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Startup Club: Rap Genius

Shalom Life speaks to Mahbod Moghadam, co-founder of the budding annotation site and 'Internet Talmud' which continues to grow exponentially, attracting approx. 30 million monthly users around the world

By: Daniel Koren
Published: October 16th, 2013 in Business » World
Mahmod Moghadam, Tom Lehman & Ilan Zechory of Rap GeniusPic: Mahmod Moghadam

Over the past few decades, a growing number of small businesses involved in various industries have popped up around the world meeting the needs of an ever-growing, ever-changing market.

Jewish businessmen and innovators continue to excel throughout these industries, displaying their prowess as creative, forward-thinking entrepreneurs, and tapping into continuously developing markets with 'startup' companies.

In a bid to recognize these decorated entrepreneurs for their ongoing contributions and advancements to these fields, Shalom Life is pleased to present: Startup Club, highlighting the best and the brightest of Jewish entrepreneurs who continue to provide our community with new, influential and innovative ideas that will forever change the way we interact with the world, and with one another.

Follow our lead and we’ll follow yours – send us tips or suggestions via email, comment below or tweet us @ShalomLife, in our mission to celebrate the most visionary of Jewish entrepreneurs.

Business: Rap Genius

Based Out Of: Williamsburg, New York

Entrepreneur(s): Mahbod Moghadam, Ilan Zechory, Tom Lehman

Industry: Annotation Site


In a post-Wikipedia world, where crowdsourcing information has become the preferred method of relaying news and content to one another, entrepreneurs and scholars alike continue to develop fascinating new forums where we can annotate, dissect, discuss, compare and engage.

Where many sites have come and gone since Wiki has bolstered itself as leader of community-based mediums, a new challenger has entered the fray, one who is looking to give the content giants a run for its money, and, so far, is doing a hell of a good job at it.

As any aficionado of hip hop will tell you, rap music can often be easily misinterpreted. Furthermore, as street lingo and urban dictionaries are updated as often as Miley Cyrus' shenanigans are mentioned in the news, the lyrics of these songs can be very difficult to decipher.

Rap, perhaps the most popular modern day genre of music - with billions of hip hop heads across the world - obviously has a very large fanbase, with fans constantly wondering what their favourite M.C.'s actually 'mean' whey they use certain phrases, passages and even words.

Therefore, pertinent to the millions who blast and promote rap, whether it be old school classics like 2pac and Big L, to new wunderkids like Chance the Rapper and Freddie Gibbs, there is thankfully a large community-based database of lyric sheets that has galvanized an ongoing, international conversation on the subject: Rap Genius.

Founded in 2009 by Jewish Yale students Mahbod Moghadam and Ilan Zechory, alongside computer whiz Tom Lehman [the former two did throw him a Drake-style 'HYFR' Bar Mitzvah last year], Rap Genius, a 'hip hop Wikipedia' of sorts, began as a byproduct of this social evolution, dedicated to dissecting, annotating and understanding what 'it' all means.


(Tom Lehman, Mahbod Moghadam, & Ilan Zechory)

Shalom Life had a chance to speak to Moghadam on the site's ongoing success, receiving a $15 million investment from Ben Horowitz (of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz), having verified artists like Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent on the site, and on the company's latest ventures: Rock, Poetry, and News Genius.

"Rap Genius is the 'Internet Talmud' as it breaks down all of text," Moghadam explains to me. "The reason we started with rap is because its at the cutting edge of human culture. It's available in every language, it's something people with lower and higher incomes have embraced, so it speaks to the majority."

"The first rapper we broke down was Cam'ron," he recalls. "I was explaining this song ("Family Ties") to Tom (co-founder of the site) about the lyrics: '80 holes in your shirt: there, your own Jamaican clothes'. Without any knowledge, I incorrectly explained these lyrics to him through my own interpretation. Because we have a sense of humour, and a sense of inquisitiveness, we realized that there needed to be a place like this, where we could discuss what lyrics mean."

Moghadam explains that it's crowdsourcing that really put Rap Genius in motion; he also accredits what he refers to as 'baller sourcing', letting legitimate rappers own their own verified accounts, giving them the opportunity to agree or disagree with people's interpretations, or even offer interpretations of their own lyrics, whether via video or text.

Pretty quickly, Rap Genius became about more than just rap.

"The 10th song we explained was Elton John, the 50th text we explained was Emily Dickinson, and for our 100th, we covered the Book of Genesis," says Moghadam. "We had a lot of fun with it, we put in a few jokes, and as Ilan speaks Hebrew, we were able to break down some parts into English in a fun and educational way."

Today, a multitude of mainstream artists have verified accounts on Rap Genius, including Nas (who was the first artist to invest in the company) 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, the RZA, and also Jewish rappers like Mac Miller and Action Bronson (who earned his merit as our favourite Jewish rapper).

"Bronson is particularly hilarious; he does a lot of explanations straight from his mom's house, sitting with no shirt on explaining rap lyrics," Moghadam says. "You can't get more Jewish than that," he adds with a laugh.


In addition to Rap Genius, the trio have launched several other Genius sites, promoting its users to open a discussion beyond the depths of hip hop through Rock Genius (for rock lyrics), Poetry Genius (for poetry and fiction) and News Genius (for news).

Leading to its expansion, in October of 2012, Rap Genius received a $15 million investment from venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. "We were in a Y-Combinator where different people were giving talks, and Ben Horowitz comes in talking about how much he loves rap music, saying how his favourite lyric was from Rick Ross's 'Everyday I'm Hustling,'" recalls Moghadam. "From then, he started linking his blog to us. Eventually we interviewed him on his love for hip hop, which in turn lead to his investment. He's now on our Board of Directors. He's more than than just an uncle money bags," he says with conviction. "He's family."

Today, Rap Genius employs approximately thirty people at their headquarters in Williamsburg, N.Y. or, as Moghadam refers to it, "Chabad Central." Singer/rapper/producer Pharrell Williams has recently become involved in the project, as the company looks to start its next round of investing very soon. Moghadam says he and the company's co-founders are hopefully meeting with Kanye West to discuss him becoming a verified artist sometime this month, though, he admits, it will take some convincing.

Related articles: Startup Club, Rap Genius, Mahbod Moghadam, Wikipedia, Business News, Ilan Zechory, Tom Lehman, Kanye West, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Ben Horowitz
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Startup Club: Rap Genius

Shalom Life speaks to Mahbod Moghadam, co-founder of the budding annotation site and 'Internet Talmud' which continues to grow exponentially, attracting approx. 30 million monthly users around the world

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Startup Club: Rap Genius

Shalom Life speaks to Mahbod Moghadam, co-founder of the budding annotation site and 'Internet Talmud' which continues to grow exponentially, attracting approx. 30 million monthly users around the world

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Online retailer sells anti-Semitic books despite being sued for similar circumstances in 2009

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