was playing him the joints, but it's a blessing, for sure."
Ludacris, who is good friends with Jesse Collins, the producer of Rhythm + Flow, told Campbell to fly to Chicago so he could audition for the producers. Campbell jumped at the chance to showcase his talent and hometown on TV.
"It's just a huge opportunity for me and for the city," he says. "I just feel like Denver doesn't get opportunities like that, so of course I had to take full advantage. And the crazy thing is it's on Netflix, not live TV, so it's worldwide, not just in the States.
"I did it for myself, but I really think this is a big step for Denver," he continues. "That was definitely on my mind when I was on the show, trying to break the ceiling so that all of us can shine. The fact that we got two people on this platform, I think, is really groundbreaking for the city."
Campbell says being on the show and around big-name artists in the hip-hop industry was surreal: "It was really crazy. But all of them were real genuine and real helpful, honestly. Just getting feedback from people who are that high up was great, especially when it's good feedback."
At his Chicago audition, where Midwest rappers Twista, Chance the Rapper, and Royce da 5'9" were judges, Campbell received plenty of positive feedback. After a day of disappointing auditions for the judges, Campbell was the last performer to go on stage, and one of the few that elicited both roaring applause from the crowd and high praise from the judges.
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The journey was not without its difficulties for either contestant. According to Campbell, "The most difficult part was just getting over that you're there. Just realizing the opportunity that it is, and breaking out of your comfort zone and your nerves, and showing you belong. You can't have the mindset that 'I'm a local up-and-coming rapper.' You have to train your mind to say, 'I'm at the same level as Chance and T.I. and them.'"
Kincy says that having nearly a decade of experience making music professionally helped ease his nerves. But as a new father, he faced a different issue: "Being away from my kids. I have a one- and two-year-old, so I'm kind of new to this. As a parent, you're given this opportunity to provide for your kids, and that's hype, but as soon as you get on the plane, you're like, 'I miss my family.'"
Although filming for Rhythm + Flow has wrapped, Kincy and Campbell have no plans of slowing down. Campbell recently released an EP called Louder Than Words and has plans to drop a four-track EP titled Who Am I, which was partly inspired by his experiences on the show, on October 16. Kincy released an album called Goldman Sax in April and a single called "Got No Chill" the day Rhythm + Flow premiered.
Kincy says much of his future will depend on the public's reaction to Rhythm + Flow. "I have music videos coming, I have an album dropping shortly after the single. But the weird thing about it, from an artist standpoint, is there's never been a show like this, on Netflix, as a competition, that comes out week to week. It's all very unprecedented, so it's hard for me to know what's next."