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.
Rap Genius editor-in-chief Shawn Setaro had a slightly different take, publishing an open letter on the site in which he asserted that the chat room conversation was "coordinated by trolls who impersonated Rap Genius users in an attempt to discredit the site."
"Someone speaking up in a chat room is equivalent to a Twitter user making a post, or to a comment on a blog," Setaro went on. "It is not remotely reflective of the site as a whole, merely of the opinions of one individual user."
(Whatever the case, Moghadam took to his own chat room to fire back at and threaten the blogger, though in a typically mercurial turn Moghadam now says: "I love his writing. I'm not someone who gets offended.")
All of this contributed to a feeling that Rap Genius' founders were getting rich off an art form they were new to and might not have the proper respect for. And indeed, Moghadam is not often careful with his words. "I just try to focus on myself because I want to be famous," he says the night of his birthday party, before quickly adding: "I guess I should focus more on the site."
In fact, he's recently launched something of a public charm offensive; he may have money, but he'd clearly like credibility too.
Moghadam pled his case recently on the podcast hosted by former music attorney and managing editor of The Source Regge Osse, aka Combat Jack. Moghadam found himself in the crosshairs of the show's co-host Dallas Penn, who admitted to being a fan of the Rap Genius concept but not always of the tone.
"Coming from a place of privilege, rap music for some of these kids is a ghetto safari," he said, consistently denigrating Moghadam as a "Fuckeyberg," ie a low-class Mark Zuckerberg. "Something they can observe from the safety of headphones or laptops, and what interests them and excites them the most is nihilistic, dysfunctional personalities."
"I think they are flippant about the world around them, and the people that they are writing about [and] making money off of," adds Noz. "I just don't think they have the perspective to approach it in a mature manner."
On the podcast Moghadam, in between humorous ramblings about the dangers of junk food, admitted to being a hip-hop outsider. Still, he noted that he grew up in poverty, and in fact the most eloquent defense of Rap Genius' philosophy came from Nicole Otero, whose role at the site is is building relationships with rap artists.
She questioned Penn's assertion that the Rap Genius crew doesn't understand the "struggle" at the heart of hip-hop, countering that she's "not concerned with matching who struggled more." Citing time spent in Africa among people who had next to nothing, she said she was instead interested in "shining light on that struggle as art."
As to another criticism from critic Andrew Noz -- that Rap Genius' much-ballyhooed search engine optimization techniques amount to little more than "Google bombing" -- Lehman asserts that the site provides a useful function, assisting the many rap fans who search out particular wordings, and meaning, of hip-hop lyrics. "It's a weird criticism when we're the only [lyrics website] out there paying attention to what the users actually care about," he says.
In any case, amidst the firestorm of headlines, Moghadam has found himself on a whirlwind, speaking at NYU and Columbia about Rap Genius, and accepting an invitation to appear at a prestigious German conference. This night in Malibu is a time to celebrate and take a deep breath, but the conversation returns to hip-hop before long.
Mike G, the rapper from Odd Future, sits at one of the house's numerous iMac computers looking up his song "Everything That's Yours" on YouTube to play for Moghadam's mother, who is here celebrating along with Moghadam's father, sisters, and nieces. Wearing a t-shirt paying homage to Mike G's crewmate Earl Sweatshirt, she's interested in understanding the track's lyrics.
Indeed, there's something inspiring about what's going on here. Though some assert that Rap Genius is for naive white kids, it actually can be of great assistance to someone like Moghadam's mother, who was born in Iran and speaks limited English. Indeed, if the site's representatives can bear down -- and Moghadam can stop putting his foot in his mouth -- one suspects that Rap Genius will become increasingly valuable to rap fans of all stripes.
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