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.

#2: TURNING PASSION INTO PROFIT

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.

Get connected to Flourish in Progress aka “Chill Homie” on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram.

Monday Dare: Payback’s a bitch

Every week, I challenge myself to a Monday Dare. Click on the link to see the complete list of Monday Dares or learn more about its origin.

This week: Speak out

I once gave away my last ounce of dignity and pride while begging on my knees to save a poorly-assembled IKEA lamp, a pink Starbucks mug, and two cushions. The cushions had, at one time, belonged to a couch marked for the donations truck by a rich-as-fuck family because it was the wrong color. I didn’t have enough space for the couch, but I asked for the cushions because, well, they were from Pottery Barn, and I love fancy shit.

I spent most of my teens and twenties giving my power away to people who didn’t deserve it. Not that anyone ever really deserves your power. Sure, a small circle of people may deserve your loyalty or attention or assistance or companionship or love or friendship, but power is a tricky beast to own and tame, and it’s not something that should be given away freely, if at all.

The more I gave away my power, the less control I had over my life. And the less control I had over my life, the harder it became.

And because I gave away so much of my power, I guess it was no surprise that I ended up on my knees one night begging my boyfriend not to destroy the few things I had in the dingy fuckhole I called “home.” I loved those things because they were mine. They weren’t pretty, and they certainly weren’t valuable, but they brought me immense pleasure.

Getting on my knees wasn’t my idea. It was his. I didn’t invite him along when a girlfriend came over for coffee, and he was angry. He had already taken all the power from my insides, and now, he wanted an outward display of what my broken emptiness looked like.

I did it. I begged. I cried. I asked for forgiveness. I could hear some small part of the Me that still remained hissing quietly in my head, “Ain’t no motherfucka your king, bitch. This is some BULLSHIT,” but my sobs were louder. It’s often the loudest voices that get their way, even if those voices are wrong.

He isolated me from the people I loved the most. Even when we weren’t together, he told me that every one of my moves could be tracked. He reminded me often that he could listen in on any of my phone calls, that he had a tracking device installed on my car, and that each of my keystrokes was being logged. For years I saved a threatening voice message he left on my home answering machine. In case I just didn’t show up for something one day.

I spent most of my free time watching Snapped. If you’ve never watched it, I can break it down for you in one sentence: It’s a show about angry women who kill (mostly) men. I don’t watch that show anymore. It makes me uneasy, and it’s only now that I understand why I needed it so much. I didn’t have the balls to break out of the tiny prison of my own life, so I watched these women do the things I fantasized about doing. Not that I advocate murder. Really, don’t kill people, you guys.

I sent my five-year-old daughter away and made up some excuse about a better school district. I’ve never really talked about that before, but there it is. He wouldn’t let me leave. He said if I did, he would kill my mother, and then my daughter. So I stayed, but I sent her to live with my brother across the country.

I spent so many years cowering in fear of you coming after me. You told me never to tell anyone about what you did. But I don’t keep the promises I make to evil people like you. I will never be like you. 
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NEVER give away your power, friends. And never keep the secrets of those that betray you. Speak out.
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Connect: Facebook & Twitter (@ElizabethJLiu) & Instagram (username: flourishinprogress)

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