Just How Did These Under-30s Build An Empire Off Rap Lyrics?

Just How Did These Under-30s Build An Empire Off Rap Lyrics?
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In an age in which start-ups are being tailored to exploit every niche on the internet, three former Ivy League students may be on the brink of having their company delve into every one of them, but it all has to start somewhere.

“If there’s a person you love, you want to be with them in an active way,” Ilan Zechory told CNBC. “Same thing with music, you want to be with it in an active way.”

Zechory is the 29-year old co-founder, along with fellow Yale graduates Mahbod Muhammed and Tom Lehman, behind Rap Genius, the increasingly popular site that allows users to break down and explain the meaning behind song lyrics, from the most trivial to the most obvious.

Today, four years after its inception in 2009, the company that was inspired by Lehman’s inability to understand Cam’ron’s “Family Ties” now features over 25 million visitors with one million analyzed songs. And the best part about it is, from the three founders’ point of view, that they’ve gotten artists in on the act, too.

“This is a perfect site for me, because I love talking about hip-hop and lyrics,” Wu-Tang Clan member GZA is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

“The way I write is like a puzzle, so most of it can be broken down and explained in detail.”

The result is a vibrant community of hip hop enthusiasts, ranging from Kenrick Lamar fanatics to, actually, Kendrick Lamar in this one, unique internet forum where songs can transform from being simply catchy to actually meaning something. It’s a straight-forward concept that has caught the eye of talent spotting of venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz to the tune of $15 million.

Besides the fact that Marc Andreesen’s partner, Ben Horowitz, is said to be a big hip hop fan, Andreessen says there’s one big reason that the VC’s (who were once early investors of the likes of Facebook, Skype and Groupon) are getting behind Rap Genius.

“I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything – to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum,” Andreessen said in, of course, an annotated blog on the site he’s now invested in. “And so, 20 years later, Rap Genius finally gives us the opportunity to find out. It’s an ambitious mission, and one we are proud to get behind.”

It’s an unorthodox partnership when you consider it at close glance. On one hand, you have two of the most respected figures in Silicon Valley with the clean-cut look to match their billionaire reputations, and on the other you have three, young co-founders who, at their most animated, can make it hard for critical observers to resist labeling them as — well — douchebags.

The good news, we think, is that Zechory says he and his colleagues are just playing the part.

“He says that his two friends are playing roles, and marvels at their ability to keep up the act,” wrote the Times’ Joshua Brustein. “’I’ve never seen him break character,’ [Zechory] said of Mr. Moghadam.”

Indeed there is a notable difference in the founders’ appearance and cadence between their video interviews with someone whom they regard as a like-minded ,”disruptive” figure, like Tech Crunch’s Josh Contine, and Horowitz, whom they regard as the “godfather” of their company.

During the latter scenario, in which a DLD conference that was held with their main investor, Lehman explains the reasoning behind the site’s temporarily underwhelming look.

“If you visit the site for the first time, you might think ‘oh, there’s some rough edges on here, why isn’t this a flashier design?’ and, you know, a lot of that stuff’s coming and we want to perfect that but there,” Lehman said. “But the reason is that we spend all our energy trying to optimize the experience for the people who are creating the content… That is what you have to do if you are building a crowd source website. You can’t optimize for the first time use of a drive-by user even though you want that to be good.”

That formula is one that has proved hugely successful for the CEO as it has enabled him to produce a reversed version of Wikipedia for music, so to speak.

While the popular web encyclopedia allows users to provide simplified knowledge of complicated topics, with the footnotes at the bottom citing the original sources, Rap Genius presents the original sources as the centerpiece and then allows users, or “scholars,”  to provide additional information. This method, we must add, is so enjoyable that the site has subsequently expanded into other sectors, as well, giving birth to News, Sports and Poetry geniuses.

But, of course, no amount of success can attained without haters throwing criticism. And when it comes to Rap Genius detractors, some of them bring legitimate points.

“It’s frequently incorrect, just straight up wrong, in the transcription and definitely in the interpretation,” said Adam Mansbach to the New York Times, the author of “Go the ____ to Sleep.”

The bottom line, however, for the site that provides mind-blowing, lyrical revelations — can you believe Gucci Mane was referencing Plato in the first line of “Wasted” — is that if they persist on this upwards surge of popularity and continue to attract famous artists and writers to annotate and break down their own work on each of Rap Genius’ platforms, sooner or later there will be no discrepancies across varying interpretations to worry about.

The only aspect that will need to be perfected is the facilitation of all the added information in a manner that maintains conciseness while providing enjoyment in the follow through. Or, in other words, the accomplishment of their main investors’ goals.

Photo courtesy Wired 

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Joseph Milord

A Journalism & Media Studies product from Rutgers University, Joseph began his writing days as a blogger in his sophomore year before a twist of fate saw him cross paths with Elite Daily. He hasn't looked back since, only forward towards fulfilling his obsession with words through many more articles for the voice of generation-Y.

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