Whether he is claiming to invent “the Guttenberg 2.0” or telling Mark Zuckerberg to “suck his dick,” Rap Genius co-founder and Yale grad Mahbod Moghadam ’04 has a personality that is hard to miss. Rap Genius started as a hip-hop music site to explain rap lyrics, but after receiving 15 millions dollars in venture capital, it has grown to be much more. Moghadam, along with Tom Lehman ‘06, and Ilan Zechory ‘06 came up with the website thinking it would not amount to much more than a coffee-table book, but now, have set their sights on becoming “the fabric of the internet.” This December, Rap Genius catapulted into mainstream limelight after a very public falling out with Google, which led to Google deliberately burying Rap Genius search results. WEEKEND sat down with Moghadam to speak to him about the burgeoning Genius “empire,” his experience hotboxing in the Vanderbilt attic and his thoughts on aliens using apps.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Rap Genius?
A: I had recently lost my job [in 2009], and my friend Tom would build websites all the time. We were listening to Cam’ron and I was teaching him what the lines meant, and then he built the first version of the site. At first when it started it was us and six or seven of our friends, and it was just our favorite rap songs we were talking about. It was basically an art project. When we first asked what we could do with this idea, we said this could get a Master’s Tea with Nas or Jay-Z.
Q: At what point did you think this was going to become big?
A: The main thing we didn’t know when we started was that “lyrics” is the most searched word in Google — there is literally no word that people are searching more on Google. (You’d think it would be sex or something, but there you go.) And so we started to get traffic off of random stuff, like we put a remix of a new song that came out, and this song started to get more traffic than the whole rest of the site. And now we are coming to dominate all of lyric search. The only lyric search we don’t consistently win yet is for pop lyrics, and that’s fucking chill because we have a pop genius community that is burgeoning and they do dope explanations. If we can win all of the lyric searches of every genre, then we will be the biggest website of the world. And that’s only one fourth of what we want to accomplish.
Q: You are known to use some strong rhetoric when discussing Rap Genius, whether calling the site “the Talmud” or the “definitive pocket guide” for the Internet. Do you think these are accurate or are they just delusions of grandeur?
A: I haven’t seen this great of a format before. Any format for sharing human knowledge is going to be very successful. Wikipedia is the 7th biggest website in the world. This is the reason Rap Genius is way better than Wikipedia. One thing is that you get fuller recognition; you get a profile that becomes part of your resume one day. If you are applying for a job, for a fashion job, they will ask what your fashion IQ is on Fashion Genius. If some day you want to become a priest, the church you are trying to join is going to ask what your Bible IQ is. With Wikipedia, you get no credit. We’ve got every young, hot rapper having an account. Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, a lot of authors too. Sheryl Sandberg wrote down one chapter of her book, Junot Diaz has one and Farhad Manjoo from the New York Times has an account.
Every writer will someday think that they need to be composing it on this genius platform; this is the new publication, the new way to turn a text into something visual. The rapper Kendrick Lamar, he actually told me, “every line I was writing for this album, I asked myself, ‘What will Rap Genius have to say about this?’”
Q: When did you move onto other formats beyond rap songs?
A: We started putting rock lyrics and poems very early. Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody, Who are You,” was the first poem on the site. And we started to put up a lot of Bible passages because they are alluded to in a lot of rap songs. But we always knew this was going to be the platform for everything. The difficult challenge now is how to frame it and create separate communities.
Q: How has each of the different communities, whether music, publishing or fashion responded to your site?
A: Rap, we got a ton of support. One of our first investors and one of our first verified accounts to annotate his own lyrics was Nas. Odd Future was on board very early. In rock, we had Duran Duran and also Capital Cities. And in publishing, we wondered how we were going to do it and then decided to do the sample chapter through Amazon. Surely, we thought, it was better to have the sample chapter annotated on Poetry Genius than it was on Amazon. And Sheryl Sandberg did. She did an amazing job and her annotations are bomb.
Q: How does the act of annotating add value to the text being annotated?
A: The annotation makes sure that it is focused on a select number of words in the text. It is inherent in the medium that you are doing a close reading, a close reading is very important because it is a lot easier to encounter someone bullshitting about a text globally. It’s a perfect marriage of close reading with the ADD generation’s craving for multimedia.
Q: How does Rap Genius curate annotations for quality?
A: Hundreds of thousands of people have written something on rap genius, but 20 percent of the users write 80 percent of the content. It is a small focused pool, and that is the only place we hire from. Thousands of volunteers put it as their job on Facebook. Editors are hand selected and they are way more powerful than the average user. And a super power editor is a moderator, which also has subsets. And then there are the verified artists themselves.
Q: So Google and your site seem to have some “beef,” tell us about it.
A: It was more press than the site ever gotten, it’s insane. I can’t believe people were so into it. But it’s all good and the coolest thing that has happened recently is the launch of the app. If you think about it, this was the launch of Rap Genius. It was always meant to be an app. Sixty percent of tour traffic is mobile and eventually it will be 100 percent — computers will go the way of the dinosaur. Version 2.0 will allow celebrities to do annotations on mobile and allow celebrities only to do vine-style annotations from their phone.
Q: Has the app been successful?
A: In the week that it has been out, the numbers have exploded. The app is going to be pretty soon how people know Rap Genius. When aliens come down in a thousand years from now and they are using Rap Genius to analyze the extinct human race, they are going to think of it as that dope app, not a website. This is the real launch of Rap Genius.
Q: Did Yale help you achieve the success of Rap Genius in any way?
A: Yale Rap Genius nexus is critical. The main ingredient that Yale and Rap Genius share is close reading. I think of Harvard as a university where you learn to be very, very powerful and Princeton to be where you learn to wear boat shoes. But at Yale they teach you how to do close reading. The person who is worshipped on campus is Harold Bloom, who is the father of close reading, so that’s why we came up with the integral feature. All the comments are close reading to the text and this is what makes this the “most Yaled-out website” out there.
Q: Do you have any memories from your time at Yale?
A: Vanderbilt had this attic before they renovated Old Campus, and Vanderbilt had this attic that was just like hotbox central. And it was a rave in there at all times. And when they renovated Old Campus, they built it without an attic, which was depressing but we had a huge party before they tore it down. All the art majors were up there and they had a party with black lights, highlighters and were doing the coolest fucking graffiti, trippy mushrooms all over the walls. I wrote about it in a poem, which is annotated on the site.
Q: You have had some very public falling outs with notable people such as Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffet. What happened?
A: I got this thing that I think is the greatest tool in all of human knowledge, like the Guttenberg 2.0. I am just trying to bang on a pot in a kitchen, and I’m impatient that it’s not the biggest website in the world. I used to be of the mindset that I would do anything for attention, like rappers start beef, and everyone would see it as a joke. But a lot of people took it seriously and it turned out that maybe it was correct to do at the time, but it is certainly not correct to do anymore. So I have renounced beef.
I alienated Mark Zuckerberg, who is one of my favorite people. He had been a huge supporter of the site, and before I messed around, he told us Rap Genius would be the next Facebook. I was obviously acting stupid, but that isn’t an excuse and I should’ve known better. I hope people could forgive.
Q: You recently had brain surgery, is your health all right now?
A: Yeah, I still got to be monitored, but it was an amazing learning experience and overall, you think getting brain surgery is the worst thing that could happen. But if I could snap my fingers right now, if I could have any job, I would trade being co-founder of Rap Genius for being a brain surgeon. Surgery is the coolest fucking thing. It made me even hungrier for there to be a Medical Genius.
I had a benign brain tumor that was removed that I had since child birth. They say these things have a tendency make you more hyper and aggressive, and maybe having the brain tumor when I had it allowed me to be hyper and aggressive in a way that got attention for Rap Genius. But it was the ideal time in the history of Rap Genius to get this removed, it was time for me to button down and grow up.
Q: What’s next for Rap Genius?
A: One of our biggest plans is to have the capability for other websites to be Genius-powered. So you will have the capability to go to New York Times, not on our website, but on NYTimes.com and there will be Genius annotations on their site. So the Times and WSJ will be Genius-powered. It is definitely in the works and around 6 months away. The offsite annotation is the biggest thing of all, especially for News genius. In Europe, at least they admit that journalism is intertwined with Op-Ed. In the U.S., we have the myth of scientific journalism. And it has created a big, big problem. We need to have an annotation platform so journalists can call out other journalists on their bullshit. It is going to finally build that system that American journalism has always needed.
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the rapper Nas.