I’m waiting in the lobby of Genius headquarters in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood when “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan begins to play on the sound system. Being where I am— the hive of a small swarm of branché twenty- and thirtysomething music nerds, coders, and designers who spend their days annotating songs — I decide to test the depth of the company’s repertoire. On my iPhone, I search the song title on the Genius website while mumbling along with the tune, which I remember as a kid being unable to avoid when it came out in 1995.
I found it.
Reading those evocative verses about partying on the West Side with honeys and forgetful gangbangers, I was immediately transported back to my childhood. What was of particular interest was a line in the first verse: “Hit the ’shaw cause I’m faded.” I have no idea what that means. Fortunately, it’s annotated. I click on the highlighted bit of text, and the mystery is revealed: “‘Shaw if [sic] an abbreviation for Crenshaw. Only L.A. natives recognize this reference.” As a New Yorker, I was relieved.
The sensation I felt is just one example of how Genius is forcing a shift in people’s relationship not just with music, but with the written word. Founded as Rap Exegesis and quickly changed to Rap Genius in 2009 by Ilan Zechory, Tom Lehman, and Mahbod Moghadam, the company — as the original name suggests — started off as resource purely for rap and hip-hop songs. Through the years, however, following several sea changes, including an overhaul of the website, new logos, and a slew of high-profile hires, the house that rap built started to diversify into other genres of music, literature, and presidential speeches. This year, it was announced that Genius inked a deal with music-streaming juggernaut Spotify to bring the software to even more users.
But what is Genius exactly?
There’s the website, which functions like a social network, where all the songs are aggregated and annotated by a community of geeks as well the musicians themselves. An exemplar of the latter: hip-hop artist Pusha T. “Sometimes our culture needs clarity and a breakdown of the true meaning behind our lyrics, so we can share our greatness with the masses,” he tells me. “Genius is that clarity.”
Then there’s the software, which can be used on external sites to annotate texts. Didn’t think a story in The New York Times was fair? Genius makes you able to take issue.
What’s especially interesting about this company is the fact that it’s still at an early stage of monetizing, but has managed to raise more than $56 million of investment capital. Many of the hows and whys are kept secret, I discovered. Post-dot-com bubble, it might seem dubious for a company that isn’t monetizing to have such a high valuation. Srinivas Thiruvadanthai, director of research at the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center, has a gauge of the situation. “This is an environment where assets are priced high,” he says. “Because so much of it is a promise of something that would come together in the future, people don’t have to deliver on the ground immediately. There is clearly suspension of disbelief.”
He went on to say that during the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s, many of the companies that tanked were just concepts. “They didn’t have any revenue, but they were getting funded anyway,” he said. “Today, it’s much less a phenomenon of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Back then there were many bad business plans.”
Knock on wood.
And just as Montell Jordan’s song began to wind down, I was summoned upstairs to speak with some of the people behind it all.
ILAN ZECHORY, 32 Cofounder and President
Genius is a hard company to explain. It seems to be doing a million things at once. Do people ever ask you if you’re crazy?
No, not so much. No. I’m kind of in this bubble where I’m actually doing the work. This is much more like an office where people do work that you might expect. We’re trying to do something that’s pretty complicated, and that’s building technology and communities.
You seem to be masters of seduction in terms of investment and user retention. Can you tell me about that?
We just hired a chief revenue officer to help answer that. It’s a cluster of notions. What do we say Genius is? The answer is very complicated and has no parallel in publishing or music. There are some values that hold the cluster together. Love of knowledge is one. It takes a certain kind of person to look into a Montell Jordan lyric. It takes a really special person to want to explain the lyric to other people. And an even more special person to build something to allow that to be accessible. Genius attracts people who aren’t on board with ephemerality. They want to build something with persistence. Its closest analog is probably Wikipedia.
How does this company generate revenue?
Right now we’re in the process of starting that up. We’re going to be doing some cool stuff.
Can’t elaborate. Broadly speaking, we’re going to do something based on the marriage of technology and community. We have a brand, users, a ton of cultural significance, and we have the artists. I think that’s a really interesting place for advertisers. There’s a whole world of content out there. Lyrics are the biggest failure in music. There are a billion searches a month for lyrics.
What’s the ultimate goal of this enterprise?
We want to move the needle culturally in a positive way by creating a lasting resource. Any time that a new piece of music comes out, you can always rely on Genius to give you information about the lyrics. We want to change the way people think about a song. We’re also very serious about our ambitions in literature. And the news, a lot of which is highly questionable. It’s really important that people remain vigilant and not complacent in what they’re reading. There’s poor reporting, poor storytelling, bad writing, corruption.
Who is your user?
High school and college is a huge focus. It skews younger relative to middle age, but that’s the Internet in general. There are older users doing great annotations.
You’ve partnered with Spotify, and annotated for the White House and Lena Dunham. What value do you bring to them?
Spotify is obvious: experiencing music and having fun. For the White House, that’s for documenting history. Not many people are going to read the 2011 State of the Union address, but if you do, there’s an interesting oral history to the transcript. For Lena Dunham, it was about telling stories that were on the cutting room floor to do some promotion for the book.
And the Kanye West story. I’ve been told you have one.
In 2012, when we were still Rap Genius, the site had a black background. Kanye sent us a design that was pretty awesome. It was big, bold, yellow, and bright. Over time our design ended up verging on exactly what he sent us. The site today is shockingly similar to what he sent us. I will not shit on his vision. He kinda saw the future.
ROB MARKMAN, 36 Manager of Artistic Relations
Your face is familiar.
I came from MTV News.
That must be it.
I was a producer on a TV show and MTV’s senior hip-hop editor. Coming over to Genius, I believed in the brand, and I wanted to help build it up, to make it as big as MTV. It has that potential. I also wanted to be a part of something from the ground level.
What’s your role here?
In a nutshell, my role is to bridge the Genius community with the artists and to bring cool opportunities. We have an editorial site, a YouTube site for video. We’re adding “behind the lyrics” to the streaming world via Spotify, and as much as we can get artists involved, I facilitate that.
Who are some of your more recent acquisitions?
Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. They put out an album called Collegrove. Genius got them to sit down together and talk about music theory and broke down specific lyrics for us. Wayne is superstar level.
So many egos to deal with. Sounds like it could be a nightmare.
I haven’t bumped into any monsters yet. The proposition we offer is that no matter what, they get to talk about their art and the music they create. Wayne told me personally that he never had an interview like the one here. No one has just sat down with him to talk about music and his approach. Sometimes media forgets to do that. A lot of time artists are happy to open up.
Your hip-hop expertise aside, what else do you bring to the table?
Overall music expertise. I manage the artist relations team. I’m a hip-hop baby and there’s no denying it. Like, I don’t know Blake Shelton, but I surround myself with people who do. The one thing you find with great artists is it’s hard for them to explain how they do the magic trick. Pusha T is great because he can articulate and tell you about the intent of every syllable.
Do you invite less popular artists in to annotate?
The way the site is designed anyone can sign up for an account and annotate anything. If Henry Rollins wanted to sign up, he could, and we’d verify an account. I’d love to have everyone annotate their music. Obviously we want to go after the hottest songs, but it’s not any more important to us. I just did annotations with Tokyo Police Club. We weren’t going to get a ton of press over it, but David is an artist who has dope things to say in his music and equally dope annotations. I think there’s a great deal of diversity in genre and generation that we can provide. The company did start as Rap Genius, so people still come to us for rap, and I’m biased. There’s always more to break down and decipher in rap. There are more words.
JENN SCHEER, 27 Designer and Developer
Any questions you don’t like being asked?
How does design play into Genius? How important is it?
At this point in time it’s more important than it ever has been. As a budding tech company, it wasn’t. As we move from Rap Genius to Genius, continue to spread awareness about the name change, and grow up as a company, we have to bring a fresh perspective. Emily Segal was a huge force in getting everyone at the company to respect design, to be excited about what Genius could be and feel like to people while keeping the same irreverent spirit. It’s now getting a little more robust. We’re beginning to experiment with how we can expand the language of the brand. I’d say design is well respected here now. The staff realizes how much of a difference it can make.
The logos are fun. Tell me about them.
There’s the wordmark logo. The shadowing represents that Genius is this layer on top of text. Right now we’re a text annotation platform. From the G, if you rotate it 90 degrees, it turns into a smiley face, or the “Sgnarly” as we call it.
How do you spell “Snarly”?
Yeah. Gnarly with an “s.”
Who is the Sgnarly then? I thought it was Islamic lettering.
It gets more at the personality of Genius. It accents the content. The voice of Genius has a sense of humor. It’s not dry like an encyclopedia. It’s the cool friend at the party who tells you what the lyric means.
So Genius is the guy at the party who’s trying desperately to get laid?
I can’t speak to that. This is, at its core, a knowledge project. “Annotate the world” is a huge goal.
Sounds like it.
The voice changes depending on whether you’re on genius.com or when the web annotator is used on sites that aren’t ours. When we were thinking of the pros and cons of switching to Genius, we didn’t want it to feel like we were a big corporate company with a generic name. We wanted to keep the branding a little bit mischievous.
Tell me about your approach.
My approach has always been more practical than strictly philosophical. I’m always the most excited about getting things done and getting things out in the world that people can use. I can make something today and change it tomorrow. I think design now is about touching things just to see what happens. Like clicking a button. What happens? Does it feel good? Is it exciting?
Is it true that Kanye West hired a team of designers to come up with schemes for Genius?
Can I answer this? [She turns to Natalie Guevara, the company’s super-cool publicist. Guevara nods.] Yes, he sent us designs and they had a white background and used Impact. I didn’t like them very much. It didn’t look like a great website to me. I feel very honored that it happened at all, though, that Kanye cares about the company I work for so much that he tried to redesign it for me.
It was completely unsolicited?
That’s the story I know.
When you’re designing, what age group do you have in mind?
Contributing to Genius is a complicated system. There’s a learning curve, and design can make that curve feel even steeper if it’s not approachable. A black background can make you feel like you shouldn’t be there. Our new colors and fonts make it feel more professional and still fun.
The interiors of the office are refreshing. Scandinavian simplicity with candy-colored dichroic film on glass walls. Let’s call it “corporadelic” equal parts corporate and psychedelic. Did you have a hand in its design?
Are you a fan of the color scheme?
I love that we’re in this weird old building that’s probably falling apart.
Can you tell me about the future of its design? Any changes afoot?
Even after almost a year, we still have a lot of experimentation and growing to do with it. I want it to stay playful.
Zechory is a certified hypnotherapist. He held regular appointments during the early days of Genius, when the company was still boot strapped.
Nas was the first verified artist on Genius. He proudly sported one of the company’s most celebrated pieces of merch, the “Rap” cap, in a magazine spread.
When Rob Markman announced he was leaving MTV News to run artist relations at Genius, hip-hop artists from DJ Khaled to Pusha T to Wale tweeted in praise and got the hashtag #RobGenius trending on Twitter for 24 hours.
When Jenn Scheer isn’t programming, she operates within the New York City underground techno culture. Her best friends are the founders of the Discwoman collective.
Until the company moved into its Gowanus headquarters in summer 2015, Genius operated out of 11 separate apartments in a Williamsburg condo.
The company used to have custom bottled water called Bottle Water (no “d”) and Scholar Water.
Lupe Fiasco shouted-out Genius on one of his latest tracks, “Express”: “Genius should just be my Bible.”