DML Interview: A Lyrical Genius

Rap Genius

You are lying in bed, earbuds in, when a lyric from a song on your iPod catches your attention in a way it has never caught your attention before. You might press pause, rewind the song- you might even start it back from the beginning, just to hear it again. This may go on a few more times, all in an effort to make sure you heard what you heard. Whether you are now feeling confused, excited, appalled, enlightened, or even frustrated, the lyric did its job. In one way or another, the artist has you thinking.

The emotions associated with listening to the lyrics of songs are what keep us coming back for more of a particular artist. All of the lyrical artists we discover, come to love, come to hate, and sometimes abandon are trying to influence us with their words. They write them in a literal sense, a figure of speech, contexts we might not comprehend- to connect with their listeners in a way that distinguishes themselves from a sea of competition. Once we hear these lyrics, it is often up to our own interpretation as listeners to take an artist’s intended meaning and make our own memories.

As the wild animals eating the fruits of an artist’s labor, we are ultimately responsible for taking what we hear and running with it. We spread the word, sharing our reactions and conclusions to their lyrics with those who might not have heard them the way we did when we listened. The latter of my description of this raw connection between you and your artist is where we, as listeners, often need some guidance.

In October 2009, Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory co-founded a website that we now accept as our lyrical dictionary. The site that never gets old, Rap Genius, was born, and it didn’t need much time to learn how to walk. Having now branched out to Rock Genius, Poetry Genius, and News Genius, the guys who initially sought out to make sense of a particularly wordy musical genre are now offering their services on a much wider spectrum. For every moment of desperation in which we need to know the meaning of a verse, chorus, or single bar, these guys are there to bail us out of our obsessions and curiosities. We are honestly privileged to be living in an era of so many technological innovations in music.

Rap Genius Co-Founders
Mahbod Moghadam, Ilan Zechory, and Tom Lehman

I was fortunate enough to dig deep into the lyrical database we all have come to depend on by picking the mind of one of Rap Genius’ most dependable players. Offering his range of talent to the team, Alex Koenig serves as co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Rock Genius site, edits/moderates/writes for Rap Genius, and even contributes to the Huffington Post.

I’ll let Alex do the talking from here on out, as he proved to have an extremely funny, articulate perspective on the Rap Genius phenomenon.

Alex Koenig
Alex Koenig

Tell us a little bit about the origins of the two sites, and how you and Mahbod decided to work together.

Rap Genius was founded in October 2009, and it appeared on my radar not much later– early 2010, I’d say. I was a junior in college at the time, and was only beginning to appreciate rap. I heard Nas’ Illmatic for the first time that year, and distinctly remember reading Rap Genius’ breakdown of “Life’s A Bitch.”

I began interning for Rap Genius in the summer of 2011 while I was a junior at the University of Central Florida. That fall, Mahbod Moghadam (the co-founder of Rap Genius) introduced me to the concept of Stereo IQ, which was the original name for Rock Genius. I react to a swath of guitar distortion like a monk reacts to Transcendental Meditation, so being offered a chance to lead a rock and roll site was a dream come true.

How is the team organized? Are there more members of the team? How are the site’s responsibilities broken down by person?

There’s a short but significant chain of command. We have one million users signed up, and only about 600 of them are editors. Editors ensure the content is up to snuff, make changes when necessary, and are supervised by moderators. I’m one of the moderators, and we moderators oversee everyone and everything. We’re like hip-hop’s Big Brother without the tendencies to brainwash.

Was there a specific moment or two when you realized this kind of a site is absolutely necessary?

The first time I saw the site, I felt it had potential to evolve into the definitive catalogue of hip-hop. What I was unsure of initially was the leadership of its founders. After sharing my ideas with Mahbod over the phone, I was confident that we’d be able to grow the project into something special.

Rap Genius is the first site that comes to mind when we need to get to the bottom of our favorite, or most confusing lyrics. Is that an exciting, or overwhelming opportunity to influence your fans?

It’s mostly the former, occasionally the latter. The song page for Big Sean’s “Control” earned a million views in two days, but we at RG felt pressured to make enlightening annotations. When we heard Kendrick’s verse on “Control” scorch the earth, we knew that we wouldn’t just break down a song; we would break down an event.

What strategies do you use to actually discover the meanings behind the cryptic lyrics of these singers and rappers?

Every user on the site is different, but I prefer to take the approach of a journalist. Discovering interesting facts about an artist, digging up cool photos– really anything that can inspire someone reading the note to learn more about the musician. We’d rather have one meticulously researched annotation than five fast-food annotations.

How do you think you could make the site run even more effectively? Do you have any valid requests from your fans to make the site better that you are planning to address in the future?

We’re creating a more social environment for our users. We just launched the news feeds (similar to the ones on Facebook) on all of our channels: Rap Genius, Rock Genius, Poetry Genius, and News Genius. We also granted users the ability to “follow” one another, just like Twitter. It’s an opportunity for fans to interact and learn, and a very important one. Musicians are only as strong as their communities.

What do you think the biggest difference is between deciphering rock and rap lyrics?

With hip-hop, rappers tend to write in first person about their life—their personalities are often transparent, and the creative wordplay is meant to be clear and obvious. With rock lyrics, it gets a little trickier. The lyrics from a band as complex as Radiohead tend to leave more open-ended meanings for interpretation. Like veteran poker players, rock lyricists tend to not show their hand.

Favorite artist to write about? Why is that?

For hip-hop, Kendrick is it. He probably won’t be the “greatest” for very long—heroes eventually die—but hey, the future is unwritten. He’s exciting to write about because he doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle and pushes his peers to try harder. He’s both rap’s savior and threat.

I saw Grizzly Bear live at the Hollywood Cemetery a few weeks ago, and it was one of the richest experiences I’ve had since moving to LA. The crowd was situated on a field of green grass while Grizzly Ganja was graciously given out. Edward Droste and the band cooed into their microphones like songbirds on the first day of spring. Since then, I’ve been delving into their lyrics, which are so good that I’m probably going to plagiarize them in a love letter to my future wife.

Most challenging artist to write about? And why is that?

Aesop Rock is always a challenge to write about, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s one of the densest lyricists of his time. On paper, you can’t read half of a verse without witnessing deep spiritual truths or off-the-wall imagery. “There’s smoke in my iris, but I painted a sunny day on the insides of my eyelids,” he raps on “Battery.” Giving that line a proper analysis is tougher than getting waterboarded.

As for who in rock music is tough to write about, the late Elliott Smith takes the cake. Don’t let his angelic wisp of a voice fool you— his lyrics are as raw as Wu-Tang. They conflate abuse and addiction with an enduring beauty, and that contrast makes them hard to write about.

How have these sites helped you enter the music industry? Have you encountered anything you never thought would come from this?

Definitely. I’ve met rappers, rockers, label execs, filmmakers, journalists, engineers, and more. It’s been a great platform for my social and professional life.

What has surprised you the most about the lyrical abilities of some of the artists on the site? Are there artists whom you never thought meant things the way that they did?

When I was reading the lyrics on Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…” last year, I had no idea she was so dark and intense. The line “That’s where the pain comes in / Like a second skeleton / Tryin’ to fit beneath the skin,” definitely wormed its way into my nightmares.

Are there times when you feel like you are forcing meaning out of the lyrics, when in your gut you both think, is there any real deeper meaning?

We at Rock Genius believe that like a picture, one lyric is worth a thousand words. Even something as simple as the Beatles lyric in “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: It’s such a feeling that my love, I can’t hide. At face value, sure, that line doesn’t need to be “explained.” But there’s a rich history of that line involving Bob Dylan turning the Beatles onto pot because he thought they were singing, “I get high.” There is depth to be found in nearly any lyric if you dig deep enough.

Single lyric that resonates with you since breaking it down?

Pretty much anything on the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Most people think the words are random nonsense John Lennon recorded during an acid trip, but they go deeper than that. He lashes out at corporations and religion on it. It’s a punk song at its core.

What is the future of your brand? Do you see yourself expanding to other genres or forms of literature?

The goal is to cover everything from music and literature to legal texts to medical documents. Any text that’s worth mulling over should be on our site(s).

Know that you are greatly appreciated by rock and rap fans alike and you have become a staple site in the industry. What does the need for sites like yours mean to how popular music exists in its current form? Do you feel lyrics should or should not be so cryptic at times?

The success of Rock Genius and Rap Genius is a testament to why music can and should be picked apart. Maybe Chance The Rapper said it best, “Everybody’s somebody’s everything.” Every song is somebody’s everything.

As to whether I feel lyrics should or shouldn’t be cryptic, I don’t have a preference. Whether or not a lyric’s meaning is subtle or obtuse doesn’t matter to me; what does matter is if the lyric hits close to home.

As a music personality, have you ever experimented making your own music?

Not so much original music but I’ve recorded a few covers.

Leave us with a song on one of your sites that you never cared for, but have come to love since interpreting its lyrics.

Oh, that’s easy: Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” The RG community decided that every line on that song is a subliminal message to a secret society. On the day I meet Jay-Z, that’s the first song I plan to show him. If he laughs, then I’ll be 100% sure the Illuminati exists.

For those who were well aware of all that the Rap Genius brand offers to the current music scene, I hope what Alex had to say validated every lyric you have ever trusted in their hands. For those of you just catching on, I hope you can put these guys to work by utilizing their incredible sites as needed. Remember you can always sign up to contribute to the collaborative, interactive Rap Genius.

Whether it be rock, rap, news, or poetry, the sky is the limit at Rap Genius. These guys have the dedicated work ethic necessary to change the entire music industry in its current state. While we rely on their sites for peace of mind, it is essential to note that they depend on the artists of the past, present, and future for their material. Our industry lives and breathes by the artists who force us to feel with their lyrics and melodies. This interview reminded me how the industry is a symbiotic relationship amongst all of its inhabitants. The world of music is a beautiful place to be.

From all of us at DML and the ANTI Society in association with this interview, thank you Alex, Mahbod, and the whole Rap Genius family for their cooperation and overall innovation in regards to the music industry.