Arts / Media

The tech behind Rap Genius and its goal to annotate the web

Rap Genius is only getting started with rap lyrics. The goal is to annotate everything. Here is how tech is helping the Willamsburg startup get it done.

Rap Genius Founders at TechCrunch, April 2013, photo by TechCrunch [Creative Commons]

Technical.ly Brooklyn spoke  with Rap Genius the same day that Beyonce released a surprise new album on the world. Needless to say, for a site driven heavily by music culture, this was a big day. Ronald Metellus, a member of the company’s marketing and community management staff, was distracted with the degree to which the new album had taken over all his community’s attention that day.

Rap Genius started as a site where fans can post lyrics from rap songs to their website but has always had big plans. Earlier this year, cofounder Mahbod Moghadam called his network a ‘lyrical OKCupid,’ a movement focused connecting people around meaningful creative thought.

Beyond the passion, what has helped the site stand out since launching in fall 2009 was the ability for users to annotate each and every word or line of those lyrics, explaining the references or slang. The site has expanded into other verticals, since then (in chronological order): Poetry, Rock, News and Fashion. About 25 people currently work for the company. Lest you think their work appears to be just for 20-somethings who covet vinyl, in 2012, the Williamsburg team secured $15 million from the storied investment firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Metellus explained to us some of the ways that tech has been important to the company since it launched:

  • The founders of the company always had a vision of annotating everything online, but they started with with rap and then expanded as the idea caught on.
  • The company will be launching major new partnerships with news organizations, soon, including The New York Times, offering annotations directly on news outlet websites.
  • In order to give authority to commenters who annotate lyrics, community members get a Rap IQ score, which grows with successful annotations.
  • Tech and editorial are in constant conversation about how the two sides can advance the other side’s work.
  • The company has a tech motto: “Worse is better.” In other words, it’s better to get a feature out and understand it better by seeing how it works than to try to get it right internally.
  • A few months ago the company launched Rap Stats, a way to compare the relative use of different words in lyrics over time.
  • A community member used the Rap Genius data to make this graph that shows relationships and influences between hip hop acts.

Fears about the legality of posting full-text lyrics (and being among the best known to do it) were swayed somewhat, as Rap Genius secured a deal with Sony, and others are following, said Metullus. Meanwhile, many less known musicians are actively putting their lyrics up on the site voluntarily — Nas was an early supporter, investor and Rap Genius’s first Verified Artist, supplying his own interpretation of his lyrics.

As Billboard recently added, the goal continues to grow, as Columbia students are using Rap Genius to annotate ‘The Illiad.’

The ultimate goal, Billboard wrote, is crowd-sourced, Wikipedia-like annotations of everything under the sun.

Companies: Genius
Series: Brooklyn

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