In Malibu last weekend, an ebullient crowd including rappers Mike G and Shawn Chrystopher have gathered for the birthday party of Mahbod Moghadam. Champagne is poured into red solo cups, while a volcano vaporizer circulates.
Moghadam is an eccentric character who is the face of the extremely successful -- but much maligned -- hip-hop web site Rap Genius. He's renting this house in Malibu, flush with cash after the site was recently tapped for $15 million in funding from a venture capital firm.
The spot serves as his home and a satellite headquarters for the New York-based Rap Genius, which was fairly unknown at the beginning of the year but is now on the lips of seemingly everyone in hip-hop. Billing itself a "hip-hop Wikipedia," the site taps its massive number of users -- not to mention acclaimed rappers -- to supply meanings to rap lyrics.
As with any crowd-sourced platform, the results are mixed. They're sometimes edifying, such as these annotations on a Kanye West song comparing the relationship of Plato and Socrates to that of Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. But they can also be quite poor and even casually racist; one wouldn't think Big L would appreciate this commentary of his "cars is whips" line for example. Influential critics including Andrew Noz and Christopher Weingarten have bashed the site, as has Gawker.
Nonetheless, operating as a platform for decoding the wildly-popular (but still impenetrable to many) genre of hip-hop, the concept behind the site is unquestionably brilliant. Moghadam won't release their traffic numbers, but claims they have more readership than "any other hip-hop site." He and his crew are in the midst of a hiring spree, seeking an army of programmers to evolve the site. They've also been working on spin-offs analyzing everything from law to Shakespeare, which don't yet have unique domains but are accessible through Rap Genius.
Problem is, the folks running the site have been losing the public relations battle. They've received a torrent of negative publicity in recent months, including leaked, racist chats between editors and revelations that Marc Andreessen, of their benefactor venture capital firm, has donated money to Republican candidates. Writer Dallas Penn calls the Rap Genius crew "cultural carpetbaggers."
Moghadam, a 30-year-old Stanford Law School graduate originally from Encino who is of Persian descent, founded the site in 2009 with programmer Tom Lehman and Yale classmate Ilan Zechory. It began to take off this year, and has received co-signs from emcees including Nas, who was the first rapper to receive a verified artist account to contribute lyrical translations. (He's also appeared on their podcast.)
But somewhere along the way a war erupted between Moghadam and hip-hop blogger Byron Crawford. In 2010 Moghadam released a diss video, unhappy that Crawford hadn't been linking to his site. In October this year the blogger proceeded to publish screenshots of discussions between Rap Genius editors littered with racist insults and containing the n-word, though none of them were written by the site's founders.
Moghadam notes that the chatroom from which the screenshots came is accessible not only by editors and moderators -- whom he hand-picks -- but by members who contribute regularly and are picked by an algorithm they've dubbed "RapIQ." The users engaged in the racist exchanges no longer have access to the site, says Moghadam.