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Rap Genius Has an Empire, the State In Mind

The revolution will be annotated.
Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory and Mahbod Moghadam onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY on May 1, 2013. Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Forget about music for a moment. Anyone who’s been to a professional sporting event knows the ritual where the home team measures crowd noise on the big screen. Fans cheer, and the volume level increases on screen. But no matter how much the fans roar, the digital measurement always exceeds the actual volume. That’s the hype machine. And that’s life at Rap Genius, where business may not boom as loudly as you’re told, but it’s certainly getting louder.

The history of Rap Genius has been told before: co-founders Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory come from Yale. Moghadam worked at now-bankrupt law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf; Lehman at the D.E. Shaw Group hedge fund; Zechory at Google. Discussions about Cam’ron led to a light bulb moment about annotating music lyrics and some early coding, which eventually became the blueprint for the website. But the back story, while interesting, is not nearly as compelling as the future.

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Rap Genius – like the entire music industry – is packaged in hype. Underneath the wrapping paper exists an informational website that incorporates annotation technology. In 2009, the original site went live as a place where editors and users could provide sourced interpretations for rap lyrics. A Bloomberg Businessweek article referred to the venture as “thug Wikipedia,” but the start-up has since grown into something more complex and widespread. Verified artists like Nas and Kendrick Lamar define their own lyrics. Editors are starting to post about historical documents, such as an FBI suicide letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. With a growing audience, Rap Genius now acts as the umbrella for Poetry Genius and the newer StereoIQ, which will eventually grow into the company’s rock music limb.

So, after four years and noticeable growth, it’s time to talk money. A $15 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz made rounds in the news cycle last October, but the guys have their sights set on larger fortunes, and not just from the site. Their annotation platform has the potential to be used by law firms, investment companies, and even the U.S. government, where Rap Genius has drawn interest from the intelligence community.

“Realistically, I would not be surprised if we are making nine figures in eighteen months,” Zechory says at a meeting in the company’s Brooklyn office.

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The guys all laugh before Lehman jokingly asks, “How many is nine figures again?”

“A hundred million,” Moghadam says. He’s not kidding.

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Bob Gourley, a career operational intelligence officer and former chief technology officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency, tells me he enjoys the idea of something coming out of rap culture getting the attention of government enterprise technologists. It’s a nice way of pointing out that lyrics can be superficial when lined up with the weighty importance of the U.S. intelligence community. If you do minimal research into Rap Genius, you’ll see that anonymous online commenters often argue that "Rap Genius" is a paradox; they claim rap is dumb trash.

Gourley now runs a small consultancy that offers technological assessments for government and business, and he uses Rap Genius, even though he probably couldn’t name one Nas song. He confirms that friends still in government intelligence are interested in the services Rap Genius can provide. “There’s not been an improvement in collaborative intelligence technology since ten years ago,” he says. “What’s the next wave of innovation?”

Now that Rap Genius is posting historical documents, Gourley and other members of the federal community have begun annotating. He points to a recent post about a U.S. Geological Survey on climate change. “It’s very hard to capture knowledge about existing documents in the current process in the intelligence community. There’s a need for knowledge on knowledge that can be updated in real-time.”

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Rap Genius’s annotation platform could have many applications within the government, according to Gourley. For example, Intelligence Information Reports (IIR) let analysts and field operatives communicate, but currently, there is no efficient way to convey feedback or capture knowledge on the reports. Rap Genius could offer a viable solution down the road.

“Now is the right time to think about concepts,” he says. “They need a product, then do proof of concept, and then bring it into enterprise.” But, such a process could take a few years. “Remember, this is the government we’re talking about.”

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"Rap Genius is the reinvention of the printing press. Nothing will ever be in print again…because the entire store of human knowledge is contained within it.”

The Rap Genius offices sit on the edge of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a clean view of the Manhattan skyline and the East River. There are six penthouse suites, each with its own function: editorial, programming, etc. They all have white walls, sparse furniture, and a new-car smell. Rapper Sean Price once summed it up beautifully, “Rap Genius, you could take a shit here.”

Moghadam is spread out on a couch, laptop in hand, jumping from subject to subject: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg‘s verified Rap Genius account; parties at Brown University after a recent technology panel; why Nas is better than Jay-Z. The non-sequiturs flow into a conversational freestyle, but important biases drip out occasionally, like how Nas invested in Rap Genius, while Jay-Z turned his back on the guys after Moghadam told Mark Zuckerberg to “suck [his] dick” in a Wakefield interview.

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“Maybe I just talk mad shit because I’m jealous,” Moghadam says. And then he’s onto the next topic.

Years ago, Moghadam’s law career was cut short when Warren Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, withdrew an internship offer after finding a critical blog post he’d written about a client. It seems he’s not gotten over the slight; in February Moghadam tweeted, “WARREN BUFFETT CAN SUCK MY DICK.” I wrote about the bad blood for Slate, and he contacted me afterward, asking to discuss what had happened.

“You get that it’s just a joke, right?” he said over the phone at the time. But at the office today, he looks more contrite. “I tweet stupid shit and people get mad at me. It’s not an act,” he says.

Eventually, he circles back to the Jay-Z story. Moghadam fueled the fire by posting a private photo of Zuckerberg to Instagram. He apologized and removed the picture at Zuckerberg’s request, but reopened the wound with his uncouth comments.  Around that time, the guys were supposed to hang out with Jay-Z in Houston during NBA All-Star Weekend, but since Jay-Z and Zuckerberg are apparently friends, he revoked the offer.

“We didn’t go. I heard Jay ended up hanging out with some other startup.”

For better or worse, Moghadam is the mouthpiece of Rap Genius–half Bundini Brown and half Dame Dash. His relentless energy has helped the site pull in rappers for verified accounts. He tweets incessantly for the @rapgenius account, and is always angling for more publicity and more hype. He’s also the person who half-jokingly came up with the idea for “Spook Genius,” the would-be name of the Rap Genius equivalent for the U.S. intelligence community.

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Now, a contract with the government is a realistic goal, albeit still in the very early stages and presumably with a different name. Moghadam also brings up other enterprise possibilities–software that covers everything from literature to legal documents. “Rap Genius is the reinvention of the printing press,” he boasts. “Nothing will ever be in print again, not just because it’s digital, but because the entire store of human knowledge is contained within it.”

The end goal is a product that will allow any company or industry to apply the community-annotation platform: lawyers updating legal briefs instantly; shareholders analyzing figures alluded to in quarterly reports; college students providing background to texts and essays for a French literature class. If widespread implementation of the Rap Genius formula takes hold, it could permanently change how users interact with written content for work, school, and recreation. It’s a collaborative and interactive push to increase all available information.

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In the penthouse suite where the computer programmers work, one can start to see how the future applications would take shape. The low rattle of keyboard thumping fills the halls as a half-dozen programmers – all male – fix lines of code for the main site.

Tom Lehman shouts directions and corrections to the other programmers from his office. Between shouts, he tells me he just got a faux-hawk because his Jew fro was out of control. From my perspective, his faux-hawk is still out of control. He’s also wearing a light tangerine blazer, which makes for a colorful distraction as he begins to explain a new Rap Genius feature. The guys have been working on cleaning up a tab that lists the Rap IQ points for users who annotate the site’s content. They’re also focused on creating mobile content, since Rap Genius doesn’t have an iPhone or Android app yet.

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“We’re pushing to go mobile,” he says. “Anything you can just do mobile is the future, since most people are using their phones all the time. We want them to be able to look up Rap Genius wherever they are.”

Tom Lehman. Photo by Jordan Teicher

Lehman takes a break to introduce me to the other programmers. He asks one to bring up the Rap Map, a side project listing important hip-hop locations in major cities. There’s also a Jew Map and a Rock Map, both of which failed to engage the site’s users and are now defunct. “Those two maps were inorganic,” he says.  “We got to see how the community feels about different subjects. It all goes back to the community since they drive the site.”

This trial-and-error approach will ultimately lead to the product that organizations can purchase in the future. Lehman has been building code for four years, working out every kink. Eventually, the programmers will have to create proof of concepts to show how companies can implement the annotation technology behind their own firewalls.

Concentrating on that task won’t be easy, since Lehman and the programmers are constantly tinkering and improving the current site. “How do you prioritize?” he asks. “Where does that fit relative to a million other things we could be working on?” The solution: lists. Lehman recently forced each Rap Genius department to come up with individual lists ranking the importance of their programming needs. “I kind of have to be the bad boy here.”

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He tussles with his tall faux-hawk and turns back to his two computer monitors. I count 10 windows visible at once, some with multiple tabs. There are probably more hidden behind.

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"That’s our primary goal: to be a pillar of the Internet."

If Moghadam is the mouth, and Lehman is the computerized brain, then Ilan Zechory is the face. The guys all go by co-founder, not getting bound up by business titles, but Zechory describes his role as “earth mother,” which means making sure everybody feels good and talks about their feelings. He’s polite and polished and has meditation pillows in his office.

Aside from unofficial psychiatrist, Zechory works with Moghadam on “the day-to-day logistical tragic capitalism stuff,” like paperwork, lawyer communication, and employee recruiting.  He says he tries to stay away from the technological aspects of the company, but a few days before, Lehman praised his mathematical mind and told me that Zechory even trumped him by taking Calculus BC as a sophomore in high school. Moghadam mentions that Zechory worked as a hypnotist at one point between full-time jobs at Google and Rap Genius. I’m not sure if it’s a joke.

When I bring the co-founders into Zechory’s office for a group interview, he does most of the talking. Moghadam throws in some humor and hyperbole, and Lehman looks on, casually bored, likely thinking about what code he needs to fix next. The guys have an easy rapport, but they disagree when it comes to advertising on Rap Genius. Moghadam wants to do creative campaigns, like a Wrap Genius partnership with McDonalds, but according to him, Lehman thinks of ads as “the pollution of the Internet.”

Zechory steps in as earth mother to offer a compromise: “We’re mostly focused on building a cool website for music and other texts for consumers to use for free. That’s our primary goal, to be a pillar of the Internet. When it comes to bringing in money where we wouldn’t have to throw up cheesy ads, [enterprise technology] might be a way of supporting the project.”

Realistically, Rap Genius is looking at a two-year timeframe to develop its enterprise business. “Where the momentum is at, we don’t feel any pressure to rush into anything that’s not the natural next step,” Zechory adds. And due to the guidance and money from their initial Andreessen Horowitz investment, there’s adequate financial support moving forward.

Nothing is guaranteed in the future, but the Rap Genius platform gives the guys an obvious advantage when it comes to potential enterprise contracts in the coming years. Copycats, like MetroLyrics, have failed, because Rap Genius has already established a thriving community of users who annotate and communicate.

“There are other people building more general annotation platforms,” Zechory says. “The very difficult thing is getting kids or people who use the Internet to think, ‘this is something that I want to spend time on,’ and I’m sorry, they’re just not doing it on those other sites right now.”

Rap Genius, however, is continuing to do it. The site recently got 900,000 unique page views in one day, powered by the kind of intellectual dissonance that makes rap appealing to record labels and academia. If the guys can do this for rap, imagine what annotation technology could look like when applied to something that even more people take even more seriously. Imagine how much the technology would be worth. When they reach nine figures, they may even be able to turn the hype machine off for good.