It’s Not About the Mike
With his surreal boasts, gaudy chains, and countless tattoos, the Houston rapper Riff Raff has turned himself into “the most viral human being in music.” But he has bigger plans.
In a fluorescently lit bunker two floors beneath the concrete and bustle of Manhattan, a dozen or so reporters, publicists, and stylists gather around Riff Raff to see “the Bieber chain.” Everyone in the room has already watched the jittery six-second video Riff Raff posted to Twitter two weeks earlier of himself hanging backstage with pop stars Drake and Justin Bieber in Toronto. A follow-up video was nothing more than a close-up of a thick Versace chain on the counter of Riff Raff’s hotel bathroom and then a mirror shot of him crowing over it in his slow, creaking Texas accent: “Justin Bieber gave me this chain azz if ah wuz a reeeal boy.”
Now, in the subterranean offices of the SoHo surf-wear shop PacSun, he unzips an oversized Louis Vuitton duffle bag and brings forth the gift. “It’s my most important chain,” Riff Raff says. He then sniffs its pendulous gold medusa head. “It used to smell like Bieber too.”
Riff Raff, like Justin Bieber, is a pop star. Or rather, the Houston-gone-Hollywood rapper is poised to become a pop star, as soon as his long-delayed Neon Icon album finally drops. Despite there being at least twelve Riff Raff mixtapes available on iTunes, everyone considers Icon to be his proper debut. But even without an album, the buzz is intense enough that a gaggle of journalists and bloggers has shown up to this publicity event to lob questions at him. “Radio and TV don’t have the power like they used to,” he says to one. “With the Internet, people can pick. You can’t hide talent no more.”
Not that Riff Raff has been trying to hide his talent. There’s a reason Gawker has deemed him “the most viral human being in music.” He’s posted dozens of videos on his YouTube channel, which have garnered as many as 5 million views each. The videos are musically slight but highly entertaining: Riff Raff rhymes “Michelle Obama” with “Jeffrey Dahmer,” threateningly empties glasses of milk, and jogs in pink tights. His raps are delivered with a surreal bent: “Got ’em peeping my persona, I done shook dice with Larry Bird in Barcelona,” as he puts it in one boast. And his Texas twang cuts through it all like an electric wire.
“The music is for fun, but that’s not the only thing I can do,” Riff Raff says over sushi a few hours after his appearance at PacSun. He orders thirty or so rolls for a table of four, gets four Sapporos for himself, and asks for teriyaki sauce, soy sauce, and spicy mayo, plunging each piece of sushi into all three before wolfing it down. “I can stop doing music today and end up doing movies and TV. I’d be fine with that. I can go live in a forest and start a campfire and try to catch a fish with my bare hands, and hopefully the bears will teach me how to fish.” Without missing a beat, he adds, “Let’s talk about my watch.”
When Riff Raff gets bored with questions, he doesn’t bother pretending otherwise. Ask him why he’s suddenly famous and he shrugs. “I don’t think it was me doing anything,” he says. “I think it was people finally coming around to seeing what I was doing.” He eats another lobster roll. “And what am I doing? I dunno. I’m just being me.”
Just who that “me” is, though, is tough to figure out. This much seems to be true: Riff Raff was born Horst Christian Simco in Texas in 1982 (though he has represented himself as being a few years younger) and spent time in and around Houston, in places like Katy, Tomball, Sugar Land, Acres Homes, and Greenspoint. But ask where he went to school and he turns mute. Who raised him when his parents got divorced? “I raised myself.”
As a teenager Riff Raff rapped a bit but didn’t take music seriously. He dropped out of high school twice before going to work, doing what he could to pay the rent. “You can go up to some random person that might know me in Texas and it ain’t even from music,” he says. “ ‘Oh, he used to be at the car wash.’ ‘He used to be at the mall.’ ‘He used to sell rims.’ ” Sometime after that—Riff Raff is adamant about not discussing his past in detail—he left his home state. “I started getting antsy. I couldn’t just sit in Texas all my life,” he says. “I got a restless mentality, I got to move around.” He spent time in Ohio and in Baltimore and, according to his youngest brother, professional snowboarder Viktor Simco, in Minnesota. By his early twenties Riff Raff was back in Houston, where he began to attract some notice on the lower rungs of the local rap scene but never managed to make things happen.
“Awww, man, I couldn’t give Riff Raff away,” his former manager OG Ron C says. “When something is so different, it scares people until they get a grasp of it. And everybody took Riff Raff as some type of joke.” Along with Michael “5000” Watts, Ron C is the co-founder of the Houston rap label Swisha House, which in its early years signed rappers like Paul Wall and Chamillionaire and elevated the local rap scene to international prominence. “Swisha House presented this vibe of candy-painted cars and big chains,” says Riff Raff. “I always had a fascination for flashy, expensive things.”
In 2008 Ron C agreed to manage Riff Raff. He had a vision for him “as that crazy-looking rich white boy in the hip-hop game, all Lamborghinis and fur coats.” But Watts just didn’t see what his partner saw, and the label never signed Riff Raff. “We hard on Houston people,” Ron C says. “Swisha House ain’t bad businessmen. Nobody knew what to do with him.”
Realizing that he would never build a rap career on the street level, Riff Raff took a circuitous route. He began posting videos to Myspace and WorldStarHipHop.com and then, in 2009, appeared on the MTV reality show From G’s to Gents, in which street thugs were transformed into slick gentlemen. Riff Raff sported Monopoly board Reeboks and a huge yellow tattoo of the cable network’s logo on his neck. He was ousted on the second episode.
But like other reality show also-rans—Jennifer Hudson, Bethenny Frankel, Elisabeth Hasselbeck—he’s had the last laugh. With his braids, golden grill, gaudy chains, blinding neon wardrobe, numerous tattoos, snaking sideburns, and breath-mint-blue eyes, Riff Raff is too mesmerizing to ignore. After he left Houston for Los Angeles, three years ago, he finally started getting the attention he had long craved. “I saw his personality from the start, and I was like, damn, this guy can win people over,” says Diplo, the in-demand producer who last year signed Riff Raff to his Mad Decent label. “At first when I’d show people his videos they’d be like, ‘what is wrong with this dude?’ But by the third video, they were fans.”
Hovering over all of this is the ghost of another white rapper from Texas, Robert Matthew Van Winkle, a.k.a. South Dallas’s very own two-hit wonder Vanilla Ice, who has been something of a rap-industry punch line for nearly a quarter of a century. When Riff Raff appeared as a guest on New York City’s Hot 97 radio station in May, program director Ebro Darden caustically compared him on-air to Vanilla Ice. Riff Raff, who was a child when “Ice Ice Baby” became the first hip-hop single to top the Billboard charts, takes the comparison in stride. “Vanilla Ice sold ten million records,” he says. “For him to be on MTV, it made me feel like it could be done.”
But the similarities between the two men only highlight the differences between them. Two decades ago a white man playing an overwhelmingly black music was pilloried for his lack of “authenticity.” Today such concerns seem almost quaint. Thanks to the global reach of both rap and the Internet, the racial and regional allegiances that once defined hip-hop authenticity are fading away. Riff Raff may have come up in the North Houston scene and may acknowledge his debt to local figures like Big Pic and Lil Mario, but he’s no longer a Houston rapper in any true sense. Horst Christian Simco came from Texas, but Riff Raff hails from a boundaryless kingdom defined by YouTube, social media, and the dreams of millions of disaffected skate kids. “I’m from everywhere,” he often says when asked about his origins. Or, “I came from nowhere.”
And as Riff Raff admits, his attachment to the music may be a transitory thing. “THEY DON’T CALL iT THE RAP ‘GAME’ FOR NOTHiNG,” he recently tweeted to his followers, suggesting that his eyes are on a bigger prize. Ron C says that Riff Raff reminds him of yet another two-hit white rapper from the nineties: Marky Mark, who is now known to the world as Mark Wahlberg, Oscar-nominated actor and film producer. “Riff’s gonna be the next Mark Wahlberg,” Ron C says. “He’s gonna be that crazy white boy making mega-millions. I promise you.”
San Antonio native Andy Beta writes for the Wall Street Journal, Pitchfork, and Spin.