Founder of Genius and Everipedia
When Tom and I started Genius in 2009, we wanted to build something that would grow bigger than rap lyrics. The first 4 songs I annotated on RapExegesis, as it was originally called, were rap songs. However, the 5th one was Elton John's "Rocket Man", the 6th was The Eagles' "Hotel California", and the 7th was a poem, the first non-lyrics post on the site - Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?"
At that time, our goal was to build a universal annotator. The most important genres for us were lyrics, literature, and religious books like the Bible - that's why the original name was "Exegesis", a fancy SAT word that means breaking down the Bible line-by-line; we changed the name from "Exegesis" to "Genius" because nobody could spell exegesis.
As soon as the site got serious traction, we started to get criticism, mostly from woke hipster white journalists writing for Pitchfork - talking shit because the CEO was white. Tom, the CEO, is not even a white guy who likes rap! He is completely ignorant of rap and wanted to learn more - that was the whole reason he built the site. I got very angry at these critics because I felt like they are missing the bigger picture - someday, I thought Genius would become so big that people would forget that our origins were in hip-hop, just like how lots of people use Facebook and don't know it was originally meant only for college students. I thought that when Genius became the "SOCIAL NETWORK OF CLOSE READING" it wouldn't matter that the CEO is white, or that he doesn't listen to rap. I felt like the critics were being myopic.
Also, Tom actually built the darned thing! He's not like other "non-technical" CEOs who try to raise money and have a dev team build it - he built it himself. And he built it overnight - he was in a rush because I had just lost my job and he wanted to build something to keep me busy. I'll never forget about that - the night he stayed up to build Rap Exegesis, I had truly lost all hope in life, and having a new project to work on the next morning gave me back my hope. That's why I was working so hard on it.
Fast Forward to 2020. I left the company 6 years ago. A year after I left, we decided to return to only doing rap lyrics. With me gone, the Bible, literature and even non-rap music communities basically fell apart. In fact, all of the communities fell apart - partially, I think, because the contributors got sick of working for IQ points that were in fact worthless. (This is what inspired me to start investing in crypto btw.. BUT I DIGRESS..) We shut down our web annotator because nobody was using it and some wack-ass politicians were criticizing it. That and some other changes to the front page basically signalled the return to lyrics only. The Bible and stuff are still up on the site, but a lot of people don't even know about the non-lyrics content on Genius.
However, the site is huge. When I tell people I'm the founder of Genius, everyone assumes that I'm a multi-millionaire since I founded the biggest hip-hop website on the internet, it's hard to explain that I still have to buy 365 Brand at Whole Foods. The Genius community is not active anymore, but it is ok because we are no longer trying to be a social network. Instead, we are a media company. What we do is interview rappers about the meaning of their lyrics and everyone loves it.
The idea of having "verified accounts" - which are now the centerpiece of the site - was 100% my idea. The first rapper who annotated his own lyrics was my friend Mike G who was then part of the Odd Future Wolf Gang (OFWGKTA) collective. He started using the site on his own to annotate his lyrics without contacting us. When he signed up, I noticed that the email he had used to sign up said "Mike G" - I was like "guys, I think the rapper himself is doing this!" Tom and Ilan thought I am jumping to conclusions. I emailed Mike G and he confirmed that yes, he's writing the annotations himself. The Real McCoy. He invited me to the Odd Future house that night! It was the bomb, I met Left Brain, Hodgy and Syd the Kyd. Tom and Ilan were in nyc I was in LA, so they didn't come with me. They probably wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I did, however, because they don't even listen to rap...
Not that I'm a "rap insider" or anything either. I shouldn't be CEO of Genius either. I love rap but I'm not an expert. When I was at the Odd Future house it's not like a fit in like a glove, I was awkward. But whatever, I connected with Mike G! He is still my boy, he called me on the phone after my brain surgery to see how I'm doing. It meant so much to me. He's friends with my mom. Mike G deserves some equity in Genius since "Verified Accounts" was his idea, even before we built the technology for it.
I told Tom that we need to give rappers BLUE CHECKMARKS, just like Twitter does. When the legendary rapper Nas angel invested, Tom said he will build Verified Accounts for Nas to be the first user. Nas was our fourth investor, and all of the earlier investors were setting us up for him, since he is by far our most important investor. Our first investor was Y Combinator, then Ashton Kutcher, who we met at Demo Day, then Ashton introduced us to the legendary Troy Carter, who also invested. Troy intro'd us to Nas, who loved the idea of the site and wanted to break down his lyrics. Tom built the "Verified Accounts" software which made annotations green, put a green checkmark next to the contributing rapper's name, and allowed rappers to record $$$VIDEOS$$$ as well (this was my idea but it always had bugs and didn't work well). Nas was the first to use the product, to much press and fanfare.
I really wanted the checkmark to be blue. However, Tom said he can't use a blue checkmark because Twitter already does that - he insisted our checkmark has to be GREEN. This shows you that Tom is an idiot - this was in 2014. If his argument was correct, then how come every other site's checkmark is blue too except Genius'??? People don't even call it being "Verified" anymore, they call it "having the blue check" on Instagram, Tiktok, Tinder, Snapchat, etc.
When I left the company, Tom did two smart things, and neither of them have anything to do with coding. (In fact, all of the brilliant coding he and his team did in the early days has turned out to basically be useless since we are now a media company). The first smart thing was he hired Rob Markman who is basically my replacement. Rob someone who is actually part of hip-hop and knows a lot of rappers. The SECOND smart thing was the yellow screen. I think it was Rob's idea actually, I'm not sure. Instead of using buggy on-site technology, Rob had rappers start coming to the office for media-style interviews about their lyrics. But they decided that when the rappers come in for interviews, don't display the interviewer, just have the rapper face the camera with a yellow backdrop. Tom was foolish for not using the blue check (we should still change it to blue, tbh) but the yellow screen is iconic too. My full time job these days is that rappers message me on Instagram, they say "hey let me do an interview with the yellow screen!" I tell them to sign up and start annotating their lyrics and if their song gets 1 million views then I'll recommend them to Tom for a yellow screen interview.
Tom is a brilliant developer and product manager, but he and the company's President, Ilan, are doing a horrible job managing what has turned into the biggest rap media website. They have no business running Genius as it currently exists. When we were trying to build a social network that will someday go beyond rap, it was OK for two white guys who don't listen to rap to be in charge. But at this point it is no longer ok, especially with all of the recent events that have been taking place. Ilan being President is even worse than Tom being CEO. Tom at least built the MVP - what the heck has Ilan done as President?!? Ilan has been completely useless - he didn't even join the company until AFTER we finished Y Combinator because he stayed in nyc to hypnotize celebrities; Ilan was a hypnotist with celebrity clients - that was his job when Tom and I started the site. Even though Ilan is lazy and doesn't know how to code, Tom loves Ilan because Ilan is tall, so Tom invited Ilan to join us when we got accepted to YC. But Ilan said no - he thought hypnotizing his celebrity clients was more valuable than being a Rap Genius founder. He was doing Rap Genius part-time and stayed mostly in nyc - he didn't join us full-time until it was apparent that Ashton Kutcher wanted to invest.
Last week, Ilan's wife, Audrey Gelman, resigned from being CEO of her company because of reports that she is racist. She was, allegedly, incredibly rude to her black employees. Her resignation was all over the news. Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself "how come she resigned, but her racist white husband who doesn't listen to rap is still the President of the biggest rap website in the world which I BUILT without his help??" I have never met Audrey, but if she's racist, that should be a pretty clear signal to everyone that her husband is also racist. Ilan grew up as a rich kid in suburban Detroit, home of Malcolm X, one of the most racially stratified parts of the U.S. He told me a lot about the racist society he grew up in, and I was not comfortable with his recounts. It seems to me he gets a kick out of being in charge of a rap website, even though he doesn't listen to rap. It makes him feel like he's lording over lesser beings.
For me, it is a huge inequity that he's still allowed to run the company I built. But beyond that, it is no longer even a good business practice. I resigned from Genius but I am still a major shareholder. I'm also friends with some early employees and angel investors who want an exit on their successful investment. That's why I think that in light of all of the changes that are happening now, it is in the best interests of Genius shareholders (like me) for Ilan and Tom to both resign, sell the company to someone competent, and have the board choose a Black American person as CEO of Genius.
I don't see Genius scaling much in the future. The traffic could still grow, but it is by now established as a hip-hop website. Pretty much all of the Verified Artists are rappers - maybe a pop musician or two, but the Verified pop musicians are usually the ones whose sounds have an affinity to hip-hop, like Billie Eilish. Why are two white guys who have no black friends, are mildly racist, and have zero passion for hip-hop running it? The company should be sold to a big player, like Apple, or MTV, or BET, and a Black American CEO who has strong ties to the hip-hop community should be leading it. That way, shareholders like me can get our exits for having built one of the most beloved brands on the internet, and the company can perform at its best.
Back in 2013, Tom, Ilan and I were invited to Kanye West's engagement party and we got to chill with Kanye a lot. At the time I got kind of pissed at Kanye because he refused to get a Verified Account. Instead, he did a redesign of the app's homepage for us. I didn't understand it then, but now I think Kanye was trying to send us this message: he was saying, "look, white guys, I am not going to use your stupid technology. But I am black and I did a better job rebuilding it than you did, and I don't even code. PUT A BLACK PERSON IN CHARGE!" The funny part is Tom ended up using Kanye's redesign and didn't even give Kanye any equity for it. That is some carpetbagger ass shit right there - I think the board should also give Kanye the equity he deserves for the redesign. Honestly, if he's down, I'm down for Kanye to be Genius' CEO. We should ask him.
I like the steps we are taking as a company to support the BLM movement - I bet a lot of the ideas in our proposal were Ben Horowitz's. But if anything, doing that stuff harkens to the 8,000 lb gorilla in the room, which is that Tom and Ilan should no longer be the leaders of Genius. We have the legendary Steve Stoute on our board, but that is not enough. A Black American should be in charge of the entire company - not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will create the most value for shareholders such as myself, current employees, founding employees, and several of my good friends who angel invested back in 2011 - the people I care about.
If it was 100% up to me I would put Rob Markman in charge. I've never met him, but it seems to me like he is de facto running the show already. He's the one who knows all the rappers and it seems like he hired all of the staff too. My only quibble with him is that he seems to not be 100% focused on Genius - in addition to his role at Genius, he is a rapper, and a lot of times when he premiers his own songs he doesn't even annotate them! Smh.. but I think this is because he knows he's getting shortchanged. He deserves more equity and the CEO title - then I think he will be more committed to Genius, as it should be.
TOM/ILAN: Please do the right thing! Step down immediately. I resigned when it was my time to do it, now you have to follow my example. You can start another company like I did! You will still have lots of equity in Genius so it serves you the best too - you can sell the company and become very rich, and also compensate everyone else who helped you. You just have to give up your salary and free Whole Foods, that's all..
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