Rap Genius Cofounders Dismiss Concerns Over Racist Content in Editor Chat Rooms [UPDATED]

After looking into the matter, cofounder Mahbod Moghadam initially claimed it was the work of hackers, but now says it was abuse of a loophole on the site.
6a00d8341c558f53ef017d3d0424d8970c 500wi Rap Genius Cofounders Dismiss Concerns Over Racist Content in Editor Chat Rooms [UPDATED]

(Photo: ByronCrawford.com)

Earlier this afternoon, Byron Crawford, founder of the hip hop blog The Mindset of a Champion, posted what he claims are screenshots of a private chatroom for editors of Rap Genius, a website that crowd-sources explanations for rap lyrics. The images show two Rap Genius editors posting incredibly offensive racist statements as another editor asks them to stop. In his blog post, Mr. Crawford described the highly disturbing statements as “Toure-style erotic slavery fanfic.”

The screen grabs were sent to Mr. Crawford by a verified artist or contributor (Rap Genius’ term for vetted users and hip hop artists), “who’s upset with [Rap Genius] for whatever reason.” The only editor present in the screengrabs with a verified account is Locksmith, the user who objected to their hateful comments.

The chat sessions play into criticisms of racism leveled at the site recently both by Mr. Crawford and by Gawker, which recently wrote that the site, “trades on a particular noxious brand of humor that has infected the internet for years: white people ‘translating’ rap lyrics in arch, academic prose.” Both Gawker and Mr. Crawford also mentioned the “touchy history with race,” of cofounder Mahbod Moghadam–referring back to a rap diss Mr. Moghadam filmed comparing the rapper Dapwell from Das Racist to a “dirty cigarette.” Dapwell is of South Asian descent and Mr. Moghadam is Persian.

In earlier interviews with Betabeat for a feature on Rap Genius about the $15 million investment the startup received from Andreessen Horowitz, Mr. Moghadam at times called the diss regrettable and said he was upset that Das Racist referred to Rap Genius as “white devil sophistry,” because of his history of getting bullied as a kid for being Persian. “Fuck you don’t call me a white devil sophist, I’m an olive devil sophist,” he said with laugh. Mr. Moghadam also sent a diss video to Mr. Crawford, which you can see here, as an attempt to get him to write about Rap Genius.

When we called Mr. Moghadam by phone this afternoon with questions about the offensive chat room sessions, he was on the set of Big Boi and Kelly Rowland’s new video. He said that Rap Genius has about 500 editors, about 100 of whom are active and later claimed that both the offending comments and ones made by Locksmith were done by hackers. He also described that chat room in screenshots as Level One, in terms of hierarchy of importance. Despite being called an “Editor Chat,” he said, it’s open to members who have 1,000 Rap IQ points, the startup’s reward system based on number of explanations and upvotes or downvotes from other users.

“The idea being that it’ll allow us to smell it out if they are actually good or if they are gamers and need to have their shit deleted,” he said, noting, “So it’s not like the thing that I’m watching with the closest eyes.” Mr. Moghadam also said that the “better editors” prefer the “secret” Facebook group for Rap Genius editors. “If someone wrote some racial shit in the Rap Genius’ Editors Group on Facebook, then obviously they’d get de-editored, there’s no question about that. You can’t say racist shit,” he added.

When asked if he found the statements made in his company’s chatroom personally disturbing, Mr. Moghadam said, “I’d have to see the screenshots and stuff. I know a lot of shit gets said in the chat room. But it’s not like the chat room is where the august editors congregate.”

Members of Rap Genius can only become an editor if an existing moderator gives them privileges based on their contributions to the site. “RedGoneWild [one of the editors using racial slurs] is a user I’ve never heard of,” Ilan Zechory, another Rap Genius cofounder told Betabeat, also by phone. “This guy is a guy who has earned some Rap IQ [to get into the chat room]. An analogy would be like, someone gets on Twitter, does a lot of tweets, amasses some followers and says some racist stuff.”

Mr. Zechory called what statements “hurtful” to the overall community, and objected to the Mr. Crawford’s characterization of Rap Genius. “Another thing Bryan Crawford regurgitated from Gawker, was this is just a white community,” he said. “It’s a super multicultural community and it’s not at all white leaning. And it’s sort of sad to say it’s just a bunch of white people talking about rap, it’s just a bunch of white people being racist.” In earlier interviews with Betabeat for our feature, the cofounders were adamant that they try to avoid what they called the “whitespeak,” of sites like UnderstandRap.com. However, in the early days of the site, the cofounders, who met as undergrads at Yale, solicited fellow alums, and that Ivy League tenor can be seen in some of the explanations. The site’s mission to explain rap has also been dissected music critics.

On the phone this afternoon, Mr. Moghadam said he’s had difficulties in the past banning users, although not for racist comments, because Rap Genius can only ban a particular IP address. He said trolls form voting rings to get more points and then access to the editor chat rooms and that the site is planning “tiered chats” soon. “Hopefully that will help,” he added.

Rap Genius isn’t the only crowd-sourced site to have issues with the content posted by its users recently. (See: Creepshots, Jailbaits, or any of the manifold objectionable verticals on Reddit.) In Reddit’s case, the cofounders have come under fire for hiding under the banner of free speech.

Rap Genius has made no such claim, but Mr. Zechory, who first saw Mr. Crawford’s post when we sent him the link, was reluctant to speculate about whether the offending editors from the screenshots would be banned. “I haven’t talked to him, I haven’t looked him up, all I’ve seen are these screenshots,” he said. “I have no idea if these screenshots are even real! They probably are real. But, I have no idea.”

Not long after we spoke, Mr. Moghadam reached out to explain that Locksmith was also being “impersonated,” he said by gChat. “It wasn’t actually him it turns out. Some HACKER figured out how to do impersonations and they always do him cause he’s my boy. He is helping us run Law Genius!” Law Genius is one of the new verticals Rap Genius plans on launching with that $15 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most powerful venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

This breaking news post was edited from an earlier version to correct an error about the qualifications to become an editor and update claims from the company that the chat room sessions were the work of hackers. 

UPDATE 10/27 3.00 p.m.: Friday night, after this post was published, Mr. Crawford put up another blog post containing what he claims are screenshots of Mr. Moghadam threatening to kill him in a private chat room. He also expresses doubts about Mr. Moghadam’s claim that their site was hacked. Betabeat has requested verification of the threats Mr. Crawford posted as well as the claim that Rap Genius was hacked. We will update the post when we hear back.

UPDATE 10/27 3.36 p.m.: Reached by phone Saturday afternoon, Mr. Moghadam recanted his claim about hackers. “‘Hacking’ is a weird word, it implies that somebody was manipulating our code,” he said. “Really they were just gaming our system, making dummy accounts etc.”

Mr. Moghadam claimed ignorance about the definition of hacking. “I’m not a computer guy,” he said, adding that before launching Rap Genius, “I didn’t even know how to use Twitter. Tom likes me because I have jokes and I’m good at working with people. I always wanted to be a teacher,” he added referring to cofounder and CEO Tom Lehman.

“It’s more like abuse of a bug or loophole in the system,” Mr. Zechory clarified by email. “In the past week, we discovered that some users had found a way to impersonate another user’s name in chat. I believe the bug is now fixed, but Tom will have to speak on that.”

Mr. Zechory also pointed to voter rings to manipulate Rap IQ in order to enter the chat rooms, adding that Rap Genius is “building some stuff into the product that will make this impossible in the near future.”
Mr. Moghadam glibly shrugged off the threat to Mr. Crawford. “I’m just messing around,” he said. “Me and Byron Crawford are always taking pot shots at one another,” he said, referring back to his freestyle diss.
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