Ben Horowitz Says $15 Million For Rap Genius Will Create "A Talmud For The Internet"

Investing in a service that decodes hip-hop is, for the principals at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and Rap Genius cofounder Mahbod Moghadam, both an investment in a culture and a way to rethink the way we browse the whole web.

"Huh?!"—Kanye West

When a venture capitalist who begins each of his blog entries with a rap lyric proposes investing in a company called "Rap Genius," it can seem a little self-indulgent.

"That was the thing that got the most resistance at the firm in making the investment," Ben Horowitz tells Fast Company about this request. "That I was interested in rap and it was Rap Genius. It was like, 'Ben what are you doing?'"

Eventually, the firm ceded, and Andreessen Horowitz announced on Wednesday that it had invested $15 million in the startup, which allows members to add explanations to their favorite rap lyrics.

Click on the lyric "Clique, clique, clique" from the song, um, "Clique," on the latest album by Kanye West's GOOD Music collective, and you’ll learn the line could be interpreted as referring to a group of friends or the sound of snapping paparazzi cameras or even the sound that guns make when they’re cocked.

Hover over Jay-Z's lyric in the same song, "Yeah, I’m talking B," and you’ll learn he’s referring to his wife, Beyonce—at least according to Rap Genius.

Andreessen Horowitz, a firm that has backed Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, and Instagram, does not generally invest in its hobbies. As Marc Andreessen explains in a blog post , the idea of annotating the web is something he wanted to build into Mosaic–-the Internet's first popular browser.

"It seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web," he writes. "Our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called 'group annotations' right into the browser—and it worked great—all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued."

The team, however, ran out of time and resources and dropped the feature, changing the Internet as we know it in the process. What if anyone could add context to web pages they read? We’d be looking at a very different type of liability, discussion format, and navigation path for online content.

Horowitz compares the potential of Rap Genius, which already hosts some political speeches, law cases, and The Great Gatsby to a "Talmud for the Internet." Just as the Talmud is the source of many religious beliefs that aren’t necessarily mentioned directly in the bible, it could one day be the source of "knowledge on the knowledge" online.

As of late August, when Fast Company spoke with Rap Genius cofounder Mahbod Moghadam, the site had approximately 200,000 contributors and 500 editors who have been deputized by the site's staff, which at the time hovered between nine and 15 paid employees, to oversee content. An app, a paid version, and concert promotions are all in the works, but the site is "more about the art than exposure," says Moghadam. Their goal in creating the site, he said, was to meet the rapper Cam'ron, and compared cofounder Tom Lehman to a "swagged out Mark Zuckerberg." (Ilan Zechory is the third founder.) Now the site's goal, he said humbly, is to "explain everything."

Others have dreamed this dream. Google launched a product called Sidewiki in 2009 that allowed anyone to leave notes on webpages that others could read later in a browser sidebar. After failing to take off, it shut down last year.

But if you talk with Horowitz long enough, you might start to believe the missing ingredient was a dash of hip-hop.

"The rappers and hip-hop community are the main inventors of the modern culture, not in the U.S. but worldwide," Horowitz says. "They drive so many things from a culture creation standpoint. If you are a community-based site, starting with the culture creators is genius, to use the term. "

Jillian Goodman contributed to this report.

[Image: Flickr user Jason Staten]

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11 Comments

  • rod_edwards

    For 15M, I hope they got 100% of the equity, and each of the co-founder's homes and cars.

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    "New Mercedes sedan, the Lex sport. So many cars DMV thought it was mail fraud. Different traps I was gettin' mail from. Polk County, Jacksonville, rep Melbourne."--Rick Ross's verse in Kanye's "Devil In A New Dress." 

  • Sergi Kolesnik

    Users add meaning on top of the meaning. Ok, It could be YouTube for the text, but reading isn't on the same level of fun as watching video. Also, text must be at least witty and funny. 

    And then, do you really want to read the text where 30-50% of it is covered with references to some wild interpretations?  Won't user be lost in them?

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    Right, similar to the same struggle Common has in "Book of Life": "They say become a doctor, but I don't have patience. Adjacent to that situation, I want an occupation that I'm into."

    Or consider the Cormega approach to the power of words in all kinds of situations: "I'm like a panther in the dark, silent when I strike the paper. Like a dagger in your heart. When I write I leave a mark." ("Verbal Graffiti")

    Then again, Rap Genius and Horowitz are thinking more like Big Boi: "Yo, I got a backup plan to my backup plan to back up the backup plan." ("Backup Plan")

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    You're arguing against the concept of the dictionary, you know, right? "Watch. As I combine all the juice from the mind. Heel up, wheel up, bring it back, come, rewind. Powerful impact, BOOM! from the cannon. Not bragging. Try to read my mind just imagine. Vocabulary's necessary when diggin' in to my library..." Busta Rhymes' verse on "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest (feat. Leaders of the New School) 

  • Tyler Fastcompany Gray

    I just added a paragraph to Sarah Kessler's story from Fast Company's Jillian Goodman, who had spoken to the Rap Genius cofounder Mahbod Moghadam back in August. It's cool to hear from both Ben Horowitz and Mahbod on this one, two pieces of this story that you won't hear from in stories by other outlets. I also changed the subheadline on this story to acknowledge Horowitz's and Moghadam's participation in the reporting.