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Hip Hop Snobs Interview: Rap Genius

April 17, 2011

Have you ever found yourself listening to a rap song and you come across some lyrics in the song that you couldn’t understand the meaning of. For example what did Nas mean when he said, “Nas is like the the Afrocentric Asian” from his classic song It Ain’t Hard To Tell. Rap music is full of these instances where certain lyrics need to be explained because of slang, metaphors, how some rappers can create layers of depth in their lyrics and the overall poetic nature of rap. Whenever you find yourself in this situation you should hit up Rap Genius. Rap Genius is a wikipedia like website that explains rap lyrics. You can search the site and find the lyrics and the meanings to the song that you need a further help with. Also if you feel that you are a expert at understanding lyrics you can join the site and start explaining lyrics for other people. I was able to get a interview with Mahbod Moghadam from Rap Genius and we discuss the origins of Rap Genius, favorite lyrics, new rappers, why Lil B is popular, what’s next for Rap Genius and more.

How did Rap Genius get started?

My boy Tom asked me what the line “80 Holes in your shirt; there your own Jamaican clothes” means in Killa Cam’s Family Ties. When I told him it’s about meshed out Rastas getting shot, he got so excited he built me a website. (Read more about the creation of Rap Genius here)

Have you always been curious about rap lyrics?

I’ve been listening to rap since I was 14 – I used to sit and write the lyrics out to help me memorize them. The first album where I made a concerted effort to memorize every word was the Marshall Mathers LP.

How many registered users does Rap Genius have?

About 15K – but only a handful of people (like the OG Sam here) actually “run” the site – most people just provide raw content. It’s like Wikipedia in that respect. (The DIFFERENCE with Wikipedia is that our editors get laid)

I discovered Rap Genius through Twitter. What do you think has helped Rap Genius become popular? Has social media sites like Twitter and Facebook become the main ways that people discover Rap Genius or is it mostly through search?

The main way people discover is us search – nothing else even comes close. Most sites that get traffic from search have shitty content though, whereas Rap Genius is hilarious. The best part about Twitter is not it’s value as a marketing tool, but as a tool for stalking rappers, ex-girlfriends, etc.

The Rap Genius community is very active. Are you surprised at how people have taken to explaining rap lyrics?

Not one bit. If I hadn’t started it, I’d be on it all day (I wonder if I’d get editor privs though…)

Name a few of your favorite albums, songs, and rappers?

Killa Cam’s Come Home With Me, SDE, Purple Haze, and Killa Season are my lyrical favorites (albums). For overall swag, gotta go with 2Pac. I’m also partial to Gucci Mane – I get pissed when people say he’s retarded, that man is a genius. Fav. Gucci Line: “my little boy 1 but his shoes 400!” , from Never Too Much Money.

Cam’ron’s Get Em Daddy was the first song I explained on the site – for pure lyrical genius, I can’t think of a better selection, “It’s like my lawyer know black magic, black rabbit, Out the black hat, black”, is my favorite line in there.

Of the new rappers, I’m obviously quite impressed with Odd Future – “nine cocks that cock nines” on Yonkers has a certain Wu-Tangian quality to it.

Lyrically I think Jay-Z is the most interesting rapper to study because he has a deep discography and his lyrics are more open to interpretation than other rappers. Do you agree?

Ah yes, I didn’t even mention Jay-Z in my personal favorites, but he’s the MOST Rap Genius-friendly rapper of them all. I never understood the full meaning of “Even if Jehovah witness, bet he never testify” until I read it on Rap Genius

Can Childish Gambino become the next Drake? I think he tries to hard to sound like Lil Wayne. What do you think?

We did an interview with Childish Gambino – the dude is obviously a genius but he seemed depressed and insane. He reminds me of…me. He’s human, whereas Lil Wayne is a martian.

Drake is all-too-human as well, but at least he tries to put on more of an act. Childish Gambino doesn’t think of himself as a rapper – he’s just trying to use music to have fun and get bitches.

I think Lil Wayne is simply on another level, it’s apples and oranges. But this AOTL song I thought was charming, he sounds like a talented drama camp student who recorded this late-night in his cabin.

Two rappers that are always being compared are Wiz Khalifia and Currensy? I’m on Team Currensy. What side do you fall on?

Impossible to choose. Wiz Khalifa’s album was all for junior high school girls – but he’s got swag on mixtapes. Curren$y is the clear connoisseur’s choice here – my favorite song of his, Flying Lion (Winged Land Mines)

Who has the better future Drake and J. Cole?

Drake is a huge meme now – but he’s not talented at making music. I think he’ll eventually go back to acting/making movies and blow up. J Cole is lyrically on another level – only worry with him is that he’s from an older genre of rap. He’s basically “Jay-Z Jr.”. It’s like what they say about Rachmaninoff: he would’ve been a great composer in the 19th Century, but for a 20th Century guy he sounds too much like a throwback.

Although I did like Lil B’s Base For Your Face with 9th Wonder, Phonte, and Jean Grae. I tried to get into his music but it does nothing for me. Can you explain the fascination with Lil B and your thoughts on him?

Lil B is subtle – I think HE is dope, but obviously there is racism imbued in the white hipster fascination with him. They want to see a Sambo act like a monkey and that’s what he gives them for $60K a pop. Still, I think there’s genius in his work. Listen to his Charlie Sheen rap – it sounds like some retarded bullshit. And yet EVERY single line is a subtle allusion to some part of the Sheen story. Rap Genius is designed for lyricists like Jay-Z and Lupe, but I guess what I’m trying to say is you need Rap Genius to appreciate Lil B as well. We decoded his Charlie Sheen, as a video breakdown. I think it’s bomb.

When Charlie Sheen was America’s sweetheart for a few weeks. I predicted that Rick Ross would be the first rapper to have a song based on Charlie Sheen and his catch phrases. I was wrong because Lil B was the first do it. The video breakdown of Lil B’s Charlie Sheen was something new. Will video breakdowns of lyrics become a major feature on the site?

Soon, every song with a video will also be presented as a video breakdown, although we’re looking for suggestions on how to improve it. I think right now the shit goes to fast for slow readers – maybe we should fuck with the Chopped N Screwed versions LOL. Here’s the video breakdowns for Yonkers and Empire State of Mind.

From all the new rappers, who are you most excited for?

Odd Future, no question. Wu-Tang Clan selected OFWG as their official successors – need I say more?

Which rapper do you feel doesn’t get enough credit for their lyrical ability?

GUCCI MANE! this dude makes siiick turns of phrase. He has a whole song about television shows he used to watch, I Live In a TV. Sadly, everyone thinks he’s an idiot. Have they listened to Lemonade? Where are you gonna find a radio song that has a similar level of intricacy?

The blog post about the Triple Entendre is my favorite post on Rap Genius. There is some controversy over Jay-Z’s opening lines on Light Up and whether it was a triple entendre or not. Maybe the lines have to do with everybody’s favorite subject the illuminati.

I think Jay-Z was simply confused – certain literary critics say “Triple Entendres” don’t even exist!

The Illuminati actually put down the angel money for RG, so I can’t really talk shit. I think they are very supportive of rap – they even admit it was their bad getting W. Bush elected..

The Illuminati has always been a subject in rap since the early 90′s but recently it has become a hot topic in the hip hop community. What do you think has caused this rise in discussing something as secretive as the illuminati?

Rap is turning away from both the “gangsta image” (a la 2Pac) and the “bling image” (a la BIG) – the new shit is nerds, hipsters, skateboarders – basically everybody wants their rappers to act white now. Which is fine with me, I’m all about racial harmonization.

But the Illuminati gossip is a reaction to the “bling image” – honestly, it had gotten out of hand (much like auto-tune). I think people who drop a shitload of money on designer clothes and alcohol are…you know…

I noticed the site recently did a video breakdown of Friday by Rebecca Black and a explanation of Born This Way by Lady Gaga. Is explaining lyrics from other genres something Rap Genius will do more of?

For us, it’s all rap. We’ve explained about 1/10th of the Bible – but only because the lines come up in rap songs. With the rock/pop explanations, we also try to keep it “rapcentric”

What’s next for Rap Genius?

COMING SOON: iPhone app, a ton of video breakdowns

Any shoutouts?

Thanks to my boy Sam Dineley for setting this up – dude is hilarious, he’s also the new force behind our Twitter.


Thank you to Mahbod for doing the interview and to Sam for setting it up. You can follow @rapgenius on Twitter and like Rap Genius on Facebook. I have to give my favorite lines that were explained by Rap Genius and they come from Jay-Z’s verse from Free Mason. The whole verse is incredible and you should read the entire explanation because every line is explained in great detail. These lines are my favorite: “Fuck all these fairy tales, go to hell this is God engineering” and “It’s amazing that I made it through the maze that I was in, Lord forgive me I never would’ve made it without sin, Holy Water, my face in the basin, Diamonds in my rosary shows he forgave him”

Also this interview came at a great time because next Friday, Rap Genius will be on my favorite podcast, The 404. I listen to the podcast everyday. So I’m looking forward to checking them out. They discuss tech related issues and news. If you don’t know about the 404 or don’t really listen to podcasts I highly suggest tuning in because it’s a good show and the guys are funny.

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