Rap. Unwrapped.

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Questioning and second-guessing a lyric’s meaning is part of the fun of rap. “When it’s done well, [rap is] an intellectually stimulating genre,” says editor Schneller, who is now in law school at Harvard. “No other music form lends itself to such textual analysis. Once you get into it, you realize how much of a barrier there is to understanding the genre. There’s all this complexity going on; you have to be able to understand the words to be able to appreciate it.”

As Jay-Z posited in his memoir Decoded, rap is indeed a coded language. It’s an insider’s genre, filled with obscure references, region-specific slang, and double entendres. “Rap comes from young black people,” says Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “Because it is a code language and adults don’t always understand it, hip-hop is very vulnerable to this very superficial look at it.” Both liberals and conservatives, he says, frequently misunderstand it, sometimes with disastrous results. Witness a correction the Washington Post ran in 2009: “A Nov. 26 article . . .  incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.”

“Here’s what’s brilliant about Rap Genius,” Charnas says. “It realizes that music is more than just text; it realizes that there’s context and subtext. And it puts that context and subtext in hypertext.”

Other high-traffic sites do some of what Rap Genius does. Several sites provide lyrics to popular songs, the largest being MetroLyrics, with 10 million unique visitors a month in the United States. And SongMeanings.net and similar sites provide a way for users to interpret lyrics. But with its focus on interactive community-building, its pop-up videos and its “Rap Map” outlining rap’s historical spots, Rap Genius is unique. Says Charnas, “I’m not sure there is any competition for these guys, at least on the meta-lyric analysis level.”

Not everyone is a Rap Genius fan. Last September, the rap group Das Racist released a song called “Middle of the Cake,” which included a line calling the site “white devil sophistry,” a dis that delighted Moghadam: if you’re part of a feud (or “beef”) in the rap community, you’ve arrived. Moghadam, who is Iranian-American, and therefore, as he sees it, incapable of being a white devil sophist, made the most of it on the site, annotating Das Racist’s line with the note, “In fact, the editors of Rap Genius are quite swarthy.” He then uploaded his own video dis of Das Racist. Rapping freestyle—and shirtless—he said, “You got into Wesleyan / That’s in the second-tier club / You’re rollin’ with your US News thug / My boys at Rap Genius group, we went to Yale / And we ball on y’all.” (Moghadam now admits that he really loves Das Racist and adds that Wesleyan, the alma mater of Das Racist cofounder Himanshu Suri, is a very good school.)

About the shirtless part: Moghadam, Zechory, and Lehman are all avid gym rats. It’s part of the Rap Genius shtick. For a while this past summer, the trio were living hunkered down in a three-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park, California, where it was all Rap Genius, all the time. The gym was a regular part of their routine, and they’d go together, because inspiration strikes on the treadmill, too. “We live together, go to the gym together, everything,” Moghadam says. “Our girlfriends are getting jealous. We are truly a Rap Genius family.”

“It’s just way better and easier to work with people in person,” Lehman says. “When you’re trying to start your own website, it’s a pretty messy process. Whether it’s putting out fires or brainstorming, you need that face time.”

To facilitate that time, the three founders quit their jobs, having banked enough cash to carry them through for a while. The site doesn’t have ads yet, and the trio is vague when asked about business plans. Says Moghadam, “Facebook didn’t start ads for five years; we’ve been around for less than three years, and I think we’ll eventually get bigger than Facebook. So we just chillin’ for now!”

Still, they’re clearly positioning themselves for the non-chillin’ times, and when they do start taking advertising, they’ll be able to offer the kind of demographics that advertisers love. Like most music sites, Rap Genius skews young and heavily male. Some 63 percent of its readers are male, the vast majority of the audience is between 12 and 34, and the household income is $75,000 and up, according to comScore.

Zechory left a secure job as a Google project manager (he’s also a part-time hypnotist) to move to New York with Lehman, and he does concede that one of the reasons was to have access to the big media companies. (Moghadam is commuting between Los Angeles and New York.) “If you want to sell ads,” he says, “New York is the place to be. There’s all sorts of media action, all sorts of hip-hop activity in New York.”

For its founders, Rap Genius is just one step in their quest for domination of the wiki-space. They want to be the wiki-masters of all text, and have added to their site dissections of Beatles lyrics, the Bill of Rights, and the Bible (seriously). Already, there’s a Rap Genius in French, a Rap Genius in German, and a Reggae Genius. In the works: Rap Genius offshoots in Nigeria, Russia, and Kenya, as well as a Spanish and a UK version.

“Eventually,” says Moghadam, “we’ll be the biggest site on the Internet. Our goal is to explain text. Text is going the way of the dinosaur—everyone’s into video now. I think that’s a shame. We marry video and text. This is a way for the video generation to get a close relationship with text.”

Adds Zechory, “I think [the site] is going to be another pillar of the Internet, like Google, YouTube, Facebook.” So Rap Genius will stay around? Oh yeah, he says. “This isn’t going anywhere."


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