Riff Raff, aka MTV Riff Raff, aka Jody High Roller, aka Rap Game James Fraco, graced SoHo with his presence Sunday afternoon at an in-store Neff popup event at PacSun. Riff was scheduled to begin his meet ‘n’ greet with fans at 3pm, but people were lining up early to catch a glimpse of the man himself. When the appointed time rolled around, the queue snaked through the store and rolled out onto the Manhattan streets. The crowd was mostly young, male, and white, and seemed to have little else to do on a Sunday but spend money on overpriced “street” wear.
For those unfamiliar, Riff Raff is the newest Internet sensation turned semi-legitimate rapper to come out of the great churning mass of the post-Internet Hip Hop scene. While Riff first began generating buzz back in 2008, and had his first brush with fame in 2009 as a contestant on MTV’s From G’s to Gents, it wasn’t until the release of the 2012 Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers that he truly exploded. As the indelible scroll of the Internet shows, Riff Raff had been approached by Korine to appear in the film, but never made it to any of the final shots. There’s been speculation that James Franco’s character Alien is based on Riff Raff, though Korine and Franco have both claimed that a variety of personalities were used as inspiration, and that Florida rapper Dangeruss is a more likely model, if one exists. Still, watching Spring Breakers in conjunction with some of Riff Raff’s more bizarre YouTube tirades really brings the similarities into focus.
In any event, it’s Riff Raff’s outlandish persona that’s garnered him the most attention. He’s a tall, lanky guy from Houston with ridiculous facial hair, crystal blue eyes, and a body almost totally enveloped in tattoos. He has a penchant for ridiculous jewelry and eyewear. One VICE magazine writer quipped that Riff Raff’s fashion sense looks like he rolled around in the collected vomit of Miami, “but in a good way”. The accuracy of that statement can’t be fully appreciated until you sample the impressive bulk of official Riff Raff music videos circulating on the Internet.
Since he began to achieve Internet fame, the only kind of fame that really seems to matter anymore, Riff Raff has amassed as many confused bystanders as he has garnered fans and enemies. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Riff Raff seems like some sort of elaborate hip hop catfish scam, but he definitely has a deadpanning, self-parodying sense of humor that makes it hard to tell where exactly the joke begins and ends. In terms of musical ability, the jury of public opinion seems to be out. Riff Raff’s lyrics are almost uniformly nonsensical, and he tends to play around with near-rhyme in a halting, barking flow that belies his Houston roots. In the vein of other artists like Lil B and Odd Future, Riff Raff seems to eschew meaning when rapping, preferring instead to focus on sounds and feelings above all else. Some of his songs have main ideas, but that’s about as focused as a Riff Raff track tends to get. The beats are heavy with synths and aggressive electronics, almost straddling the line between hip hop and the newest incarnation of dubstep. Cynics will say that Riff Raff is not a good rapper, and he’s certainly not conventional, but it’s telling that songs as completely nonsensical and strange as “Orion’s Belt” (w/Kitty Pryde) or “Rap Game James Franco” can still be so damn catchy and remain in your head for days.
So how serious is Riff Raff? That’s the question on everybody’s minds: is this a joke, or some sort of happy accident? As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Riff Raff has been producing music since 2008, but after his second-round flameout on G’s and Gents in 2009, he began popping up everywhere. The man’s not an idiot, contrary to what most people think, which is what makes people question his sincerity. The general thought process goes: why would anybody who knew they were acting like a buffoon do so sincerely? The answer, even given by Riff Raff in an on-air interview with Hot97, is that it’s fun. If nothing else, Riff Raff seems content to make tracks and party with other celebrities and get his mug plastered all over creation while he stacks paper. It’s the nihilism of commercial Hip Hop taken to its extreme logical conclusion. Personally, I think Riff Raff saw the Internet buzz created from his “outrageous personality” as showcased on Gs and Gents and realized that if he made himself as visible as possible and then acted like himself, he would generate buzz. In a media world ruled by eyeballs instead of dollars, that’s one of the most valuable tools any artist can have.
Riff Raff’s in-store appearance seemed to confirm this hypothesis. He was there to promote Neff, an clothing brand that he’s a spokesperson for. He seemed more or less uninterested in repping the label, but genuinely happy and enthusiastic about meeting and signing things for fans. A rep from the event kept informing those waiting in line that you could get a “free” picture with Riff Raff if you bought a Neff t-shirt, but Riff Raff’s security detail didn’t seem to care when nearly every guest snapped a phone picture with him sans t-shirt, and he was only too happy to sign anything that was put on the table in front of him. The guy before me flipped up his skateboard, and Riff Raff picked out a prime spot of white sticker to sign his name, and then stopped to admire the deck, even calling over some of his entourage to check it out.
I was a little surprised by how starstruck I was, and managed to croak out a weak “’sup Riff?” after he extended his gold-cloaked fist for me to bump. Immediately, he spotted the outline of Texas tattooed on the inside of my right forearm.
“You from Texas?” he asked with a gold-plated smile.
“Right on…what’s your name?”
“John,” I stammered, trying to come up with some witty rejoinders and finding none. He pointed to the tattoo again, looking up from the poster he was signing for me.
“You shoulda put Riff Raff over Houston,” he said, and I laughed, then asked if he would sign my Longhorns hat. I glanced down at the poster, where he had signed his name at the top, and then “Rap Game Nolan Ryan” (legendary pitcher and current owner for the Texas Rangers, based out of the DFW metroplex). He handed over the hat and I put it on my head, asking if I could get a picture.
“Did you see what I wrote?” he asked, pointing at the hat with all the pride of a grade-schooler showing Mom his art project. I flipped the hat over, and on the bill he had signed his name, as well as “Hook em Horns”. We slapped palms, and then he slipped next to me for a quick picture, right before the store security asked me to move it along. As I shuffled off towards the register, I saw him signing stuff with my roommate, still smiling and joking around.
If Riff Raff is some sort of sleeper agent for a nefarious social media conglomerate, the strain and wear certainly isn’t showing. He’s here to have fun and he’s doing it in spades, all while giving us something that keeps us talking and just a little bit freaked out. Isn’t that more credible in the end than anything else we could say about a musician?