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

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Tue, Sep 10, 2013 at 9:56 AM

click to enlarge Riff Raff - AMANDA LOPEZ
  • Amanda Lopez
  • Riff Raff
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.

click to enlarge Riff Raff - AMANDA LOPEZ
  • Amanda Lopez
  • Riff Raff
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.

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