Back in the days when I was a teenager … I had Cliffs Notes for Jane Austen and VH1's Pop-Up Video for Janet Jackson.
Fast-forward to July 2009, when Rap Genius arrived online like a smarty-pants in Air Jordans. If I wanted to know what Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest meant when he rhymed, "Scheming on the cookies with the crazy booming back buns," I finally had an omniscient hip-hop Oz. Whereas I go to Wikipedia to find out about Edmond Rostand, I go to Rap Genius to be enlightened on Nas the Don.
For its growing list of loyal fans, Rap Genius is more than that. As sites like Pitchfork, The Fader and Complex transform into slick, multichannel destinations for music news, fresh singles, branded events and other peripheral content, Rap Genius represents the unlikeliest of scholarly forums where someone might explain a verse using Wittgenstein while another supplies a photo of an old Versace cologne as an irreverent visual reference.
Now, the site's founders, Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory, are expanding into indie-music territory. They started quietly spreading the word about Stereo IQ (a Rap Genius for rock) last year, and even without an official launch, it has amassed 2,000-plus fans on Facebook. There's a Rap Genius France Facebook page (for fans of Booba and Ali, among others) and, more randomly, a layman's interpretation of Milton's Paradise Lost.
"If you're close-reading a text, no matter what the text is, you're automatically doing a more intellectual exercise than if writing generalizations about the King James Bible," Moghadam says via Skype from his home in Malibu. "Rap Genius is just a way to introduce people to close reading. And once you get on it, you get hooked."
The numbers from Quantcast, which measures online traffic, back this up. A haven for a growing community of close-reading rap nerds, the site reaches over 3.7 million people globally (a figure higher than The Onion), yet Moghadam calls this number "highly inaccurate." "We have almost triple the traffic," he insists.
If that's the case, it's because people are digging a platform where they can both consume and create content, interacting with each other in a way that reinforces rap's brainy side. It's an artist-driven evolution with Childish Gambino and XV proving that nerds are cooler than thugs and Jay-Z taking his canon to Carnegie Hall. Rap Genius, in turn, is seizing on the momentum by enlisting rappers as "verified users" to attract an even larger audience, engaging with the site and commenting on their own work. Nas has actively come on board, while others – Action Bronson, Toronto's rising talents the Airplane Boys and RZA – have agreed to be a part of the RG posse.
This would bring a new meta layer to a concept that is already steeped in subtext, context and pseudo analysis.
Moghadam, 29, serves as the site's chief personality and scholar and speaks in character, calling Lehman and Zechory, both 28 and New York-based, his "homies" and peppering e-mails with acronyms like YOLO (as in "You only live once," and the hook of catchy song by Drake and Lil Wayne, which is especially amusing given their Ivy League backstory. (The guys met while undergraduates at Yale and even currently grace the cover of the university's alumni magazine in an Annie Leibovitz-inspired ensemble shot.)
Moghadam also pursued a law degree at Stanford; and before the team decided to devote all of its energy to the site, Lehman worked as a computer programmer for a hedge fund and Zechory was a project manager at Google. Moghadam does his best to dodge questions about the financials; it's unclear whether they are self-financed or have had outside investment. He imagines monetizing the site by year five but says, for the moment, that encouragement he has received from the likes of uber-tech investor Ben Horowitz and music mogul Lyor Cohen is just as valuable.
Moghadam still transcribes lyrics himself (when I pointed out that Um Um by Slum Village was noticeably absent, he said he'd get on it ASAP). Alongside every contributor's name is the number of times they've offered input and Moghadam's tally was upward of 250,000 when I last checked. The more frequently someone chimes in – or suggests an improvement to an existing entry – the more Rap IQ points they earn.
The site's original name was Rap Exegesis. The problem? No one could properly spell exegesis, Moghadam says.
"Six months ago, we realized it was going to be the biggest site on the Internet," he says with no pretense of modesty. "It's an intellectual Facebook with every social-networking element. What we do connects people through music."
Co-founder Mahbod Moghadam picks his Top 3 lines on Rap Genius.
1) The one that made Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg – a frequent RG user – send the site fan mail:
"I guess we'll never know where Harvard gets us/ but seeing my family have it all took the place of that desire for diplomas on the wall." (From Crew Love by Drake)
2) The one that Nas himself verified:
"I never sleep, because sleep is the cousin of death." (From NY State of Mind by Nas)
3) The one that inspired the name of the site:
"Biggie Smalls the rap genius/ I keep the Glock by the penis." (From What You Want by The Notorious B.I.G.)