One night last week, Houston rapper/viral phenomenon Riff Raff was sitting in my living room in Brooklyn, eating a bag of Wise BBQ potato chips. The day before, he'd flown to Daytona Beach, Fla., to shoot a music video with 19-year-old viral rap ingénue Kitty Pryde, and now he was in New York to do photo shoots and interviews for two major rap magazines. He was scheduled to play The Bamboozle festival in New Jersey the following day. He sat on the couch next to the two attractive women that he'd brought with him—"my girl and her friend," he explained—and while his girl's friend rolled a small joint, Riff Raff and I played NBA Street Vol. 2 on my PlayStation 2.
Riff Raff is currently affiliated with Soulja Boy, the original viral rap superstar, and his imprint at Interscope. He also recently announced that he is signing an eight-album deal with superstar producer Diplo's label Mad Decent. Last week, he debuted a music video with his new group Three Loco, comprised of Riff Raff, former MTV star Andy Milonakis and former MTV VJ Simon Rex (who records music as Dirt Nasty); it might just be the most unlikely rap crew in history. And on March 27, Selena Gomez tweeted a photo from the set of Harmony Korine's (Kids, Gummo) new movie, Spring Breakers. In the photo, Gomez is sitting next to actor James Franco, who is dressed to look exactly like Riff Raff.
That's not an easy task. Riff Raff is very tall and white, and he usually wears his hair either in a wavy mane or in cornrows studded with neon beads and thread. He loves huge diamond earrings, diamond mouth grills, whiteout contact lenses, and he styles his facial hair into a wavy chinstrap—sometimes with triangular patches of hair around the waves. He owes a lot of his success to a stint on an MTV reality show (From G's to Gents) and some videos on WorldStarHipHop, so not too long ago he got their logos tattooed on his body. There's an MTV logo on his neck, a six-inch BET logo across his collarbone, and a WorldStarHipHop.com logo on his shoulder.
Now Riff Raff looks like a viral human being.
BAD BiTCH STRiPPER - PART 1 is Riff Raff's most popular YouTube video, with more than 752,000 views. It captures three minutes so uncanny that the video has drawn more than 2,300 incredulous comments, almost all of which are a variant on one of the following three thoughts: "Riff Raff look like a fuckin retard," "Is this guy for real or just taking the piss? I honestly can't tell," and "That is brilliant!"
In iN BRAZiL BAD BiTCH STRiPPER - PART 1 (Riff Raff primarily types/tweets/emails in all caps but lowercase i's), he stands in the kitchen of what appears to be a vacation house and catalogues all of the things he's wearing and all of the things he has in the kitchen. He looks imposing and sort of alien—he's very pale, and wearing pink plastic glasses with the lenses popped out. There's a bejeweled grill in his mouth and a gold chain with an enormous jack-o'-lantern charm on his neck.
He claims to be in Brazil, or "East Brazilia" to be exact, and he claims that he bought the ceiling lamp in the kitchen, which looks like something out of your grandma's house, "From Mike Tyson before he sold his house to Michael Jackson ‘n ‘em." He got his "flyswatter," which I think is some kind of soup ladle, from "East Japan."
Eventually, he takes the camera and turns it on the woman holding it, who he describes as a "five-star chick." She turns around and we see that she literally has "5 STAR," along with five stars, tattooed across her back. She giggles and he laughs, and if you watch the video enough times, it starts to dawn on you that this viral curiosity is either a portrait of a strangely endearing man or of a very dedicated performer who is messing with you.
I've watched this video so many times that I know the words by heart, and before I ever spoke to Riff Raff, I had questions about his motives because of it. Is he a performance artist putting on a parody of cartoonish gangsterism and fooling the hundreds of thousands of devotees who follow his online output? Or a supremely talented and serious rapper who's about to become very popular? Nobody really knows anything about him, including his real name, his age, or any part of his background, and he goes out of his way to obfuscate in interviews. The sum total of public knowledge about Riff Raff makes it seem like he just appeared on the Internet one day, fully formed and rapping very well.
Before BAD BiTCH STRiPPER PART 1, though, Riff Raff was a contestant on the second and final season of MTV's From G's to Gents, a reality show about thugs aspiring to be gentlemen. Riff Raff was ruled an incurable G and sent home after just the second episode. But he wasn't really aspiring to be a gentleman, or anything but Riff Raff; as one of the other contestants points out playfully in the reunion special, "I don't think he needed a transformation – he just needed a chance to further brand himself."
Although he gained notoriety from his appearance on the show, briefly changed his rap name from Riff Raff to MTV Riff Raff after it aired, and got the MTV logo tattooed on his neck, Riff Raff does not like to talk about From G's to Gents anymore: "They were going to have my name be Hector on the show and they weren't gonna let me wear my chain," he told me in an email last week. "I would like to never allow magazines to ask me about it at all, because that is to me what Rihanna is to Chris Brown. Nothing good came from it."
During a Q&A with other cast members after the show aired, contestant Teddy Tee called Riff Raff's persona into question: "You carried yourself and put yourself out there in front of the other guys as…" He hesitated, reconsidered his word choice, but then went for it. "As a joke." He's saying that Riff Raff, as a white man, is a clown and an embarrassment for acting like he does.
Riff Raff's response is the only time I've seen him get defensive. "A joke?" He looks hurt. "Point out who thought I was a joke and I'd like to see a raise of hands of who thinks I'm a joke!" But of the 12 contestants sitting onstage, including a chastened Teddy Tee, not a single one raises his hand, because Riff Raff is not a joke.
About two years after From G's to Gents aired on MTV, Soulja Boy "signed" Riff Raff to SODMG (Stacks on Deck Money Gang), his vanity imprint at Interscope. Soulja and Riff Raff made a verbal agreement to record some songs and videos together, and Soulja agreed to feature Riff Raff on some of his very popular video diaries.
Riff Raff's internet rap microstardom took flight on the website WorldStarHipHop.com long before Soulja Boy noticed him. Since its 2005 launch, the site has come to dominate a very specific corner of the internet: Every day, it posts rap videos, videos of girls who might eventually be seen in rap videos, rapper video diaries, street/subway/bus fights, crackheads going crazy, and, well, videos of people like Riff Raff. His most popular video on the site has more than a million views and consists of Riff Raff announcing and showing off his WorldStarHipHop.com tattoo. In one WorldStar video, he snorts cocaine on camera (at 0:10) and then freestyles for seven and a half minutes. (Riff Raff told me that he's freestyled "89 percent" of his tracks.)
With Soulja Boy's backing, though, Riff Raff has earned an audience of millions of new eyes and sharpened his rangy, Dadaist luxury rap. On "Cuz My Gear (feat. Chief Keef)," one of Riff Raff's best tracks, he reels off a brilliantly absurd stanza stuffed with the internal rhyme and pop cultural free-association that typifies his style:
Holograms on my hand gave me a tanned wrist
Diamonds dancing on my fist look like a blank disc
Teriyaki suit with the lemon Fanta
Heavyweight, heartburn: Mylanta
The first line means that the diamonds in his jewelry look like holograms and reflect the sun to tan his wrist. The diamonds in his ring look like blank CDs. The last two lines are free-associative, but it seems like they're obliquely about a fat man. His rhymes often owe more to Dr. Seuss than they do to Dr. Dre, and it's exciting to hear rappers rap like this, without concern for the boundaries of the genre. On another track he raps, "I'm in the Volcanic liquid lava Benz / feels like the world's about to end."
The marquee Soulja Boy/Riff Raff song/video is "Versace Bentley," a grinding, twisted four-minute anthem with no hook and a beat of only percussion. The song itself is so aggressively difficult to listen to that it's certainly avant-garde, but the video, which features a short cameo from Odd Future's Tyler, The Creator, is hypnotic. It could be the most sonically unendurable music video to ever to reach 350,000 YouTube views.
Like other rappers who've found huge fanbases through the Internet, Riff Raff's music veers from transcendent to unlistenable, sometimes within the same song. But rap fans have taken notice of his moments of seemingly accidental lyrical brilliance—because Riff Raff hasn't put out any proper releases recently, enterprising YouTubers and rap forum participants create compilations of newly released Riff Raff songs that stand in for proper mixtapes or albums. In a world where unlimited free music is available to anyone with an Internet connection, fans connecting to cobble together odds and ends of an artist's catalog is a sign of grassroots engagement so unusual that it's anachronistic.
But despite the support, Riff Raff's career is hindered by his knack for putting middling raps on songs that could be huge for him. On "Dumb Shyt (feat. Wiz Khalifa)," which could have been Riff Raff's most popular song yet given Wiz's popularity, he's unremarkable, but on "You Never Know" by unknown Los Angeles electro-pop band Bright Matter, Riff Raff turns in a minute of lyrical genius. "His lyrics are so amazing," one Tumblrer wrote. "I felt the need to type them out for the world to experience them. He is Jesus Christ reincarnated."
Riff Raff has earned most of his guest spots simply through his viral presence. He told me in an email, "People started hitting me up on Twitter cuz I was getting millions of views on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop.com and they saw me on MTV with Soulja Boy. I'm the Most Lyrically Flamboyant Artist of All Time."
Riff Raff's days without a proper record deal will soon be over. On May 8, Diplo announced that he had put down a deposit on a $45,000 chain for Riff Raff because he was signing to Diplo's label for that eight-album deal. Riff Raff confirmed the signing but told me, "the paperwork is still finalizing."
Otherwise, he's still hustling. His manager told me that he's the star of a Los Angeles car alarm company's local commercial, "which should be dropping soon." And had he responded in time to Harmony Korine's invitation to play himself in Spring Breakers, he'd probably have James Franco's acting gig right now. According to email correspondence between Riff Raff and Korine, Korine originally asked Riff Raff to be in the movie, but because he took too long to reply to the email, Franco took his spot.
In early May, I DMed Riff Raff about Kitty Pryde, who mentioned him on her song "Justin Bieber." I included a link to her video for "Okay Cupid," which had caused "a minor internet starburst" that morning.
"What's her Twitter?" he wrote back. "See if she wants to do a song/video."
A week later, he was on a plane to Daytona Beach to shoot the video for the song they'd recorded that weekend. He'd arranged for Vice to pay for it.
Part of Riff Raff's appeal is that nobody really knows anything about him. Interviewers don't press him on biographical questions because it doesn't seem like he lives on this planet, so pieces of tangible biography almost don't apply to him. The closest he comes to talking about the real circumstances of his life in interviews is with a series of nonsense answers ("My dad was like a street basketball player. He had a real mysterious life. I don't know what he was doing day-to-day,"), and he divulges nothing about his history in his music, which stands out in a genre built on personal narratives of struggle and triumph.
Over the last few weeks, I've emailed, texted, Twitter DMed, and spoken to Riff Raff on the phone, trying to figure out what he's like when someone isn't recording what he's doing and who he was before people started recording what he was doing. I also spoke at length with his manager.
Riff Raff's birth surname is Simco, and he and his manager claim that he recently legally changed his first name to Jody because "he didn't like his first and middle names." Otherwise, he calls himself the "RAP GAME FARRAH FAWCETT," "RAP GAME SEAN PENN," "RAP GAME RICHARD SIMMONS," and "RAP GAME SUPER MARiO BROS. 3 WHEN U DUCK BEHiND THE BRiCKS & THEN FLY UP BEHiND THE BLACK SCREEN AT THE END & GET STUFF."
He says that he is 6-foot-4, but he is actually 6-foot-2.
He grew up in Katy, Tex., an exurb of Houston that produces a lot of rice. Riff Raff's Twitter bio lists him as having a "BLACK BELT iN BRiNGiNG THE RiCE OUT," and he has songs called "RiCE OUT," "THE RiCE EMPEROR," "JERRY RiCE," and "MiAMi RiCE FREESTYLE."
He is the middle child in a family of eight children (he has three brothers and four sisters), and he dropped out of Langham Creek High School in the 11th grade. His manager told me that he got his GED and attended Louisiana State University on a basketball scholarship, but was cut from the team after several practices.
I asked Riff Raff in an email interview if he'd ever had problems with the law and he replied, "Yeah, I do actually have a problem with them because every time they come around they want to give u ticket to pay them ... But then one time I tried to pull a police man over and ask him for money and he wouldn't give it to me .. Why?"
His age is hard to pin down; according to his MTV bio, he was 26 in 2009, but when I asked him his age last week, he said 26. His manager told me, "I don't even know if I should say this, but Riff Raff was drunk at the casting session and he just wrote down a bunch of random numbers. He spent a lot of his time on the show trying to get them to correct it."
But Riff Raff doesn't look 26, and the references in his lyrics betray a mind saturated with ‘80s and early ‘90s pop culture. He raps that his hair "smells like Sharon Stone." In response to a question about his career, he said, "I'm About to be Depeche Mode .. Duran Duran .. Phil Collins .. Jodie Foster .. Farrah Fawcett .. Pinky Brewster .. Toby Keith .. Taylor Dane .. Red Hot Chili Peppers .. Gucci Mane." Only one of these artists isn't an icon of the ‘80s or early ‘90s.
There was something else I wanted Riff Raff to clear up: Was the BAD BITCH STRIPPER series actually shot in Brazil? "I shot the video in Las Vegas while relaxing and had just finished a hot oil bath in a Swiss Army Parlor," he explained in an email. "The girl was a former necessity who I fell fond of yet quickly disposed of due to the fact that she became impregnated by someone other than yours truly."
Before Riff Raff got to my apartment last week, he called me from the road and told me that they'd just passed the Five Guys on Fulton and Flatbush, which is about a mile from my apartment, and I told him I'd meet him downstairs.
"I'm in a diamond-encrusted school bus with Wisconsin license plates!" he told me. I kept my eyes peeled for the diamond-encrusted school bus, but he arrived in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. We all went upstairs.
In person, Riff Raff is a toned down version of the man in the BAD BITCH STRIPPER videos, but not a different person. He's not as loud and he wears a shirt, but it's not like he's come out of a character. He jokes around a lot.
After about an hour, I started asking him questions about his family, his childhood, about which of his songs he'd freestyled on and which he'd written. He'd deflected most of these questions on the phone or through email, and he wasn't any more comfortable answering them in person—especially not anything that had to do with his personal history. I was persistent, as I had been on the phone and over email for weeks, so occasionally he answered, but each time I asked, he seemed to grow more withdrawn. He stopped looking me in the eye. Sometimes he looked like he felt cornered. And I don't know how valuable the answers he gave me were; as I'd learned, when Riff Raff answers questions, it's impossible to tell if he's lying, jokingly obfuscating, or being completely serious.
After another two hours of conversation and intermittent questions, we plugged my laptop into the TV and Riff Raff put on two Taylor Dayne videos, "I'll Be Your Shelter" and "Tell It to My Heart". He said that they reminded him of his mom because she used to play her songs when he was growing up, and that he wants to make videos that look like Taylor Dayne videos. The girl he referred to as his girl rubbed his back, and Riff Raff sat on the couch with his legs splayed out while his girl's friend rolled the joint. It was hard for me to find things to say to Riff Raff because I knew that our interaction was tainted by my drive to piece together this life.
Riff Raff and his girl and her friend smoked the joint and Riff Raff and I played NBA Street Vol. 2. After he won one of the games, he turned to his girl and said, "That's how you win games! I won by 50!" He'd won by two. We all laughed.
While we played the second game, I thought about the BAD BITCH STRIPPER - PART 2 video. In it, Riff Raff finally lets his hair down (literally) and starts dancing, and as I thought about it I felt terrible about how I'd handled our interviews. I don't know if Riff Raff was someone I should have tried to pry open, and if he was, I wondered about what the right way to go about it would have been.
But I realized, after finally meeting him and sitting in his presence, that Riff Raff is a product of Gatsbyesque self-invention—a dude who decided that Riff Raff was who he wanted to be and became it, and feels some combination of disdain and shame about the circumstances in his life that he couldn't control that led up to him becoming Riff Raff. He's like a superhero. Almost every autobiographical detail he gave me, even down to something as instantly discernable as his height, was a lie. Or a joke. Or both.
I also thought about how Riff Raff seems like a guy who has been through a lot of difficult shit, and combined a lot of frustration and disappointment with an extraordinary gift for wordplay and rhyme into some sometimes unbelievable rap music and a persona that is, for me and thousands of other internet denizens, endlessly compelling, and the mystery is part of that.
A little while later, Riff Raff's girl and her friend went to my roof to smoke cigarettes and I was alone with Riff Raff in my apartment for the first time. He rifled through the refrigerator and then came back into the living room, and we stood facing each other, both probably wondering how to address how tense our meeting had become.
He looked around and seemed uncomfortable for a second, and then he looked at me and said, "Yo, I thought we were becoming friends…? But then I came over here and you just started interrogating me…?" He looked down.
I thought about how a wiser journalist once told me that subjects will always try to convince journalists that they're their friends for favorable coverage, but I also don't think Riff Raff is thinking like that. I know he doesn't care about a Gawker interview because he'd never heard of Gawker when I mentioned it.
I couldn't really look at him, because it felt like he was right, and I said, "I'm sorry Riff Raff. I, like… I guess I should have been clearer about this being part of an interview. I know you, like, keep a lot about yourself pretty close to the chest." He looked away. I said, "But I'm curious, you know? That's part why I'm writing about you: so I get to find out the answers to all the questions I have about your raps, and, obviously, your life."
He looked around again and searched for a way to respond, but as he started saying something, we heard his girl and her friend opening the door to my apartment. He didn't say anything. They came in and we all sat back down on the couch and someone put another video on. A few minutes later, Riff Raff and his girl and her friend said goodbye and left.
David Shapiro writes www.pitchforkreviewsreviews.com.