The Slang-Talking Yale Kids Behind Rap Genius Say They’ll Soon Have The World’s Biggest Website

rapgenius founders

[credit provider=”RapGenius”]

A few days ago, a tech investment firm Andreessen Horowitz put $15 million into a site called Rap Genius.Rap Genius is a lyrics site that helps readers figure out what the words behind a song really mean. The community can leave in-line annotations that analyse lyrics, literature, and even presidential speeches.

The site began as a fun weekend side project three years ago; it was created by three friends from Yale. Now Rap Genius is now one of the most-visited lyrics sites in the world.

And, next to pornography and Facebook, lyrics are some of the most-searched topics on the Web.

While the founders didn’t disclose exact traffic numbers, ComScore showed more than 2 million people had visited the site in August. Quantcast showed a higher number: about 10 million. Rap Genius has generated as much as 500,000 pageviews a day, the company says. Hundreds of thousands of rap fanatics contribute to it, including famous artists such as Nas and 2Chainz.

We spoke with the three founders, Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, about their rap-focused rocket ship. We caught them just before a Jay-Z concert, where they were scheduled to meet the musician after his show.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • When Andreessen Horowitz invested, cofounder Ilan Zechory tells us it was like “peanut butter meeting chocolate.”
  • Most websites have white backgrounds. Rap Genius is black with neon fonts. The founders think it’s “chill.” “It’s something you can look at in your dorm room, when you’re on drugs. That’s what we’re trying to build,” one of the founders joked.
  • One year from now, the founders think Rap Genius will be “the biggest site in the whole Internet.”

We interviewed Zechory, Moghadam, and Lehman about how Rap Genius came to be and how it works. Here’s a lightly edited transcript:

Business Insider: Marc Andreessen*, who cofounded Netscape, said Rap Genius is building a feature that he always intended Web browsers to have: annotations. How do you feel about that?

[That] was amazing. We didn’t realise that until we got to know him. There’s Ben [Horowitz] on the one hand who’s basically obsessed with Rap Genius; he just loved the site, he uses it and he obviously loves rap. And then Marc came in and was into the annotate-the-Web thing and it was kind of like, peanut butter meets chocolate.

Are celebrities invested in Rap Genius or do they just use it to explain their lyrics?

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Celebs are using the site. Tons of rappers are using it because they like it. All of these rappers and music labels have approached us because they think it’s a cool concept and community and they want to get in front of all the fans who are into the lyrics. So yeah, it’s just all love. But no, they aren’t invested, they’re just users.

How did Rap Genius start?

I’m from Detroit, Tom is from Miami, and Mafut is from LA. We all met at Yale. And we’ve been at it for three years. It started as a fun project with our friends and we came out kind of organically. We were all working other jobs and this was just a little weekend project. Then people got into it. They liked the idea of listening to a song and reading about it and clicking around to find out things they didn’t quite realise. Little by little, people wanted to contribute, not just read the site.

After several months there were so many people contributing that it made sense to open it up and let anyone contribute and earn points for good explanations. We’d identify people who were good and make them editors with more site privileges. People who were really, really devoted could be moderators and they could pick other editors and police the site.

I love putting up annotations and funny explanations. You create a lasting document for everybody else.

How can more than one person comment on lyrics without over-riding someone else’s work?

There’s only one explanation per line, unless it’s green. Then there could be two explanations, one from a famous, verified person and another from the community. Anyone can leave comments, but those comments either get rejected, left alone, or incorporated into the official explanation. The point of having official explanations is A. It doesn’t get crowded out by noise, and B. It makes it seem more like God is talking.

The community is how we derive meanings but there are people who are hooked on Rap Genius who doesn’t even realise it’s crowdsourced. They just think it’s one dude or God that’s talking.

Are rap lyrics the only things being annotated on Rap Genius? What other kinds of content is the community sifting through?

It’s maybe 90% songs, but thousands of things that aren’t songs such as poetry, literature, random technical stuff, and science papers are being commented on. Your average rap fan has a lot of other interests and we see people flow out from rap into whatever else they want.

Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was on Rap Genius. I was blown away. The explanations were so much better than anything I could have done.

quote rapgenius

How much traffic does Rap Genius get per month?

It changes so fast, it’s exploding. It’s literally millions of unique visitors. In a year from now it will be the biggest site in the whole Internet.

That’s a pretty aggressive statement.

Well so far we’ve done just hip hop and it’s huge. So once we have equal sized things for the bible and law and indie rock and country music and poetry, it’s going to be nuts. And we think eventually everything on Business Insider is going to have the Rap Genius annotations because it’s just more interesting to read.

What was it like for you the first time a celebrity used Rap Genius?

We’re going to the Jay-Z concert tonight with another rapper who uses Rap Genius. He was the first to annotate another rapper’s stuff, and we’ll hopefully meet Jay-Z with him tonight.

Nas was the first rapper to get into Rap Genius. He’s the godfather of the whole verified account feature. We love him.

If you’re a notable person, rapper, writer, or even if you’re an up and coming amateur, you can get verified.

What about copyright issues? How can you legally post lyrics and book excerpts?

Some books are in the public domain, like Moby Dick. Then there are some books that aren’t in the public domain. And when people start to annotate these things, they create something new so people aren’t just coming for the book anymore. They come for the meaning. But for now, just because people are reading it on the Web, we split up books into excerpts or chapters.

What’s with the black background and neon font all over the site? There’s hardly any white on Rap Genius.

It’s cool man! A lot of people say black is bad for the eyes. But it’s chill. It’s something you can look at in your dorm room when you’re on drugs; that’s what we’re trying to build [laughs].

Black is in the Rap Genius colours, so we’re going to stick with that theme. We want kids to like it.

*Full Disclosure: Marc Andreessen is an investor in Business Insider.