An Annotated Interview With The Co-Founder Of Rap Genius
Rap Genius is having its best and worst year ever. The hip-hop lyric site just received a whopping $15 million investment from venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, but press for the site and its feudal, Reddit-like network of editors and members has never been thornier. Last week veteran hip-hop blogger Byron Crawford ran a story about racist comments posted in a private Rap Genius editors’ chat room and commenced a week of scorched-earth coverage. Crawford’s battery of accusations quickly snowballed into an airing of grievances from a number of the hip-hop blogosphere’s preeminent scribes, all of which was met head-on by Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam.
Mahbod is his site’s biggest defender and its chief provocateur. He uses the company Twitter account as his own, chatting with rappers and site members, hitting on girls, and engaging in flame wars with naysayers. With $15 million in the bank and rappers steadily joining the movement, Mahbod doesn’t need the approval of the hip-hop blog establishment. Rap Genius remains resolute in its mission of demystifying rap lyrics and has recently begun expanding its body of annotated works to include law documents, famous speeches, religious texts, and other genres of music. I caught up with Mahbod to discuss his motives and his haters, and then annotated the whole shebang because I thought he might appreciate it. [Unfortunately, we don’t have Rap Genius’s sweet annotation technology, so our explanations are just in brackets. –Ed.]
NOISEY: You’ve been the talk of the hip-hop quadrant of the internet for weeks. Many have weighed in on the Rap Genius phenomenon this month, and they haven’t all been kind. What do you think is rubbing them the wrong way?
MAHBOD MOGHADAM: The bloggers who have problems with Rap Genius are obsessed with the ‘90s. They are old-timers. Rap Genius is more on-point for contemporary hip-hop. [Better than the artists themselves, according to this article. In addition to song explanations, Rap Genius also produces essays like this one on how to apply makeup to look more like Kreayshawn or this one about how modern hip-hop is not debased and fallen because the early MCs were party rappers too, and “Rapper’s Delight” was just a gimmicky sex rap stolen from Grandmaster Caz.]
Our hip-hop history annotations are not as clean because they’re not as popular. I’d be down to hire one of the haters. I guess that’s the other thing: they smell cheddar. The cheddar is supposed to be so we can build Law Genius and Country Brain and shit, but they disregard all of that. Honestly, I'm down to hire an old-timer hip-hop blogger, but Lexus & the Olive Tree, the pride fucks with it. [The Lexus & The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization is New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s book about the current tug-of-war between globalization and retention of indigenous tradition.]
[Thomas L. Friedman, Globalization Genius.]
Modern hip-hop is a war of attrition between older fans’ traditional values and younger fans’ looser tastes and embrace of new technology, but it seems a little disingenuous to chalk up people's reservations about Rap Genius to old heads being trapped in the ‘90s. What about your younger haters?
It’s not necessarily age that makes one a “‘90s blogger.” A lot of younger people are also in tune with the ‘90s.
Detractors have written Rap Genius off as a platform for the ironic appropriation of black slang and culture, “white devil sophistry,” as Das Racist quipped. You’ve responded by stressing your Iranian descent. How does you not being white absolve Rap Genius of claims of exploitation?
In junior high and high school I was called “sand nigger” by white kids who would beat my ass. That’s the best part about being Persian: you get your ass beat by black kids & white kids. Even the Asians will stunt on you and cut you off in the school parking lot. [The international community’s hostility toward Iran is well-documented, from politics to Hollywood to the vox populi.]
But the Iranian descent argument I always make is not a good answer. The actual answer is that Rap Genius doesn't belong to me. It is a community unto itself. It belongs to God. I belong to it. I am but the sperm of Rap Genius. There is a sophistry element to Rap Genius, but we are cognizant of that. Rap Genius is orientalism, but it is more akin to the OG orientalists like Lawrence of Arabia [T.E. Lawrence, British-born soldier and Arab Revolt strategist immortalized in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.] and Edward G. Browne [Edward Granville Browne, British academic whose literary body of work was dedicated to cataloguing Persian culture and history.] than the racist ones like Gobineau, inventor of the word “Semitic” [Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau, French theorist whose Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races is one of the ideological cornerstones of German Nazism.], who was the Understand Rap of orientalism [Understand Rap is William Buckholz’s book and website, which tote “explanations of confusing rap lyrics you and your grandma can understand.” In a 2011 Aol News interview, Rap Genius co-founder Tom Lehman said Buckholz’s “entire project is dedicated to a single joke: rap lyrics sound funny when translated into intentionally white-sounding language.”]
If there’s an admitted element of cultural tourism to your site’s exegesis of rap lyrics. Are you willing to accept that there are people who find it insulting, whether it comes from a place of respect or not? What about the Rap Genius approach to explaining hip-hop lyrics sets it apart from the more flippantly academic ebonics translations of an Understand Rap?
Well, when we started it, there was an element of cultural tourism. However, I don't think it is true of the site. The site is the opposite of me in many respects. The site is an academic hip-hop community. Rap Genius explanations are often quite complex. [Like this sage dissection of Waka Flocka’s favorite ad-lib.]
The interlinking, in particular, is essential to the allusive aspects of hip-hop. When I heard this Lil Wayne line I had no idea of the origin. But I looked it up on Rap Genius, and lo and behold: dope explanation. I am but the unworthy sperm of Rap Genius. I never predicted what it would turn into. I thought I was simply trying to write a coffee table book. [Mahbod recently told Fader that he originally wanted Rap Genius to be a kind of Stuff White People Like for rap lyrics.]
If I thought I was trying to build the repository of human knowledge, I would have been too intimidated! [Andreesen Horowitz co-founder Marc Andreesen has said that he sees Rap Genius as a spiritual successor to his early ‘90s attempt at annotating the entire internet.] I can't speak for the other founders, though. They probably had the bigger vision all along. Who knows? [Apparently they just wanted to sell bed sheets.]
Lyric sites are routinely sunk by fair use issues arising from unauthorized reprinting of lyrics. Is the push for verified artist accounts in part a method of sidestepping potential artist malcontent?
We pushed for verified artists because the purpose of Rap Genius was for us to meet Cam’ron. A Rap Genius verified account is like the artist's blog. It is an intellectual Tumblr. We have followers coming soon, by the way. Also, there’s a lot of girls on Rap Genius. You know ladies obsess over the meaning of lyrics. Young rappers can get pussy from this. Rap Genius is not a lyrics site. It’s like Twitter, and like Twitter, you can get pussy off it. All my exes are RG moderators. I’m not the only one who has gotten pussy off it. Check the “About” page. [Checked, though there’s no evidence either way that any of Mahbod’s exes are admins.]
Are any of these artists being paid royalties for the use of their lyrics?
Half the time they’re not even correct, so who knows what the royalty would be? It probably wouldn't be much. [Tell that to Myspace co-founder Brad Greenspan.] I think artists will get paid off Rap Genius, though. [Which is to say, “They’re currently not being paid.”] What if you give a shout-out to Ciroc in your verified explanation? How much do you think Ciroc would pay Kanye to casually shout them out in verified Rap Genius explanations of his dopest lyrics? [For what it’s worth, Kanye’s a dark liquor man.] Rap Genius could be a major tool for convincing college kids to drink more Ciroc, which is a cause I believe in, and we can all eat then. Belee dat. What would be more problematic would be some artist like Weezy or somebody shouting out Pepsi on the site, since I think sugar is the devil. I’d probably go apeshit. [Uh, he might’ve meant Mountain Dew?]
How do you respond to accusations that your site lifted portions of its database of lyrics from the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive?
Fans put up lyrics, and a lot of times for older shit, they cut and paste. We have complex formatting, and we try to bitch about how the lyrics are transcribed. I love and respect OHHLA. I was hooked on that site when I was a kid. That’s how I would memorize raps! Regardless of all of the motion in the ocean, Rap Genius is on the new shit. OHHLA doesn’t have Kendrick Lamar, and he's the hottest shit on the site right now by far. [Prominent rap writer Andrew Nosnitsky and others have publicly accused Rap Genius of outright stealing transcripts from OHHLA on a number of occasions, and while longtime OHHLA webmaster Steve “Flash” Juon hasn’t been publicly disdainful, OHHLA’s current tagline reads “Rap Geniuses Since 1992.” Additionally, in his Fader interview Moghadam claims that he "didn't know shit about rap" when he and his friends started Rap Genius, but hey, whatever, maybe he only memorized like four rap songs or something.]
Rap Genius recently came under fire for racially insensitive remarks posted to a private editor chat room. A crime noir exposé surfaced on the site attributing blame to a group who infiltrated the community with the express purpose of making it look bad. Do you want to clear the air about this?
"Editor chat" is not just editors. Anyone who writes enough explanations gets access. The idea was that this would let the actual editors smell out both vandalism and quality explanations on the site. In reality, it has led to trolls who will fight tooth and nail to cheat their way into chat! They say a lot of stupid shit. They make fun of me. You know that ain't cool.
The accuracy of Rap Genius lyric explanations often comes into question. Is there a concerted effort to vet those, or is the idea for the mob to police itself?
We have a weirdo hierarchy of powers and privileges. Rap Genius is like samurai Japan. Obviously not everything will be top quality. We think something is always better than nothing, but the janky, unreviewed explanations will say that they are unedited, so look out for that. Someday Rap Genius will be perfect, inshallah.
You haven’t taken your criticism quietly. Are your partners cool with the shirtless diss videos, threats and arguments on social media? Do you feel at all complicit in the bad press your camp has weathered?
I feel complicit in the good press, the bad press, even the medium press. Thug life, homie. I'm marinating on a Byron Crawford diss right now. [Here it is.]
What aspect of Maboo has the rap internet court of opinion completely missed the mark on?
Everybody says, “You are making money off of this… blah blah blah!” [Rap blogger and Internets Celebrity Dallas Penn is one of many who have accused Rap Genius of exploiting hip-hop culture for financial gain.]
When we started Rap Genius I never thought we'd make money! The goal was to meet Killa Cam. We wanted to have a Yale Master's Tea, a snobby event they do at Yale, with Cam'ron to have a good time and introduce Killa to some college girls! I love Cam. I admit he’s fallen off [Yeah], but at his prime, he was the best rapper ever, in existence [Yeahhhh!]. His was the first song I explained on the site. [That song being Purple Haze’s “Killa Cam”.] I started the site to get pussy and meet Cam’ron. I didn’t ever think it could make money, and to be honest, I didn’t want money very much. I drive an Audi. I am a simple man.
Level with me. Are you just playing the heel and fucking with us?
Rap Genius is 40% lies.