Rap Genius
Credit: Mark Ostow

Rap Genius

Until a short time ago, I was sure that the line from Notorious B.I.G.’s 1995 rap classic “Big Poppa” was “Living better now/Gucci sweater now.”

I was not alone in this assumption. But when I recently had to write something about Ready to Die for EW, I pulled up the song’s entry on Rap Genius — the popular Wiki-style site that not only lists hip-hop lyrics but also explains them — and was stunned to learn that after all these years, Biggie was actually wearing a “Coogi sweater.”

And while a number of lyrics sites could’ve corrected me here, only one provided an annotation telling me that Coogi was the Australian clothing brand responsible for the “expensive multi-colored sweaters” that were “first popularized in the U.S. by Bill Cosby in the ‘80s.”

Rap Genius wants to offer its brand of CliffsNotes to more than just hip-hop, though. The site’s new mission is to archive and explain everything from indie rock to poetry to Biblical verses. And now they have the money to do it: earlier this month, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced a whopping $15 million investment in the project.

As Marc Andreessen wrote, the funding will help Rap Genius “generalize out to many other categories of text … annotate the world … be the knowledge about the knowledge … create the Internet Talmud.” A tall order, yes, but the site’s founders — college friends Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory — are confident that they can pull it off.

Very confident. “Five years from now, we’ll have 5,000 employees, we’ll have gone public, and we’ll be the biggest site in the world,” Moghadam tells me when I visit the Williamsburg penthouse-apartment that currently serves as Rap Genius HQ. Moghadam isn’t afraid to make grand pronouncements (sample quotes include It’s the reinvention of the printing press” and “I have this thing that is going to be the future of the written word”), speaking as though it was always obvious that the Internet’s future would come in the form of a rap-lyrics site.

“It’s changed the face of human knowledge,” he says of Rap Genius, before dialing it back just a notch: I mean, so far it’s hip-hop knowledge. But no question, soon it’s going to be all of knowledge.”

Rap Genius launched in 2009 as a “hip-hop Wikipedia” that encouraged a community of “hip-hop scholars,” with users spending hours analyzing and annotating one rap lyric after another. The site blew up pretty quickly, and currently averages over 10 million unique visitors a month.

“There are plenty of lyrics sites,” explains Ben Horowitz, the rap-obsessed Andreessen Horowitz partner who’s betting big on the site’s success. “But Rap Genius is the interpretation of rap music — very, very high-quality interpretations.”

Anyone can join and contribute, but users are ranked according to their demonstrated “Rap IQ,” and only those at the top earn editor privileges. Lately, though, the site’s team has gone a step further by cultivating an increasing number of verified accounts — rappers who sign up and explain their lyrics themselves. So far, name-brand sign-ups have included Nas, 50 Cent, and A$AP Rocky, just to name a few. Some artists even do it twice: the man born Calvin Broadus verified one account as Snoop Dogg and another as Snoop Lion.

That’s some impressive cred, but there’s one particular artist out there they’re still chasing. “Kanye is our white whale,” Moghadam admits.

And that’s where the investment could help. Says Lehman, “It’s just a matter of time before the product gets compelling enough in terms of the features that Kanye’s going to get involved.” Meanwhile, Nicole Otero, the employee whose job it is to get artists on board, thinks peer pressure could do the trick. She’s working on getting West’s G.O.O.D. Music buddy Pusha T signed up soon, perhaps as early as this week. “And we already have 2Chainz signed up,” she says. “So, when you think about it, we’re just getting closer and closer to Kanye.”

“But it can be difficult,” Otero says of the process of getting the rap world involved. “Some labels are pretty archaic and aren’t receptive to these new possibilities. But I have a few allies who are just amazing, people who think outside the box. Def Jam [where Kanye is signed] is pretty down with us. They’re into looking for creative methods of promoting their artists, and they understand the value of people searching lyrics.”

Or searching anything. These days, the site has been widening its scope. “Hip-hop is really the cutting edge of the culture,” Horowitz says. “And the people who are on the site, particularly the scholars, are at the cutting edge themselves. So whether they’re into law or literature or poetry, they tend to have a real affinity with rap.” This leads to contributors posting slang-y explanations of, say, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (annotated by Stanford Law professor Mark Lemley), or the iTunes Terms of Service, or the presidential debates.

Eventually, the goal is for non-rap entries to live on a number of new verticals, such as StereoIQ (for indie-rock lyrics), Bible Genius (check out the lyrics to “Genesis Chapter 1” by Moses), and Poetry Brain (William Carlos Williams and The Great Gatsby are already up). These spinoffs will be found on either the main Rap Genius site or at separate URLs — they guys are still debating.

“I feel like Rap Genius is about to enter puberty,” Zechory says. “There are all these sorts of new and funky things we want to try and figure out. Rap Genius is going to be saying to itself, What are all these changes happening to my body?

Of all the new ventures, Moghadam — who says he sometimes writes his contributors letters of recommendation to places like Oxford University and Harvard Law School — seems most excited about sinking money into Law Genius, which already claims Plessy v. Ferguson as one of its first annotated cases. “[Law Genius entries] are mainly going to come from our hired sources because we’d want everything to be vetted,” he says. “So at first, people at law firms can go and use it and then go pretend they used LexisNexis. And then eventually we want to compete with LexisNexis and WestLaw. Then we’ll probably go premium. Charge every single Am Law 200 firm like 50k or 100k a year for the premium version, which will be amazing. Because LexisNexis and Westlaw are s—, and I know that if we have the staff they have — well, they don’t even have good staffs. We could get together a better legal staff.”

Think that’s bold? If they have their way, the entire Internet will ultimately be Rap Genius’ playground. “Tom’s working on a browser tool,” Moghadam says. “So with anything you’re reading on the web, you can instantly highlight any line, click the explain button, and it becomes memorialized somewhere on our site.”

All this from three guys who still spend all-nighters dissecting Drake albums. But despite their confidence (they already have a skit planned for when they ring the opening bell), sometimes the skeptics do get to them. When a writer remarked in the Wall Street Journal, “I doubt that the next Facebook will spring from a website quoting hip-hop lyrics,” an irked Moghadam sent the article to none other than Mark Zuckerberg (via Facebook, natch).

Pulling up the message thread on his laptop, he showed me Zuckerberg’s supportive response: “Nobody thought we could build what we have starting from a college site, either.”

Says Moghadam, “I almost s— and p—ed myself.” No annotation needed there.

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