How A Brain Tumor Made The Cofounder Of Rap Genius Rethink Business

After some brazen behavior, which Mahbod Moghadam blames in part on a brain tumor, the Rap Genius cofounder talks up the company’s next moves.

How A Brain Tumor Made The Cofounder Of Rap Genius Rethink Business
[Image: Flickr user Fora do Eixo]

Several months ago, Mahbod Moghadam, cofounder of the annotations site Rap Genius, had his wisdom teeth removed. For a month thereafter, he had a terrible migraine on the right side of his head, which he chalked up to the dental procedure. Soon thereafter, Moghadam began having problems with his left hand. But he didn’t think much of that either, since he’d always had trouble with his left elbow, the result of a highly athletic youth. Around this time, exercise also became difficult for Moghadam; he was hitting the gym only a third as hard. He figured that was just what happens when you turned 30.


But Moghadam began having worse problems. “My personality became terrible,” he tells Fast Company. His girlfriend broke up with him. “I started smoking a massive amount of weed,” he says. “Even for me it was truly out of control.” His hand began shaking even more violently. He’d sleep with it tucked under his rear end to still it, but it would still tremble so hard it woke him. Worst of all, he began barking at people, including his coworkers. “My cofounders were furious at me because I wasn’t doing shit. They said, ‘You have to get your act together.’”

The Rap Genius cofounders(from L-R) Ilan Zechory, Tom Lehman, and Mahbod MoghadamImage courtesy of Moghadam

Finally, six weeks ago, he went to see a doctor. The doctor sent Moghadam in for a brain MRI. A nurse, seeing the MRI, asked Moghadam to walk to an emergency room several blocks away. “It was the first peaceful moment in four months,” recalls Moghadam. “It was sunny, the end of September–perfect weather.”

In the emergency room, the doctors showed him an enormous black spot on his MRI. “You have a brain tumor,” they said. They put him in an ambulance and sent him to another hospital, where doctors began to prepare him for brain surgery the next day. Mentally, Moghadam had all but checked out. “When the anesthesiologist was prepping me for surgery, I was on Tindr, swiping left and swiping right,” he recalls. “I gave so little of a shit.” And then he was under.

This wasn’t the first time that Moghadam was supposed to die. When Moghadam’s mother conceived him, it was together with a twin sister. But at five months, she was miscarried. Of the surviving fetus inside Moghadam’s mother, doctors recommended an abortion. They said that the living fetus was likely to be stillborn too, and that if she was born (they assumed Mahbod, too, would be a girl), she was sure to be mentally retarded. “And the doctors were perfectly right,” Moghadam’s siblings would later joke.

But Moghadam was far from mentally disabled. He would go on to study at Yale, where he met his Rap Genius cofounders, and later at Stanford Law School. His site would go on to raise $15 million in venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz, impressed by Rap Genius’s rapidly growing user base and its stated ambition to “annotate the Internet.” Rap Genius soon spun out into other verticals, including Poetry Genius and News Genius, on which users (and “verified users”–the authors of those verses or articles) could add annotations. And this magazine would select him as one of its most creative people in business.

Moghadam, Ben Horowitz, and KanyeImage courtesy of Moghadam

His site would go on to enlist a coterie of celebrity users–legendary rapper Nas is one of the site’s “verified users,” as well as an investor, and Moghadam, who was at Kanye’s and Kim’s engagement party, now counts Yeezus as a “homie.” But as the site grew, it also gained critics. There was an inexcusable, sexually violent Twitter post, later deleted and apologized for. And as the site grew, the founders themselves began to imitate, in some ways, the language and behavior of certain coarser strains of rap. Moghadam, as though conjuring an old East-West rap throwdown, would publicly tell Mark Zuckerberg to suck a certain body part of Moghadam’s–behavior Moghadam would later regret and attribute to the tumor that had been growing inside him.


Moghadam survived the surgery. He spent two nights in the hospital, then was sent home to recover. A week later, doctors took the staples out of his head, leaving a scar. “I think it’s ugly,” he says. “I’m like a girl–I want to be pretty. But girls seem to like it.”

More importantly, it restored Moghadam’s interest in his business. “This really lit a fire under my ass for working on the website,” he says. “Not only me–this brain tumor motivated everyone, gave everyone a swift kick in the ass. Everyone’s working 10 times as hard now.”

Rap Genius as the topic of the $100 QUESTION on Who Wants To Be A MillionaireImage courtesy of Moghadam

Two weeks ago, the site launched Fashion Genius, bringing its brand of user-generated annotation to imagery. The feature actually grew out of a bug on the site, says Moghadam, that accidentally allowed users to comment on photos. Moghadam’s colleague Dan Berger realized that annotated photos of fashion photography could potentially be part of a monetization play. Like that handbag? Click on it, follow a link, buy it, and Rap Genius will get a cut, goes the idea. “It can make $$$CASHMONEY$$$!!!,” as Mogadham puts it in an email. He says he envisions Fashion Genius as part of a larger vertical on the site he’d like to call Art Genius. “Basically these days I’m thinking, ‘Fuck text,’” he says. “I get nauseous when I read anyway.”

He’s exaggerating (as he often does in the no-filter persona he takes to interviews, no doubt inspired by certain of the rappers he admires). In fact, Moghadam’s biggest vision for Rap Genius’s future involves enabling his site to become the back end for commentary on many other text-driven sites. “Eventually you’re gonna be able to go to any article in the New York Times, and it’ll be Genius powered,” he predicts, meaning users would be able to click and annotate inline, with Rap Genius technology undergirding it. It’s a bit of a grandiose vision–the Grey Lady probably isn’t likely to partner with Moghadam anytime soon–but Rap Genius investor Ben Horowitz will begin “powering” his own blog with Rap Genius tech within the next year, says Moghadam.

Other plans for the near future include an app to be launched in two weeks; sometime later, Moghadam wants to create a feature for recording artists to create Vine-style video annotations from their phones.

Post-surgery, Moghadam still channels a modified version of the hip-hop persona he has always used to promote the brand. “I am the Rap Genius goon,” is the way he puts it. But if he persists in dropping some freestyle lyrics of his own–which he does now and again–the subject matter is bound to be softened. The surgery permanently compromised his blood-brain barrier, meaning he’s “never allowed to do any sort of drug again,” he says.


“The only drug I have each day is a cup of green tea, and it hits me like about six lines of cocaine.”


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.