Hustle Hard Interview Project: Rap Genius

(Tom Lehman, Mahbod Moghadam, Ilan Zechory)

To celebrate my 32nd birthday, I’ll be spending the next year on the Hustle Hard Interview Project. Each month, I’ll be interviewing one Hustler who embodies a quality or skill I admire. I hope to uncover some gems that bring me one step closer to being a fully-formed adult.


Shortly after starting the Hustle Hard Interview Project, I came across a quote from Allan Carr: “You should never meet your heroes.” I’m not gonna lie; the quote scared the shit out of me. What if I met these Hustlers and they were faking the funk? What if they were cruel or arrogant or boring?

Much to my relief, Mahbod Moghadam, one of the founding trifecta of Rap Genius, is none of the above. Rap Genius is a site that explains rap lyrics, which Mahbod describes as a “hip-hop wikipedia.” I knew shit was about to get real when Mahbod said, “Atlanta is my hip-hop Mecca, and Gucci Mane is my Muhammad.” Then, he invited me to a Hollywood club to hang out with rapper, Shawn Chrystopher, and filmmaker, Jabari Johnson. Good people. Smart people.

In a city where everyone is clamoring to boast about their connections and accolades, Mahbod’s humility impressed me. When asked what school he had attended, Mahbod mentioned a public high school in Los Angeles. Only later did I find out from another friend that he has an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Stanford. Mahbod also refrained from boasting about the $15 million investment Rap Genius just received from top dog venture capital fund, Andreessen Horowitz, the same company that invested in other heavy hitters such as Pinterest, Twitter, Skype, and Facebook.

EJL: My two main sources for information are Rap Genius and Urban Dictionary. Recently, I looked up the meaning of “riding round with that nina” from the song “Cashin Out” and learned that a “nina” is a nine millimeter handgun. Did you and your partners, Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory, feel there was enough of a need to demystify rap music to devote the bulk of your time, energy, and resources into building this site?

MM: Rap Genius came out of love. Love for the music. We didn’t make the site happen; the site happened to us. It started out as just a fun weekend project, a way for people to listen to a song and gain a deeper understanding of the words they were hearing. Early on, we realized that people weren’t just interested in reading the site, they wanted to contribute. Our community is what makes the difference. Anyone can create an account and start explaining the lyrics. They earn Rap IQ points based on how knowledgeable their explanations are.

EJL: In just three years, Rap Genius has gone from a weekend project to one of the most highly trafficked sites on the internet. It seems like it just happened overnight, but you paid your dues. In the first year of Rap Genius, you tried to get by on $10 a day, most of which you spent on food. Is it true that you’ve been kicked out of every Whole Foods in Los Angeles?

MM: (laughing) YEAH! They kicked me out for stealing cashews from the bulk bins, which I was doing in order to survive. Now, I’m allergic to tree nuts and would NEVER eat tree nuts regardless, so it’s all gravy.

EJL: Do you have any favorite rappers? I won’t fault you if you can’t choose.

MM: I originally wanted to dedicate the site to Cam’ron. He’s a lyrical genius. Brillliant. I also love Future. He’s my other favorite rapper. And Gucci Mane. Huge intellect. We consider Nas the Godfather of RapGenius because he was the first rapper to explain his own shit.

EJL: Tupac or Biggie?

MM: Oh, Pac. He’s my guiding light. There would be no Rap Genius if there was no Pac. He’s the reason I focus on my abs so much.

EJL: With the $15 million investment you just received, do you plan to expand into other areas? Are other sites in the works?

MM: We’re in the process of launching Stereo IQ (indie rock), Poetry Brain (literature), Country Brain (country music), Bible Genius, and Law Genius. Law Genius could get really dope. My most famous Stanford law professor is on there now.

EJL: Just by association, I suddenly feel a lot hipper.

MM: You’re chill, homie.

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