An Interview with Mahbod Moghadam of Rap Genius
Feuding with Zuck, calling out the NY Times, and groupie love
In 2009, after a day spent debating the meaning of a Cam’ron lyric, three Yale undergraduates created Rap Exegesis, a Wikipedia-like site where users could annotate hip hop lyrics.
It’s also safe to say the site’s founders are unlike anyone else in the startup scene – that’s why we’re breaking with tradition and running our interview with Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam in full. Because it’s fantastically insane.
Moghadam talked to Editor Guy Cimbalo on the phone from U.C. Berkeley, where he was about to deliver a talk to students. We suspect you’re going to like this.
In the last year, Rap Genius has become hugely popular, been the subject of massive media attention, and scored $15 million from Andreesen Horowitz. How are you guys keeping everything under control?
The worst part is the groupie love – I don’t know who loves me for me. No, no, no, I wish that was the case. Honestly nothing’s changed since day one… Now I’m more tricked out, but it’s still the same deal… We hire people and they work for us for money, but that’s not all they’re doing, they’re working for the love.
And Rap Genius is a cult, I consider it a religion. [Co-founder] Tom [Lehman] is God, and he lets me be the messiah.
How many people are working for Rap Genius right now?
Depends how you count – we’ve got 17 full-timers in New York, but then we’ve got hella part-time people all over the world. There’s a kid who runs Rap Genius France, the kid who runs Rap Genius Deutschland, the kid who runs Rap Genius Iran, and then we have hundreds of people who put it as their job on Facebook… 500,000 people have written explanations and 15 million people a month are reading it, so you know it’s like a Ponzi scheme. Rap Genius is like a giant Ponzi scheme.
It seems like everything can be annotated – there really is something Talmudic about it. What other cultural areas do you see Rap Genius moving into?
StereoIQ that’s my baby – that’s Rap Genius for indie rock… I’m all about indie rock right now. And then Bible Genius, that’s when we’re gonna get real Talmudic.
You know, we might just rip off the Talmud, just upload the Talmud and add animated GIFs or whatever.
So where does it go from here?
We need to get every single famous person explaining their own shit, or their favorite shit. And we need Barack, who’s a huge fan of the site – we need to meet with him, and chill with him, and we need to get him explaining the Constitution, explaining Jay-Z.
You’re saying the President is a Rap Genius reader?
Yeah, one of his aides told us. Since the early days. He’s the man. I’m a fiscal conservative, but I was like fuck Romney…
You know we’re in this feud with Zuck now?
You’re fighting with Mark Zuckerberg?
We took pictures of Zuck with Nas. He should be honored, but he demanded an apology. I guess he’s like Rainman. Apparently Zuck never leaves his house because he’s so afraid of people photographing him, and then our investor – his house is one of the only places where Zuck feels safe – so our investor invited Zuck and Nas over. They were chilling together, and I asked if I could take a photo. He was like “Let’s hold off, let’s hold off,” and I just couldn’t resist – I was drunk, and I went paparazzi and Instagrammed it, and I didn’t even think it would be a thing.
But then the press picked it up and apparently Zuck gets home and his whole PR crew is calling him every five seconds, and he told us to take it down. We wrote a letter of apology and I feel sorry. I regret taking it, I hope this has taught me some maturity, it certainly got me in a lot of trouble. But then on the other hand, fuck that fool – that’s Nas the Don. It’s not like I’m taking a picture of him smoking weed. You know he only went for a year, but once you go to Harvard it’s just game over for you personality wise.
I actually went to Harvard.
Oh my God, I meant except for you. Now you’re gonna burn me. You know we got burned by the New York Times right? They talked mad shit about us and said we were Orientalists or whatever, but honestly they can suck my dick because they’re Carlos Slim’s ho. You know I actually didn’t get into Harvard.
I didn’t get into Yale.
That’s what all the Harvard people tell me. But you know… you know which one you would have picked if you got into both. I remember I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel – just a beautiful book, and it ends with him going to Harvard, and I’m like, game over, I gotta go to Harvard.
Anything else you want to talk about?
Alright so I told you the New York Times is Carlos Slim’s ho, I told you Zuck can suck my dick, what else is there? You know it’s all about the love, I don’t know why I’m being this aggressive. It’s probably because I took Vyvanse for the talk today and I’m just feeling icy. But Rap Genius is all love – I can’t tell you how many people hated us and then they come and they kick it with us and we convert them, you know? You know Zuck, he told me he uses the site all the time, but one thing that hurt was he won’t get a verified account. I heard he’s really into Classics, so we put up Pericles’ funeral oration for him to explain.
If you’re looking to join the Rap Genius cult, they’re looking for developers. Check out the specifics here.
Now go forth (and no pictures please).
We’ll help you discover it.