By: Jeff Weiss
Riff Raff's hair is a crop circle of braids. His eyes are blue, dilated and deserted. Gold grills glint on his teeth. A boy-band-thin beard zigzags across his face. His chest and neck double as a tattooed billboard for MTV, BET, the NBA, Bart Simpson and Seagram's Seven. To complete the look, the Hollywood-based, 32-year-old white rapper wears a cherry-red, ruby-laced Icee (as in the frozen drink) chain around his neck. That's when he's not rocking the chain purchased by his label patron, Diplo, the Grammy-nominated DJ/producer and BlackBerry ambassador. Or the gilded, emerald-green chain that Soulja Boy bestowed upon him a couple of years ago during Riff Raff's brief stint on the Atlanta swag rapper's imprint. Over the summer, he released his sophomore album, Neon Icon, on Mad Decent.
Born Horst Christian Simco, Riff Raff was raised on Houston's racially diverse north side and possesses an accent so thick it seems clogged by codeine--more working-class twang than imitated patois. He's the logical spawn of white Texas rapper Paul Wall, but with a better sense of humor. Describing him in print is akin to trying to race piranhas on dry land. His bowl is the Internet, specifically YouTube, where his videos regularly register hundreds of thousands of views.
He can be both ingenious and minstrel, sometimes in the same song. He is a caricature of a caricature, Jamie Kennedy's Malibu's Most Wanted buffoon blown up to such animated extremes that he is wholly unique--an eccentric worthy of a Hollywood Hills Mount Rushmore alongside Angelyne, the Bishop Magic Don Juan and a post-Blizzard of Ozz Ozzy Osbourne.
"What separates him is his sense of humor. He's like Biz Markie in his goofiness or Kool Keith in the way he puts words together," says his friend and collaborator Simon Rex, who raps as the sex-obsessed Dirt Nasty. "It might not make sense on paper, but it works because he commits so much to them. He also has an Eazy-E octave that really punches through beats. So much rap is middle of the road; not enough people are having fun. He's not afraid to be a clown, and he can actually rap and carry notes. Put a camera on him, and you can't look away. When he wakes up in the morning to when he goes to bed at night, that's him."
Riff Raff reflects, "People are desensitized to the point where nothing is special. People are getting bored. It's so saturated that if you're not in your own lane, you aren't needed." In his lane, he's a rap avatar for the Adult Swim generation, full of stoned musings, pop-culture detritus and cartoon tomfoolery. His aliases include Jody Highroller, the Rice Emperor, the White Gucci Mane, the rap game Travis Tritt and the rap game Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Riff Raff started calling himself "the rap game James Franco" after photos emerged from Spring Breakers, a 2013 Harmony Korine film in which the 127 Hours star plays a Riff Raff doppelgänger. Riff Raff claims Korine offered him the role, but he was "out of the country" at the time.
"He doesn't give a fuck about anything, which is my philosophy about everything," Diplo says. "He's the best dude to drink with ever, and he can freestyle for seven weeks straight." There's another reason Riff Raff has become a lightning rod: White guys who speak with slang and diction associated with African-Americans have elicited heavy scrutiny since the days of 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice. "If it's some black dude trying to be a country guy, he's always gonna have some random redneck dude saying, 'Fuck that.' White people do the same thing to white rappers," he says. "Ninety percent of my haters are white guys who don't like me because maybe they're jealous."
In his Hollywood apartment, he rolls and unrolls dollar bills that are lying on his desk next to a weed pipe, a Swiss Army knife and pills of unknown provenance. The apartment is sparsely furnished: a bed, a bathroom, a closet with his high-tops neatly lined up. The main decorative flourish is a pair of ceramic iguanas hanging from the wall, making for a surprisingly understated contrast to his lavish on-camera persona.
While it's almost more logical to believe Riff Raff sprang from a pair of click-happy web entrepreneurs, his father was a mechanic, who grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Vietnam. When his parents divorced, Riff Raff lived mainly with his mom in Houston, with brief detours in Florida, Arizona and Brazil.
He started freestyling for fun. After dropping out of high school, he bounced from city to city across the country, rarely staying more than a few months. He settled in LA, partly at the recommendation of Rex, who understood the casting-call carousel of LA was the only place insane enough to appreciate Riff Raff's idiosyncrasies. He mostly paid his bills by painting cars and cutting hair.
Last year, he evolved beyond a curio into something legitimately interesting. For a nation that suckles entertainment with every refresh of its web browsers, Riff Raff attempts to fill the insatiable void with a deluge of freestyles, songs and comic sketches. Often, he is compulsively watchable.
Is this all a put-on? And even if it is, does it matter in an age of Tumblr memes, Das Racist and Rick Ross? Riff Raff has a fittingly vague and tortuous answer. "It's all about how I feel at that point in time," he says. "If I'm having fun, then I'm gonna have fun. If someone's crying, are they fake-crying? If they're laughing, then are they fake-laughing? It's not my job to cater to somebody. If I'm happy, if I'm drunk, like, that's me right there. You know? So if I'm not acting like that, well, shit, it's like, this is what I'm acting like right now. This is how I am right now."
When asked why he decided to appear in the 2008 MTV show From G's to Gents or why he started posting videos online, he reacts as if it's the first time he has ever pondered the question. As to why he got a BET tattoo on his breastplate, he answers matter-of-factly: "Because one day, I'm going to be on the 106th & Park Countdown." To him, this is the most obvious conclusion in the world, as easy as turning on the tap or logging onto World Star Hip-Hop's website. And while his own humor isn't exactly high-minded, he tellingly claims his favorite TV show is Portlandia.
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In a novelty-thirsty, camera-happy world, it was inevitable a Riff Raff would emerge. He is a true mass-media mutation, with multiple Viacom entities actually inscribed on his flesh. We demand 24-hour entertainment and cures for our hangovers before they happen; Riff Raff is the payoff, the yellow light that never blinks off, our punishment and our reward.
Riff Raff performs at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Nov. 24, 8 p.m. $20. All ages.