The Weird World of Riff Raff

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

Riff Raff
Terry Richardson
Riff Raff
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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 (Photo: 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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The first tattoo you notice when you meet Riff Raff is the large MTV logo on his neck. He got it during From G’s the Gents audition process: "He wasn't even officially cast yet," says Cris Abrego, a co-creator of the show. He has plenty of other tattoos, many of them similarly aspirational: the BET logo, because he wants his videos in rotation on 106 and Park; the NBA logo, because of hoop dreams he nursed as a kid. Below his left shoulder, however, is a tattoo that testifies to the person he actually is, or more accurately, to the person he used to be: A large gothic cross, framed by a prayer, rendered in cursive, that reads, Dear Jesus, Please Let Me In. Your Child, Horst Simco.

Horst is a German name, given to him by his parents Ronald and Anita Simco when he was born, in January of 1982. Riff Raff tells interviewers his name is Jody; he doesn't like discussing his background, perhaps because doing so would puncture his zany mystique. But a little digging yields some biographical facts. In 1989, USA Today ran an article about family travel alongside a photograph of Anita and her brood, taken at O’Hare airport. The caption identifies the kids as “Viktor, 1, Amber, 9, Horst, 7, and Claire, 2.” Anita grew up in Ohio, descended from a family of German and Lithuanian Jews that includes several survivors, and victims, of the Holocaust. Despite this and the Jesus tattoo, Riff Raff, asked if he's religious, says no. 

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At some point in Horst’s childhood, his parents split, and Ronald, a onetime cop, moved to Minnesota. Horst's little brother, Viktor, grew up largely near Duluth, and is now a professional snowboarder. "I met Viktor once," says Simon Rex, an actor and musician who befriended Riff Raff a couple years ago and has collaborated with him on hip-hop under the moniker Dirt Nasty. "He's like a mountain-climbing hippie, and he looks exactly the same as Riff, without the tattoos."

Riff Raff says he’s always been an attention-getter: "I've been super-fresh since elementary school. I'd lay out all my clothes, my Jordans right there, I know what cologne I'm gonna wear, my boxers match my socks." He wore Z. Cavariccis, Zumba pants, Girbauds. As a shooting-guard for his high school basketball team, he clashed with the coach over his flashiness. "He didn't like me; he didn't like that I was dribbling all around. It's like, I don't need you to tell me what to do — you put me in the top spot, I'll lock it in." He says he began wearing his hair crazy around senior year — "I'd have a fade with a panther coming out, or stars and a moon, with some moon earrings." The same year, his grades slipping, he says, he dropped out, got his GED, and moved to Minnesota to stay with his father. From 2001 to 2003 he attended Hibbing Community College, in a town most famous as the place where Bob Dylan, another pop shape-shifter, left Robert Zimmerman behind. Riff Raff majored in liberal arts but stopped short of graduation. He describes his stint in Minnesota as "a cold time." He didn't mesh with people there: "I distanced myself from everybody."

After a couple years he moved back to Houston, bouncing between rental apartments, taking odd jobs for cash: factory work, furniture-schlepping, "some illegal activities I can’t speak on." (He was arrested and convicted in Houston in July of 2002 on charges of petty theft, but otherwise his criminal record is clean.) He poured his earnings into purchases that reflected his baller fantasies, like a 1998 Infiniti J30 with a custom tangerine paintjob, or a gold necklace upon which "RIFF RAFF" unfurled in glittering letters around a Bart Simpson figurine. He installed black-lights and luminescent decorations in his bedroom, turning it into a makeshift nightclub nicknamed the Pool Palace, where he and his roommate tried to get girls to come hang out: Gatsby's West Egg dream pad, on a severely strapped budget.

Riff Raff performs in Philadelphia.
Riff Raff (Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

In 2005, Riff Raff began recording rhymes over other rapper's beats, peddling homemade CDs at local malls like Sharpstown and Greenspoint. Humor was a part of his musical persona from the start, indebted to Houston stars like Devin the Dude and Paul Wall, and underground heroes like Big Tuck and A.D. Selling CDs, Riff Raff says, he needed no pitch beyond his extravagant appearance. "I looked like something. Somebody's trying to sell you a Mercedes and he pulls up in a Civic with mustard stains on his shirt, dipping a pretzel in some cheese? Nobody wants to hear what you say unless you look like somebody."

OG Ron C, a co-founder of Swishahouse, who briefly managed Riff Raff, recalls first noticing him some time around 2004: "I'd see him around the city at different events, just hanging out a car, rapping and freestyling. He looked more colorful than he looks now, loud beads hanging from his braids. He was the crazy white kid in the hood. It's not no joke. He's not putting on no act." Simon Rex agrees: "We were touring Texas together once, sharing a two-bed hotel room, and I was like, what's he gonna be like first thing in the morning? And from the moment he woke up, he jumped out of bed, dancing to no music, doing this crazy Riff Raff dance. I was like, Oh my god, this is him, this is genuine."

The Simco family seems supportive of Horst's transformation into Riff Raff. "I met his mother and his younger sister at a show in February," Ron C says. "They were both there in the first row." Viktor has toured with him as a hype man. In a candid Simco Thanksgiving photo from 2007, Riff Raff is there, braids and all; the following year, he attended the wedding of his younger sister, Claire, wearing cornrows, a teal polo shirt and a black baseball cap, amid a sea of gowns and tuxes. Riff Raff's older sister, Amber, who holds a master's degree in National Security and Strategic Studies, maintains a family blog in which she refers to him as "Uncle Riffy" and proudly links to his press clippings. This summer, she blogged that Horst has always been a ham: "I thought all younger brothers were hysterical. But he never outgrew it, he just [got] bigger and sillier." She went on: "Everybody keeps trying to figgur him out. Calm down…He lives in the world like the entire place is his stage."

With Riff Raff, it's tough to separate blatant falsehoods from inspired inventions — and the latter are so compelling with him that it's hard to get riled up about the former. He fibs, for instance, about his age. Earlier this year he Instagrammed a photo captioned, "RiFF RAFF 2005 AGE 19"— even though he was 23 that year, and even though the guy next to him is wearing a shirt commemorating rapper Big H.A.W.K., who died in 2006. Riff Raff is slippery on the subject of provenance, too. In 2009 he told an interviewer, "I'm from Acres Homes." OG Ron C told me that Riff Raff "stayed in Katy for a while, that's the suburbs, with his parents, but he got his swagger from Acres Homes." Property records from 2004 briefly place him in an apartment a few blocks west of Acres Homes, not within it. Last summer a Houston reporter named Peter Holley drove around Acres Homes for the Chronicle, trying to find residents who remembered Riff Raff. "Everybody knows everybody there," Holley says. "I went through a couple times and talked to people at liquor stores and basketball courts, and people were like, 'Oh, maybe I've seen him,' but it wasn't, 'Definitely, he was here all the time, he grew up here.'"

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Ronald Vaughns, an aspiring Houston rapper who performs as Freestyle Bully, lived with Riff Raff for several years on the city's southwest side, after Riff Raff returned from Minnesota. They sold CDs and went clubbing together. "Riff used to only mess with black girls back then," Vaughns says. "After he got on the TV show, white girls started." The roommates had applied to several reality shows, Vaughns says, including Making the Band. "Riff always wanted to be on TV, to jump past the hurdles and groundwork you might have to put in as an independent artist," he says. Riff Raff wielded an indisputable marketing savvy: Before From G’s to Gents aired, he posted freestyle videos online tagged with the show's title, so that people Googling it would find him. On the reality show, hosted by former Diddy manservant Fonzworth Bentley, a houseful of coarse-mannered goons competed to become proper gentlemen. (Riff Raff got voted off after two episodes.) Watching clips of him on the show, boisterous mugging shades occasionally into something resembling actual vulnerability. In one scene, Riff grew emotional, declaring, "My mama did drugs, you know what I'm saying? I didn't have my dad or nothing." On another occasion, seemingly near tears, he told Bentley, "You here to help somebody who needs some help!"

After the episodes aired, Riff Raff grew accustomed to people recognizing him at malls, and the view count on his MySpace page shot up. But the buzz didn’t translate to cash. The monthly rent on his apartment with Vaughns was $580, and Vaughns says he sometimes had to cover Riff Raff’s share. "The Houston lane wasn't working as fast as we needed it to," says Ron C. "He was almost living out his car some times. I told him, stop trying to force it to people around here. They think you mocking them, they not taking you serious." The reality show, which had promised broader exposure, made Riff Raff's exuberant eccentricity seem like even more of a novelty. Today he refuses to speak about the show, calling it "weak" with venom in his voice.

He took to couch-surfing, pinballing among friends and relatives around the country. All the while, he uploaded videos of himself freestyling. In Los Angeles, Simon Rex and Andy Milonakis came across them, tracked down Riff Raff and eventually convinced him to move out west. "He stayed on my couch while he tried to find a place," Rex recalls. "Every time I came home, MTV Jams was blaring on the TV, and he was on the couch. His shit was everywhere. But you can't get mad at the guy. Any time I got mad, he'd say something hilarious and defuse it. It was like a sitcom."

"Why are we talking about this past shit?" Riff Raff says. "You’re asking all these questions about old, negative shit I climbed out of, making me even more stressed." He’s staring intensely at the corner of his bedroom, avoiding eye contact. "You ain’t gonna know about me by talking about the past. Haters care about that. My fans, they care about where I’m going." He becomes absorbed in his phone, and the conversation grows awkward. After a few minutes, he springs to his feet. "Can you do me a favor? I’m gonna get clean, get dressed. Can you get my car washed?" He hands me the Panamera’s matte-black fob. "Make them clean the outside, quick vacuum inside, put the Armor All shit on the tires, and make sure they clean in between the rims. And I know how much money's in the console," he adds. 

In the car, there is nothing in the console but a one-dollar bill and an empty condom wrapper. It's almost seven o'clock. I visit five different car washes, but they've all closed. After a while, I pick up Riff Raff and we head out to knock as many errands off his list as possible — he asks me to drive so he can catch up on text-messages.

Our first stop is a restaurant in West Hollywood, where Milonakis has offered to introduce Riff Raff to a friend with purported legal expertise, to discuss the Spring Breakers lawsuit. "I'm gonna see if I have a case," Riff Raff tells me. In addition to the way James Franco’s character dresses and speaks in the film, there are similarities in Spring Breakers between lines of dialogue and quotes that Riff Raff has given in the past. But both Franco and the film’s director, Harmony Korine, have called Riff Raff simply one among several inspirations for Franco's character, and not a central inspiration at that. (Through their representatives, both Franco and Korine declined to speak for this story.) The restaurant where Milonakis and his friend are waiting is a tony, burnished-wood type of place, and assorted dining grayhairs lower their silverware and gawk as Riff Raff crosses the floor in a toxically green tank top and pink swim-shorts. Ordering a lobster entrée, then quickly summoning the waiter to cancel it, Riff Raff asks Milonakis's friend, who turns out to be a high-stakes poker player, to estimate his chances of legal success.

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When Riff Raff has mentioned this lawsuit during interviews and on Twitter, it's seemed like a publicity stunt, much like when he appeared on One Life to Live earlier this year playing a shady art dealer named Jamie Franko — a brain-bending wink, devised by the people behind the soap, at Franco's own prankish turn on General Hospital. "He did some great ad-libbing," says Gary Donatelli, who directed Riff Raff's episode. "We don’t normally ask people to improvise, but he was hilarious." "It was this meta-meta-meta joke," says Angelica Cob, a spokeswoman for the soap. "We knew casting Riff Raff would go viral, and it did."

Riff Raff
Riff Raff (Photo: Mike Windle/WireImage)

Riff Raff has neither filed suit yet nor retained a lawyer to do so, but while he asks that I keep the particulars of the dinner conversation off the record, it's clear that he's genuinely angry about what he sees as pure theft, and that he genuinely desires legal recourse. Korine's and Franco's disavowals seem to sting most: If you devoted your entire life to the creation of an all-consuming, sui generis identity, how would you feel watching one of the planet's biggest movie stars crib from it, then deny doing so?

After ten minutes of inconclusive ersatz-legalese, we leave. Milonakis has invited Riff Raff to pop up onstage at the Whiskey later on tonight, and he calls out, "Be there at 11! Don’t be late!" It’s about nine o'clock now. Our next destination is the Mad Decent headquarters, across town in Atwater, where Riff Raff has managed to book studio time. As we head east, he plays songs from Neon Icon. Some feature trademark nonsequitur-riddled rhymes; on others he simply croons a single refrain over and over. The music is where he wants it to be, he says, but the sound isn't. "I'm about to spend $30,000 of my own money to get it mixed right," he says. "I heard the label went to my homeboy and asked him to mix it. I'm like, you're Diplo! Get Dr. Luke on my shit. Get whoever mixes Nicki Minaj to mix my shit."

At Mad Decent, Riff Raff dons a pair of headphones and an engineer named Derek cues up a beat built around four piercing notes. Riff Raff's friend and collaborator Lil Debbie sits in the corner, bopping her head. Riff Raff unfolds a piece of printer-paper scribbled with rhymes, amendments and cross-outs. He raps one or two lines at a time, then asks Derek to bring the beat back, picking up where he left off, rapping a line or so more, backtracking, and so on — an incredibly exacting way to make music that sounds so brazenly casual. There are some marvelous boasts — "I'm in east Texas giving Versace swimming lessons"— but the dominant theme is privacy. "Getting harassed at the airport! Damn I need a private plane," he raps, then warns: "You suckas is confused. Stop asking me all the damn questions less we doing a cover shoot." I get the faint sense I’m hearing a diss track directed at me. "Sick," Derek says.

Riff Raff grows more animated as he goes, swaying and swerving, throwing up his hands, tossing back his head. In eleven minutes and fifty-three seconds, he's got the hook, verse and ad-libs in the can. "Play that back, loud," he says. Derek drags his cursor back and lets the track bang. Riff Raff listens to himself rapping, and for what seems like the first time all day, he smiles.

 

 

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