“When the world was born, everybody was naked.” – Riff Raff
Look–I know my hip hop well enough to talk through some broad structures. I am not an expert. Inevitably, whenever someone stakes an opinion on rap or hip hop, a commenter will come along and say “oh, but X RAPPER totally does Y THING and you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Sure, maybe so, but I’m not so ignorant as to believe that the plurality of a musical genre (that is honestly too big to even be considered a genre) doesn’t cover, in excess, anything I have to say it. I’m about to say some things about “swag rap,” a certain subgenre, and I know that even it covers and bends back on itself so much that nothing I am going to write will stick to everything. That is fine. I’m trying to pick a small plot of ground.
I want to talk about Riff Raff.
Riff Raff came up out of MTV’s Gs to Gents season two, where he was eliminated on episode two. I watched the two episodes that Riff Raff was in a few minutes ago, and I’m struck with how the conversation around Riff Raff hasn’t changed in the intervening years. There are repeated statements about how “real” Riff Raff actually is, and for varied reasons–he doesn’t seem “hard” like the rest of the cast, he doesn’t seem to be there for “the right reasons” (that old reality competition show chestnut), and he is fixated on his own image and how he is perceived.
So weirdly, I want to really get started with some quotations from the show. They set the stage for this Riff Raff ology that I’m about to embark on pretty well, after all.
During his “intro” to the show, Riff Raff says:
I just wear some shit and do some shit that nobody ever did. If you ain’t original then you start looking alike and eating casserole dinners with a bow tie on watching reruns of M.A.S.H.
A style expert comes onset to show the contestants on the show what “style” is. He says “it all starts with how you look” and then makes fun of Riff Raff’s pants. Riff Raff’s response?
I try to find stuff that nobody else has.
Fonzworth Bently, the host of the show, tells Riff Raff that “you don’t have to have money to be a gentleman.” Riff Raff asks
What is a gentleman?
When he is almost eliminated from the show during the first episode, he turns to the voting contestants and says
You should see me in the same place as you.
All of these quotations, and their sequencing, take place in “reality tv reality” by which I mean that they are purely the products of editing. Every moment is organized in order to make the viewer the most pleased, the most intrigued, or the most pulled into the experience. So the “conversations” that I’m relating above aren’t really conversations; they are fictions. I don’t have any illusions about their indexing something that actually occurred.
At the same time, what can we learn about Riff Raff? Are his words, removed from context, trustable? On some level, by even asking the question, I’m repeating the challenges to his “realness” that the other contestants on Gs to Gents spoke–is Riff Raff for real?
Jeff Weiss, writing for LA Weekly, asked Riff Raff straight up and got this 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.”
Weiss treats this like it is a straight answer, but it really isn’t. Riff Raff dodges a little bit, making a jagged line and rebuking the core of the question. His answer isn’t “yes, I am real.” It is “What is real?”
What is a gentleman?
I was going to write several rhetorical questions in a row, but I decided against it. I’ll be direct: Riff Raff embodies pure aesthetic relations. There is a depth there, surely, but he isn’t reducible to that depth. In fact, Riff Raff does everything he can to defer away from any kind of depth.
His visual aesthetic avoids any semblance of depth; it isn’t about cultivating a lifestyle or a particular kind of impression. Instead, it is eternal escape. The bow tie wearing, casserole eating M.A.S.H. watcher is a sedentary being. Riff Raff can’t be held down. He is always slipping between deadly serious and absolute comedy (pure aesthetics are totally embodied in Shelly the Turtle who is a snake, fyi).
What can we say definitely about Riff Raff’s music? Short couplets, usually. Sometimes a falsetto, sung hook from Jody Highroller himself. Production by anyone and everyone who will collab with him, lending to both amazing and terrible quality of the tracks. What we don’t have is complex layers of samples, lyrics that call down a heritage of hip hop, or self-referential, Rap Genius-style bullshit.
“Neon Freedom,” which is currently both my favorite Riff Raff track and maybe my favorite music video of all time, distills all of this down into a very clear object. Watch it.
I could close read that video for a long time, but for expediency’s sake, let me say this: this video is what a world of Riff Raff’s looks like. For ease, I am going to speak in three parts about the video: first, the DJ; second, the women; third, Riff Raff.
The DJ might be the simplest part of the video. He is, assuredly, a DJ. We know that because he has headphones on, but also because he is clothed in “DJ regalia.” He has a huge, 1980s style gold chain on; he has a jersey on to stay cool. We never see him actually doing anything DJ related. Instead, we see the kinetic and stylistic markers of a DJ. He must, therefore, be a DJ.
Aesthetics speak here, but I want to caution a pure semiotic reading here. It isn’t about signs accumulating and then being parsed. I also think a Stuart Hall-style encoding and decoding fails–what is being encoded? Everything? Nothing at all? Any act of reading beyond the apparent (“That guy is a DJ.”) fails. The DJ isn’t an object of knowledge to be decoded, to derive intent from, to understand as a figure that is “speaking” to us through layers of interaction. He’s just a rad DJ standing there, representing nothing.
The women take on awkward stances, oversexed poses that smack of Tumblr modeling. They look at the camera. They walk forward, turn, change poses–in fashion photography, they would lack movement. We would see these poses isolated from one another. A hand on a hip/ smoky glance into a camera/ heels. However, the video for “Neon Freedom” strings them all together, and edits blend more than one outfit and facial expression into a single narrative. In short, the video collapses all aesthetic possibilities for these women into one moment; it is an aesthetic Big Crunch.
[A pause: the aesthetic possibilities for women in a Riff Raff video as limited to being objects of desire, as is the general standard in rap. However, that doesn't account for a number of Riff Raff's genre contemporaries like Kreayshawn, Lil Debbie, and V-Nasty, all of whom are outspoken, active (notably white) women rappers.]
The women of “Neon Freedom,” then, are also purely aesthetic. We understand, immediately, why they are there. We understand the movements they are making, even though they are fragmented and visually nonsensical. They are pure visuality, pure aesthetic, hiding nothing–pure surface area on the plane of the visual.
What is a gentleman? What is a figure in a rap video?
Riff Raff’s body is covered in logos. MTV and BET live on his body. His own name adorns the backs of his calves. You can often see him in videos with a sticker slapped on his stomach.
Riff Raff’s body is pure surface; it is pure aesthetics. He stands in front of us. He dances. His famous “wardrobe changes” happen in front of us, in split seconds. Riff Raff takes on the persona of a biker. He takes on the persona of a basketball player. He takes on the persona of someone who actually wears a shirt. Riff Raff adapts and changes; he doesn’t take on those roles–he is them all, concurrently. Each of them is the “real” Riff Raff. It isn’t a coincidence that he repeatedly claims that he could have played for the Lakers, or the Seahawks, or any other sports team. Riff Raff is pure potential.
What is an athlete? What is a gentleman?
If Riff Raff has a genre of rap, it is “swag rap,” a post-Kanye version of rap that feeds on haters and glorifies non sequiturs and capitalist accumulation. I would argue, if pinned down, that swag rap is the logical conclusion for rap to come to in the state of capitalist realism: there’s nothing but the rap game, you can’t escape it, so everything should be the rap game. The world is ending–rap game apocalypse.
There is a nagging feeling that Riff Raff is post-swag (if we take Evan Calder Williams seriously about what swag means). We often hear that we’re sort of damned in capitalism and that “the only way out is through.” I think that Riff Raff might already be through.
I’ll go at it from another direction. Grant Morrison, writing in Arkham Asylum, a Batman story, writes this about The Joker:
It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century…He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the lord of misrule and the world as a theatre of the absurd.
While Riff Raff isn’t creating himself anew each day, he is enacting a kind of absolute survival politics. As he says in his Gs to Gents episode, “I can’t be broke.” An embracing of pure aesthetics, of pure writing and being written, of turning oneself into an art object, is a political move to imbue oneself with infinite value. Riff Raff now has, as he says, lunch money. Stacks. Also, Canadian lunch money.
I understand this is fragmented. I also understand that I have been cagey with what pure aesthetics actually means. The truth is, I’m not sure. It is both directional, directed toward, absent of meaning, and opaque about its core. It is something in flux, and also something that I will be working out in the future.
Sometimes all the pieces don’t fit.
Further reading (and watching):
- Soundboy writes about swag rap as a genre
- Slava P writes on Riff Raff’s position in the spectrum of current white rap
- Carrie Battan interviews Riff Raff for Pitchfork
- The Fader interview with Riff
- Drew Millard writes about and interviews Riff Raff for Vice
- Some rando from Forbes actually interviewed Riff Raff to talk about branding