Although he helped found a website called RapGenius, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Ilan Zechory is the RapGenius.
“Let’s say it’s some huge, huge Nas fan who’s intelligent, who’s funny, telling you something about Nas’ songs or Nas himself,” is how he explains the site instead. With a recent major reorganization of the site, as well as its part in heated debates over free speech, censorship, and cultural appropriation, RapGenius, now under the umbrella term “Genius,” has been going through a lot lately. Even with all the changes, “I think it’s just really important that we stay connected to our Rap roots,” says Mr. Zechory. True to that mission, HipHopDX recently caught up with him to hear the story of how Nas came to co-sign the site, how independent artists can specifically use the site to grow their exposure, and how the public perception of the site’s co-founders have affected the company.
How RapGenius Evolved Into Genius.com
HipHopDX: Let’s talk about the recent reorganization of the RapGenius site. Why did you decide to bring all the Genius sites under the same umbrella term?
Ilan Zechory: That’s a good question. We wanted to do something that made sense for what people on the website like to do. From the beginning of RapGenius, which we started as a Rap website, people were using it. I know you’ve been involved with it, so you’ve seen some of this firsthand. People were doing other stuff on it of their own volition. It wasn’t like we were like, “Come on! Please put up a poem!” People were putting up poems, stuff in other languages, and big news documents. This has been happening since the beginning, so we always had this issue, which was, “Okay, we have RapGenius and that’s the name of our company, and our site. And that perfectly describes the annotation of Rap lyrics and what we’re doing.” But then all these other communities that were growing had to do gymnastics every time they talked about what they were doing: “I’m doing this new thing, it’s news, but it’s on RapGenius…” So the idea that RapGenius had to represent both the whole project as well as one aspect was very confusing to most people. A lot of people had trouble understanding that, and we found ourselves having this conversation over and over again. So we want to build a bunch of first class homes and places where people can socialize and share knowledge just like RapGenius, but with all these other topics. What we want to make clear is, just because we got Genius.com doesn’t mean RapGenius ceases to exist. We really believe that multiple ideas of multiple concepts can really exist. So RapGenius is still the same. Whenever I talk to people, we just say, “RapGenius is still the place where people break down the meaning of Rap lyrics and NewsGenius is something else.” And Genius kind of gives us the flexibility to do all of that stuff.
DX: How does Genius work to make sure you expand your offerings without diluting what you already do well?
Ilan Zechory: You got to be careful. You got to do the right stuff. You can’t take things away from the Rap community—whether it’s features, centrality or promotion of the Rap stuff. Rap fans who are RapGenius contributors tend to be interested in a lot of different stuff. A lot of Rap fans from RapGenius like to talk about the news in the context of, “We’re a bunch of Rap fans talking about the news,” in our forums. How you accommodate that is all super important, and I think it’s just really important we stay connected to our Rap roots. That means continuing to develop a verified artist program, and that just means all new big Hip Hop artists and old historical Hip Hop artists, to create this kind of lasting museum of Hip Hop culture. We want to continue that project by continuing to talk to all of these artists, continuing to solicit their input on their art and their history, as well as the community of amateur artists, so we have a huge amount of young artists, amateur artists, and independent artists who can use the site as a way to get started, find fans, and reach fans. We want to continue to emphasize that, and that means having people work at the company who work on developing this Rap community. That means continuing to architect the site so that Rap is not just pushed off to the side. It’s kind of just the first of many among equals.
Ilan Zechory Says RapGenius’ Mission Is To Annotate Everything
DX: What kind of feedback have you been getting from those fans on the new reorganization, and can you tell us about any change or new plans we might see from your site next?
Ilan Zechory: Yeah, there are going to be a ton of changes, and they’re all pretty interesting. I think the thing is, most of the changes are going to affect the entire platform, and we’re probably not going to add too many Rap-specific or even genre-specific features. The things you’re going to see speak to this sort of general mission of annotating the world and the whole Internet. Imagine a world where you’re going around the Internet, highlighting the things you read, clicking your bookmark and you’re annotating there. Then all your followers on Genius are seeing all of the things you annotate around the Internet. We really are serious about this mission of annotating everything and making the whole Internet the Genius playground.
The feedback has all been really good. We’re always expecting some major feedback to any bit of news we put out, but it’s been really enthusiastic. I would say most of the people who are Rap fans on our site are not just interested in Rap. They’re interested in other things. It’s rare that you see a contributor who has contributed 100% percent on only Rap and nothing else. The connections in Rap music, the allusions to other aspects of culture generally, just lead contributors down the rabbit hole. Whether it’s Kanye West referencing Anchorman and somebody’s annotating that, someone puts up something related to Anchorman and all of a sudden they’re a ScreenGenius contributor. So we try to accommodate that. We don’t think anything lives in isolation. We think genres in general are blurring. These relationships between Rap, Rock, Pop and R&B are blurring, and the relationships between all aspects of culture are very connected. We tried to build a thing for a lot of people to contribute in all the areas they’re interested in, and we don’t think anyone is sort of purely one thing. Nonetheless, my own personal level of Rap and passion for Rap—it’s always just going to be RapGenius to me in some way. I don’t think we’re ever going to let that go. So we’re going to make sure we don’t build a product that leaves RapGenius behind in any way.
DX: If you were an independent Rap artist, how would you use RapGenius and a verified artist status to assist in increasing your exposure?
Ilan Zechory: That’s a great question. First of all, there’s more people on the site who can be amongst your pool of followers. In the first days of Twitter it was kind of like, “Okay, you have a Twitter, but who’s going to follow you?” Now that there’s so many users on Genius, we service the kind of content artists make. We will use algorithms to promote verified artists, no matter how famous or amateur they are. We intend to promote that stuff, so verified artist have tons of potential to get followers on Genius, and what you can do with your followers is create a really interesting three-dimensional component of your art. So you have your song, which is what new artists are primarily putting out. Then you have the lyrics, which are probably not going up anywhere on the Internet. If you’re an amateur artist and you have your own website, you put them up on your own website, but people have a hard time finding that. The other major lyrics websites are only putting up more major releases. This is a crowdsourced site. It can actually be a home for the accurate version of your lyrics, and of course you can be using annotations to connect with the fans on a deeper level and just say interesting, unexpected and sort of delightful stuff about your own music.
When I listen to a new artist’s song, I try my best to listen for the musicality…for the lyricism. It’s easier for me to get into a new artist and connect with the new artist if I go to the site, read the lyrics and annotations and get more of a sense for the artist’s personality. The artist’s writing style, oftentimes the stylistic relationship between the lyrics and between how people write out their annotations is very interesting. Some people will take it and make a bunch of jokes and establish that they’re not taking their music too seriously. Some people will draw out really interesting life stories that connect you with it. So it’s just a creative platform for the artist to connect with their friends, and you can use whatever other means you can to spread your words.
If I was an artist, I would spend a lot of time and be careful and make really great annotations. I would tweet it out, share it on Facebook and get involved in the community. Chance The Rapper is a perfect example of a rapper who came to RapGenius and did verified annotations when he had Twitter followers in the hundreds. He was an 18-year-old kid just getting started, and all these people on the site who follow verified artist’s activity on the site, were like, “Yeah, this guy is insane! This guy’s incredibly dope!” And there was a lot of groundswell of enthusiasm for Chance The Rapper. It’s not like RapGenius made Chance The Rapper by any means. Chance The Rapper made Chance The Rapper. But he definitely gathered a lot of enthusiasm and momentum through the RapGenius community.
Why Ilan Zechory Says Genius Is The Definitive Rap Lyrics Source
DX: Now that RapGenius and Genius more generally are seen by some as the establishment, the definitive lyrics website, how does it work to still keep up the dynamism that defines start-ups and underdogs for a lot a lot of us?
Ilan Zechory: That’s a good question. That’s a challenge. I don’t know if the change to Genius makes us a more definitive lyrics source. I think, probably since 2011 at least, in Rap, the community became so strong that they were putting up the lyrics to any release in Rap, whether it was major or a very small mixtape. I think that’s when we became the definitive Rap lyrics source—the most accurate, the cleanest, the most interesting lyrics source for Rap. And of course expanding into Pop and R&B and other forms and genres and languages has even made that more so. I know the thing that made us more definitive was, we got licenses with every major and minor music publisher so there was no cloud of ambiguity around, “Is this legit or an illegitimate lyrics site?” We’re 100% licensed, and I think that also gave us a lot of credibility as a definitive source of lyrics. The change to Genius.com, maybe for some people, indicates more of a move toward something like that. To me, Genius is something much more about being flexible for all of the communities and not making it more the definitive lyrics website.
Your other question, which I think is a great question, it’s something we have to deal with. The bigger you get, the more generic your name becomes. We still have this Rap specific name. Now it’s Genius and a more general term and a more general word. How do you maintain the dynamism of the thing? And that is within the community and within the company. I think it comes from building a great product that gets talented and interesting people, makes them want to be involved in the community and contribute. It’s just the people themselves who are the leaders of the community. How charismatic are they? How much do they help other users, coach other users, show other users a way to have fun and enjoy yourself? By taking part in the knowledge project, the idea is primarily the quality of the people involved in the community that drive that sort of dynamism. Secondarily, it’s how good of a project do you build to enable the people to do the good stuff. So it’s all the basic stuff we’ve been doing since day one, which is fine. Getting awesome people to write interesting annotations and building a product that lets them do it and have a good time with it.
DX: Genius really has dual existences, right? On the one hand, it is heavily invested in to the tune of millions of dollars. It’s a business, so its goal is to make as much money as possible. But it also functions as an art repository that really represents a beloved art form for many of its users. How do you act and how do you run the company so that Genius balances both of those dual roles?
Ilan Zechory: That’s another great question. I think right now we’re treating it more as the latter, which is an art project and art repository—a beautiful piece of culture that’s imperfect that we’re trying to make better. We don’t think we can exist as a business unless we do an amazing job of making a great fucking website for Rap and other genres of music and text where people can share forms of knowledge, so we can really be the art and knowledge repository of the whole Internet. And when we do that, I think we’ll feel very good about our prospects for building a good business. So it doesn’t to feel like a conflict for us now, because we’re 100% focused on building something cool for our users. And obviously you’ve got to pay for the people who work at your company, and you have an office, and stuff like that. So our solution has been to build this amazing art repository, and then go out and find investors who support that goal and see the vision. That’s been great so far. We just raised a lot of money to enable us to continue to work in this way and not feel this conflict for some time. So we still got a couple years for us to build this thing out into a huge, massive project.
How RapGenius Uses Notifications & The Power Of Hierarchy
DX: A lot of the criticisms of RapGenius come up because of perceptions about the entire system of editing lyrics and adding annotations. What system does RapGenius have in order to prevent misinformation and erroneous claims?
Ilan Zechory: It’s a fairly robust system. It doesn’t lead to perfection at all times. But our goal is that the community annotation is a collaborative project that leads to something really good, really interesting, and the equivalent having a smart friend who knows a ton about a subject. Let’s say it’s some huge, huge Nas fan who’s intelligent and funny is telling you something about Nas’ songs or Nas himself. But on a community site, you want collaboration to lead to that, so how do you do that? When we first started the site our theory was, “You only can have really good writers who you know are really, really smart. You vet them, and those are the only people allowed to have accounts.” And so we didn’t build it as an open wiki-style system at first. We built it as a platform where we could invite our friends and use a custom method to make our friends an account. Over time, we found so much interest and so many different people wanted to contribute that we kind of thought, “Okay, here’s our new working theory. We’re going to let anyone sign up for an account, but we’re going to build the communication infrastructure that leads to a good outcome anyway.” And so taking some inspiration from Wikipedia, we built a sort of notification system, a tiered privilege system, based on how good a writer you are and what your knowledge is. And all that stuff that creates the output is just good content. For example, every day when I go to RapGenius, I have an activity stream, which tells me all sorts of interesting stuff that I could go to. It might say, “So-and-so edited my annotation on [Lil Wayne’s song,] “A Milli,”” or something like that. I annotated “A Milli” four years ago or something like that, but I still have annotations that I made and other people have edited it. Other people have checked in on it, but I get that notification that someone added a suggestion to it and so do these other people on it. So I see what the suggestion is and I say, “Oh, you know what? That is a good suggestion, I’m going to incorporate that.” Or say, someone edited your annotation on Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, and I’ll say, “You know what? That’s a shitty annotation, that’s just wrong, or somebody spamming.” And I just go and reverse the edit. So the communication infrastructure is basically to say: any time you touch something that is relevant to someone else who’s an active moderator and making positive contributions to the site, you notify those people, and they come in and correct and accommodate all the different changes and everything. So it’s not perfect, but it allows you to unleash the chaos and power of these crowdsourced things without having to worry about, “Is every single user of this site good? Is every single user of this site amazing?” You have to make sure that in the positions of editing and editing power you only put people who are good, and that’s the sort of power of the hierarchy. But without the power of letting anyone come and annotate anything you would really miss out on a lot of good stuff.
DX: What advice does RapGenius give users on how to give good annotations?
Ilan Zechory: We have all sorts of contributor guidelines. When you sign up, you get an email that links you to a certain set of contributor guidelines. When you’re made an editor, you’re sent a different set of guidelines that editors have to look at based on your role. Our moderators have a different set of guidelines, and these are actually evolving documents made by community members and people who work for the company.
They basically share some of the values of what makes a good annotation and what makes a good style of coaching a new user so you get a new user who’s got good ideas and is a good writer. What do you say if our users have a dispute over an annotation? What’s the best way to resolve it in terms of both editing and communication? So there are all of these values that are going into moderation and also editing. It’s a work in progress. We want these things to be clear and in your face. On the day you first use the site, we want to have a better on-boarding process so you know what to do and what’s good. So there are all of these huge areas where we think there are to make improvements on the system, and those are kind of the things we’re trying.
Ilan Zechory Explains His Early Interaction With Hip Hop Culture
DX: Some people criticize RapGenius because they don’t see the founders as “true” fans of Rap. How did you relate to the genre before RapGenius?
Ilan Zechory: I don’t think I ever owned a non-Rap CD in my life until after college or something. I’ve always been a Rap fan. I’m from the suburbs of Detroit. My first Rap CD was Doggystyle, and I was into West Coast Rap. I was really into Tupac. I was into some other stuff. I was into Bone thugs-n-harmony. As soon as we got our drivers licenses, all we did was drive around and listen to Rap. That was the soundtrack to growing up for me, and that’s all I can really say: I love Rap. I got to college freshman year, and the first thing I bonded with friends about was when Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ came out and everyone was debating whether it was going to be a future classic. We wondered what 50 Cent’s deal was or what the best song was. I just love Rap. I love talking about Rap. I love other forms of music, more so now later in life…when I opened my mind to other genres of music and got into them. But I’ve just been a Rap fan since I was 10 years old or so. My co-founder, Tom Lehman, was getting into Rap. He was a sort of a more Pop/Rock guy growing up, and I was his roommate after college in New York. He was getting into Rap because I was playing it a lot. And Mahbod Moghadam was coming through a lot, playing a lot of Rap, and he’s been a Rap fan similarly since he was a young kid. Tom was getting into Rap, and that was the genesis of the site.
It was a combination of people who love Rap already and someone who’s getting serious about the genre and wanted to know more, and that was Tom. Tom was saying, “Wait, what does that mean? What did he say? I didn’t hear that,” and Tom was just very curious. We’re kind of having this late night conversation about the meaning of Rap lyrics. Tom was like, “Wow, this is so interesting. Rap is fucking sick, let’s make a website devoted to the meaning of Rap lyrics.” It was Tom’s fresh eyes to Rap and mine and Mahbod’s existing passion for Rap. Arielle’s our other friend who was in our room in the early days. She’s a really huge, passionate Rap fan who knows tens of thousands of rap lines by heart. We were are all sort of in the room, trying to figure out how to make a project that was basically a tribute to Rap. I love Rap, and I can’t get around the fact that I’m a white guy, a privileged white guy. I totally understand. I love Rap and mad respect for everyone who’s good at rapping.
DX: Some people think of a technological site like RapGenius as being nerdy, or having no street cred, but Nas himself was the first verified account on RapGenius. How did that play out from a business point of view?
Ilan Zechory: Man, if RapGenius has no street cred… People use RapGenius..all types. Everybody uses RapGenius. Everybody gets their lyrics and annotations from RapGenius. I don’t have any street cred, and I accept that. I’ll speak for Tom, and I don’t think Tom has a ton of street cred.
But Nas, it was just a normal way. We met this guy, Troy Carter, who is an amazing guy. He’s a music manager, and he used to work with Lady Gaga and many others, and he’s a great guy. He worked through his management company with this guy Anthony Saleh. Anthony Saleh is Nas’ manager. We were meeting up with Troy to talk about the site, and Troy invested in the site. Anthony lives right next door, and he was like, “You guys should do something together.” We met Anthony and Nas, hit it off, and it was very nice. It was very organic. We sat down with Nas in the studio. I just had a deep conversation about Illmatic and about the site, and he played around with it. He gave us some feedback on how it was working and what he thought was cool about it and it was great.
DX: Before, you compared RapGenius to Wikipedia. How does RapGenius work to avoid the pitfalls that other similar database sites like Wikipedia have?
Ilan Zechory: It’s important to have some context a little bit. That is to say, it’s a good problem to have, to be Wikipedia. That doesn’t mean that you ignore those problems. It’s about marketing, and in part the common perception of RapGenius, that you brought up and asked me to talk about. Those are things that we want to dispel actively. We want to bring in all sorts of people. And also people who are in the community, so it’s very difficult to measure. We don’t ask people who contribute to RapGenius, “How old are you? What’s your gender? What’s your race? What’s your background?” People express themselves through their activities on the site, and we want to be a popular, cool place to contribute for everyone.
It’s a really hard problem: you’re on the Internet, because you’ve got a demographic of people who are contributing to this knowledge project. There’s a chance it biases towards people who sit in front of their computer all day. That is a reality, and we’re going to work on it. We want to be an inclusive community. Part of it starts with getting interesting, great people involved in the site. They can’t be famous for their fame, but for their thought leadership. So when you get Nas involved with the site, that gets a lot of Nas fans involved in the site. And when you get Larry Lessig involved in the site, that gets a lot of Larry Lessig fans involved in the site. That sort of verified program—whether it’s about Rap or other areas—really helps to bring in better and more representative crews of contributors. But right now we’re just trying to get everyone who has positive stuff and wants to contribute. We just want them to go sign up and get in there.
DX: Along with new fans, the verified artist program has also brought a lot of media coverage of your site. In a New York Times article from 2012, you have a really interesting quote:
Mr. Zechory 28 cuts a more modest figure. He says that his two friends, his co-founders, are playing roles, and marvels at their ability to keep up the act. “I’ve never seen him break character,” Mr. Zechory said of Mr. Moghadam.
Is this just to have fun, or does it serve to publicize RapGenius in an “any press is good press” kind of way?
Ilan Zechory: It’s really hard to disentangle roles and character and personality and performance and jokes and strategy and all of these different components. When you’re trying to build something there’s definitely this tendency, especially if you’re proud of what you’re building and you feel it’s not getting any attention, to just say, “Make some noise! Say something and get some attention!” But there was never a strategy to create controversy or anything. I think the mixes of personalities in the early founding of RapGenius between me, Tom and Mahbod was part of the magic and mysterious stuff that helped the thing grow. That was through a lot of conflict, creative destruction, sometimes controversy and sometimes-boneheaded moves. [It was also through] flashes of brilliance and sometimes-counterintuitive strokes of luck. All of that sort of stuff went into the blender and outputted something that grew into something very real. That New York Times article you quoted was a couple years ago. Mahbod no longer works here. I think Tom and I have both been striking modest figures, but I think we’ve been made modest by the challenges of building something so complex, confusing, and so hard. Building this community and building this product, I think it’s just by necessity made us more modest people. Everyday we come to work, we get beat up by the challenges of it, and we come back for another day. I keep trying to struggle and build a thing, but at the end of the day I think we’re pretty focused on our own flaws and imperfections and try to get better. I think we’re a lot more modest as a company and as a project then we used to be, just by being very ambitious about what we’re trying to do.
Ilan Zechory Addresses The Annotation Of Elliot Rodger’s Manifesto
DX: Even though he doesn’t work at the company anymore, Mahbod still plays a role in the company in some ways. What do you think of him annotating the manifesto of Elliot Rodger’s, the Isla Vista killer?
Ilan Zechory: I think his annotations were really, really bad…glib, insensitive, and not serious and not giving the sort of proper amount of thought of what it means to annotate a document related to such a recent event. Even if it was a historical document, his annotations would have been really bad for even just for a normal contributor, let alone the founder of the site—a top moderator on the site. It was really, really bad annotation. But also how I feel about annotating that document is, absolutely it should be annotated. People have been fascinated with the writings of sick individuals and rightfully so. I think it helps you understand the mind of a person who commits a crime to read their work and to analyze their work. I think even the day after it’s released, it’s good to have that text up there, but it’s very important that you have a community that’s down to thoughtfully annotate, and that means being sensitive to people. The best case scenario in the Elliot Rodger’s manifesto case is, you bring in people who are real experts in the field, who have studied the minds of mass killers, of shooters, or children who commit violence, and contribute really interesting stuff. What does this writing say about him and what can we learn from it? Especially when people are paying attention to it, it’s good to read that stuff. You want to have a very open, pro-free speech platform. But when you have someone who represents the site and the community as strongly as Mahbod do doing something so bad, that’s unacceptable.