Joshua Brustein – Yale Graduates Seek a Degree In Hip-Hop Lyrics

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In 2009, Tom Lehman, a computer programmer, was puzzled by the line, “80 holes in your shirt: there, your own Jamaican clothes” in the rap song “Family Ties.” What were “Jamaican clothes,” he wondered?

A friend from Yale, Mahbod Moghadam, guessed that the lyric referred to the tattered clothing worn by impoverished Jamaicans. That turned out not to be true, but it was enough to inspire Mr. Lehman to build Rap Genius, a Web site that seeks to decipher every lyric in hip-hop

While rap lyric sites are not new, Rap Genius distinguished itself by adding a Wikipedia-esque twist, allowing anyone to annotate lyrics with words, photos and videos. More than 250,000 people have submitted explanations to date, with contributions vetted by 500 editors, many of them high school or college students

The result is a mélange of decoded slang, interpretations of varying plausibility and dorky jokes that has struck a chord. The site draws two million unique visitors a month, according to comScore, an independent analytics firm, and last month Ben Horowitz, a well-known venture capitalist in Silicon Valley with a soft spot for hip-hop, announced he was investing $15 million in the site

But the project has also been dogged by awkward questions about race and authenticity, including a recent dispute over conversations in a chat room that some call racist. Not helping matters is the sometimes-outlandish behavior of its three founders, Mr. Lehman, Mr. Moghadam and a third buddy from Yale, Ilan Zechory

Rap Genius is run out of two penthouse apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the founders seem to fancy themselves as hip-hop personalities in their own right

Mr. Lehman, 28, sports an unkempt Afro of sorts, and seems to wear a different pair of sunglasses for every conversation. Friends noted a striking accumulation of skinny jeans in various colors after he received Mr. Horowitz’s check. Mr. Lehman is also a stickler for punctuation, which can be torture for someone who runs a crowd-sourced hip-hop Web site

Mr. Moghadam, 29, favors shirtlessness to show off a muscular upper body, and speaks in a unique patois that mixes phrases like “we got bottles” and “pop it for pimp” with graduate-school-level discussions of Orientalism and religious texts. He can come off as a star-struck fan, bragging about meeting Gucci Mane or Big Boi one moment, before drifting into hyperbolic claims about Rap Genius’s future the next

Mr. Zechory, 28, cuts a more modest figure. He says that his two friends are playing roles, and marvels at their ability to keep up the act. “I’ve never seen him break character,” he said of Mr. Moghadam

Perhaps the site’s biggest claim to fame has been its ability to get several famous rappers, including Nas and 50 Cent, to explain their own lyrics on the site. GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan received a tutorial last month. He came away enthusiastic

“This is a perfect site for me, because I love talking about hip-hop and lyrics,” he said. “The way I write is like a puzzle, so most of it can be broken down and explained in detail.”

But some critics suspect that Rap Genius’s founders are engaged in a sort of perpetual parody of the music they claim to be rhapsodizing. “There’s a consciousness about what they’re doing — we call it ‘slumming,’ ” said Camille Charles, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race

The site has been plagued by other troubles. Many of the song transcripts are identical — typos and all — to those found on the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive, a Web site that has existed in varying forms since 1992. And some explanations are cause for eye-rolling

“It’s frequently incorrect, just straight up wrong, in the transcription and definitely in the interpretation,” said Adam Mansbach, the author of “Go the ____ to Sleep,” a profane play on the bedtime storybook

Mr. Moghadam said that he is aware of how a hip-hop site created by three Yale graduates might raise suspicions. But he notes that Rap Genius is designed to weed out wrong answers, using as an example his own faulty explanation of “Jamaican clothes,” which the site now says refers to “mesh tank tops with a lot of little holes in them.”

At the same time, Mr. Moghadam’s own actions have given critics plenty to work with

When Kool A.D., a rapper from the group Das Racist, referred to Rap Genius as “white devil sophistry” in a song last year, Mr. Moghadam posted a response video, in which he raps about the color of Kool A.D.’s skin with a line that some took as racist. (Mr. Moghadam, who is Persian, insists he was making a reference to how he thought Kool A.D. looks sickly.)

But the racial questions arose again a few weeks ago when Bryan Crawford, a prominent hip-hop blogger, posted screen grabs from a Rap Genius chat room that showed users making jokes about slavery

In response, the founders denounced the jokes as racist, but added that the site could be not be held accountable for every comment, much like Twitter can’t be blamed for every offensive tweet. On his own, however, Mr. Moghadam went further and physically threatened Mr. Crawford in an online chat and on Twitter

Mr. Moghadam insists that the beef was largely tongue-in-cheek, and that the bluster is just part of the pugnacious hip-hop world. “Dissing is their vocabulary,” he said. “If they’re dissing you, they’re showing you respect.”

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