Rap Genius Decodes Lyrics for the Masses

Three Ivy League grads launch an online startup to decipher rap lyrics

When the rapper Lil Wayne, aka Dwayne Mic Carter, was released from prison last year after doing time for attempted gun possession, he disappeared into the studio to work on his comeback album, Tha Carter IV. The rap star sent his fans into a frenzy with the release of the first single, 6 Foot 7 Foot, packed with densely woven boasts, threats, and drug references. There was one line, however, that confounded everybody: “Real Gs run in silence like lasagna.”

While some rap aficionados assumed Lil Wayne had blazed one joint too many, the founders of Rap Genius, a two-year-old website that uses the Internet’s hive mind to explore the deeper meanings of hip-hop wordplay, were determined to unravel the mystery. They posted the lyrics to 6 Foot 7 Foot and soon they had an answer. “When you pronounce ‘lasagna’ this G is silent,” Rap Genius contributor “vmoney” wrote on the site. “We certainly had that up before Yahoo! Answers or Cha Cha,” boasts Mahbod Moghadam, one of the site’s founders.

Rap Genius bills itself as a “thug Wikipedia.” Yet Moghadam and his co-creators—Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory left high-paying corporate jobs to devote themselves full-time to rap lyric demystification. Moghadam, 28, worked at Dewey & LeBoeuf, a white-shoe law firm. Zechory, 27, is a former Google product manager. Lehman, also 27, was a programmer at hedge fund D.E. Shaw in New York.

The founders of Rap Genius, who met at Yale, rolled out the site in September 2009 from the living room of the apartment Lehman and Zechory shared in New York’s East Village. It now attracts 732,798 unique visitors monthly, according to Compete, a company that tracks website usage. While they aren’t making much money yet, they say record companies such as Universal Music Group are interested in using the site to promote their acts and digital music companies such as Spotify are considering weaving Rap Genius’s lyrical analysis into their services. “I personally think Rap Genius is on to something,” says Tom Mullen, director of digital marketing for EMI Music, which currently has no business tie-up with the site. “If only I had this when I wrote out every lyric from a tape cassette of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.” In other words, the site could morph from a hobby into a modestly profitable business. “Well, I hope so,” says Moghadam. “Because I’ve been eating a lot of ramen.”

Rap Genius is riding a fairly obvious trend: the mainstreaming of rap. Last year, Yale University Press published The Anthology of Rap, edited by two college English professors who earnestly bestowed an air of academic legitimacy on the work of everybody from the Sugarhill Gang to Carter’s Young Money crew. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that three Ivy League graduates would try to make money on the Web making sense of rap. “They have hit on this weird, niche Zeitgeist moment,” says Noah Callahan-Bever, editor-in-chief of the hip-hop magazine Complex. “If Rap Genius had existed 10 years ago it would have been the ultimate rap-nerd kind of thing. Now when Jay-Z is on the best-seller list, it really seems like the culture is ready for something like this.” Moghadam concurs. He says rap is entering “its late Renaissance” and that Lil Wayne’s “lyrical conceits” remind him of John Donne. He and his partners refer to Kanye West protégé Lupe Fiasco as the “Proust of rap.”

Lehman, Moghadam, and Zechory grew restless in the plum jobs each had landed after Yale. Three summers ago, Moghadam was crashing for a few weeks on the couch at his friends’ East Village pad. He and Lehman got into a spirited debate about the meaning of a line in the song, Family Ties, by Jamaican rapper Cam’ron: “80 holes in your shirt, there: your own Jamaican clothes.” Maghadam says: “I told him Cam’ron was simply talking about Rastas wearing tattered up clothes, like your clothes would look if you got shot up.” Lehman disagreed. To settle things, they decided to appeal to the wisdom of the crowd—and launched Rap Genius with Family Ties and two Jay-Z tunes. Soon a visitor to the site noted that Jamaicans wore mesh tank tops that were full of holes and suggested this was the best explanation.

The founders say their crowd-sourcing service can be expanded beyond rap. “I think the long-term play for them is to go into more verticals and add new content,” says Elizabeth Spiers, founding editor of the website Gawker and current editor-in-chief of the weekly New York Observer. The creators of Rap Genius are experimenting. They have encouraged users to post or interpret songs by the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire (Neon Bible), Elton John (Tiny Dancer), and poems by T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings. Users have even put up excerpts from the Bible. “Some users say, ‘That isn’t rap!’ ” says Lehman. “But other people read about how God turns someone into a pillar of salt and go, ‘Yeah, God! That’s so thug!’”


    The bottom line: The success of Rap Genius, an illuminator of hip-hop wordplay, is another example of rap’s endless commercial possibilities.

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