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The Weird World of Riff Raff

How a white oddball from the Houston suburbs became an internet rap sensation

Riff Raff
Terry Richardson
October 8, 2013 3:35 PM ET

Riff Raff is at his North Hollywood apartment, sitting on a footstool beneath a portrait of Albert Einstein, eating Froot Loops from a plastic cup and figuring out how to get his Porsche Panamera washed. He's in the middle of a nationwide club tour, road-testing new songs from his imminent debut album, Neon Icon, and he's got more errands on his docket than time to handle them: clean the Porsche, locate a flash drive stocked with important instrumentals, find an available studio to record a new song, and get to a club on the Sunset Strip in time to guest-rap during a friend's concert. Somewhere in there, he's got a meeting to discuss the lawsuit he's threatening to file against the people behind Spring Breakers, the movie in which James Franco portrayed a cornrow-coiffed, tattoo-covered, abstraction-spewing white rapper—a categorical infringement, Riff Raff asserts, on his likeness. He only flew into Los Angeles two days ago, and he flies out again early tomorrow. "This is supposed to be a day off," Riff Raff says, "but all I've been doing is stressing out."

It's a beautiful late-summer afternoon, but he's in too sour a mood to enjoy it. He took the Panamera to a car wash a couple hours ago, but the line was long and he got fed up with waiting. Much of his anxiety stems, no doubt, from his arrest three days earlier in North Carolina, where police searched the vehicle he was riding in after a concert and charged him with possession of a Schedule 1 narcotic, misdemeanor possession of marijuana and misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia. (The Schedule 1 narcotic, he says, was mushrooms.) He spent a few hours behind bars before they let him out; he's got a court date next month. His wrath extends far beyond North Carolina, though. "I hate Los Angeles," he says, scowling as he crunches his cereal. "I hate traffic. I hate people. I can't do the shit I have to do because it's so many fucking people in the way."

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This is jarring to hear, because in his music, Riff Raff is all about fun. The Houston-born MC has become an internet sensation—a kind of human meme—thanks to the engrossingly odd videos he posts to YouTube and Vine at a relentless pace, which have racked up millions of views, and thanks to his music, where nursery-rhyme melodies and ingeniously daffy couplets combine into a happy, hallucinatory brand of hedonism. His forearms are tattooed with the name of a hardscrabble Houston neighborhood, Acres Homes, but he has no pretension to toughness. "Who's the most gangsta, mass-murderer rapper you could think of?" he says. "I'd rather hang out with Will Ferrell."

Riff Raff commands a broad cult following and his boosters include some of hip-hop's biggest names—Drake, Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg, Chief Keef. His finest punch-lines, heavy on pop-culture references and absurdist verve, play like Family Guy cutaways: "I done shot dice with Larry Bird in Barcelona" is a typically loopy brag. Detractors see his flamboyant style and dismiss him as a buffoonish caricature, but they miss the point. Rapping and singing over trap beats, dubstep grinds, and the occasional country lick, he has awesomely scant regard for the boundaries of genre, the constraints of rhythm, and the strictures of authenticity. One of his favorite tricks is to call himself The Rap Game ____, filling in the blank with a carousel of far-fetched identities: Patrick Ewing, Picasso, Sleepless in Seattle. On Vine, where he boasts a half-million followers, he inhabits different voices and characters, sometimes speaking through a puppet model of himself.

Riff Raff
Riff Raff
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Today, he's wearing Escher-like cornrows. He stands six-foot-two, tattoos cover his skin, and a thin beard zigzags across his jaw like a liar's polygraph. The fluorescent hues and patterns of his outfit owe a sizable debt to Saved by the Bell's opening credits, and his home décor continues that motif, with an added pan-Asian twist. Hanging above his unmade king bed is a decorative indigo arc nearly the size of a surfboard, festooned with red triangles, undulating strips of aluminum, and a yellow crescent—a piece salvaged, it seems, from the set of some 1994 Nickelodeon quiz show. On a bedside table, a clear Lucite ribbon spirals upward from a Lucite pedestal; Riff Raff, momentarily mustering the improvisational charm of his songs, identifies this as "an ice sculpture from Wimbledon, in the Netherlands." Across the room are three samurai swords. Numerous crud-caked bongs sit on his carpet and kitchen counter, which is cluttered with hairbrushes, a rubber-banded wad of hundred-dollar bills and a purple sculpture depicting three galloping stallions.

"This place is shit," Riff Raff says. "It's too small. My neighbors complain that I'm too loud, then they ask me for pictures in the hallway. I gotta move. When I’m in Los Angeles, I just stay inside and do drugs."

Five years ago, Riff Raff was splitting the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston, dreaming of his big break. In 2009, he was cast on an MTV reality show called From G's to Gents, and he steadily built that exposure into rampant viral success and, last year, a deal with Diplo's revered Mad Decent label. In February, he was invited to attend the Grammys, he took a picture of himself sitting beside Vin Diesel. "I first saw him on the reality show and thought he was just some character," Wiz Khalifa, who is slated to appear on Neon Icon, says. "Then I started hearing his songs, and I fuck with him. He's got great lines." After chasing mainstream stardom for years, Riff Raff's finally arrived at its precipice.

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But to hear him tell it, the precipice isn’t nearly enough. He's tired of people stopping him for autographs at the gas station. Tired of "chubby girls" giving him attitude after his shows. "I might have another interview next spring and I'll have a house with a basketball court and somebody serving you lemonade, but right now I'm in an apartment where I have to take the elevator with people," he says. "I'm in the middle. I'm famous, but I'm not as rich as Brad Pitt. I'm not flying to the game in a helicopter like Kobe. When I got pulled over in North Carolina, I was in an SUV. If I'd sold out Tarheels Arena and I had a fucking helicopter, man, nobody could get near me. I'd have federal agents pushing everybody back!"

Because Riff Raff's manner is so outlandish, because he's murky on the subject of his background, and because his rhymes contain boundless flights of fancy, some onlookers have wondered if he's a put-on—the question that's dogged him, from comment-sections to big-deal radio interviews, has been, Is Riff Raff for real? Spend some time with him, though, as he fantasizes about servants and helicopters and federal agents at his command, and a different question arises: Is Riff Raff living in his own private reality?

This is an expanded version of a story from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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