Rap Genius is getting its paper on.
The popular online community that sprang up around rap lyrics just raised $15 million from Silicon Valley venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, who are betting the trio behind the website can move beyond the coded language of rap to decoding everything from the Beatles to the Bible.
One would presume that the catalyst behind this rare convergence between the worlds of rappers and coders was Horowitz, known for expressing business principles with rap lyrics. But Andreessen, the father of the Web browser, is also driving the investment. He says he always wanted to include a feature in the browser that would let people annotate any page on the Internet, adding context in hypertext. In fact, he originally built a feature that would do just that but abandoned it.
“Our idea was that each Web page would be a launch pad for insight and debate about its own contents,” Andreessen wrote in a blog post. “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. 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.”
Users quickly figured out that Rap Genius didn’t have to be just for rap lyrics. An English teacher had his class annotate the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic “The Great Gatsby.” Stanford law professor Mark Lemley decodes the finer points of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Salt-N-Pepa lyrics on the site.
Horowitz, legendary as a rap aficionado in Silicon Valley, first was exposed to rap as one of the only white players on the Berkeley High School football team. He met the trio of Rap Genius founders -- Mahbod Moghadam, 29; Ilan Zechory, 28; and Tom Lehman, 28 -- when they were enrolled in Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator. He soon became addicted to the site, and glimpsed its potential beyond rap music.
“Rap Genius is the one place you can go to connect the lyrics, culture and the back story. And it turns out there a lot of things like that,” Horowitz said.
Andreessen didn’t get it at first but got hooked after he heard Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” on a TV commercial and went to Rap Genius to decipher the lyrics. (It didn’t hurt that Zechory used to write for Andreessen’s favorite TV show, HBO’s “Deadwood.”) Andreessen sees Rap Genius holding the tantalizing possibility of creating the Internet version of the Talmud. The Rap Genius founders share that grand vision that they express in the hubris and hyperbole worthy of Silicon Valley and hip-hop.
Rap Genius’ back story is one of accidental genius. In August 2009, Moghadam, Zechory and Lehman were hanging out in the East Village. Moghadam, furloughed from his law firm gig, was explaining rapper Cam’ron’s lyrics to Lehman, a programmer for a hedge fund who was new to rap music. Moghadam and Zechory, a Google project manager and part-time hypnotist, were already rap enthusiasts.
“That was our eureka moment,” Moghadam said.
That night Lehman began coding a site envisioned as the Wikipedia of rap, the ultimate resource that would decode rap lyrics – the regional slang, insider references, double entendres. They began annotating their favorite songs, then their friends pitched in. Soon hundreds of editors had volunteered, and rappers even signed on for “verified accounts” to comment on their own lyrics.
They dubbed it Rap Genius and eventually quit their day jobs. They split their time between Los Angeles and New York to stay close to the worlds of hip hop and big media. Rap Genius had more than 2 million unique visitors in August, according to research firm ComScore Inc.
The Rap Genius founders say they chose Horowitz because he understands Game, not the venture capital game, the rapper. They even featured him as a verified account holder in their presentation to other venture capitalists in Silicon Valley when they were trying to raise money. Now that they are getting paid, they say they plan to build iPhone and Android apps, hire programmers and “trick out” the site with new features.
But mostly the Rap Genius founders are looking to grow beyond their rap roots. They want to encourage rappers to weigh in on subjects beyond music, and eventually they want to create communities to decode every written form.
“I would be so tickled if 50 Cent told us how he feels about the Book of Job on Rap Genius,” Moghadam said.
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