Meet the Ivy League Entrepreneur Who Made Millions for Rap Genius

October 29, 2012

A couple weeks ago, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced they'd invested $15 million in Rap Genius, the crowd-sourced, click-baiting rap lyrics explanation site. Firm co-founder Marc Andreesen—creator of Netscape Navigator, Facebook board member and Forbes list runner-up—explained the investment in an annotated letter, stating his goal for Rap Genius to become an "Internet Talmud," illuminating not just rap lyrics but law texts and literature. The site says it's already using Andreesen's seed money to develop offshoots for indie rock, country music, poetry, law and the bible.

Rap Genius was founded in 2009 by three already-successful Yale graduates: lawyer Mahbod Moghadam, Google project manager Ilan Zechory and engineer Tom Lehman. Moghadam is perhaps the biggest character among them, known for a pair of shirtless diss videos targeting Das Racist and The New York Times. Speaking over the phone from Rap Genius' East Coast outpost, a Williamsburg condo-turned-office, Moghadam opened up about Rap Genius' plans for the investment money, mining rap songs for jokes and why he calls himself an orientalist.

How did Rap Genius secure a 15 million dollar investment? People don’t see the scope. We’ve got all these clowns saying, 'They explain rap.' It’s funny because these guys are hip-hop journalists, and they’re acting like rap’s not a big deal. Hip-hop is a huge part of culture. [Andreessen Horowitz co-founder] Ben Hororwitz described it as the leading edge of culture, which I think is true. I didn’t know shit about rap when we started the site. But now I want to educate myself in everything. I want to build a community for poetry, the bible and law. That’s what’s poppin'. I want to know what’s going on there. Rap Genius is one of the tightest sites on the internet, if not the tightest. But if you just read it, then you’re not getting the full effect. Hopefully someday everyone who’s reading will also be a contributor. Nobody just goes on Facebook to browse except for child molesters and shit.

How did you become close with Ben Horowitz? Horowitz loves hip-hop. We’ve known him for six months, and to put the deal together it took like a month. It wasn’t hard-nosed business. He loves the site and totally gets it. It’s not just about his money; his time is way more valuable. We got mad fucked up with him! And he has really good taste in rap. He put me on to Kia Shine. I had never heard “Cashin Out” before he told be about it. Then it was on the radio like every five seconds. And now he’s gonna be on our board. The board of Rap Genius is Horowitz and the three of us founders: me, Tom [Lehman] and Ilan [Zechory].

Who is your audience? When we started this site, we thought our reader was going to be a white kid in college. But most of our editors are not white. Well, I don’t really know their colors, but I don’t think they’re white. If you look at the people who tweet us, I mean, it’s hip-hop. When we get into indie rock we’ll probably have more white fans. But you know, a lot of people think of this as an orientalist exercise, to explain black culture to white people. What’s funny is that’s kind of how we started. We are orientalists. But our community didn’t let us do that. They had too much respect. They wanted to spread knowledge and for Rap Genius to turn into an academic forum, so that’s what it turned into.

What do you mean when you call yourself an orientalist? When we started the site, we were just fucking around. I really wanted to make a coffee table book, like Stuff White People Like, and just have cute explanations of obscure rappers that we liked. And then people started leaving comments like, 'You don’t know shit, You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.' It was Tom’s idea to make accounts, and give people Rap IQ. People use Rap IQ to buy drugs and sexual favors.

You don’t rap well. Why’d you make those shirtless freestyle videos? I’m embarrassed of those freestyles. I guess I just wanted to show off my body. I was in an obnoxious stage. The shit Das Racist talked really irks me though, because I was their fan. It just broke my heart. But they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Talk about orientalists. These guys are so proud of the complex allusions they make to Nas’ lyrics. We asked Nas about Das Racist and he was like, 'Who the fuck is that?'

What’s your routine at the gym? Lot of weights, lot of cardio, lot of ballet. I’m trying to get into yoga. The rest of the guys are big on squats and manly things. I just do a lot of time on the elliptical and listen to hip-hop. Sometimes I get emotional, like if [Lupe Fiasco’s] “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” comes on, I’ll get tears in my eyes. Today’s our hardcore manorexic day. We’ve just been like, talking to reporters. Maybe there’s some sushi in the future.

What do you have in mind for the new sites? Law Genius could grow to be tremendously fucking cool, but it would take a lot more work. I see that site someday becoming a ton of lawyers really explaining each case that comes out. With Poetry Brain I can see us getting some academics on board. Getting a blessing from Cornel West and getting scholars to work with us full time, explaining Marxist theory and Great Expectations.

It seems the world may be less interested in text than ever. How do you get kids to geek out over reading? We want to explain all of text, but in a way that moves away from text. You don’t just have to write your feelings about text here. You can put a GIF, videos. All of those tools make it more right-brained, but it’s still engaged with text. We all have ADHD. We’re hoping we can pull the next generation out of ADHD, or like at least find a way to cope with it. If you’re in college and you have to read Milton’s Paradise Lost, at least you get a lot of cool input from other people that have read it and hopefully their input will be funny. All of our rap explanations have jokes.

How will expansion change the culture of the company? I don’t even want to think about it. When we started the site it was really just only for fun. I got worried when we first started hiring anyone. I’m waiting until they say I’m not allowed to smoke weed at the office anymore. That hammer hasn’t dropped yet. Growing will bring us certain challenges. So far, a lot of the people that have joined the team are just our homies. It would be wonderful if Rap Genius becomes thousands of people and all of the bosses are just our old school genius friends. For now, we have about 500 editors. That number has not mushroomed, because I don’t make anyone an editor if I don’t trust them. There is a recognizable core. But now we have editors who make other people editors. And there are so many people that contributed, whether it’s on one rapper explaining their own stuff, or one note on a Kanye song. We have hundreds of thousands of people contributing to the site, and multiples of that are consuming it.

Which rappers do the Rap Genius community love best? Nas and Kendrick Lamar. Nas was the first rapper to become a verified Rap Genius user. Everyone just loves Nas and thinks of him as this quasi-religious figure. From the new school of rappers, no one is obsessed as Kendrick Lamar fans. Odd Future also has a huge following. Obviously Kanye West and Drake. We’ve been seeing with the numbers that Lil Wayne’s popularity has waned some. Pun intended.

Meet the Ivy League Entrepreneur Who Made Millions for Rap Genius