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Becoming Riff Raff: How a White Suburban Kid Morphed Into Today's Most Enigmatic Rapper

Riff Raff
Riff Raff
Amanda Lopez

As a prepubescent boy in the early '90s, Horst Simco was enamored of Vanilla Ice. Like millions of other kids, Horst fell for the white rapper's slick dance moves and outrageous style -- Evel Knievel-style jumpsuits, blow-dried, gravity-defying hair, slits cut into his eyebrows.

But before long Ice fell out of favor, amid questions of his authenticity. Though the man born Robert Van Winkle claimed to be a poor kid who'd attended high school in Miami, he'd actually grown up in a middle-class Dallas suburb. It wasn't exactly the streetwise image he was trying to convey.

See also: Our Riff Raff slideshow

Young Horst maintained affection for his hero long after it ceased being cool. But when it came to charm and charisma, he was no Vanilla Ice. Family members say he was a well-behaved, quiet kid who never got in trouble. While the rap scene in Houston, where they lived, was bubbling up, Horst might as well have been a million miles from it: The family's ranch house was in the northwest suburbs, in a majority-white area called Copperfield, about 25 miles outside downtown.

Riff Raff
Riff Raff
Amanda Lopez

The Simco home was on a quiet cul-de-sac called Dew Drop Lane, with a towering ash tree out front and a big backyard. The nearest major thoroughfare was called Farm to Market Road 529. There wasn't much to do in the area; in fact, not long before Ronald and Anita Simco bought there in 1984, the area had been mostly rice farms.

Horst wasn't much into making music -- no one in the family really took to any musical instruments, his brother says -- but he was obsessed with basketball, playing frequently with a group including his next-door neighbor, Juan Sosa, at the park around the corner.

"He was nothing like he is today," says Sosa, now 34 and a carpenter and home health aide. He describes Horst as a "bookworm" and a "shy, clean-cut kid" who wore collared shirts and blue jeans.

The Simcos moved away and the boys fell out of touch. But years later, in 2009, Sosa was shocked to see his former basketball buddy on MTV reality show From G's to Gents. His look and manner couldn't have been more different.

In the ensuing decade, Horst Simco had transformed into Riff Raff: a controversial, wild-eyed rapper dripping in diamonds, his body coated with outrageous tattoos. With cornrows, a whimsical zigzag beard and notched eyebrows just like Vanilla Ice, he'd become an Internet sensation -- a virtual caricature of a hip-hop star, a lightning rod called both brilliant and a brain-dead minstrel act.

Riff Raff is an endlessly quotable, sui generis pop culture figure, a bona fide celebrity who pals around with Drake and Justin Bieber. His YouTube videos get millions of views. In the last year, his concert fees have jumped tenfold.

Despite some extremely catchy songs, he's had no chart success to speak of, and many folks paying attention to him don't necessarily find his music compelling. They just want to know if he's serious.

 

Onlookers argue over his merit and his intentions, and detractors include both well-known rappers and commenters on white-power message boards. (One called him a "race traitor.") There's something polarizing about him; depending upon your point of view, Riff Raff seems either to embody the worst racial stereotypes or to transcend them. He peppers his rhymes about money, cars and women with surrealist humor that's crass but often hilarious -- on his recent single "Dolce & Gabbana" he rhymes, "Your bitch playing strip poker/I'm outside eatin' fried okra/(With who?) With Oprah!"

As a kid he disliked his Germanic surname, Horst, his father notes, and nowadays Riff Raff constantly creates new monikers for himself, from "Butterscotch Boss" to "Rap Game Shirley Temple." Many rap traditionalists don't respect him, but there's no denying his genius for marketing, and his ability to reinvent himself with the simple change of his Twitter handle indicates he's probably going to be around a while longer. He can even sing a little.

Today, Riff Raff sits sulking on a couch. He's in the lobby of the Atwater Village headquarters of his record label, Mad Decent, a facility formerly used by the Beastie Boys.

Most artists in his situation would be waxing about their forthcoming album, particularly when there's as much buzz surrounding it as Riff Raff's Neon Icon. Though it doesn't yet have a firm release date, it's expected to feature a bevy of hot rappers and producers, including Wiz Khalifa, Skrillex and DJ Mustard. After countless mixtapes, this is Riff Raff's first official work -- and his introduction to a wider audience, thanks to Mad Decent's popularity among kids who enjoy electronic dance music and pop rap in equal measure.

Instead, he's brooding. Though his publicist was told otherwise, he thought this meeting would be a cover shoot, and he'd clearly labored over his look: His beard is just right, and his braids are done up with white and black beads. His orange T-shirt with cutoff sleeves matches his multicolored board shorts and his Nikes. He's eating from a bag of candy oranges, the two-for-a-dollar kind, and drinking a Snapple; even his snacks match his outfit.

This confluence of styles is "all natural," he says, which in Riff Raff lexicon could mean something as simple as "it's a coincidence" or something as complex as "I make art out of the mundane." (Or maybe he's just talking about the Snapple's ingredients.) There's no doubt he has an artist's eye for color. Fellow rapper Fat Tony compliments him to a reporter for doing "Andy Warhol-type stuff with his body," referencing his brand logo tattoos -- including ones for the NBA, BET and MTV.

During the interview he declines to make eye contact, and he mutters many of his answers while typing on his phone. "If this ain't gonna be a cover shoot, I ain't never going to do L.A. Weekly again," he says. "I deserve to be on the cover. I need to be on the cover."

Another problem: This interview isn't being videotaped. "Y'all should've added a video or some shit," he says, sending his manager into the record label's back office to (unsuccessfully) root around for a camera.

Video is where Riff Raff's charisma shines through. He's pure id, full of restless energy, and his non sequiturs are perhaps best understood via six-second looping clips on Vine. (Seriously. The Atlantic published an essay about this.)

So right now he's miserable. "I feel like I'm in a police station interrogation or something," he says, sounding downright depressed. "I'll be expecting something big, and then there's a letdown," he continues. "It's like my mentality has high expectations, and then it gets dropped. Like I can't make myself be happy."

Happiness is his constant aspiration; his tweets idealize the carefree lives of kids and even dogs, and he condemns anyone who derails his bliss, particularly reporters who ask specific questions about his past. It's safe to say there's nothing Riff Raff would rather talk about less.

What's strange is that, for a guy as famous as he is, almost no one knows the most basic information about him. This is largely because he's been dispensing evasive answers since he began giving interviews. Whereas most rappers emphasize their origin stories, he obfuscates his. "My mom was a pilot, and my dad wrestled polar bears," he answers when asked what his parents did for a living. Other times he stretches the truth and lies with more conviction, on issues including his relationship with his father, a basketball scholarship and a purported lawsuit against the movie Spring Breakers.

But perhaps because he's so funny and journalists tend to enjoy his presence, no one really questions what he says, and as a result countless outlets (including this one) have published biographical information about him that is false. Almost nobody can agree on the most basic facts about him, starting with his real name and his age.

For the record, he was born Horst Christian Simco on Jan. 29, 1982, making him 31. He was a normal, square kid throughout his childhood, and he studied liberal arts at a community college in Hibbing, Minn. Upon returning to Houston 10 years ago, he was painting cars and gradually beginning to build his new identity.

It's unclear why he's so cagey about his past; perhaps he believes his middle-class background disqualifies him from rap stardom. He's gone out of his way to make himself seem less educated than he is.

Though he seems intent to present as a clueless, lazy stereotype, in reality, he's a calculated, hardworking striver with a genius for self-promotion. Those gaudy tattoos aren't a digression -- they're an advertisement, a road map documenting his career evolution.

The details in this story weren't easy to get. They're culled from public records and dozens of interviews with family members, friends and rap peers, in an attempt to understand how a white, suburban kid became rap's most beguiling figure -- as well as answer one big question: Is the character of Riff Raff an elaborate piece of performance art, or his true self?

His fabrications and deflections are redolent of those used by Vanilla Ice. Grilled in 1991 by Arsenio Hall about his past, Ice speculated that folks were gunning for him because he was on top, before concluding: "It ain't where you're from, man, it's where you're at."

Today Riff Raff is asked why he tells reporters his name is Jody Christian rather than Horst Simco. He responds, "My name is whatever anyone wants it to be. As a matter of fact, I might change my name to Captain Funzo -- then what are they going to say?"

 

Riff Raff
Riff Raff
Amanda Lopez

Like many up-and-coming Houston rappers, Fat Tony -- now critically acclaimed, with a national profile -- spent much of his time selling CDs at colleges and malls.

In the mid-aughts he began encountering Riff Raff, who had already shed Horst Simco. Tony recalls him sporting denim jean shorts that nearly touched his high-tops, a do-rag and a throwback jersey. "I thought he was corny-looking," says Tony, who has since become a fan. "You didn't normally see white guys dressed like that. I was like, 'What the fuck is going on?' "

But Ronald Vaughns, who raps under the name Freestyle Bully, immediately identified Riff Raff as a kindred spirit. "We both had a lot of jewelry, both had our CDs, and we stood out from regular people," Vaughns says, describing their meeting in 2007 at Sharpstown, a past-its-prime Westside Houston mall filled with jewelry dispensaries.

When they met, Riff Raff was drinking an intoxicating beverage out of a Styrofoam cup, and things only got crazier. The pair ended up at a nightclub, where, according to Vaughns, they "messed with some girls" and Horst got falling-over drunk. They later lived together in two different apartments on the city's southwest side, according to Vaughns, plying their music, seducing women and selling drugs.

Horst had come a long way from the suburbs where he was raised.

Horst Simco's childhood home in Copperfield, Texas
Horst Simco's childhood home in Copperfield, Texas
Marco Torres

Copperfield, Texas, boasted a low crime rate and a good school district, and the Simcos were a positively all-American bunch. A family photo from the early '90s shows father Ronald with a caterpillar mustache, while mother Anita wears a floral-print dress and their four blond children smile as sincerely as they can muster. Horst, wearing a bowl cut and a T-shirt, looks somewhere between bored and bewildered. In his ninth-grade school picture for Langham Creek High School, his Caesar-style haircut is punctuated by a cowlick.  

Riff Raff's family circa the early '90s
Riff Raff's family circa the early '90s

By the middle of the decade, the Simcos had moved to a rental house in nearby Stone Creek. The area developed something of a gang problem, but Ronald could take a bit of solace: As a police officer, he was confident that no one would give his kids any trouble. (Anita worked as a maid, cleaning and performing janitorial services, and Ronald also worked other jobs, including as a manager at Walmart.) The family considered itself solidly middle-class.

Today the eldest Simco child, Amber, lives in the Washington, D.C., area and works for the National Institutes of Health. The next sibling after Horst, Claire, works as a nurse and is raising a family in Duluth, Minn. Viktor, the youngest, is a sponsored snowboarder based in St. Paul.

Many of Horst's former high school classmates probably are suburban homeowners themselves. But Horst took a different path. He claims he was a poor student, and says he didn't graduate high school. Viktor seconds this assertion, adding that his parents were displeased.

However, their father insists that Horst did, in fact, graduate high school, and his former roommate Vaughns believes that as well. "In the rap world it sounds more glorious to say, 'I dropped out of high school' rather than saying 'I went to college,' " Vaughns speculates.

Horst appears in the Langham Creek High School yearbook in 1996, his freshman year, but not in any of the three years after that; the local school district won't say whether he graduated.

One of Riff Raff's managers told Gawker that Riff Raff dropped out, got his GED, and played basketball at Louisiana State University on scholarship before being cut from the team. Riff Raff himself has referenced the LSU scholarship. But this last part appears to be untrue; the Houston Chronicle reported last year that a spokesman for the school's athletic department had never heard of him.

One thing is certain: By 2000, Horst was in a rut. His parents had recently divorced, leaving Ronald Simco, a Vietnam veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, devastated.  

Horst looked up to Ronald, whom he has lovingly described as a "redneck hillbilly" not entirely unlike himself. Making matters worse, Ronald had been diagnosed with tonsil cancer and moved north to get out of the heat, landing in Duluth. For a time Horst and his siblings shuttled back and forth between there and Houston, where their mother remained. (At some point, Horst was arrested in Houston and sentenced to 10 days in a Harris County jail for misdemeanor theft, court records show.)

Before long Horst left Duluth, enrolling in fall 2001 at the community college in Hibbing, a tiny, homogenous burg on the Minnesota iron range (motto: "We're Ore and More") best known as Bob Dylan's hometown. He played on the basketball team and studied liberal arts.

Ultimately, though, he felt out of place in staid Hibbing, and lasted only a month on the basketball team. Feeling homesick, Horst dropped out in 2003 and moved back to Houston.

His parents weren't thrilled: As he shuffled between apartments, some on Houston's grittier Northside, he failed to find regular, gainful employment, and sometimes even the checks his dad sent weren't enough to make the rent.

Ronald Simco thought his son's new environments were too dangerous. "He had guns pointed at his head, that kind of thing," he says. "I told him I didn't want to go to my own son's funeral."

 

Living in a tough part of Houston in the mid-aughts with a peer group almost entirely black, Horst painted cars in the in-vogue "candy-colored" style. He looked up to Northside Houston rappers from label Swishahouse, who were blowing up around that time, including Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Slim Thug. Seemingly overnight they went from local stars to national ones.

It wasn't just their rhymes that Horst admired; it was their larger-than-life personas: They draped themselves in ludicrous amounts of diamonds and drove ostentatious cars filled with unnecessary mini TVs. They had women, they had money.

"Baller stuff," Riff Raff remembers, explaining why the lifestyle appealed to him. "The money, nice cars, getting crazy."

Riff Raff didn't necessarily want to be a rapper: He just wanted the baller stuff for himself. "I didn't even think about music back then," he says.

Fame and fortune were, and continue to be, more important to him than hip-hop. In interviews, he evaluates other artists on their success rather than their art -- he has said he'd love to make a collaborative album with Justin Bieber, for example -- and even today blanches at being characterized as a "rapper." He believes his hustle will make him successful in whatever field he branches off into, be it film, television or fashion.

It was around the mid-aughts that Riff Raff debuted his now-famous look. He began doing his hair up in braids popular among Northsiders like Slim Thug and shopping for bling at TV Jewelry, a store co-owned by Paul Wall and charismatic Vietnamese immigrant "TV" Johnny Dang, from whom Riff Raff also purchased gold grills. "He didn't look like the type of white dude you'd want to run up on," explains his former roommate, Vaughns.

Eventually, he decided that being a rapper would be the most expedient way to achieve the celebrity he was after. To some extent he borrowed from the playbook of Wall, another heavily tatted Caucasian MC.

But where Wall rarely deviates from hip-hop's unwritten rules and established themes, Riff Raff has shown little interest in maintaining tradition, instead preferring funny, kaleidoscopic rhymes that don't make much literal sense. (As he raps on "We Are Llamas": "Got you running over, Jerome Bettis, Versace lettuce/No dieting, Gucci eyelids, I go to sleep, snobby pilots.") Where Wall sticks to standard boasts, Riff Raff compares himself to people as diverse as Jerry Springer and Huckleberry Finn.

He began absorbing the scene as much as he could, doing his best to get noticed. "I always saw him around, at Swishahouse events, or in the club parking lot," says producer OG Ron C, the influential co-founder of Swishahouse.

Many folks were put off by his look, OG Ron C continues, but others were quickly won over by his jolly personality. "He never acted like he was a hard street person."

It's around this time, his dad says, that Horst began to develop his Southern street twang, which sounded affected in its infancy but now suits him. "When he started to get into rap, he started to emulate the black culture," Ronald Simco says. After all, for white guys to fit into hip-hop, "You have to speak the language, do the hand maneuvers, you have to be black. That's the way it is."

Vaughns adds: "Riff used to hang with only black people. When you hang with all black people, you talk black."

He also took to using the N-word, according to Vaughns and numerous people from the scene, though each adds that it didn't bother them.

It did get him into hot water at least once, however. Vaughns remembers a night on Main Street downtown, when Riff Raff freestyle-battled a rapper who called him something like a "weak-ass white boy." Riff responded by dissing the guy for his lack of jewelry and peppering his retort with N-bombs.

"Everyone was laughing, but the guy got in his face like he was gonna fight him. Like, 'Say nigga one more time!' " Vaughns says.

Through his publicist, Riff Raff did not respond to questions about his use of the word. He doesn't use it in his songs. Last year, to hip-hop site VladTV, he said he wouldn't pass judgment on other white rappers using it. "Just be appreciative that everyone can ... from their vocal chords, express a noise and a frequency that you can even understand," he added, in typically philosophical Riff Raff fashion.

Around this time, in 2008, Riff Raff and Vaughns moved in together. Vaughns recalls the aspiring hip-hop star taking college classes on the north side of town, though he can't remember the name of the school. (Several message board commenters insist Horst attended for-profit Remington College, which has three Houston campuses, including one in the north. A spokeswoman for the institution declines to say whether he was ever a student.)

They continued selling CDs at the mall but also worked the Internet, networking from their MySpace pages. A business owner named Andre Bramwell accuses Riff Raff and his brother of accepting $300 to design his MySpace page and failing to follow through. "They just took the money and ran," he says.

Vaughns adds that Riff Raff was, for a brief period, selling ecstasy pills. (Riff Raff did not respond to questions via his publicist concerning those allegations; when asked in a radio interview if he'd ever sold drugs, he said he didn't want to "incriminate" himself.)

 

His raps were developing; OG Ron C cites his Houston-centric "freestyle flow," featuring quickly improvised, left-field rhymes. He'd developed confidence in his new persona and got sillier, donning girly, press-on nails for his early video "Juice." (Vaughns says some observers thus called Riff Raff a "faggot" but, ever brave about his look, he didn't care.)

 

Riff Raff began making songs and videos with talent manager DB da Boss, whose studio provided recording and video services. Before long his low-budget clips were gaining traction on YouTube and Worldstarhiphop (he has a tattoo of the latter's logo). "He was very driven, very ambitious. You couldn't deny his work ethic," DB says. "Underneath that shell is a very intelligent man."

The endorsement from OG Ron C, DB adds, went a long way as well.

In his free time, Riff Raff constantly watched The Simpsons, and at one point got a Bart Simpson chain and a tattoo of Bart holding test tubes that reads "The Freestyle Scientist."

He acquired a pair of slick cars as well, according to Vaughns: a candy green Sebring and a candy pink Infinity. The latter's exterior had spinning rims and speakers so everyone could hear his music. But the coup de grace was the trunk, which, when popped open, revealed glowing neon lights reading RIFF RAFF.  

By then Horst Simco was so fully absorbed into the Riff Raff character that there was no turning back. In fact, he looked woefully out of place at his sister's 2008 wedding in Duluth; instead of a suit, he wore a short-sleeved turquoise polo shirt and a black baseball cap over a do-rag. During the reception he quietly freestyled in the back of the hall while someone toasted the bride and groom.

No one interviewed for this story professed to know much about Riff Raff's aspirations, about what was going on in his head. He doesn't seem to have spent a lot of time vocalizing his career plans. But his actions show a man determined to be famous, no matter what it takes.

In the late aughts he wanted, badly, to get on television. Vaughns says he went on many auditions, including for a part in a peanut butter commercial intended for a teenager. The pair also tried out for P. Diddy's Making the Band, to no avail.

So determined was Riff Raff that he flew to Atlanta on his own dime to try out for From G's to Gents, a show purporting to smooth out the edges of rough street guys. When he learned that he'd made the cast for the program's second season, before taping even began, he immediately got a giant MTV logo tattooed on his neck and started calling himself MTV Riff Raff. It came to define his look and his brand -- a walking billboard who wore his allegiances on his person.

He was quickly voted off by his fellow contestants, and host Fonzworth Bentley seemed unimpressed by his shtick. But viewers were intrigued by his funny ad-libs and fashion touches (custom Reeboks designed to look like a Monopoly board; a black-lit bedroom with the words "Pool Palace" on the walls).

The show was his first major forum, and the Riff Raff character wasn't completely developed. He had something of an "aw-shucks" persona, and his twang sounded a bit affected. He also undertook a bit of mythmaking, claiming to be estranged from his father and saying he'd attended school for only 11 years. Ironically, despite the show's stated purpose, he was undertaking the opposite transformation, hoping to turn from a gent into a G.

After the taping but before the show aired, Vaughns says, Riff Raff undertook some savvy YouTube manipulation: He stamped the G's to Gents label on his own videos, ensuring that searches for the program would direct viewers to his own works.

In any case, upon the show's debut in early 2009, the reaction was immediate. He was suddenly getting tens of thousands of clicks on his MySpace profile. He and Vaughns went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and were mobbed; everyone wanted pictures. Riff Raff began getting booked for club appearances, paid just to show up and drink Champagne.

 

When Houston radio personality Kiotti was booked to freestyle on BET show 106th & Park, he said Riff could come along. In honor of the gig, Kiotti says, Riff Raff got the BET logo tattooed on his chest plate. Unfortunately, when it was time to actually go to New York for the show, Kiotti couldn't reach Riff Raff, so he didn't appear on the program.

But it scarcely mattered. His name was spreading. Hipped to him by producer Alchemist, former MTV VJ and rapper Simon Rex heard Riff Raff recite his phone number in a video and promptly called him. Before long, Riff Raff was visiting L.A. and sleeping on Rex's couch.

The pair later formed a rap group called Three Loco with comedian Andy Milonakis, which increased Riff Raff's popularity by tapping into the two celebrities' fan bases. Rex calls Riff a "calculated intellectual" but seems most impressed by his giant personality: "Me and Andy are comedic funny guys, but when we're with him, it's the Riff Raff show, 24/7."

Like most everyone else, Rex wondered if Riff Raff was a character who reverted back to Horst Simco when the cameras stopped. But after they toured Texas together in 2010, he was disabused of that notion: "The minute he woke up he was dancing, freestyling, laughing in the hotel room. It's him, man, it's not an act."

OG Ron C says that after From G's to Gents he began managing Riff Raff but concluded that Los Angeles was the best home base for his off-center comic insanity. "You're not coming with something that people normally hear in Houston," he says. "Over in Hollywood, that's where people like the weird kind of rap."

In 2011, Riff Raff arrived in L.A. to stay. He got a small apartment in Hollywood and went on a creative tear, making dozens of videos all over the city, many of them with rapper TKO Capone. "One day we'd just walk onto Venice Beach," he says, "and then one day we'd see a guy with a '64 Impala and just ask him to use his car."

His co-sign from Atlanta rapper Soulja Boy -- a late-aughts sensation who, like Riff Raff, was initially mocked but now is recognized for his pioneering Internet promotional techniques -- took Riff Raff's career further skyward.

Their relationship was odd. They both announced that Riff Raff had joined Soulja Boy's SODMG label before they'd even met in person; no paperwork was ever signed. That didn't stop Riff Raff from wearing the imprint's chain, getting its tattoo and again adjusting his moniker, this time to Riff Raff SODMG. About a year later, however, he was out, complaining that he hadn't been paid. Soulja Boy publicly called Riff Raff a "cokehead."   

The burned bridge barely affected Riff Raff: He'd won over critics with collaborations with hot artists such as Action Bronson, Chief Keef, Kitty Pryde and Lil B, as well as solo tracks.

Last year he surprised everyone by signing a deal (a real one, it appears) with electro imprint Mad Decent. Its chief, superproducer Diplo, compared Riff Raff to early Apple stock -- strong potential upside.

Riff Raff's brother, Viktor, is a vision of what Horst Simco might have become: He has a narrow, handsome face and a tall, athletic build similar to his brother's, but he lacks easily visible tattoos, preferring a traditional, clean-cut look. "Every time I turn around, someone's saying, 'You guys look so much alike,' " Viktor Simco says.

He's speaking on the phone from Riff Raff's Mad Decent tour, where his duties include throwing out beach balls and shooting Champagne at the crowd with a Super Soaker. He has great admiration for his brother: "He never stops working. That's why I like being around him -- he motivates me."

Horst also might have followed the path to graduate school like his older sister Amber, who has a pair of master's degrees.

But as he indicated on From G's to Gents, the conventional life was a fate worse than death. "If you ain't original," you become just like everyone else, he said at one point. "Eating casserole dinners with a bow tie on, watching reruns of M*A*S*H."

Improbably, he's achieved celebrity, and perhaps riches as well. He speaks gleefully of the Las Vegas home he's remodeling to install a Jacuzzi in the living room and lists off the cars he says he owns: a Porsche Panamera, an Aston Martin and a pair of BMWs. (Indeed, a black Porsche Panamera with Nevada plates from a Las Vegas dealer sits in the parking lot.)

He's become so well known that the simulacrum is now a simulacrum. When acclaimed filmmaker Harmony Korine was planning his college bacchanal dystopia Spring Breakers, he attempted unsuccessfully to contact Riff Raff to participate. In the end James Franco played a St. Petersburg drug dealer-cum-rapper named Alien, whose appearance and speaking style were similar to Riff Raff's. (Riff Raff influenced the character, Korine and Franco say, but so did others, including a little-known Florida emcee named Dangeruss.)

In July, Riff Raff announced he was suing the filmmakers for using his likeness. Countless outlets reported on his attempts to win $10 million, but it appears to be little more than a publicity stunt. A search of court records turned up no lawsuit -- suggesting both the press's willingness to print anything Riff Raff says and his genius ability to keep himself in the news.

And his tawdrier exploits only added to the Riff Raff myth. He was arrested in August in Greensboro, N.C., after police found booze, weed and drug paraphernalia in his car. Meanwhile two women publicly accused him of masturbating in front of them after he invited them into his home. (Riff Raff did not respond to a request for comment.)

Other women who claim to have hooked up with him offer lurid accounts. But at least they don't suggest he's a phony: On a site called phatfriend.com, one woman wrote that throughout their hookup he didn't break character: "He is him. A caricature of himself maybe. He believes it, and I guess that's what makes the myth the man."

 

Screen capture from Riff Raff's "Juice" video
Screen capture from Riff Raff's "Juice" video

Riff Raff had high hopes when he showed up to behemoth New York radio station Hot 97 in May, to talk on-air with personality Peter Rosenberg. But the interview was derailed by program director Ebro Darden, who harshly accused Riff Raff of perpetuating "a stereotype of a certain type of black person" and wondered if his look was serious or a costume.

Riff Raff clearly felt ambushed but made his case for his earnestness, noting that, for starters, his tattoos were not the stick-on variety. But to Darden, it comes down to authenticity: If Riff Raff came from a hardscrabble, urban environment, he could understand the rationale for dressing as he did. Not otherwise.

By the time the interview ended, the two hadn't come to terms, with Riff Raff offering but a few muddled details about his background and Darden worrying that Riff Raff's "buffoonery" would be imitated by his followers.

Now, after being filled in on the details of Riff Raff's upbringing by a reporter, Darden is unconvinced. "Sounds like an interesting story I don't too much care to co-sign," he says. "I felt like it was an act, and based on the information you're giving me, it is an act.

"My main issue is the appropriation of what people think is black culture to gain credibility," he adds.

Following Miley Cyrus' much-derided performance at the Video Music Awards, the pop star was similarly accused of crude racial appropriation. But Riff Raff's been doing this much longer than Cyrus, and his devotion to hip-hop culture -- starting at a time when he was unknown and broke -- leads to a serious question: When does a look stop being a costume and start being who you really are?

After all, maybe it was initially dress-up, but now the costume is more real than the boy who first donned it. Horst Simco was a quiet, pensive kid who dreamed of rappers' lifestyles. His first tattoos and his initial, trying-too-hard accent weren't supposed to be funny; they were his awkward attempts to join the club. He turned from Horst (the one who played by the rules) into Riff Raff (the disreputable one) because hip-hop was a world where confident, sharp-dressed men were swooned over, where the normal rules of decorum, manners and waiting until the third date didn't apply.

So, like the Great Gatsby before him, or countless actors, rappers and movie stars, he faked it until he made it, and suddenly there was no Horst Simco anymore. There was only Riff Raff: the little boy's dream of what a hip-hop star would be.

Most everyone who knows Riff Raff well agrees he is not an act. The consensus is that he has thrived not by assuming a gimmicky identity but by being himself. Maybe young Horst Simco was the real phony -- a kid who pretended to be normal because that's what was expected of him. His outlandish new identity is his true self.

But Riff Raff hasn't abandoned Horst entirely. He might betray where he came from but not the performer who inspired him.

While white rappers like Eminem and 3rd Bass both have gone out of their ways to diss Vanilla Ice, Riff Raff has repeatedly professed his admiration for his childhood idol, including during the Hot 97 interview.

"To me, you're the new Vanilla Ice!" Darden said, intending it as a jab.

"I love it," Riff Raff responded.

See also:

*"Who Bob Dylan?" Outtakes from our Riff Raff cover story

*Our Riff Raff slideshow

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