Pazz & Jop: Riff Raff Is Keeping It Surreal

Riff Raff
Riff Raff
Illustration by Shea Serrano //

Riff Raff was among rap's most significant cultural figures in 2012, despite being a C+ rapper at best. The pasty, cornrow-wearing MC's known history is as follows: He appeared on MTV reality show From G's to Gents, has World Star Hip-Hop and BET tattoos, and has made music with some of the most important rap and electronic performers, including Chief Keef and Diplo, who saw fit to sign him. Though his heavily accented delivery is clunky, his lines are often hilarious—"I can slang heat like a piece a pizza/I done wrote this flow on the back of the Mona Lisa"—and despite lacking even an ounce of authenticity (as that word has traditionally been defined in hip-hop) he's charting a course on how to succeed in the mid-2010s rap game. Something to do with being super charismatic and blurring the line between your life and your music videos.

Riff Raff's backstory is mostly a mystery, and he somehow blossomed from a Web curio into a rap household name while offering hardly a single honest detail about himself. Don't bother asking him his real name or his age ("Old enough to drink and drive," he said on the Champs podcast in November) or where he's from. ("I was born [in Houston], but I'm from everywhere. Arizona. North Dakota. Dakota Fanning.") He won't even fess up to being white. ("Everybody's mixed a little with something. I tried to find my parents, but I couldn't find them to ask them.") He keeps an apartment in Hollywood nowadays, which is where he told LA Weekly's Jeff Weiss his government name is Jody Christian. Online chatter counters that he's Horst Simco, and his mom is actually located in northern Minnesota, where she runs a small business that will do tasks like scheduling dentist appointments and personal shopping for you. As for his net worth? "I'll be a millionaire by the end of the year, a billionaire after three or four years, and a trillionaire after eight years," he told Pitchfork in August. An L.A. concert promoter told me shortly thereafter that his going rate was $500 for a show.  

His initial ascent was on the coattails of Soulja Boy, whereupon he switched his handle from MTV Riff Raff to Riff Raff SODMG, referencing the Atlanta swag rapper's label. But that might have been a lie, too. This summer, Soulja Boy tweeted: "Riff Raff was never in Sodmg for real he faked and used our name to promote his garbage you owe us money pussy and u a cokehead."

That level of bullshittery is not exactly on par with the Smoking Gun's revelations that Rick Ross was a correctional officer. In fact, nobody batted an eyelash, which says something about hip-hop today, a genre that once claimed to care quite a bit about authenticity. Jay-Z accused Nas of not having it, while Jay-Z's childhood friends accused him of not having any, either. Phony backstories gave Eazy-E some funny fodder against Dr. Dre and helped slow the careers of Vanilla Ice, Plies, and Akon, among others. Even middle-class MCs like Kanye West kept the focus on their genesis stories.

But in 2012 nobody seemed to know who was legitimate, who was telling the truth, or who was being serious. Personas became so outsize that they all became irrelevant. Cash Out doesn't actually have a condo on his wrist, and one suspects Trinidad James's bike isn't made of the highest-quality gold. In 2012, 2 Chainz and Juicy J popped kernels of truth and coated them in butter; Insane Clown Posse paid raunchy tribute to Too $hort; and Danny Brown, with "Grown Up," made one of the most tender songs of the year. Odd Future, it turns out, was kidding about burning shit—that palm-tree fire on Fairfax Avenue? That was started by one of their fans, and they reimbursed the pizza-shop owner whose awning was damaged (and that "faggot" stuff, too). Not long ago, you could be called a homophobe for liking Odd Future; now you could be called a homophobe for not.

But when it comes to being enigmatic, Riff Raff wins easily. No one knows if his blinged-out, caricatured, minstrel-y persona is put on. Although he portrays himself as the most delusional person walking, he's clearly fantastically sharp. But beyond his character's references to luxury cars, science fiction, and pop-culture figures is nothingness. Riff Raff says he didn't get to star in the movie Spring Breakers because he didn't get director Harmony Korine's message, which is perhaps not surprising when your whole life is a social network. But being unable to become a star because you're too busy pretending to be a star is, you know, pretty ironic.

Although he doesn't use the N-word himself, he won't condemn other white rappers for using it. And when asked for the identity of his favorite Caucasian MC on the Champs, he recoiled into a hysterical free-association rant lampooning the question as simplistic, which was poignant even if it doesn't make much sense reprinted here: "I'm just a body living on earth, and I'm gonna die. Food, can, aluminum, cell phone object. . . . Gotta find a wife, traditional!" (His freestyling is often subpar, but as an improv comedian, he's always on. Go figure.)

Perhaps he possesses some weird form of integrity, perhaps he's a pathological liar, or perhaps he simply thinks the game is silly. Maybe he hasn't given it much thought, though impersonating Gucci Mane 24/7 requires great discipline. But at this point, the question of whether Riff Raff is "serious" is moot—even he probably doesn't know, and were we to find out it would be worse than learning about Santa Claus. We want Riff Raff to be real, and so he is. He certainly stays true to himself, whatever that may be, and that's as strong a hip-hop value as any.

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