This article wasn’t actually from a single interview, but the result of a couple of conversations with a co-founder of Rap Genius, the wildly profiled lyrics annotation site. Originally, I played around with some upworthy titles including:
- Keeping it Real with the Homies of Rap Genius
- The Fresh Princes of Bel Air, the Untold Story of Rap Genius
- The Home Where Rap Lives
- Internet Talmud: The Rap Genius Story
- We Spent a day with Rap Genius, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!
Gimmicky clickbait be damned, this is a bit of an untold story.
Rap Genius, Black Sheeps of Tech
To get some up to speed, Rap Genius, as a team and company have upheld a reputation as anomalies in the tech world.
- What they do: They’re a website, platform, and now mobile-app for crowdsourced annotation of song lyrics and texts. Beginning with hip hop in 2009, they’ve since included different genre verticals into their model with rock, poetry, news, even bible. More recently, they launched an iPhone app called Genius, which they say will be a cornerstone for the company’s future.
- What You Know: A lengthy stream of media and press that have the tech world scratching their heads in confusion and/or denouncing them as the rap beef rudos of Silicon Valley. More recently, a conflict with Google over SEO practices saw heavy penalties on their search results, but ultimately led to a resolution between the two parties.
- What You May Not Know: They were considered one of the fastest growing companies in their Y-Combinator batch (same as Reddit, Summer 2011) and successfully raised a total of $16.8 million after a $15 million series A round by Andreessen Horowitz.
Current stats: Their site has over 30 million users with mobile app that has pushed well past a million downloads since its January release.
Originally, a shot in the dark interview request resulted in a phone conversation and follow-up visit to Rap Genius’ headquarters in LA. Today, we get an inside look at Rap Genius through the thoughts of, co-founder, Mahbod Moghadam.
Rap Beef, Don’t Get it Twisted
It’s no secret. The team have built a history of drumming up a larger than life stage presence framed alongside one of the most successful hip hop lyrics site in the world. They’ve been criticized and poked at (but sometimes praised) through a never-ending stream of public responses ranging from anger, laughter, and confusion.
Mahbod sets the record straight for us:
“It’s an act. When we started, we did the personalities and just had fun with it. Wearing sunglasses on stage was for entertainment. Hip hop beef has been around forever, you know?
But with a lot of the jokes, too many people thought we were being serious. We decided to stop, and really shy’d away from doing that stuff anymore.“
So why the personalities at all?
“People will eventually forget about all that. The main driver is, when you’re sitting on what you think is the best website in the world, it’s hard not to get impatient.
I need to learn patience. I wonder [why isn’t this already the biggest website in the world?] Sometimes I feel like the crazy blind man on the corner, ranting about my prophecy – big cup in my hand, banging it with a spoon. And people will tell me to shut up, that you’re crazy. It’s difficult not to get frustrated.“
Mahbod explains now, with the launch of their mobile app, the real work begins. There’s no need to bang on the pots and pans. Their aim is to be one of the biggest apps in the world in one years’ time.
Genius, in Your Hands
Genius is essentially a direct port of the content on Rapgenius.com, along with its ancillary sites (Rock, Poetry, News, etc.). In addition to lyrical and text annotation, the app has a music recognition function like Shazam. Mahbod describes that part as a great new feature and explains why going mobile is front and center for the company’s future.
“One of the best things for version two is to let famous artists come in and provide annotations on their own work. That’s the real center piece, the game changer, with verified annotations. Imagine someone famous coming in and being able to explain their work.
The biggest complaint from artists we’ve approached is that they want to break down their stuff but can’t do it on their phone while on tour.”
Annotation and providing context are paramount. After all, Rap Genius built their company on the idea – and this function was something that was always in the back of their mind.
“Nas, one of our earliest investors, has told us he’d love to break down his own work. And he wants people to know it’s him saying it, rather than having an unsure account. We want to make it so he’s set up with a verified account and can start typing his first annotations on the app, two-finger style.
We want people to know it’s him talking. The video feature came in a week after the verified artist option was launched.“
Mahbod believes computers will go extinct. Considering almost 60% of their traffic is mobile (with the app just recently launched), you could say this is the real launch of rap genius.
“There was basically no rap genius before this. 1,000 years from now, they’re going to be talking about the dope app, not the website.”
Project to Business: The YC Experience
We spend some time talking about Rap Genius’ time with Y-Combinator. As we’d mentioned, they were listed as one of YC’s fastest growing companies. Mahbod gives us an interesting look into the lessons they learned, going through the program.
“It was Summer 2011, and it’s when we first started thinking of Rap Genius as a business. Before that, we considered it an art project. That’s when we established it as a Delaware C Corp. Things like that change your perception.
Actually, we still don’t think of it as a business – we think of it as a cult. But YC was how we got serious. We had users, and even when people wanted to give us money – they wouldn’t even have known how to fund us. YC presented us in the right light, and it’s how we met Ben Horowitz. We met the right people who could push us along. It was intense, but I did also enjoyed going back to my native Palo Alto.”
We get an inside look at another side of the story that doesn’t usually see much light. The background of the Rap Genius team, what brought them together, and eventually what led them to YC.
According to Mahbod, co-founder Tom Lehman taught himself programming from Stack Overflow and had a habit of making websites. He made BetterMetroNorth.com (a better way to use the NYC metro map), Bombsheets.com, (bomb-ass bed sheets), and others. Fellow co-founder Ilan Zechory, met Mahbod and Tom at Yale and went on to work at Google for a number of years.
Rap Genius originally started as ‘Rap Exegesis’. They knew they wanted to apply for YC eventually, but were rejected their first time around, even when they’d started getting traction alongside the popularity of song lyric searching. But still they didn’t get in.
“Later on one of Tom’s college friends, Justin Cannes (of Justin.TV) wrote a blog post about our website and we got to hang out with him in SF. He won’t admit it, but we think he wrote us a letter of rec. The first time we applied, we didn’t even get an interview.“
From attending Yale together to Mahbod going through law school and working in New York, the group kept in close contact. Eventually, Mahbod left his firm and moved into Tom and Ilan’s apartment – where Rap Genius was born.
Life at the House
The satellite ‘office’ was actually the house where Mahbod lived with a couple interns (who have also caught their own bit of Valleywag scorn). I really didn’t know what to expect up to this point. I’d seen all the hilarious videos and articles, but when I arrived, I was a bit surprised.
Sure, the house was nice, but not enough to incite the kind of seething envy-filled hate one gets from watching MTV Cribs. A laundry list of my day there:
- Mahbod was laid back and hospitable. He offered some Rap Genius swag, including their notoriously hilarious FUCK FUCK SWAG shirt.
- I met Zach, one of the two interns who lives and works in the house. The other intern, Jeremy had the unique ability to speak 5 languages (couple classical languages) and spends time annotating passages in “Bible Genius”.
- We talked about Mahbod’s law background. He tells me that if Rap Genius hadn’t come along he’d probably be okay still working in the field. In fact, he does miss it and would love to see “Law Genius”. They’ve still yet to find someone passionate about law to that extent to spend all day annotating legal speak
- A lot of Rap Genius’ younger userbase list “Rap Genius Editor” in their social media profiles, as job titles.
- In addition to running operations, Mahbod is an avid editor of the site as the highest rated editor in “Poetry Genius”. He writes poetry regularly and makes it a point to annotate his work as he composes.
- Mahbod and Rap Genius will be featured on an upcoming hip hop album, called Executive Decisions with label CEO turned recording artist, Anyextee. It’s a concept album that touches on the business aspects of the music industry.
With the group’s reputation preceding themselves the way they did, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “what gives?” Where was the ridiculousness? The money-bags laxness that had people brandishing verbal pitchforks?
Instead, I learned about a company who had gone through the Y-Combinator’s “do things that don’t scale” methods, doing what they’d learned. Rap Genius has a full staff of moderators and writers who consistently update and annotate the website, ensuring quality annotations and content for their returning visitors.
They also continue to follow YC founder Paul Graham’s advice to: “Don’t force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.” Within doing that, they’ve also found an extremely large community of people who use their website and contribute as editors. Mahbod notes they have about 300,000 regular annotators on their website.
I met Mahbod, who is a genuine fan of poetry, hip hop, and music in general. We discussed his personal shift to focus more seriously on work after a personal wake up call, surrounding the events of a surgical procedure on a tumor. He called me homey through our correspondence and conversations (not something I’m used to, writing for tech), but I didn’t find it any more strange than my liberal use of the word bro in day to day life.
The Future of Genius
Rap Genius is gearing up for a large year with the launch of their mobile app. Their eventual goal is for users to annotate any website using the genius platform.
“We want anyone, regardless of whether they have an account to have the ability to annotate. We want to become the fabric of the internet. Think Guttenberg 2.0, to revolutionize the way people think about journalism.
We want every newspaper annotated and to see people challenge journalists. Then, when journalists want to fight back, they can annotate and explain their own work.”
My experience with Rap Genius was an interesting one overall. And while I truthfully haven’t found an appropriate occasion to wear my FUCK FUCK SWAG shirt, I do appreciate the team at Rap Genius for making this interview possible.