Call it a peculiar pastime, but in the past I transcribed a vast number of rap lyrics, interpreting the words that I heard into written form, to be shared with others on what I found to be a worthwhile online project, The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive. OHHLA.com wasn’t the only lyric website at the time, but it was certainly the most apparently bonafide one and in many ways an exemplary database consisting of user-generated content before Wikipedia and others even existed. I was well aware that legally speaking someone held the rights to the song lyrics I typed up and the website did have to fight some battles with plaintiffs claiming ‘ownership’ of these lyrics (typically major labels, never the artists themselves), but the stance that OHHLA.com took was always that the archive was a service to the entire rap industry and hip-hop culture.
If I’ve been writing in the past tense, it doesn’t mean that OHHLA.com is defunct, it’s still online, but it’s been raided and ousted by a much more potent and solvent competitor namedRapGenius.com. A couple of years into its existence RapGenius created a stir well beyond the rap community in 2012 when a $15 million investment equaled a lot of trust put into the goal to essentially become the internet’s major vault for interpretation, to (as the tag line goes) ‘Annotate the World’ on what last year has grown into Genius.com. RapGenius.com was Genius.com’s beta version, so to speak, the laboratory where the mechanics of their interactive ‘knowledge base’ could be tested.
As a longtime rap fan, I find that an awesome fact. Rhymes and raps being at the inception of such a universal project. But why begin with rap lyrics to build something that will invariably become much bigger? Because an existing database was readily available – OHHLA.com. There is absolutely no question that RapGenius.com actively appropriated more or less the entire Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive – that’s tens of thousands of songs – to lay its own foundation. Even across the different design and the added functions you can see that the lyrics in question were simply copied and pasted. Spellings, commas, apostrophes, arrangements – there are just too many revealing indicators to deny the massive act of piracy. It goes without saying that the typist, typically credited at OHHLA, was without exception withheld by RapGenius.com.
Now although I refuse to be any part of it, I’m the last to deny that RapGenius.com is a cool thing and suits the needs of our times. I would also like to salute its countless voluntary contributors who have since provided it with original content, whether it’s new lyrics or helpful annotations or necessary corrections. You remind me of myself (in good and bad ways). I even applaud the organization as such for its vision and drive. (That’s just the kind of good-natured guy I am.) I furthermore realize that what has happened to OHHLA.com is simply the way of the internet, of hip-hop, and of hip-hop on the internet. (In similar fashion,The (Rap) Sample FAQ got totally trumped by WhoSampled.com.)
Unlike the many people whose actual rights have been violated on the world wide web (musicians particularly), I don’t have any rights to the lyrics I transcribed. But I find it shameful that the people responsible for running RapGenius at the time robbed me of months worth of labor (not to speak of the webmaster, who can claim years worth of labor). Yes I typed these lyrics for all to read, but I did so for the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive, not for RapGenius. This being the internet, there’s not much I can do except to note that, for the record, Genius.com began with an act of biting. And for the generation that I represent, that’s as wack as it gets.