Issue 29: ‘Authenticity’ Feature – Riff Raff

He's inked a deal with Mad Decent and been a muse for James Franco, all before releasing his debut album. ACCLAIM tries to unravel the rap game riddle.

If you type “Riff Raff is a” into Google, the search engine prompts the following searches: “Riff Raff is a joke”, “Riff Raff is a troll”, “Riff Raff is an actor”, “Riff Raff is a genius”. And that pretty much sums it up: the rapper and online cultural figure is divisive, to say the least. To some he is a hip-hop oddity – an ersatz MC with unpolished flow and a taste for oddball collaborations. To others he is a style maverick, a font of abstract lyrical genius and master manipulator of the blogosphere. He’s worked with some of the most provocative figures in contemporary rap: Lil Debbie, Kitty [Pryde] and Chief Keef. As if that wasn’t enough to piss off purists, he’s also in the rap crew Three Loco with comedian Andy Milonakis.

But if you dismiss Riff Raff immediately, you’re missing out. His fans eagerly point to some of his more esoteric bars as evidence of him being a rap savant. Online commentary rages fiercely about the interpretation of open-ended lyrics like these:

Holograms on my hand gave me a tanned wrist
Diamonds dancing on my fist look like a blank disc
Teriyaki suit with the lemon Phantom
Heavy weight, heartburn: Mylanta.

Riff Raff has built up a cult of personality by being unrelentingly eccentric. He’s got technical facial hair, striking blue eyes (not contact lenses, the official line goes) and a set of tattoos that read like a bong shop’s inventory (MTV, NBA, Bart Simpson). Naturally, Riff Raff’s personality leaves its fingerprints on everything he’s involved with.

It also doesn’t hurt that some of his fans are pretty influential. In the last edition of ACCLAIM, Queens rapper, chef and weed aficionado Action Bronson expressed his admiration, in what we think was an earnest statement: “I won’t lie – I get ideas from Riff Raff. He’s one of the best ever.” Super-producer Diplo liked the rapper enough to sign him to his Mad Decent label for an eight record deal. And depending on who you ask, he’s the inspiration for James Franco’s character in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.

I call Riff Raff to find him on the set of a music video, shooting with EDM producer Flux Pavilion. To get the ball rolling, I quiz him about his origin story and emerging on MTV reality show From G’s to Gents. Only I hit a brick wall. Politely but firmly, in his distinctive southern drawl, Riff Raff says, “I can’t talk about MTV today. I’ve got my own show coming out. It’s a talk show.” I ask him if he can talk about his new show, to which he responds, “I can’t even talk about that – all I can talk about is money and, like, important stuff.”

And it seems like it’s this desire to get money that stokes the fires of Riff Raff’s work ethic. The man is prolific – this point is thrown into sharp relief when he flips the script on me. In an inversion of the conventional interviewer–interviewee relationship, he starts to ask me questions. “I’m about to test you right now, to see how big a fan you are.”

He asks me to name his most recent music video and I slip up. The video I thought was his most recent video wasn’t it all, and had actually been superseded a few times in his breathless release schedule of new material. It’s this huge output that really gives you the impression that Riff Raff has an eye on world domination. He asks me if he’s going to be on the cover of ACCLAIM. I tell him that we’re keen to do it and that I’ve seen his face popping up in a few different places. “Yeah – it’s cool,” he says. “I want to keep doing bigger stuff. I want to be on the cover of every magazine.”

As Riff Raff talks about his background, it becomes apparent that this pursuit of status is at the very core of his identity. When asked about his idols growing up, he reels off “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Marley Marl, Bo Jackson, Burt Reynolds, Shaquille O’Neal”, but the first person to win his admiration was a kid who grew up on his street called Scooter. “He was cool: he always had the newest toys, the newest shoes – the new Jordans,” he says. “This was when I was in like kindergarten and he was in like the second, third grade, so I was like damn, I wanna have all the new shit before everybody else gets it.”

When images from Spring Breakers started to circulate, netizens picked up on the similarities between Riff Raff and James Franco’s cornrowed, blinged-out character, Alien. Riff Raff himself was quick to stake his claim as Franco’s inspiration, telling Complex (via Twitter direct message, naturally) “If I explained the story to u then u wouldn’t even believe me. Harmony Korine called my phone to be in this new movie Spring Breakers. I was out of the country.” And this lasted for a few days, until James Franco definitively stated that Riff Raff was never actually offered the role by Harmony Korine. Franco acknowledged that Riff Raff was definitely a source of inspiration for his performance as Alien, but the biggest influence on the role the Florida rapper Dangeruss.

To this day, Riff Raff stands by his role in the crafting of Franco’s performance. “Yeah – I saw a lot of [Spring Breakers]. He did good. I mean, you got James Franco playing you… damn, that’s a legendary move. I’m a new artist and you’ve got someone already making a movie and stuff. That’s like… come on – how would you feel if Denzel Washington played you? Obviously it’s gonna be the best movie of the year.”

Ultimately, it seems like anything you say about Riff Raff is built on a foundation of shifting sands. A portion of the research I did on his background prior to the interview turned out to be inaccurate.

This level of ambiguity permeates all things Riff Raff. He tells me about plans to release a book where Harmony Korine offers his own interpret ations of the rapper’s tweets. “I dunno – we’re still working on stuff. Maybe around the time my album’s coming out. March, April? Maybe a little longer.”

I ask him about whether or not he thinks Korine has been accurate in his readings. “Nah, it’s not about that,” he says. “Because nobody can perfectly understand what I’m saying. It’s somebody’s opinion. It’s how they feel about it… There’s no right or wrong answer in an interpretation. It’s all in the person who’s interpreting, and how you feel about something. I mean, it doesn’t matter, really, about how somebody else interprets something. It’s like, if I love chocolate chip cookies, and you’re allergic to chocolate chip cookies, and you come and you look at me like ‘Oh, I don’t like that. I can’t eat that,’ that doesn’t mean that the chocolate chip cookies aren’t still there. They’re still right there, but the only difference is that I like them and you don’t.”

“The thing about the book that’s good is that it grabs people who think ‘I’m interested to see what Harmony Korine would say about this’. I might get other people, celebrities, to get involved in this and give their opinion. And then you have the person buying the book, and they have their opinions too.” It should come as no surprise at this point to learn that Riff Raff is a man of contradictions. On the one hand, I get the impression that he takes the postmodern line that meaning is created by the people who consume his texts. He seems to believe that his own authorial intent behind his raps or tweets is no more important than the way they are interpreted by individuals.

On the other hand, you can catch him on the comments section of YouTube, offering his explanations of his own wordplay, playing the part of a rap game CliffsNotes. In his YouTube breakdown of the lyrics of Rookie Of The Year 2013, he directly addresses his critics:

“iT SUCKS THAT i HAVE TO BREAK DOWN A HATER WORD FOR DAM WORD JUST TO SHOW WHY iM THE 2013 ROOKiE OF THE FUTURE…. BUT i WiLL NEVER DO THiS BREAKDOWN AGAiN CUZ? THE HATERS ARENT WORTH iT BUT YOUR WELCOME.”

In a sentiment that many of his cohort of ‘internet rappers’ don’t necessarily share, it seems like Riff Raff is a believer in authenticity. Tumblr micro-genres subsist on throwing signifiers from a diverse range of different subcultures into a Web 2.0 blender, without regard for their historical context. But Riff Raff claims to have an eye for the real deal.

“Authenticity means you’re doing everything that you thought of,” Riff Raff explains. “You don’t wanna copy somebody else. That’s why they have authentic jerseys: like, it’s the real deal jersey. Or an authentic autographed basketball with an actual autograph from that actual person. Now, when you start getting duplicated autographs, it doesn’t cost as much. Because it’s not the real, actual thing – it’s not authentic.”

That said, Riff Raff isn’t too fazed by the idea of knock-off Riff Raffs. “It’s okay as long as I’m given credit for it,” he says. “When people start being like ‘No, my name is Riff Raff,’ that’s different. There’s a difference between someone who appreciates what you’re doing, and someone who’s trying to take your place.” But despite the firm terms with which he defines the idea of authenticity, Riff Raff can’t escape public scepticism about his persona. This is a particularly relevant in hip-hop, where an artist’s lived experience is traditionally intimately linked with their body of work, where keeping it real is a serious pursuit.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy who got a start on an MTV reality show, a genre famed for its cursory acquaintance with reality. So, like many interviewers and Google searchers before me, I had to ask: is Riff Raff for real? And what does he say to sceptics? “I don’t care,” replies the rapper. “They can say what they want. Unless they’re putting money in my pocket, why would I care?” He continues, “Why would anybody care about what anybody has to say about anybody else if it’s not going to benefit them?”

Clearly Riff Raff has little regard for what the online peanut gallery has to say about him. In fact, for someone who’s become a fascinating viral entity online, he has scant regard for the role internet has played in his success. When quizzed about whether or not he thinks that Riff Raff would exist without the internet, his response is prompt: “I’m talking on the phone right now, ain’t I? That’s like saying ‘Do you think music would exist without the radio?’”

So, we return to the question on Google’s lips: is Riff Raff a joke, a troll, an actor or a genius? The answer: possibly all of the above. But then it’s easy to forget that the rapper’s become a fixture in pop-cultural commentary before he’s even released his debut LP. We’ve still got some time to debate what the Riff Raff show is all about. Not that Riff Raff cares what conclusions people reach. “How somebody interprets me is not my problem,” he says. “So when I do a video, when I say something, I put it out there, and it’s there for history – I just did that. Now, do you like it? That’s up to you.”

Catch a behind-the-scenes video from our photo shoot with Riff Raff here.

This article appears in issue #29 of ACCLAIM magazine – The Authenticity Issue. Buy it here.

Photography by Adri Law.
Styling by Alejandra Hernandez.