Believe it or not, the biggest hip-hop Web site isn’t WorldStarHipHop.com, Jay-Z’s LifeandTimes.com, or Curtis Jackson’s Thisis50.com. That title belongs to Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, the co-founders of RapGenius.com who met as undergraduate students at Yale University. The talented trio started their Web site in 2009 as a way to provide rap fans with a place to listen to music and read rap lyrics and as of June 2012 they receive more than 10 million unique visitors per month. Unlike other sites where feedback is often restricted or heavily monitored, Rap Genius encourages users to be an integral part of the team by providing them with a lane to analyze lyrics line by line and explore what the original MC meant. The ultimate co-sign came when notable rappers such as Nas, 50 Cent, and Lupe Fiasco added their own “verified” input on the site to reveal the real message behind their rhymes.
No one has covered the rise of Rap Genius more than Forbes staff writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg, who is also the author of the acclaimed biography on Shawn Carter, “Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office.” Therefore, it came as no surprise that when Rap Genius announced last month that Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm founded by Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, was investing $15 million in their company Greenburg was given the exclusive story. The blockbuster deal will include a greater reach for Rap Genius which hopes to also explain books and court cases in the same manner that it breaks down rap bars. It will be the only place on the Web where true hip-hop fans and avid readers alike will be able to weigh the importance of “The Great Depression“ by DMX and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I spoke with Greenburg to find out more about this monumental and mysterious merger.
This deal between Rap Genius and Andreessen is historic. Please explain what it entails.
Andreessen Horowitz paid $15 million for some percentage of Rap Genius. The thing I couldn’t figure out and I don’t think anyone else has figured out is what percentage. It could be 15 percent. It could be 100 percent. They didn’t say for sure so I don’t really want to hazard any guesses because I honestly don’t know.
No one would have expected this partnership to take place. Explain more about what Andreessen Horowitz specializes in.
They are one of the big venture capital firms out in Silicon Valley. Mark Andreessen is basically the guy who founded Netscape and Ben Horowitz has got a pretty impressive resume himself and he’s the business partner. What they typically do is find a start-up that they think has something interesting to offer and they invest in the company and the idea is to find the next Facebook or Twitter. Down the road if Rap Genius becomes something that’s the size of Wikipedia then whatever their $15 million investment got them in October 2012 will in theory be worth a lot more in October 2015.
How did Andreessen Horowitz find Rap Genius? Did they have a previous relationship?
Ben Horowitz is a big hip-hop head and he was kind of outted by the guys at Rap Genius. They were in Y Combinator, this tech incubator, and that was a year or two ago. It’s a program in Silicon Valley and they got to know people in the industry. Eventually they got to talk to Ben Horowitz about his hip-hop proclivities and also around the same time The New York Times did a story on that and that was kind of what got the conversation going and they kept up their relationship and it turned out pretty well for Rap Genius. And I think it will turn out pretty well for Ben Horowitz as well.
Rap Genius claims that they are the biggest hip-hop site out there. Were you able to confirm this?
Yes, that’s what they say and that’s what Andreessen Horowitz says and I believe them. You can go to Compscore.com or Compete.com where you can get the page view counts and you can look at it by traffic. But these sites that give the traffic metrics aren’t exactly always that reliable. Forbes gets over 30 million uniques per month and they have us at five or six or something. It’s hard to know what the exact numbers are unless you have a look at the books. I believe that they are the biggest hip-hop site by traffic.
With that being the case, I’m shocked that a rap mogul like Russell Simmons, Diddy, or even Def Jam never approached them to invest?
No, I don’t think that’s exactly the case. I’m sure they’ve been approached by other people and there may be other investors who just haven’t been announced but if there are I don’t think it’s anything of this magnitude.
Well, it really started to explode over the past year or so. I’ve been aware of them for two years now when I first was introduced to the guys who run it. Even back then the site was totally functional and awesome. Last winter, I gave a talk at a New Jersey community college and someone mentioned something about Rap Genius and people were like, “Whoa! Rap Genius.” And when I asked the group about how many of them knew of Rap Genius, everybody in the class raised their hand. So at some point in there it jumped the proverbial shark and they got millions and millions of visitors a month and if you go on there you can see the sheer volume of user-generated stuff coming in. It’s pretty impressive
Who is Rap Genius competing against at this point?
In the past, if you wanted to know the lyrics to a song you would Google Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” lyrics for example. Before Rap Genius you would probably come up with these weird sites like MetroLyrics.com or Lyrics007.com and you would go there and it didn’t look like a well-run Web site although some of them do look a little better now. In the past, no one ran away with the lyrics business in part because there was this issue that lyrics were considered part of music publishing and as such it’s in a sticky, grey area of copyright law. Should you be compensating the copyright holder for it if you post it on your Web site? Probably but what if it’s user-generated like Wikipedia? No one is saying that Wikipedia needs to compensate people for putting up poetry or something so I think that as it happens they are kind of in the clear. I’ve talked to a couple of lawyers about this and there’s not a real precedent for it so it’s hard to say but it seems that the law would indicate that it’s fine because these are user-generated explanations and thus it’s not infringing on anything.
I think that’s not a real concern anymore because if you look on the site they’ve recruited already over the past year just a ton of actual rappers who see the value in having their lyrics out there to be analyzed. They have “verified” rappers. You can get verified on Twitter. You can get verified on Rap Genius. But from Lupe Fiasco to 50 Cent to RZA to Nas, these guys are all on there. They do video explanations of their lyrics and they comment on their lyrics. I actually interviewed Nas about this and he told me that the users told him things about his own songs that he didn’t even realize so it’s a real cool medium and not just for rap lyrics but as I said in the article I think law cases and literature. That model can be applied to a lot of things. I think that’s why Andreessen Horowitz was so interested in it.
Where does Rap Genius hope to go from here?
I talked to Ben Horowitz about this and the founders and they’ve already branched out into that and I think right now they’ve been mostly focusing on things that are part of the public domain for example, “The Great Gatsby.” After a certain amount of years, the rights of a work of literature reverts to the general public and so that’s how they have the whole text of “The Great Gatsby” which is analyzed on the site. But obviously for my book (“Empire State of Mind) they can’t just take my book and put the text up there for a book that is out in print and somebody holds the rights to it. It’s not considered public domain. They would have to license it in order to get it up there. Horowitz suggested that part of that $15 million sum will go toward paying licensing fees for existing books and things like that.
Rap Genius seems like a great idea but as you know artists have their own Web sites and like to control their own content. Has there been any resistance from artists who don’t necessarily like their music being judged by Rap Genius?
No. I interviewed Lupe Fiasco a couple of weeks ago at this party for his album and he was talking about Rap Genius. It was sort of a fan recognition awards ceremony and he was awarding people that were doing good things for him and for hip-hop and one of the awards went to Rap Genius. I think the artists in hip-hop feel like the point is the lyrics and if you have this great medium for analyzing them all the better. It just keeps people more interested in your work.
You also wrote in a previous Forbes article that Rap Genius actually did a better job of decoding Jay-Z’s rap lyrics than his own book, “Decoded.”
I definitely think that’s the case and that’s why I wrote about that. In “Decoded,” how many songs does he analyze? On Rap Genius, it’s all of them. Jay-Z has a vested interest in having something be interpreted a certain way. I remember in “Decoded” he explains, “I Got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” A few people know that the bitch in question was actually a dog and he didn’t really mean it about women. Did he or didn’t he? At this point in his life, he’s probably not going to say that that’s what he meant even if he did mean it or it was part of a double entendre. I believe the dog was part of it but Jay-Z is the self-proclaimed master of the double entendre which I think is a fair title. I can’t imagine that he didn’t know the implications of his words and didn’t want you to think it could be either. I would imagine there are multiple viewpoints on Rap Genius.
To learn more about Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s biography on Jay-Z, visit www.JayZBook.com.