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.
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.
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.'"
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."
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