Artists like Kitty Pryde—a redheaded teenage girl who raps about boys, three-ring binders, drugs and underage drinking—don’t seem to belong in the hip hop world. In her video for “Okay Cupid” she spends a great deal of time lounging on her bed with friends and her laptop. She represents a new breed of hip hop artist, born and bred on YouTube. But Kitty Pryde’s strange blend of teenage pop and hip hop is not a genre-shaking endeavor. Which is why I didn’t expect to run into such a curious character in her music video “Orion’s Belt.” The video takes place at a Coney Island-style fair, and features hip hop’s newest enigma: Riff Raff.
The first time Riff Raff flashed across my computer screen, I wasn’t sure what I had found. From the comfort of a motel bed, Riff Raff embarks on a rhyme in which he compares himself to a rhinoceros, declares his love for arithmetic, and equates his diamonds with frozen lettuce. It’s hard to concentrate on his lyrics, because his look’s so off the wall.
Riff Raff is the rap game’s mystical, mythical unicorn. He’s a 32-year-old white guy with a thick Texas accent. His cornrows reach halfway down his back. When his hair isn’t braided, it’s a huge frizzy mane. Recently he dyed his hair a combination of pink and blue that he calls “AQUA SWiRLY RAZZBERRY HAiR” on his Vine account. His beard’s shaved into an elaborate and asymmetrical pattern. He’s got a different grill for every occasion—sometimes he looks like he’s got a mouthful of bedazzled shark teeth—and is usually wearing multiple gold and platinum chains, one of which is an “Icee,” a diamond encrusted version of the frozen drink you can get at the movie theater. His body is adorned with tattoo iconography. There’s a bright purple MTV logo on his neck, a BET tattoo on his collarbone, an NBA logo on his forearm, and a WorldStarHipHop.com logo on his shoulder. He is, quite literally, branded. He calls himself the Neon Icon–his outfits can usually be seen from space: neon jump suits that belong on a skier in the late ‘80s, the gaudiest designer brands, colorful reflective sunglasses and enough gold and diamonds to make Liberace blush.
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After that first experience with Riff Raff, he had me. I began listening to every Riff Raff track I could find. He is not a good rapper, at least not in any traditional sense. Although his lines rhyme in the way a rapper should be able to rhyme, they don’t fit together. When written out, Riff Raff’s verses often read like a string of ridiculously hyperbolic and often unrelated boasts. Take his verse from “Cuz My Gear,” a song that revolves around the idea that girls are only interested in Riff Raff because of his cool possessions:
Holograms on my hand gave me a tanned wrist
Diamonds dancing on my fist look like a blank disc
Teriyaki suit with the lemon Phantom
Heavy weight, heartburn: Mylanta
Adversaries call me on my Blackberry
Now I’m in the laundry mat: Darryl Strawberry
On my cell phone, now I’m on my iPhone
She thought it was a cat phone
Now I’m on my bat phone
Hanging fangs down like a vampire (“Twilight!”)
Sapphires dancing on my hand like a campfire (“Dancing!”)
Camp counselor, living in the lap of luxe
Double cheese deluxe, in the penguin tux.
The lyrics are all over the place, the references nonsensical. It’s almost dadaism in hip hop form. In the third line he pronounces Phantom without the final “m,” making it sound as if he says “Lemon Fanta,” then rhymes it with “Mylanta.” But his lyrics are not all brainless. In the sixth line he is consciously aware of his Houston accent, which makes “Laundry Mat” sound like “Laundry Met.” He uses the mispronunciation to make a reference to Darryl Strawberry, a former New York Mets player. Clever rhymes are hidden among non-sequiturs, obscuring the thought behind Riff Raff’s libretto. The large majority of Riff Raff’s music is infuriating in that way. He cannot be pinned down. Is he genius or philistine?
The effect of all this gaudy, over the top commercialism is that Riff Raff’s music, and in turn his public persona, functions as a type of parody. Riff Raff is a caricature of hip hop in the internet age. He got his start on P Diddy’s (now Puff Daddy’s) G’s To Gents reality show on MTV. The idea of the show was that Fonzworth Bentley, Diddy’s former assistant and valet, would take a group of ridiculous men and transform them into high-society gentlemen. As soon as Riff Raff found out he had made the cast, he got that giant MTV tattoo inked on his neck. The Neon con was eliminated in the second episode, but he had made his mark. His brief stint on MTV gave him enough groundswell to get. He initially signed on with Swishahouse, the famed Houston hip hop management group and released his first few videos which, of course, went viral, and attracted attention from Diplo, the head of Mad Decent records, who he eventually signed with in 2012. It’s important to note that his initial musical successes came off the back of music videos, not simply audio singles; he had to be seen, not only heard—his reputation built not on skill, but on his name, his clothes, and his signature, instantly recognizable look.
Some of Riff Raff’s most recognizable and telling moments have come on other people’s songs. Action Bronson’s “Bird On a Wire” is one of those. In Riff Raff’s verse he says: “Propaganda propels us—Ostrich Feathers.” Buried inside a complicated multisyllabic couplet, you wouldn’t hear this line if you weren’t listening for it. The Ostrich, a bird whose feathers are a sign of luxury, cannot actually fly. Riff Raff knows that his fame is not driven by his rapping skills but by his ostentatious look and marketing tricks. Like the ostrich, Riff Raff is all flash and no flight. His debut album The Neon Icon has been in a constant state of almost-ready for nearly a year—perhaps he’s reluctant to release it. Riff Raff can only remain the same Riff Raff he is now is if his album manages to hit that same level of ridiculousness his music currently reaches. If the album completely tanks, he could see his fame dry up; if it’s somehow a critical success, he runs the risk of being taken seriously. Either way, The Neon Icon will almost certainly alter his image.
When taken at face value, Riff Raff is everything that is wrong with hip hop. He’s not an objectively talented rapper—even true fans of his music would admit that it’s not award winning hip hop—and yet he’s hugely famous. People listen to Riff Raff, not to hear great hip hop, but to laugh at a spectacle; he falls into many rap stereotypes: though well dressed, he behaves poorly, and he’s too materialistic. Riff Raff’s fame comes primarily from his persona; he is famous, to a certain extent, because he behaves like a famous person.
Robert Hughes, in his 1982 essay “The Rise of Andy Warhol” for The New York Review of Books, points out that the object of Warhol’s fixation was “the state of being well known for well-knownness.” I won’t go as far as saying that Riff Raff is a modern day equivalent of Andy Warhol, but there are certain similarities that cannot be ignored.
Although Hughes did not consider Warhol to be a subversive, he concedes that in the ‘60s Warhol’s work became subversive through “harsh, cold parody of ad-mass appeal—the repetition of brand images such as Campbell’s soup or Brillo or Marilyn Monroe to the point that a void is seen to yawn beneath the discourse of promotion.” The MTV neck tattoo, the forearm NBA logo, the overt branding of Riff Raff’s body, shows not only his obsession with Warhol’s ad-mass appeal, but has much the same effect as Warhol’s Marilyn’s and soup cans. Riff Raff’s music isn’t a steak dinner, it’s a late night candy binge. Consume too much and you’ll begin to feel ill. Riff Raff doesn’t have the storytelling ability of the late Notorious B.I.G., the production values of Kanye West, or the political message of Mos Def or Talib Kweli. The music is trashy, almost camp. It purposefully lacks any message other than “Riff Raff is cool.” The MTV tattoo is prominent every time Riff Raff makes an appearance. The brand reminds us of the machine that drives his success, and with his words and actions he shows us the banality and vapidity of the product that machine manufactures. In this sense, Riff Raff can most certainly be called political, even subversive.
Hughes notes that for Warhol, “three dozen Elvises are better than one; and one Marilyn, patched like a gaudy stamp on a ground of gold leaf (the favorite color of Byzantium, but of drag queens too), could become a sly and grotesque parody of the Madonna fixations of Warhol’s own Catholic childhood, of the pretentious enlargement of media stars by secular culture.” It’s the same for Riff Raff. Three dozen gold chains are better than one; an MTV tattoo plastered in neon functions as a satire of hip hop culture and the way it treats its stars.
Riff Raff’s fame relies heavily on what Jed Perl calls “Warholism.” In his November 2012 article, “The Curse of Warholism” for the New Republic, Perl defines Warholism as “the assumption that popular culture trumps all other culture.” For Perl, Warholism “poses a direct threat to any nuanced experience of the arts.” By watering down the standards of High Culture while pretending to respect them, Warholism robs viewers of the ability to experience a work of art one on one. As far as Jed Perl is concerned, Warholism is not a good thing—and in fact does nothing to subvert or critique commodity culture. Perl notes that “Warholism offered the assurance that anybody who climbed on the Pop Art bandwagon could have the social cachet of an avant-gardist.” That is a privilege that belongs to the fans of Kanye West’s recent work, so often heralded as the messianic guiding hand of hip hop. However, true fans of Riff Raff, those who un-ironically value his music, are not granted membership to the hip hop avant garde.
So where do his fans belong? In Clement Greenberg’s 1961 essay, “Avant Garde and Kitsch,” Greenberg outlines a category that perhaps is a fitting label: “Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations… Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money—not even their time.” Riff Raff’s music is firmly rooted to a Kitsch class of hip hop—more interested in turning up than turning a phrase. His music is filled with danceable beats and EDM-style bass drops—you can listen to the music with your brain off, and let your body do the talking. Although it is analyzed it here, his music does not require unpacking for enjoyment. He may be financially successful and wildly popular, but none of his work has to date been nominated for a Grammy or any such prestigious award. Riff Raff lacks the critical acceptance and approval that Warhol enjoyed. Perl admits that there is “something astonishing about Warhol’s ascent from hot chic amusement to a philosophical visionary who is compared to Emerson and Whitman.” Riff Raff isn’t going to be compared to Emerson or Whitman anytime soon. There will be no “Regarding Riff Raff” show at any museum. Riff Raff has become one of the most sought-after acts in hip hop without garnering critical acclaim. He’s done so by rapping almost exclusively about things that hold value in pop culture: gold chains, designer clothing, and the celebrity lifestyle. He is a farce feeding off of a farcical system, poking fun at the world of music that so readily queues up for his services.
What isn’t completely clear is whether or not Riff Raff is in on the joke. His interviews are truly entertaining. He never breaks character. In a radio interview with Narduwar, Vancouver’s off-kilter personality, Riff Raff goes through no fewer than three wardrobe changes, carries with him a wad of American and Canadian cash (which he calls his lunch money), shares his dream of an adult-themed water park, and speaks extensively about his love of Bon Jovi and Fleetwood Mac. The only moment of sincerity comes when Narduar asks Riff Raff about the significance of Sharpstown Mall, a place where Riff Raff used to hang out before he made it big, handing out mix-tapes and hanging out at a jewelry store. Clearly, Narduar has done his research, dug up something that the artist thought was long forgotten—and thus we get a tiny peek behind the curtain. Riff Raff’s face lights up, he grins wide, his shiny chrome grill radiating. As surprised as he is to hear this strange Canadian’s reference to his pre-MTV life, he excitedly recounts this time that came before his iconicity. Moments like that are rare; Riff Raff remains hard to crack. Is he playing a character? Is his persona a conscious decision, the Sasha Fierce to his Beyoncé? Is he the mastermind behind his own Warholism? If he did come right out and tell us his intentions, could we believe him? And, perhaps most importantly, do his intentions really matter?
Maybe Riff Raff is completely aware of his status. Maybe he settles for being a parody, because he can’t be the real thing; like a fake Prada bag people buy anyway, because it looks enough like the original, even if it’s a bit tacky. But whether he likes it or not, there is more to Riff Raff than gold chains and platinum grills. His overt commercialism, when paired with his success as a celebrity and artist, is a spoof and a mockery of the state of hip hop in the age of the internet. Riff Raff proves that it’s not content but packaging that is the most important key to success in the music world. By making himself a walking billboard for MTV, BET, and the system that makes his fame possible, he reveals the shortcomings of that machine. It doesn’t matter whether or not Riff Raff’s verse on “Cuz My Gear” is an earnest ode to shiny watches, yellow Rolls Royces’, iPhones, Blackberries, and the life of luxury: the effect is still the same. The existence or non-existence of a master plan does not invalidate the end result, and the result is a neon burlesque of hip hop culture.
Riff Raff is constantly spouting one-liners that begin with “Rap Game.” In these one-liners, he categorizes different aspects of life as part of the rap game. If he tweets; “Rap Game Versace Sweater,” he’s claiming that sweater for hip hop culture. What Riff Raff has done with his music and persona is to create a “Rap Game” that subverts hip hop culture. In the process, he’s used some of the same tricks that Warhol used with his Campbell’s soup cans. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday soon we see “RAP GAME CAMPBELL’S SOUP” in his Twitter feed.
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Imagine what a Riff Raff show might look like, and you would likely have the right idea. This April, he played a show at Irving Plaza in New York, but inside those walls it was as though Miami Beach had taken up temporary residence. The attendants were clad in snapback hats and shorts of either the cargo or booty variety, and everyone there was either drunk, rolling, high, or all three. When Riff Raff finally took the stage, his hype men toted giant cardboard Riff Raff iconography: a cutout of his dog, Jody Husky, a giant cutout of Katy Perry’s face, a cutout of his album cover, and of course an enormous cutout of his own face. He was wearing dark designer shades, a Britney Spears-style mic attached to his face, Jordan’s, and a blue tank top plastered with yellow bananas. I’m not sure that Warhol himself would’ve picked a better outfit.