Insane lyrics, serious rivalries, and endless bling (and watches, and grills)—the hallmarks of the rap world don't always make sense to all of us. Indeed, it seems almost impossible to figure out what a song means before you're told to put your hands up and drop your ass low. Who has the time to decode those braggadocios lyrics anyways? Well, these guys do. That's right, meet our new friends Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, the three Yale grads who've made de-mystifying the words to "they-said-what?"-songs their
business biz-nass—and a very successful one at that.
After a serendipitous conception in 2009, the trio's brain-child-turned-sugar-daddy, Rap Genius, has helped millions of monthly readers better understand an endless array of fast-paced lyrics. Oh, and did we mention they've raised $15 million? To get in on the $$$-making dudes' secrets to success, we headed to Williamsburg for an up-close-and-personal interview and office tour, plus a chat that might inspire your own cash-cow idea. And when that happens, just remember who was there with you, on the ground floor.…
Click through to meet the tech start-up geniuses you've GOT to know.
Photographed by Maia Harms
So, why did you decide to start your website?
Mahbod: "Well, why not? I was explaining a rap song to Tom, and I gave an actually incorrect explanation for a line, which inspired the site! We found out that it was incorrect six months later when someone corrected me."
So, what was the line in question?
Mahbod: "Camron says '80 holes in your shirt, there: your own Jamaican clothes' and I thought he meant that Jamaicans wear, like, tattered clothing, but I was an ignoramus. Someone corrected me six months later, telling me that it's very popular in Jamaica to wear mesh shirts, with the Jamaican colors on them."
How has the site branched out since its inception?
Mahbod: "Have you seen Rap Genius France? All the famous French rappers will be on them. Germany has their own scene, too — a German Eminem, a German Kanye."
What do you expect the site to become? Did you expect it to make money?
Ilan:"We never expected to make as much money as we've made — it's wild!"
What did your mom say when you told her that this was what you were going to do?
Ilan:"Well, my mom had been sending me various GMAT literature, but once it reached a certain level of cultural clout, she stopped and just let it ride. In the beginning, it was just a passion/side/fun project — we never thought it would turn into a multi-million dollar enterprise."
Mahbod: "I lost my law firm job right before that — if I thought we were building a business, I wouldn't have gotten too worried, too upset."
What would you say to people who look to you as the model for tech startups? Don't think about it?
Mahbod: "If I ever thought I was trying to start a cultural movement, I just would have gotten too depressed. It was God's work, not our work."
Divine intervention? Do you believe in that?
Mahbod: "Of course! We've got to get some sort of religious tattoo!"
What other websites do you look at daily?
Ilan: "Reader2000.com, HackerNews, Twitter — the only site I like more than Rap Genius is Twitter."
What has your most surreal moment been?
Mahbod: "Meeting Gucci Mane yesterday, who's my favorite rapper."
Ilan: "Yeah, and we chilled with Nas, he showed us real love — he was like, glowing. It was full-on amazing, so surreal. Also the time when we looked in our bank account and saw $15 million dollars. When Condoleeza was here last week, and I put on George Clinton, and we all started dancing around."
How are you going to keep grounded as the project picks up?
Tom: "You just gotta keep hella grounded — a couple of new Ray-Bans a day…just kidding! For me, it'll be the community. The truth is, when I meet someone who used the site, and loved it, I get off."
If someone was going to play you in a movie, who would it be?"
Ilan: "Jessica Alba."
Tom: "Rob Schneider."
Mahbod: "(French accent) Ben Stiller!"
Have you made any big purchases?
Mahbod: "We're not about consuming, you know, we're about putting money into the site, specifically, the pockets of the people working on the site. You buy a nice Audi, and that's nice for 36 months, or 39 months, but the site's going to last for 3,900,000 years.
Where do you see the site going? Obviously, it will live on in infamy for all eternity, but specifically, where is your growth going? What other territories are you planning to cover? Politics?
Mahbod: "A lot of geniuses blown' up — one of my professors from Stanford Law explained the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and then he jumped over to some Salt 'n' Peppa. Eventually, we'll have a site that explains every new law that comes out, in every country. Or BibleGenius — we could get some religious adherents."
Ilan: "But, also the verified artist thing — soon it's going to expand to anytime you want to hear what some famous person, artist, or relevant reader has to say about a book, a new editorial in the New York Times. What we can't wait for is to hear 50 Cent explain the book of Job."
How would you guys describe your personal style?
Ilan: "I think I have the most minimalist, Japanese personal style out of any of us. I try to just look cool and be comfortable."
Tom: "I'm not very minimalist — I am in a sense, but what I realized nine months ago, was just YOLO! Just like, no more taupe — bright colors, you know. Just squeeze that lemon and keep it trill."
Mahbod: "In one word, I'd say swag-swag. I think everything's gotta be tailored — I'm of the tailor-gang — everything's got to be tailored. 400 Euro shoes; that's nothing. Maybe H&M for basics."
Ilan: "What do you wash your face with?"
Mahbod: "Um, aloe? Oh, yeah, I wash my face with a sock. Ok, if you think about it, a sock is a wash cloth — it's just semantics! I exfoliate my beard really hard."
What's one thing you can't live without?
Mahbod: "We love to go to the gym. I go to the Malibu gym, and Sean Penn is always there with his sexy daughter."
What's your daily routine? Do you have one?
Ilan: "Yeah, I wake up at the crack of 10:30, wash my face, try to drink a bottle of water, go to the gym."
What are your favorite restaurants? Date spots? Any wining and dining tips?
Tom: "Shima is a great restaurant, but Katayama is great for sushi. Also, Diner is a fantastic restaurant! And, Dallas BBQ!"
What is the hardest part of working with your friends? Any advice?
Tom: "Being naked, and just chilling. The whole thing is really amazing."
Tom: "To being naked together? I guess, just being competitive."