Jun 27, 2016
People in Your Neighborhood: Andre Torres
Andre Torres is living your dream. In fact, he’s probably lived like three or four of them. In 2001, he was researching a documentary on obsessive record collectors when he realized they didn’t have their own publication, so he started Wax Poetics, a beautiful and thoughtful magazine dedicated to soul, jazz, and hip-hop fanatics. A few years later, he launched another magazine, the more rap-pop focused Scratch.
By 2015, Torres could tell that the young people who used to pick up magazines had long since moved on to other things. So, he started looking for a way to keep doing what he’d been doing, writing about hip-hop, but for a medium people actually still read. After interviews with Apple, Instagram, and Bandcamp, he decided to take a position at Genius, a company with nearly $60 million in venture funding. Formerly Rap Genius, and focused on annotating lyrics, the site is now simply Genius, and has expanded its scope considerably, and somewhat controversially. One of its newer products, Web Annotator, which allows users to create a copy of any web page and then annotate it with commentary, is notably used in News Genius, which was itself the subject of a brief outcry earlier this year among some writers who felt it was a kind of violation for comments to appear seemingly within their article. The fact that it wasn’t their article, just a copy, and that anyone on the internet could say any mean thing they wanted on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Medium, and a hundred more portals didn’t seem to matter—somehow, Genius produced a unique emotional response.
Torres parlayed his decade of hip hop experience into a role working on another new Genius product, the Pop-Up Video-ish partnership with Spotify called “Behind The Lyrics.” It tells you facts about a song while it plays on your phone. Officially, he is the company’s Executive Editor, managing its Knowledge Team. May we all be so lucky.
This is the dream of all of us who work in the cultural industries: “These nerds need a cool person, and I’m happy to be that cool person for the right amount of money.”
Yeah, I mean, I’d always considered myself one of the nerds, but I appreciate the compliment. I was interested to see where they were going to take this. And once I got in and started doing… it was a series of maybe four interviews, and the deeper I got in, I found this one role really managing this Spotify project to be the a ha! That’s what I really want to do.
When you got the job at Genius, did you initially have to do some crazy tech-world tests?Well, one of the first things was to pick a song from last year, go to the page on Genius, and make it the most informative place you can find about this song. I went around to a bunch of songs I thought I wanted to do. I wound up picking Rick Ross’s, “Smile Mama, Smile.”
I’d heard the record a few times, and I knew the producer, and I thought maybe I could do something interesting, because he’s talking about his Promethazine experience, and his seizures a few years ago, so I thought, you know, let me go off. And I mean I probably turned it into something it didn’t need to be—I was writing paragraphs, not quite understanding how the site works. Because it’s really more about brevity.
It’s like putting together a puzzle. It’s about timing and lyrics and the facts need to be interesting, and you’ve got to fit all of this information into three minutes. So, it was very challenging, but I was really into it. Once I got into that, I was like, okay, this is the job that I want. If there was ever a place for me to be after leaving Wax Poetics, this is it. And it’s this role in particular. It just kind of all came together after that.
It must be strange to look at the technology sector, which is going to be determining the course of something you really care about, music, and realize that these guys really know less about the thing and more about technology.
Certainly I saw that I wanted in on it. I thought that I had something to offer. I thought that they were maybe not seeing it from our perspective. If we were going to make it something we were going to want for not only ourselves but for our kids, and our kids’ kids, then we needed to be involved in this. Especially coming from the print world, but also as someone of color, I could see that we were kind of… I wouldn’t even say disappeared, because we were never even there to begin with. I was like, I got to get in on it. I got to insert myself one way or another, by hook or by crook. I knew that I definitely had a perspective that wasn’t being either appreciated or understood.
Now I think at least I found a place where they’re open to what we have to say. They’re willing to admit that we don’t know all of it. We do need you guys from Complex, and Fader, and Wax Poetics, and wherever else that you’ve been out working on. I think we’ve all been waiting for that opportunity. Once they opened the doors, we came running. Let’s go. We’re here now.
The representation of people of color must be very different than working inside a technology company.
Most definitely. Most definitely. One of the things I can certainly say about Genius is that I’ve found that there’s a pretty large influx of people of color. I don’t know if that was a conscious effort that they put into it. That’s not even on just the content side. I’m talking across the board. They’ve definitely made more of an effort. It could come out of the culture of what the product is and what it is dealing with, understanding that it needed to be more inclusive and more open. It could partially dovetail with efforts of the tech industry as a whole where all of these companies, from Facebook to Apple are all going out of their way to find minority engineers and people of color to bring them into the fold. I think it could be a combination of those two things.
I think that’s what makes this such a great dynamic at this company where you’ve got everybody, a chorus of voices, that are able to contribute.
At Genius, the idea is that all content will be user generated at some point. So aren’t you and your team just stepping stones, and once there are enough users contributing, they won’t need you anymore?
They’ve been doing that for seven years, with millions of people contributing content to their site. Lots of the changes are driven by the community. They’re the ones who screen for what they think they need. Internally we talk. Is that something that makes sense? Is that product change that we need? Yes? No? We respond.
If I were to come in as the big, bad editor from the magazine, and say, “Hey, this is the way we’re going to do it now because you kids are all stupid”. They’re going to tell me to fuck off. Who the hell cares? Again this is all driven by IQ [points you accrue on Genius]. There’s kids that have been on that site for five years who have hundreds of thousands of IQ. I just got there a couple of months ago. I got a tiny, little bit of IQ. They’re looking at me like I don’t care what magazine you did for fifteen years. I never read it. I’ve been here. Where were you? It’s like oh okay. Point taken.
I definitely understand that without them, there is no pulse.
Some of the editorial hires haven’t stuck around for very long at Genius. Why do you think that is? Why do you think drives somebody to come in and then be like this isn’t for me?
I can’t speak for them particularly. You have to understand the dynamic. I think there are some people who maybe come into this from the editorial world thinking they can be the guy who tells everybody in the community what to do. That’s not going to work. Again, I think there’s an opportunity here for some journalists to keep their byline and continue being that guy. On my team you sacrifice that.
There’s a sense of anonymity when you’re in a crowd sourced situation. Your voice is going to get diluted in that chorus. I think for some people, that’s not what they got into this for. I think because that was based on an old model which was deteriorating on a daily basis. I think it’s hard for some people to understand where this is going and how technology in general is always dependent on a very large group of people. You look at some of the most valuable tech companies out there, like Facebook or a Twitter, they’re dependent on us to throw our content up. Without you photos and your musings they don’t have content. I think it’s a similar situation with Genius. You have to understand your place in the larger ecosystem. I think it’s hard for some people who’ve been in this industry so long to lay in the background a little bit.
Genius seems to get under people’s skin. Whether that’s talking about the founders and anything they do being really suspicious of, or this whole News Genius thing people have a really big problem with. What do you think it is?
I don’t know. I’ve always admired what these guys have done. It came out of a conversation about a Cam’ron lyric. To me, any company that can get started over a Cam’ron lyric, that’s near and dear to my heart. I’m not sure if it’s that they maybe didn’t understand the scope of what they were doing early on and were just rolling with it. People took what they were saying the wrong way. Now that we have Leah [Finnegan] working on News Genius when she goes in on some article they think oh …
You’re putting your comments on my article. Like it’s cyber bullying.
Believe me, you can go to plenty other places on the internet to find more of that and a more intense fashion than you can on News Genius. I think a lot of these comments are just like, come on. It’s kind of ridiculous. What we’re doing is very new. No one’s ever done this before. The idea of annotation in itself especially in this digital space is so cutting edge that there’s a knee jerk reaction. Admittedly I think anyone who’s been on the site can say sure I’ve seen some really horrible annotations. Some guy may have said something super ignorant, sexist, racist, just like anywhere else on the internet.
If somebody writes something racist on Facebook, people’s problem isn’t with Facebook, but if somebody writes something crazy on Genius they’re like this website is terrible. Except really it’s that person is terrible.
Right! Where does that come from? I don’t understand how they become the fall guy for everything that’s bad on the internet. I think certainly, it’s gotten people’s attention. For better or worse that’s the way this new world works.
photos by Daniel Dorsa
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