Nestled in a residential area off Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Austin was a hidden gem for the hip-hop community at South by Southwest this year. Away from downtown, the Rap Genius Ranch was an oasis from all the day party chaos. Mystikal, Ab-Soul, Mike G and Chance the Rapper were just a few of the surprise visitors who stopped by throughout the weekend.
Rap Genius is the brainchild of three Yale University buddies who created the site after debating the meaning of a Cam'ron lyric. Since, 2009 Rap Genius has stirred up the startup scene with its online community for applying crowd-sourced poetry analysis to rap lyrics. Combining elements from Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary, Rap Genius aims to fill in the gaps in the world's understanding of hip-hop music. The company recently received a $15 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz to do just that.
The idea is simple. A fan or artist will transcribe a song's lyrics onto the site, opening it to crowd-sourced interpretation. Once the song is posted, Rap Genius account holders can annotate their explanations line by line. If the community deems it fitting, they can up vote, down vote or suggest an amendment to an annotation before a moderator approves or rejects it. The more active you are annotating on the site, the more Rap IQ points you get. As you reach a higher Rap IQ, you can work your way to editor or moderator status and join other music fans, artists, bloggers and industry professionals. ?uestlove of The Roots is a moderator as are some of the people behind L.A.-based hip-hop site Mostly Junk Food. I have recently been made a moderator in order to represent the Dallas market and start verifying Texas artists.
Editor in chief Shawn Setaro is a true head's head. He's the kind of guy with whom you can quickly end up in long and thought-provoking conversations about a particular artist or album or record's impact on the culture, and he has the ability to do this with just about anyone. Before the days of Rap Genius, he would spend hours on the clock at his day job footnoting Jay-Z lyrics to help his girlfriend understand why he loved the music so much. Rap Genius knows how crucial understanding art is to truly appreciate it, and so do many of the artists who get verified accounts in order to explain their lyrics on the site.
"For me, the most special moment was watching an interview Jean Grae did recently for a documentary. ... She said, 'Because Rap Genius exists, I can make more complex songs,'" Setaro says. "To be a part of something that has that kind of impact on the music that artists get to make, that means the world to me.
"If we're not careful, we can get caught in this perception of so-called 'good rap,'" he adds. "The thinking that everything from Rakim to Big L is all that really matters ... there's so much more out there. Rap Genius can help us connect those dots."
The particular dots that Setaro and Rap Genius are interested in connecting lately are those in the South. Rap from this area is easily the most maligned style in the culture. For years, when East Coast boom-baps and West Coast gangsta rap ruled the airwaves, Texas rap was widely ignored if not completely rejected by the East. Times have changed. We're now living in the age of rappers from the coasts influenced by the South, such as A$AP Mob, Trillifornia and Screw York. Hell, even Justin Timberlake screwed and chopped the intro to "Suit & Tie." Traditional Texas style is now what's hot in the streets, and the very forces that used to write it off are now trying to co-opt it as their own.
I've seen plenty of remarks on Twitter over the last few months like, "Everybody eats off of Texas, but Texas" or "Artists out now do Houston's sound better than Houston, you all should be ashamed of yourselves." While these are valid frustrations, they don't really provide much of a solution to the issue. There's now a whole generation of rap fans out there now who might go their whole lives thinking that "work something, twerk something basis" is a Drake lyric rather than a UGK one. What we need to be asking ourselves is, how we can take back what's rightfully ours? To quote Ms. Erykah Badu, "What good do your words do, if they can't understand you?"