Riff Raff, “Bringing the Rice Out” [XXL Exclusive Online Feature]
“Bring a bag of rice.”
This isn’t a text message one would normally receive from a rapper, but Riff Raff isn’t exactly a normal rapper. I receive the message a few minutes before I arrive at Riff Raff’s hotel in Brooklyn. ”Rice” is one of Riff Raff’s favorite words, and in his world, it’s synonymous with cocaine. Do I respond? Do I show up pretending to have never received the message? Do I still have a phone number of any sketchy guys from high school? A minute later he sends a follow up: “I mean dry cooking rice to throw on stage.” Exhaling a sigh of relief I continue on my way, only slightly concerned that I’m being messed with. Either way, at 2:00 p.m. I meet Riff Raff in his room at the Wythe hotel…with four bags of cooking rice in tow.
In the past six months Riff Raff has made the transition from a Worldstar oddity to a potentially viable recording artist. Cosigns from the likes of Action Bronson and a soon-to-be-released project with Harry Fraud have helped, as have collaborations with other viral magnets Chief Keef and Kitty Pryde. But the most important milestone is a record deal with renowned tastemaker Diplo, the man behind hits like Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now,” and Wale’s “Slight Work.” An unofficial partnership with Soulja Boy went sour earlier this summer, but this deal at Diplo’s Mad Decent label seems to have a bit more legitimacy behind it. And after all, Riff Raff’s got quite the bling to show for it. His latest accessory is a 3D Cheshire cat on a chain, covered in what he describes as “Civil War Dime Denver Mint Diamonds.” The other side, which bears the Mad Decent name, has “Goldy Hawn margarine diamonds surrounded by polka dot jelly bean emeralds.” The decision of the moment is whether Riff Raff should wear only this chain, or if it should be accompanied by his trademark piece, a purple replica of an Icee Slurpee cup. Riff Raff’s manager suggests one but his artist’s mind is made on displaying both. When it comes to his appearance, I’m under the impression Riff Raff isn’t one to heed the advice of others.
“All my songs are written in less than five minutes, if I listen to a beat and I don’t have a hook for it in the first 30 seconds, I move on.”
The day of my visit, Riff Raff’s scheduled to perform at the Mad Decent Block Party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY a free event headlined by Major Lazer, one of Diplo’s many projects. At the hotel, Riff Raff and his DJ prepare a set list, stopping intermittently to play an assorted batch of unreleased records, ranging from southern trap, to LMFAO-esque party anthems. It’s surprising how much unreleased material Riff Raff has, considering his near Lil B-level output of late. “All my songs are written in less than five minutes,” he says. “If I listen to a beat and I don’t have a hook for it in the first 30 seconds, I move on.”
Two hours later, we leave for the block party and are greeted downstairs by a camera crew from another popular music magazine. I’m told Riff Raff’s been paid to allow the crew to follow him around for the day. Within minutes, the two young women following him with cameras are peppering him to, “Do Jody Highroller,” the British elite character/alter ego Riff Raff has cultivated in a number of his popular YouTube videos. At first, Riff responds to the prodding lightly. “You guys gotta let it marinate.” By the time we arrive at Williamsburg Park, the requests have become incessant. “Back the fuck up,” he tells them, before adding, “That’s how you get karate chopped,” which breaks the tension.
If Riff seems a little more high-strung than usual today, it might have to do with the fact that the previous day, during the Block Party’s stop in Philadelphia, he was met with boos from the audience. Throwing a rapper into the middle of a festival headlined by a dance music DJ is a recipe for disaster under most circumstances, let alone Riff Raff who today is making his New York performing debut in front of a crowd of roughly 15,000.
I take the stage with Riff Raff and his small entourage where he launches into fan favorites “Cuz My Gear,” “Larry Bird,” and the recent track “Lil Mama I’m Sorry.” Interestingly enough, the warmest reception he received was when Riff rapped over a remix of “Cracks” by British Dubstep producer, Flux Pavilion, a telling sign of the audience’s musical tastes. Either way, Riff Raff’s performance went pretty well, without any major missteps or hostile hipsters. Afterwards, him and his team seem pretty pleased and it feels like a weight has been lifted.
The good mood continues on the return to the hotel where the initial camera crew, plus another are lined up outside of the hotel room to conduct interviews with the man of the hour. This time around, Riff’s on absolute fire, delivering comic gold and all the “Jody Highroller,” they could ask for. During his freestyle, he dubs himself the “Rap Game Pervis Ellison,” (a former No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, who went on to have an injury-plagued career) and when asked to name his favorite condiment during a rapid-fire Q&A he responds “Trojan,” without missing a beat.
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The big question surrounding Riff Raff and the way he acts seems to be, “Is this an act?” The answer to that is no, it’s not an act. Riff Raff is a genuinely funny and weird guy, and when the camera starts rolling he ups the ante and that’s what you get in the interviews and YouTube videos. But even if Riff Raff isn’t putting on an act, he’s still far from being an open book. Riff Raff wants himself to be identified as the entertainer, not the person.
I was curious as to what Riff Raff was doing before he arrived on From G’s to Gents and then later on the Internet. Why he keeps such a small circle around him (a rarity amongst rappers), none of which are guys he’s known from the jump? In the days after I saw Riff Raff I reached out to legendary chopped and screwed pioneer, Houston’s OG Ron C who was the first to manage Riff Raff and has known him for over 10 years. Here’s what he had to say:
“Riff Raff, he grew up around us. He grew up around black folks. You know how in every black neighborhood, there’s always that one white boy that grew up with you. That was Riff Raff. His parents were one of the ones that didn’t move when all the black people moved in,” Ron laughs. “But the way he talks. The way he is, that’s him. That’s not a front by any means at all.
“He’s a very entertaining guy. When you look at him, before he even opens up his mouth you think to yourself: ‘That’s a fun-looking person.’ But unfortunately, he grew up in an urban part of the city and when people see a white person like him, the first thing they think is he’s trying to be black, or be something he’s not. People in Houston didn’t take to it and we had a hard time really trying to break ground in Houston. That’s the reason that you see Riff Raff out here doing the Internet thing because he had to find another route to let people know about his music.”
I ask Ron if he thinks Riff Raff has a sour taste in his mouth from his past in Houston, and maybe that’s why he’s now seemingly distant from the place he grew up in.
“I would have a sour taste in my mouth,” Ron says. “People in Houston just didn’t really show him the rapper love that he wanted. They thought it was a joke. But I always loved his music because his style is an unorthodox mix of 2013 mixed with 1995, 1996 style.”
“He’s a very entertaining guy. When you look at him, before he even opens up his mouth you think to yourself: ‘That’s a fun-looking person.’ But unfortunately he grew up in an urban part of the city and when people see a white person like him, the first thing they think is he’s trying to be black, or be something he’s not."
It must be frustrating to not be taken seriously. Riff Raff is on the cusp of success and stardom, yet it’s dependent on him always being “on,” as this sort of over-the-top caricature of himself. He, like everyone else gets a kick out of it, but at times I sense he’s tired of the constant need to live up to it. When asked during the Q&A about his bad habits he bluntly responded, “Talking to strangers,” before changing his answer to some ingenious remark about shoving guacamole into his socks despite knowing better.
Eventually, Riff Raff finished with his press obligations and he and his small entourage headed out to get dinner. They were more than gracious and invited me to join, but I passed, agreeing we’d all try to meet up again later during Major Lazer’s set at the Block Party. (It ended up getting rained out.) It would’ve been nice to partake in dinner, but throughout the day, I had become increasingly aware of the fact that Riff Raff had been followed around with cameras the entire time, in addition to having me tag along. I worried my presence would have trapped him in a prison of his own eccentrics. Honestly, I wanted to give Riff Raff a chance to breathe and just be himself. I hope that’s what happened. —Neil Martinez-Belkin (@Neil_MB)