Maclean's archives: Rap Genius founder Mahbod Moghadam

Rap Genius founder Mahbod Moghadam gives the works of Drake and Jay Z the Northrop Frye treatment

Danielle Da Silva / Flickr

Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam resigned Monday after annotating California shooter Elliot Rodger’s Youtube manifesto. Rodger shot 13 people over the weekend, killing seven, before turning the gun on himself. Usually, Rap Genius allows users in the online community to post their thoughts on the deeper meanings behind rap lyrics. Yesterday, Moghadam used its sister site, News Genius, to post annotations on the rambling speech Rodger posted to Youtube prior to his attacks. The video has since been removed from Youtube and Moghadam’s post has been removed, as well.

In a blog post, co-founder Tom Lehman described Moghadam’s actions as containing “gleeful insensitivity and misogyny.” He went on to say that Moghadam had since stepped down, while other reports suggest he was fired. “I cannot let him compromise the Rap Genius mission,” Lehman wrote.

Maclean’s spoke to Moghadam about the success of Rap Genius last year. This interview was first published in November 2013.

Mahbod Moghadam often hears from his website’s fans, but he’s proudest, he says, when he reads: “I just looked so-and-so up on Rap Genius, and now I think I understand it even less.” That’s because, on the surface, the crowd-sourced annotations of lyrics on the website appear to explain songs—thousands of them—line by line, but really they’re about unearthing layers of complexity.

In fact, Moghadam helped found Rap Genius hoping to use hip hop to take the literary practice of close reading out of the classroom. The site, founded under the considerably less catchy name “Rap Exegesis” in 2009, posts lyrics by everyone from Drake to Missy Elliott to Moghadam himself (he freestyles, often shirtless, under the name Maboo). When users click on a highlighted block of text, a box pops up. The annotations—which can include video and images—elaborate on themes, rhetorical devices and cultural context. We’re told Kendrick Lamar’s line “Is that you wishing a come up, would just come up?” employs “an obscure figure of speech called syllepsis.” Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics about “the extremes of America’s dream / Freud fighting Neo, Freddy Krueger refereeing, now,” are annotated with paragraphs not just on The Matrix and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but also on psychoanalysis, consumerism and the “battle each person faces before realization (becoming the ‘one’) as described by the ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts.”

Some rappers, including stars such as Nas and Kendrick Lamar, have verified accounts on Rap Genius and offer their own annotations. “It’s a way for them to speak in parables, communicate with their fans, and take their own art with a grain of salt,” says Moghadam. “The one I think does that the best is Snoop Dogg.” On one video annotation, the artist also known as Snoop Lion admits, “I don’t ever even think about my lyrics like this when I write them up.”

Close reading—examining and interpreting texts intensely—is a skill that Moghadam insists is “going to be valuable to you as a writer, as an attorney and who knows.” The 31-year-old former lawyer, who founded the site with fellow Yale grads Ilan Zechory (an ex-Google employee) and Tom Lehman (a web coder), says, “We think of Rap Genius as the Yale University that everyone goes to without the niggling loans at the end.”

On the phone from Rap Genius HQ in Brooklyn, Moghadam comes across as both off-the-wall and thoughtful. At Yale, he studied history as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Persian. “In a foreign language,” he says, “you can’t do anything but close reading. If you have to look up every word, you end up looking at [a text] from a microscopic perspective.”

Rap Genius comes with a caveat: lyrics are usually fan transcriptions. After the site (which now streams audio) premiered his single Fam Jam, Canadian rapper Shad was concerned that the words were “really wrong.” So he amended some lyrics and weighed in to offset a dubious fan annotation, asserting that his song was about celebration, not laughing back at “bullies.” Yet, Shad, who holds an M.A. in liberal studies from Simon Fraser University, is encouraged by Rap Genius: “People are listening closely and drawing lines between what I said on this and that song. I think it’s great. Analyzing lyrics is good: music is supposed to matter.”

With $15 million in funding from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Rap Genius now reaches over a million registered users, and is expanding, not only with sister site Rock Genius, but also well beyond music. Among its spinoffs are Poetry Genius; News Genius, which includes addresses from President Barack Obama; Fashion Genius, which deconstructs designs; and soon Art Genius. Moghadam, as full of braggadocio as a platinum-selling rapper, believes Rap Genius’s coding will proliferate as well: “This is going to be what reading is from now on.”

There remains one art form, however, that’s beyond even his grasp: “I’m a huge fan of Beethoven and Schubert. If someone can come up with a legitimate way to do Classical Music Genius, I would be in love with them.”

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