Inside the company's triumphs over legal traps, PR disasters... and cancer.
It's an early-October afternoon in the penthouse offices of Rap Genius. The floor taken up by the 4-year-old startup -- in a modern glass building on the waterfront in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood -- is sparsely decorated. Other than a large mural of Instagram pics on one wall, it looks almost empty. But there's a balcony with the Rap Genius logo on the railing and a panoramic view of Manhattan. It's a good place to dream of empire-building, of conquering the old ways splayed out across the East River. In fact, it's nearly picture perfect, except for one out of place detail: the two staples on the right side of 30-year-old Mahbod Moghadam's skull.
In the last year, Rap Genius has received a $15 million investment from the Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and tripled its traffic to 25 million. The three Yale grads who started the company -- Moghadam, Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory -- talk about turning Rap Genius into a pillar of the Internet, and building out the site's annotated rap lyrics with Rock Genius, Poetry Genius and News Genius.
But they've also drawn attention for a series of combative statements more befitting battle rappers than entrepreneurs-everything from insulting writers from the New York Times and Spin to Moghadam telling one interviewer that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg can "suck my dick."
As it turns out, five days before Billboard meets Moghadam, he had gotten out of the hospital, where he had brain surgery. A succession of problems -- everything from a breakup to having his wisdom teeth out -- had left him unhappy and uncomfortable. "I was smoking weed 10 times a day, not getting any work done. I was miserable," he says. He was also having problems with his left hand. "I wasn't able to type anymore. I thought I might need elbow surgery." A visit to a sports doctor led to an appointment with a neurologist, who sent him to get an MRI. The doctor who performed the MRI told him to walk three blocks to the hospital and go straight to the emergency room. "I was so checked out that I smoked weed on the way there," Moghadam says.
At the emergency room, he was told he had a brain tumor. Zechory and Lehman rode with him in an ambulance to Mt. Sinai Hospital, where he underwent a six-hour procedure to remove a tumor on the right side of his head. "The moment he came out of surgery the next morning, there was a return of his personality from before the past year, especially his interest in things," Zechory says. "We could see that it definitely affected him."
"This was the No. 1 thing that has made me get my shit together," Moghadam says. "Can't smoke weed again. Seizure medicine can't let me drink alcohol. My only drug is a cup of green tea a day."
It's possible Moghadam's surgery is a turning point -- he told tech site Valleywag the tumor was "the cause of me acting like an asshole and telling all these ballers to suck my dick," and says the episode has brought the founding trio closer than ever.
But a different sort of turning point came Nov. 18, when the National Music Publishers Assn. put Rap Genius at the top of a list of offenders that don't have proper licenses for the lyrics published on their sites. Two days later, Rap Genius announced it had an agreement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing and was in discussions to come to an agreement with the NMPA.
Zechory says the NMPA hadn't approached the company prior to sending legal requests to take down lyrics from the Rap Genius site, "but we are really excited to actually have a conversation with them." And, Zechory adds, "Rap Genius is so much more than a lyrics site. The lyrics sites the NMPA refers to simply display song lyrics, while Rap Genius has crowd-sourced annotations that give context to all the lyrics line by line, and tens of thousands of verified annotations directly from writers and performers. These layers of context and meaning transform a static, flat lyric page into an interactive, vibrant art experience created by a community of volunteer scholars."
Founded in 2009, Rap Genius began as a site that let people write explanations of rap lyrics. Since then, it has added other topics -- rock music, poetry and news. As Rap Genius has grown to more than 25 million visitors a month, it rose to be the third-most-visited lyrics site after AZLyrics and Metrolyrics, according to comScore. Through a combination of relevant content, community building and a little bit of help from site-verified artists like Nas, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and others, Rap Genius consistently pops up among the top three search results on queries for rap lyrics.
It's possible the dust-up with the NMPA could be a prelude to potential battles with other media publishers as the startup pushes into news, poetry, photography and other areas, especially if it continues to reproduce content in its entirety, as it has done with song lyrics. But the deal with Martin Bandier's Sony/ATV will likely cool tempers across the music publishing industry. The No. 1 publisher has a 33% market share, and other publishers are likely to follow its lead to work out licensing deals with Rap Genius.
Still, it's a sign of Rap Genius' growing influence and importance that publishers didn't wait until the startup had an obvious revenue stream before striking. In the recent past, music companies have applied a wait-and-see approach until the alleged infringing business had started to generate real revenue. According to sources with knowledge of the Sony/ATV agreement, Rap Genius doesn't anticipate being revenue-free for long. They're contemplating a revenue model that might be based on subscriptions and is considering whether that should be ad-supported or a paid service. In the meantime, sources say Sony/ATV has received either a sliver of the site's equity or an advance, or both.
For now, Rap Genius is riding high -- using its $15 million in venture financing to create a mobile app and working with universities and other groups to build custom apps. Columbia University, for example, is using Rap Genius to get students to annotate Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" this fall semester and Dante's "The Divine Comedy" in the spring. Harvard University recently agreed to use Rap Genius for an online course on the Bible's New Testament. The works, not coincidentally, are in the public domain -- allowing the company to sidestep the copyright issue for now.
The ultimate goal is crowd-sourced, Wikipedia-like annotations of everything under the sun. "Job No. 1 is to explain all the text on the Internet," Andreessen Horowitz general partner Ben Horowitz says. "That's a very big job. If we do that, the resulting community, usage and value will become high enough, and there will be multiple ways to monetize that. But we're not far enough into it to say how that's going to work out yet."
The company is branching out to include a variety of texts. In addition to the fledgling Rock Genius, Poetry Genius and News Genius sections, it's carving out communities for country music, sports, law, philosophy, movies, TV shows, history and religion.
That's generating a large audience, one that's engaging with the site to the tune of 102,000 comments (Rap Genius calls them "annotations") a month, up from 44,000 a year earlier.
At the core of this growth are users who share the founders' deep and nerdy passion for rap. Moghadam, Lehman and Zechory recall rappers who have come through their offices. Lehman remembers getting Flatbush Zombies to stop by after running into them at an A$AP Rocky show earlier this year. Zechory name-checks Smoke DZA and Action Bronson as early supporters and frequent users of their online enterprise. For Moghadam, it's all about Chicago MC Chance the Rapper, whom he hung out with in Malibu, Calif., after the rapper stopped by the Rap Genius offices.
"In Malibu I had a piano ... and [Chance] sat down and started playing jazz and blues songs," Moghadam recalls, before turning to Lehman and asking, "Tommy, can we get an electric piano in here?"
"Whatever you want, dawg," Lehman replies.
While Moghadam presents himself as the slightly more serious member of the Rap Genius brain trust, none is above laughing at a popular Internet meme called "Kendrick Llama," which fuses the images of Kendrick Lamar with a llama. Humor, Lehman points out, is one of the key components of Rap Genius' Web-friendly annotations. "It has to be funny and jocular, but also informative," Lehman says of the hyperlinked text on the site. "It's a fine line, but that's the only way you can engage people in a subject. You have to have both elements."
These little nuggets of insight have helped Rap Genius' rise in the search rankings. "The website passed the 4-year mark at the end of August, and the [search engine optimization] victories we've achieved didn't happen overnight," Zechory says.
Rap Genius today is essentially a community built into a social network. Users add annotations to explain the lyrics, vote on other explanations or suggest edits to lyrics if they've been added incorrectly. These users form a community, organized through forums, email lists and private relationships, where they can earn status and even become moderators on the site.
Part of its success in garnering the attention of search engines is its ability to generate individual page links for every line of a song that's annotated. As a result, a single track can have a dozen or more pages-each containing a discussion of the particular line it's attempting to explain.
"Lyrics were certainly a part of it, but we also have very relevant results for when people search for an individual line in a song, and it's pretty often that people will hear a line that they're unsure of," Zechory says. "Rap Genius is the only place that has relevant content linked to that specific line, so we often get the top results to those searches."
Search experts point to other things that Rap Genius appears to be doing well. "Google is always paying attention to 'perfect' when ranking results," says Ian Lurie, chief executive of Portent, an Internet marketing agency that specializes in content development. "Their site is very fast. It's very well-built. And it has very high-quality in-bound links, which means high-quality sites are linking to it. They've given it every advantage."
In addition, Rap Genius' community, with its verified artists acting as an anchor, serves to generate social media attention. "Google has refocused a lot of its ranking power to social media, especially Google+, and that's given Rap Genius a leg up on AZLyrics," says Nick Sayers, a spokesman for Moz, a provider of search analytics. "Google also loves brands, because users love brands, too. Look at AZ's branding versus Rap Genius'. AZ doesn't even feel like a real company or have any type of consistent logo."
But while Rap Genius is doing everything right from a site-building perspective, it's tripped on some cultural backlash.
Asked about negative press, the added pressure of a multimillion-dollar investment in their business and its legal copyright issues, the Rap Genius founders abide by Lil Wayne's song "No Worries" and shrug them off. Instead, they're looking toward a massive 2014.
"Rap Genius is going to explode," Moghadam says. "We're going to have millions of users explaining stuff to hundreds of millions looking at stuff. Our employee body is going to grow from 30 to hundreds. We're going to be the biggest website in the entire world-bigger than Facebook, bigger than Twitter."
[Additional reporting by William Gruger]