2015 Article About My Life: “The Genius Out In The Cold”

Mahbod Moghadam
Oct 28, 2017 · 23 min read

Author/thinker/all-around baller Kohler Bruno wrote an article about my life which was on the cover of The Yale Herald in 2015. When the Herald migrated to Medium, they tossed their archives and the article is gone now, so I am pasting the article below until they restore it.. THUG. LOIFE.

The Genius out in the cold

BY KOHLER BRUNO / JANUARY 22, 2015 / COMMENTS OFF ON THE GENIUS OUT IN THE COLD

To view the annotated version of this article (we recommend it), click this link or copy the link below into the address bar above: http://genius.com/yaleherald.com/news-and-features/covers/the-genius-out-in-the-cold

I

“No more free Whole Foods,” Mahbod Moghadam, CC ’04, said. He was explaining how his life had changed since his departure from Rap Genius — now simply called Genius — the website that allows users to upload and annotate any text from Eminem lyrics to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. Moghadam co-founded the site in 2009 with his two best friends, Tom Lehman, PC ’06, and Ilan Zechory, TC ’06. The biggest change since his departure? No more free Whole Foods, which had been a perk offered to all the company’s LA-based employees. “I was scared to get it taken away, but it’s actually been the greatest blessing. Free food is not a perk. It’s a curse. Thank God it’s gone. I’ve lost weight.”

I’ve met Moghadam only once, when he, Zechory, and Lehman came to Yale for a Master’s Tea in Calhoun last March. We sat down for an interview after the talk and they explained that they wanted Rap Genius, which by then also included poems, full length novels, and lyrics of every genre, to become a sprawling database of information, a massive human intelligence project, as they termed it. All of Dickens’s published works are on the site, in full, with detailed annotations and notes; the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are on the site, with links to the Bible passages he so frequently alluded to; and the King James Bible is on the site, Old Testament and New, with in-text annotations and visual aids. “It’s like a giant CliffsNotes for life,” Dominic Basulto wrote in the Washington Post last year.

The site, which Moghadam called an “intellectual social network” during our interview last March, has frequently been compared to Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, the vast majority of the content on Genius is user generated, with millions of people around the world writing annotations and uploading texts to the site. Unlike Wikipedia, teams of moderators regulate new annotations as they are uploaded, and all users are given usernames, partially ridding the site of the anonymity that Wikipedia features. Users who annotate frequently and whose annotations are approved by moderators and “up-voted” by other users gain “IQ” points, which incentivize users to keep working on the site.

In May 2014, things were looking up for Rap Genius. The company was about to announce a massive 40 million dollar investment from Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it would soon rebrand itself as Genius, broadening its appeal beyond the world of hip-hop. The company was beginning its move from a series of makeshift offices in a residential apartment building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a more traditional and more spacious office in — still hip — Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Moghadam was recovering from brain surgery that he’d undergone the previous October; although he returned to work just weeks after the operation, he’s still feeling its aftereffects today. And then, on May 23, 2014, Moghadam wrote a series of distasteful annotations on a manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old gunman who had killed seven people, including himself, at the University of California, Santa Barbara days earlier. “I wrote some stupid shit,” Moghadam told me. He resigned the following day.

Over the course of the past six months, Moghadam and I spoke many times over the phone for this article, me in New Haven, him in LA. I had hoped we would be able to meet in person as I wrote my profile, but Moghadam can’t stand New York, and I couldn’t realistically fly out to LA for a weekend during the school year. So instead we talked over the phone, emailed, and texted. One of the things we talked about often — more often than you’d expect — was Whole Foods. Moghadam assured me that the Whole Foods in Santa Monica was LA’s finest. “Venice and West Hollywood have hotter girls or whatever, but if you’re just talking about the food, Santa Monica is the place.” Little did I know, Whole Foods was — is — somewhat of a point of fixation for Moghadam. A few months before that conversation, he had written an article for Thought Catalog reviewing every Whole Foods in Los Angeles. One entry reads: “West Hollywood — This is commonly referred to as the ‘pimp Whole Foods’ — nowhere are there more beautiful ladies… The cool part is that they chop the kale up extra-fine (for the ladies) — also the smoothie makers here are Master Mixologists…”

But even if the free groceries that he’d been guaranteed when he worked at Rap Genius had become a curse, as he had told me, Moghadam found a way to recapture the glory days of free Whole Foods, publishing another article on Thought Catalog a few months later entitled “How To Steal From Whole Foods.” In it, he wrote, “I have probably stolen more from Whole Foods markets than any living person… When I started working on genius.com, Whole Foods was our first ‘angel investor’ — without stealing all the food I stole from the Berkeley Whole Foods, I would never have been able to spend a year bootstrapping, working on the site full-time.”

Ever since Rap Genius was founded in 2009, Moghadam has attracted outsize attention for his antics; most notably, in February 2013, he made a splash after he was quoted in an interview saying Mark Zuckerberg “can suck my dick.” “Fuck that fool,” he added. A year later, when he, Zechory, and Lehman came to Yale for their Master’s Tea, he told the room that 2014 was “the year of humility. The goal is to tell only one billionaire to fuck off this year.”

Now, more than six months after his departure, Moghadam is adrift, consulting here and there for tech startups around LA, writing here and there (he’s shopping around a book about founding Rap Genius — I read it; it’s funny and weird), and tweeting everywhere. After Moghadam tweeted a link to his article about stealing from their stores, Whole Foods responded from its corporate Twitter account: “Well that’s not very nice. Thanks for the heads up on your sneaky tricks. #noted.”

Moghadam tweeted back five minutes later: “you guys should give me a gift card for all the publicity I generate.”

“I think we’re doing ok, thanks though,” Whole Foods wrote back, 19 minutes later.

The article about stealing from Whole Foods has since been removed from Thought Catalog. After receiving a call from the General Counsel of Whole Foods, Moghadam requested for the article to be removed, and all his articles have since been taken down by Thought Catalog. Still, as of this writing, the article that caused all the fuss can be found in its entirety on Genius.com.

II

Mahbod Moghadam’s family came to the United States from Iran 33 years ago, just before Moghadam was born, hoping to escape the ravages of the Iran-Iraq War. The family sent Moghadam’s older brother, Michael, to Los Angeles two years before the rest so that he wouldn’t be drafted into the Iranian army.

Moghadam, who is 32 years old, grew up in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, nestled in a small community of other Persian immigrants. “In LA, Persian Jews are all over the place,” said Moghadam, who is Persian and Jewish. “The rich ones live in Beverly Hills and the poor ones live in the Valley. I’m one of the poor ones.” His father worked downtown, in the diamond district with other Persian immigrants, while his mother stayed at home. The two never fully mastered English, and at home they spoke Persian with Moghadam and his siblings. They gave all four of their children Persian names; Michael, Moghadam’s older brother, legally changed his name from Mehrdad when he was 18. As a child, Moghadam never liked his name, and he went by Matt from elementary school through the first year of college, when his “hippie friends” convinced him to go back to his Persian name.

He liked Yale and excelled, winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study in France after he graduated. He was in the Independent party, majored in History and International Studies, and smoked weed. Senior year he moved off campus to an apartment in the Oxford on High Street, which he called “the high class part of campus. Howe Street and whatnot is like the bohemian part, that’s the Brooklyn,” he told me.

When he speaks and writes, Moghadam is relentlessly ironic, but the boundaries of his jokes are often blurry. He takes to Twitter and Facebook to air a lot of these jokes — in all, he has tweeted over 5,000 times, often many times per day. Last year, on Nov. 2, he tweeted, “MY REFLECTIONS ON 3 MONTHS OF HEAVY LOS ANGELES TINDER USAGE: the women of los angeles are beautiful and have terrible taste….” Later that day, he tweeted, “can’t wait until I have 1944 followers on twitter so that I can think about the holocaust more often……..” Both were jokes, characteristically ambiguous in tone, a tone that has landed him in hot water on countless occasions. One month earlier, he tweeted, “THROWBACK THURSDAY: the original @RapGenius twitter password was ‘69rapgenius69.’” This, Moghadam told me, was true.

In the fall of 2005, after his Fulbright in France, Moghadam enrolled in law school at Stanford, and from there he took a job at Dewey & LeBoeuf, the ritzy — now defunct — corporate law firm then headquartered in Manhattan. It was quite the sought after and prestigious trajectory — Yale, Fulbright, Stanford, Dewey. Still, friends of Moghadam told me that he was never suited to the world of corporate law. Jessica Hubley, a friend of Moghadam’s from Stanford Law who went on to work as one of Rap Genius’s first contracted lawyers, said she was shocked he’d entered the corporate world at all. “He’s very intellectually curious and intellectually capable, and I think it makes a lot of sense that he would choose to go to Yale and Stanford Law to have those discussions,” she told me. “But the big paycheck at the law firm, the kinds of things that people generally go to those jobs for, he had never cared about anyway.”

As it turned out, his time at Dewey would be short lived. In 2009, many major law firms began placing low-level associates on deferral, which essentially amounted to time off with reduced pay, in order to cope with the effects of the recession. The firms urged associates to seek out internships during their time off, and Moghadam landed one with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha, Neb. For two years, Moghadam had maintained a blog under the alias Beneficent Allah, where he posted jokes, poems, and reflections. (He still posts to it today.) The night before he was set to leave for Nebraska, Moghadam got a call explaining that someone at Berkshire Hathaway had discovered the blog, on which he’d posted a joke memo to the “Ballstate Insurance Company,” a lazily cloaked reference to All State, which was a Dewey client. “Then I got burned,” Moghadam said; Berkshire Hathaway rescinded their offer that night and Dewey fired him the following day.

Disconsolate, Moghadam sought refuge, as he often had, at Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman’s apartment in the East Village. He spent the night on a yoga mat on their floor. Moghadam and Zechory had been close at Yale, and although Moghadam hadn’t met Lehman until after college, they bonded quickly. By the time Moghadam was canned by Dewey, the three of them had become a tight-knit group.

As Moghadam tells it, that same night he was fired, in 2009, Tom Lehman built the prototype for Rap Genius.

III

In the beginning, none of them took Rap Genius — or Rap Exegesis, as it was initially called — too seriously. “It’s not like Tom built it thinking that it was going to be a business,” Moghadam told me. “He built it overnight because it was pretty easy to build, and I started putting songs up because I was depressed and I was bored.” Lehman built the site after he asked Moghadam to explain a lyric from a Cam’ron song.

A couple weeks after he was fired from Dewey & LeBoeuf, Moghadam returned to LA and bounced around for a while, alternating between stays at his girlfriend’s apartment, his parents’ house, and Lehman and Zechory’s place back in New York. Eventually, he contacted some of his law professors at Stanford and moved to Palo Alto to help work on some law review articles, but that didn’t last. He became obsessed with Rap Genius, annotating and uploading texts all the time, and soon he left Stanford to fully commit his energies to promoting the site.

By 2011, Rap Genius had picked up enough momentum that Zechory and Lehman both quit their jobs to work on the site full time (Zechory left Google; Lehman left the hedge fund D.E. Shaw). They applied to the tech incubator Y Combinator, a startup boot camp that helps to pair promising companies with investors, and they left with 1.8 million dollars in funding. One of their early angel investors was Ashton Kutcher. “When I met him he was mad at me for telling Mark Zuckerberg to suck my dick,” Moghadam told me. “He comes up to me and he’s like, Hey buddy, I have some advice for you, how about stop telling people to suck your dick? And I was like, Oh Ashton, I’m so sorry, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t even ask my girlfriend to suck my dick anymore.”

By the time they left Y Combinator, the company was on the map. Millions of dollars began flooding in from marquis investors and firms, none more important than the 15 million dollar infusion in October 2012 from the tech venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Rap Genius used the money to hire more employees and expand their offices. And they bought a mansion in Bel Air, the west coast Rap Genius headquarters, where Moghadam spent most of his time.

Today, although Genius does not have revenue streams from advertisements or subscriptions (Lehman and Zechory have said that they are putting off introducing ads so that the site can remain cool, just as Facebook and Instagram once did), industry watchers estimate that Genius could be worth close to half a billion dollars. When Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner, decided to put 40 million in the company last February, he said his investment was based on an estimated value of the company at several hundred million dollars — the exact number is rumored to be around 400 million. In an industry in which high profile acquisitions happen almost on a monthly basis, with companies like Instagram topping 1 billion dollars in value, it is not far fetched to imagine that a Genius IPO — or a sale to, say, Google — could make Lehman, Zechory, and Moghadam all hundred-millionaires.

While neither Andreessen Horowitz nor the three co-founders will reveal the website’s precise traffic statistics, Moghadam has publicly claimed that it is the most visited hip-hop site on the Internet, and it’s consistently the top hit when searching for lyrics of any genre through Google. Moghadam told me that his departure did not affect the portion of the company that he owns, although it did cost him his seat on the board.

Once dismissed as a website for white people to translate black urban slang, Genius is now viewed by many as a potentially revolutionary service, a company that could change the nature of the web. That’s the goal — to annotate the world using the Genius platform. According to Lehman and Zechory’s vision, eventually all websites will include annotations powered by Genius. Annotated articles using embedded Genius code have already appeared in the Washington Post, Forbes, and Business Insider. This month, Genius began beta testing a system that allows users to type “genius.com/” in front of any URL, and voila — the page becomes annotatable. (The online version of this article uses the Genius software for embedded annotations.)

Recently, Genius has made a number of moves aimed at shedding the label of a startup manned by brogrammers in order to rebrand itself as a more serious company. Its director of operations, Russell Farhang, came from a job at the hedge fund Bridgewater, and this month Genius drew Sasha Frere-Jones away from his job as the New Yorker’s pop music critic to make him the company’s Executive Editor. (Farhang, at 40, was the company’s oldest employee until they hired Frere-Jones, who is 47.)

As the company has matured, Zechory and Lehman, now the president and the CEO, respectively, have attempted to keep lower public profiles. They would not speak to me for this article, and, aside from a piece in New York Magazine earlier this month, they’ve successfully stayed out of the news, more or less. Quite the reversal for the two, who once, along with Moghadam, comprised a trio of media darlings, willing to say or do almost anything to generate publicity for Rap Genius. In May 2013, for example, the three spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt, a startup conference in New York. Each walked on stage in a more ridiculous costume than the last — Lehman, in sunglasses, was clad in a pink floral blazer and high top Jordans, Zechory, in sunglasses, sported a coat one writer aptly described as “the top half of a bathrobe,” and Moghadam, in sunglasses, sauntered onstage in big multicolored high tops, carrying a gallon jug of water.

In the early days, Moghadam’s main role at Rap Genius involved spreading hype about the company. He reached out to artists, bloggers, and writers, and he worked to build a community of users from the ground up. “You’d go by his computer and there’d be ten Gchat windows open,” Zechory told New York Magazine this month. “And it would be some 14-year-old kid in the Midwest saying ‘You fascinate me’ to Mahbod.” One such acolyte was Zach Schwartz, now a junior at Columbia, who took off the second semester of his sophomore year last spring to work as an intern at Rap Genius. “It was crazy, because I had wanted to work for Mahbod for years,” Schwartz told me. “I wanted to be friends with him, I wanted to get in touch with him because I thought he was, well — I looked up to him so much.”

In December 2013, Moghadam’s compulsion to promote Rap Genius blew up in the company’s face. A tech blogger revealed a plot by Moghadam to inflate the company’s position in Google’s search results by offering to advertise various music blogs from the Rap Genius Twitter account in exchange for posts including links to lyrics on Rap Genius. The scheme, which aimed to subvert Google’s search algorithm and push Rap Genius links to the top of Google’s search results, violated Google’s webmaster guidelines, and on Christmas morning, Google slapped the company with a “minus-50 penalty,” which pushed all Rap Genius pages down 50 spots in its search results. It was a disaster, with traffic dropping from an average of 1.5 million visitors per day to 200,000. Frantically, the Rap Genius staff searched for all the problem links and removed them. To their credit, they had the site back on Google in less than a week.

But if the bad links were relatively easy to scrub off the Internet, the damage to Moghadam’s reputation both inside and outside the company was more difficult to repair. Through the years at Rap Genius, Moghadam always had a complicated, sometimes contentious relationship with Zechory and Lehman. He spent most of his time — often more than six months a year — living in the “Rap Genius Mansion” in Bel Air, where he directed a few interns as the head of the internship program. They threw parties, hosted rap groups who wanted to film music videos, and debauched. “It wasn’t an office, it was a house, and it was his fiefdom,” Dan Berger, MC ’05, Rap Genius’s first employee, told me. “It would just be in disarray every time you’d come. It would be in total disarray.” (Zach Schwartz, the intern who lived with Moghadam at the Bel Air house from February through April of 2014, said this characterization of the LA headquarters was wrong: “The parties that we had, they were just readings” — for Poetry Genius — “they were still for business. They were promoting the company.”)

Berger was close with Moghadam, Lehman, and Zechory in college, and he jumped on board just after Lehman designed the site in 2009. He left the company in 2013 and now works for MSNBC. He explained that over time, fissures started to open in Moghadam’s relationship with Lehman and Zechory. “As the company was becoming bigger, Mahbod’s role was becoming more nebulous, especially since he wasn’t in New York, and people got hired to do some of the things that he had previously done only himself, like the Twitter account and reaching out to artists,” Berger said. “He was competing with people and he had clashes because of that.”

Moghadam’s raunchy sense of humor caused problems as well — it always had. “Mahbod is also willing to go certain places with his humor where other people aren’t, where other people don’t even consider it humor,” Berger said. “I do, but that was a big issue, that he would do stuff that would have gone under the radar during the early years, but by the end everyone was watching it, looking for him to do weird things. That caused friction.”

Paul Augustine, CC ’04, who lived with Moghadam freshman and sophomore year at Yale and remained close with him through college and after, said that as the culture at Rap Genius became increasingly corporate, Moghadam came to feel more and more stifled. “There was more oversight from investors and things became a little bit more corporate, and all the sudden he was — there were people telling him, you can’t say this, you can’t say that, and that’s just not who he is. That’s not consistent with how he operates.”

In February 2014, as Moghadam faced health problems from brain surgery he’d undergone the previous October, he negotiated a change in his contract with the company he co-founded. From that point on he would work for Rap Genius only part time, and almost exclusively from LA, rarely traveling to Brooklyn. He was slowly walking away, it seemed. And then in May, just three months later, he was gone.

Moghadam insists that he was not pushed out, but rather resigned by his own volition. “The racist-ass reporters keep saying I got fired, but the simple fact of the matter is I resigned,” he told me. He’d annotated parts of a 141-page manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old gunman who went on a killing rampage last May on UCSB’s campus. In annotations posted on the site, Moghadam complimented Rodger more than once for “beautifully written,” “artful” sentences. He speculated that at the root of Rodger’s sexual frustration, which Rodger outlined in the manifesto, was a sexual desire for his sister, who Moghadam guessed was “smokin hot.”

“I had written some stupid stuff and then I had gone to the beach,” Moghadam told me. “I get back from the beach and I had a text from Natasha Tiku, who works for Gawker, and I was like, Fuck. As soon as I saw the text from her I knew I was totally fucked.” Moghadam said Tiku was asking about the annotations he had written on the Rodgers manifesto, seeing whether he wanted to comment for a story she was about to post.

In September 2014, Zechory and Lehman were invited back to Yale for another Master’s Tea, this time in Pierson, just six months after they’d come with Moghadam for a Master’s Tea in Calhoun. The majority of the hour-long talk was almost exactly the same as the one they’d given the previous spring. Then, toward the end, someone in the first or second row asked if it was weird to work at the company without their third co-founder. Zechory and Lehman gave a nervous laugh. Then Zechory said, “He is a very funny, brilliant, creative person. He’s also one of the most difficult people I’ve ever been around. He says insensitive things, he doesn’t care about consequences. Over time the horrible behavior added up.”

After his annotations on Rodger’s manifesto, Moghadam was barred from annotating on the site, which agonizes him to this day. After Lehman blocked him from the site, Moghadam made a second account, which Lehman eventually also blocked. In response, Moghadam tweeted, “Top 3 people who can suck my dick: 1. Tom Lehman 2. Mark Zuckerberg 3. Warren Buffett (in that order).”

IV

Moghadam never liked New York. Now he hates it, because he associates the city with a brain tumor that he had removed in October 2013. His hand had been shaking for months, but he’d put off getting it checked out. “I was a total mess, I couldn’t go to the gym anymore, I felt nauseous all the time, I had headaches all the time, but that was, like, the most decadent period. We had a bunch of artists shooting music videos at the Rap Genius mansion, like every weekend would be a new music video, and they would all turn into parties, and I was getting like all this attention from girls. Right now, I’m a healthy man and I get zero attention from girls, but at this time, with my hand shaking and I’d gotten really fat, I was getting all this attention from girls. It had become a serious issue for me, how do I hide my shaking hand from girls?”

He and Lehman had been at the University of Michigan giving a talk, and when they got back to New York, Moghadam went to Beth Israel Hospital. The doctors ordered an MRI of his brain. When the results came back, they told him to go to the emergency room, which is on 1st Avenue, a five or ten-minute walk from the wing at Union Square. “To get to the emergency room I had to walk through Stuyvesant Park, and that’s my favorite park in Manhattan, and it was just so nice. It was like perfect weather, and I was like, you know, for the first time in my life I was enjoying New York. Then I got to the emergency room and they said, Look you’ve got a brain tumor, and they made me change into a gown.” He didn’t have his cell phone on him, so he called Lehman and Zechory to come and bring it to him in the ER. He had surgery the following day.

Moghadam had a benign meningioma, which, according to the website of the Mayo Clinic, is a tumor that arises in the tissue between the brain and the skull. Some meningiomas don’t require surgery, but Moghadam’s had grown and was pressing on the region of his brain that controls motor functions, causing seizures and violent tremors in his left hand.

By all accounts, including Moghadam’s, the surgery was an incredibly traumatic experience. “I think that the whole brain tumor was such a shock,” Masteneh Moghadam, Mahbod’s older sister, told me. “Finding that he had the tumor to having the surgery was such a quick turnaround, and he was so consumed with his work at the time that I’m not sure that he ever really had a chance to process what had happened to him. I think it’s still really hitting him.”

According to friends and family, and to Moghadam himself, the surgery has had a dampening effect on him, both physically and behaviorally. “On the one hand, I don’t need surgery again and my MRIs look good and stuff. On the other hand, it’s not like you ever truly fully recover from something like this,” Moghadam told me. “I think whatever he told you,” Masteneh said, “in the eyes of myself and my family, multiply it by one hundred. That’s how extreme it’s been. He’s barely aware how much this has affected him.”

Mojgan Moghadam, Mahbod’s other older sister, told me that he returned to work far too quickly after his surgery. She said she was shocked that Lehman and Zechory seemed to expect Moghadam to get back on his feet far faster than she thought appropriate. “These people” — Zechory and Lehman — “are so smart, they’re so intelligent,” she said. “They’re so technologically advanced. They can solve all kinds of mathematical, technological problems for you. But they have no sense of reality. They are so out of touch that they could not even understand what it means to have a brain tumor, to have brain surgery, and they expected him to work three days after he was out of the hospital.”

Mojgan told me that she called Zechory and implored him to force Moghadam to take more time off. “I said, ‘Ilan, everybody needs convalescence time, even after a toe surgery. He had brain surgery and you’re not giving him convalescence time.’ And he said, ‘No, no, he’s doing well. He’s functioning.’ And I said, ‘No, he’s functioning because he sees you want him to function! You have to force him to take a year off.’” According to Mojgan, Zechory replied, “No, no, he’s fine.”

As we talked over the course of the last six months, the terms Moghadam used to describe his relationship with Lehman and Zechory changed. In some ways, it seemed that the relationship deteriorated. In the fall, I asked Moghadam if his relationship with them had been strained since his departure from the company. “We’ve never like actually gotten into a fight, you know, they’re my friends,” he said. “I make fun of them. I think they’re losers and I make fun of them, but I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years. They’re nerds, I always remind them that they’re nerds. They appreciate that. It’s been kind of scary to watch them turn into corporate scum, especially over the past 18 months, but that happens. Genius is going to become a huge, huge company, so obviously someone has to be the Zuckerberg. He’s got to step up and turn into scum.” (In Moghadam’s mind, Lehman is the Mark Zuckerberg of Genius.)

“I’ve always been shitting on them,” he added.

So, you shit on them, I said. Do they shit on you?

“No, no, they look up to me in reverence,” he said. “They really look up to me. I’m older than them. I was class of 2004 and they were both class of 2006.”

A few weeks later, we spoke again. “I’ll never — how can I ever actually be mad at them, you know? Like obviously I’ll fuck around with them, and they give me shit, I’ll give them shit. But I’m never gonna actually” — he paused — “That being said, we haven’t actually hung out for a long time. Like, I’m not — I have no plans to go to New York. I told you about my traumatic relationship with New York, and, you know, if they came out to LA I’m sure we would hang out.” He paused again. “I think we would hang out.”

V.

The first time Moghadam and I talked for this article, I asked him if we could meet sometime when he was in New York. No, not going to happen. “I hate New York,” he told me. “Right now my attitude on New York is the same as my attitude on the Holocaust, which is never again.” I laughed. I asked if anything could drag him to New York. Would you go for a wedding? “No, actually I missed the wedding of one of my best friends,” he said. “He got married last month and I didn’t go, and apparently he was very hurt and very pissed at me, but I just can’t stand that place. It gives me the creepy crawlies.” For Moghadam, New York has become “Ghost of Brain Surgeryville, USA.”

I wasn’t sure if it would work to write this profile over the phone. To really profile someone, you can’t just listen to him. You’ve got to watch him speak, watch him eat — what’s he wearing? What shoes? What DVDs does he have on the coffee table? What’s his car like? Messy with fast food wrappers and stuff on the floor? Does he wear socks around the house or go barefoot?

Of course, we all have mannerisms that come through over the phone, and since I never got to spend time with Moghadam in person — other than the time I interviewed him, Zechory, and Lehman for this newspaper last March — I paid particular attention during our phone conversations to the way he spoke, the way he told stories. He always called me homie, or dog. “Yooooo whattup dog!” he’d say when he picked up the phone. Then we’d talk about Gucci Mane, or he’d tell me about a story he’d recently read in the New Yorker. One time he compared Kanye West’s most recent album to Picasso’s Blue Period.

To be sure, he’s also capable of being extraordinarily crass. Once, he told me about a poem that he’d written and addressed to his twin sister, who was miscarried. “We had this guy who used to run Poetry Genius, and he was telling me about his twin sister, and I told him, Dude, if I had a twin sister, I would fuck all of her friends. I was like, You must have fucked so many of your sister’s friends. He’s like, Actually, I never fucked any of my sister’s friends. I’m like, Wow, you’re a nerd dude. If I had my twin sister, I would have fucked all of her friends. That sentiment inspired me to write the poem. The poem is like a letter to my twin sister. I’m telling her she would have been really hot, she would have a good body, and I say she would have gone to Stanford.”

Without being able to meet in person, I was forced to spend my time trying to get to know Mahbod Moghadam over the phone, and I think I did. One thing I couldn’t get a sense of was where he’s going next, what’s his next project, what’s the next thing he wants to devote himself to. He says working full time is unrealistic. “I can’t go back to full time work, because, you know, I’m still fucked up from the brain surgery,” he told me. So he works part time — now he’s advising a company that’s developing a fashion app, which he’s excited about. A few months ago he told me he’d recently consulted for a company called Underground Cellar, which delivers wine. “They sent me three cases of bomb, bomb, like hundred-dollar wine, so yesterday I ordered a mini cellar on Amazon, the most obnoxious thing I’ve ever done, but I needed it — I have all of this baller wine. I want to do shit like that. I don’t want to do anything full time, but I’m sure there are a lot of small companies that I could help. I’m just trying to spread the love wherever I can.”

Mahbod Moghadam

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