Visualize Riff Raff. His hair is a crop circle of braids. His eyes are blue, dilated and deserted. Gold grills glint on his teeth. A boy band–thin beard zigzags across his face. His chest and neck double as a tattooed billboard for MTV, BET, the NBA, Bart Simpson and Seagram's Seven.
To complete the look, the Hollywood-based, 26-year-old white rapper wears a cherry-red, ruby-laced Icee chain around his neck (as in, the frozen drink). That's when he's not rocking the chain purchased by his label patron, Diplo, the Grammy-nominated DJ-producer and BlackBerry ambassador. Or the gilded and emerald-green chain that Soulja Boy bestowed upon him last year during Riff Raff's brief stint on the Atlanta swag rapper's imprint.
Born Jody Christian, Riff Raff was raised on Houston's racially diverse north side and possesses an accent so thick it seems clogged by codeine — more working-class twang than imitated patois. To get a sense of the surreal, alternate universe he inhabits, start with his (most likely intentionally) hilarious 2010 video, “RiFF RAFF SODMG iN BRAZiL BAD BiTCH STRiPPER,” where he describes his preferred marinade: “You know I stay with some seasoning sauce. Seasoning sauce been staying on deck, staying on top of pork chops. We're in East Brasilia … just got a brand-new fly swatter from East Japan.” To say he works in non sequiturs is an understatement.
Riff Raff is the logical spawn of white Texas rapper Paul Wall but with a better sense of humor. Describing him in print is like trying to race piranhas on dry land. His bowl is the Internet, specifically YouTube, where his videos regularly register hundreds of thousands of views.
He can be both ingenious and minstrel, sometimes in the same song. He is a caricature of a caricature, Jamie Kennedy's Malibu's Most Wanted buffoon blown up to such animated extremes that he is wholly unique — an eccentric worthy of a Hollywood Hills Mount Rushmore alongside Angelyne, the Bishop Magic Don Juan and a post–Blizzard of Ozz Ozzy Osbourne.
“What separates him is his sense of humor. He's like Biz Markie in his goofiness or Kool Keith in the way he puts words together,” says his friend and collaborator Simon Rex, who raps as the sex-obsessed Dirt Nasty. “It might not make sense on paper, but it works because he commits so much to them. He also has an Eazy-E octave that really punches through beats. So much rap is middle of the road; not enough people are having fun. He's not afraid to be a clown, and he can actually rap and carry notes. Put a camera on him and you can't look away. When he wakes up in the morning to when he goes to bed at night, that's him.”
“People are desensitized to the point where nothing is special,” Riff Raff himself puts in, during a rare moment of self-reflection. “People are getting bored. It's so saturated that if you're not in your own lane, you aren't needed.”
His lane is as a rap avatar for the Adult Swim generation, full of stoned musings, pop culture detritus and cartoon tomfoolery. Riff Raff aliases include Jody Highroller, the Rice Emperor, the White Gucci Mane, the rap game Travis Tritt and the rap game Jonathan Taylor Thomas. He started calling himself “the rap game James Franco” after photos emerged from Spring Breakers, an upcoming Harmony Korine film in which the 127 Hours star plays a Riff Raff doppelgänger. Riff Raff claims Korine offered him the role, but he was “out of the country” at the time.
Weird as it seems, Riff Raff's rise is real. Over the last two months, he has signed to Diplo's label, Mad Decent, doubled his Twitter followers to 175,000-plus and signed to the management firm of industry power player Dante Ross. Though Riff Raff has a few slapped-together albums available for sale on iTunes, his still-unscheduled, Diplo-produced album figures to be his official introduction to whatever passes for the mainstream these days.
“He doesn't give a fuck about anything, which is my philosophy about everything. He's the best dude to drink with ever, and he can freestyle for seven weeks straight,” Diplo says.
Last month, Village Voice hailed him as a “really good rapper,” “shameless biter” and “brazen troll.” The same piece compared him to Berkeley zeitgeist-surfing MC Lil B and claimed, “There's no right answer to whether or not they both are geniuses, idiots, lunatics, boring attention-seekers or a plot point somewhere on that matrix.”
Fittingly, Lil B and Riff Raff collaborated on a song called “Borrow Your Daughter.” Its video features their disembodied heads shrouded in Arabian veils and, alternately, their faces superimposed onto crabs scuttling across a turquoise coastline.
This obliteration of the line between irony and inanity has understandably elicited plenty of animosity. When Riff Raff was booked to perform at vaunted L.A. beat haven Low End Theory in December, online response alternated between extremes of hate and hospitality. At the show, half the crowd crossed its arms, bored and unimpressed. The other half rapped along to every word and jubilantly flung rice into the air.
Collaborating with Soulja Boy — the man who instructed America to “superman that ho” — hasn't helped Riff Raff's case. The January track “Versace Bentley” found the two of them drowning in diamonds, waving stacks of cash, rapping a-melodically and generally making Beavis and Butt-Head look like Barack and Biden.
There's another reason Riff Raff has become a lightning rod: White guys who speak with slang and diction associated with African-Americans have elicited heavy scrutiny since the days of 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice.
“If it's some black dude trying to be a country guy, he's always gonna have some random redneck dude saying, 'Fuck that.' White people do the same thing to white rappers. Ninety percent of my haters are white guys who don't like me because maybe they're jealous,” Riff Raff defends himself in his apartment, rolling and unrolling dollar bills lying on his desk, next to a weed pipe, a Swiss Army knife and pills of unknown provenance. The apartment is sparsely furnished. There's the bed, the bathroom, the closet with his high-tops neatly lined up. The main decorative flourish is a pair of ceramic iguanas hanging from the wall, making for a surprisingly understated contrast to his lavish on-camera persona.
While it's almost more logical to believe that Riff Raff sprang from a pair of click-happy web entrepreneurs, Riff Raff's father was a mechanic, who grappled with post-traumatic stress disorder after service in Vietnam. When his parents divorced, Riff Raff lived mainly with his mom and grew up in Houston, with brief detours in Florida, Arizona and Brazil.
He started freestyling for fun and never took it seriously until last year, when he evolved beyond a curio into something legitimately interesting. Before that, he had mostly paid his bills by painting cars and cutting hair.
After dropping out of high school, he bounced from city to city across the country, rarely staying more than a few months. He settled in L.A., partly at the recommendation of Rex, who understood that the casting-call carousel of L.A. was the only place insane enough to appreciate Riff Raff's idiosyncrasies.
For a nation that suckles entertainment with every refresh of its web browsers, Riff Raff attempts to fill the insatiable void with a deluge of freestyles, songs and comic sketches. (In one clip, Riff Raff plays the CEO of something called Stevenson and Tinsdale, “attempting to do logistics and number crunching at his new law firm.”) Often, he is compulsively watchable. In the last six months, when he says he first began to write down lyrics, he has released more than a few excellent songs.
It was February's “Bird on a Wire” — Riff Raff's February collaboration with Queens rapper Action Bronson — that forced critics to start taking him seriously. Over a glazed opium donut of a beat from Harry Fraud, Riff Raff practically chops and screws his flow. His imagery is fluorescent, draping him in “cheetah skin and ostrich feathers” and “sparking one in valet parking.” It proved that when given the right beat and the right focus, Riff Raff can … actually rap. His lyrics rarely mean much, but his imagery is vivid, and anyone capable of dreaming up the boast that “he shot dice with Larry Bird in Barcelona” has some sort of singularly strange gift. As Action Bronson snapped when faced with Twitter trolls who taunted him for his collaboration: “RIFF RAFF IS MORE ENTERTAINING THAN YOU.”
This raises the bigger question: Is this all a put-on? And even if it is, would it matter in an age of Tumblr memes, Das Racist and Rick Ross? When asked, Riff Raff has a fittingly vague and tortuous answer:
“It's all about how I feel at that point in time. If I'm having fun, then I'm gonna have fun. If someone's crying, are they fake-crying? If they're laughing, then are they fake-laughing? It's not my job to cater to somebody. If I'm happy, if I'm drunk, like, that's me right there. You know? So if I'm not acting like that, well, shit, it's like, this is what I'm acting like right now. This is how I am right now.”
Right now, Riff Raff is serious and slightly exasperated that he has to discuss whether he's full of shit or not. In conversation, there is neither guile nor cynicism to his tone. When asked why he decided to appear in the 2008 MTV show From G's to Gents or even start posting videos online, it seems like the first time he's ever pondered the question. As to why he got a BET tattoo on his breastplate, he answers matter-of-factly: “Because one day I'm going to be on the 106th & Park Countdown.” He makes it seem like this is the most obvious conclusion in the world, as easy as turning on the tap or logging onto World Star Hip-Hop's website. And while his own humor isn't exactly high-minded, he tellingly says his favorite TV show is Portlandia.
Whether you love or hate Riff Raff, don't blame Jody Christian. In a novelty-thirsty, camera-happy world, it was inevitable that a Riff Raff would emerge. He is a true mass-media mutation with multiple Viacom entities actually inscribed on his flesh. We demand 24-hour entertainment and cures for our hangovers before they happen. Riff Raff is the payoff, the yellow light that never blinks off, our punishment and our reward.