Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Next Vanilla Ice? Making Sense of the Spectacle and Surface Event That is the "Hip Hop" Artist Named "Riff Raff"

I like to invite interesting guests to share their work here on We Are Respectable Negroes. 

I have been a fan of Cameron Kunzelman and his site This Cage is Worms for several years. He is smart. He is a pithy wordsmith and thinker. And his writings on aesthetics and digital culture remind of just how much specialist knowledge is out there, knowledge that I just need to sit back and digest. 

Plus, Cameron Kunzelman makes video games. One of his video games is about an alpaca. Yes, an alpaca. Such abilities qualify him for elite status in the ghetto nerd community.

As I age out of "hip hop" as a mainstream fan, I am reminded of how fast the genre is changing and of the many new artists who cause me head-scratching consternation. 

White emcee postmodern post-genre "hip hop" artist Riff Raff is one of the figures. I am lucky because Cameron has spent the mental energy to deconstruct and interrogate his performance. 

This is some good stuff; I remain confused as to who and what Riff Raff is supposed to represent in hip hop's orbit and present imaginary. I think that is exactly the point.


I’ve written about Riff Raff a few times for my blog, and that writing has taken the form of theory, interpretation, and pure transcription of some of the things that come out of Riff Raff’s near-constant stream of words, pictures, and videos.

Who is Riff Raff? He is a white rapper from Houston. He’s got more than twenty custom chains. He’s a comedian on Vine. He could have played for the Lakers, the Raiders, or the Chargers. He used to live beside Action Bronson. He was the first contestant eliminated on the second season of From G’s to Gents. He will have a net worth of over a million dollars at the end of 2013.

You’ll notice that I didn’t really tell you anything about Riff Raff. I didn’t give you his birthday or the town he’s from or his mother’s name. I didn’t set him up as the product of a broken home who just had to rise his way up through the rank and file of rural Texas because it was his destiny. I didn’t do all of that rap artist profile piece work because no one knows. The only pieces of Riff Raff that we have are media artifacts: indexical traces of his voice written in electric signal into databanks, bits of light reflected off of his body and captured in photosensitive chips. There isn’t a Riff Raff family bible that tells us the one, true, secret past of Jody Highroller. There are those who have tried, of course, and the most notable product of that is a Gawker article in which the reporter goes to great pains to find the secret history of Riff Raff and goes away both confused and mostly empty handed.

Contemporary popular media is obsessed with the secret history. We’ve all seen (or read) the tabloids at the checkout counter: who is the real father of Kim’s baby and why is she keeping it a secret? Fringe ideologues like Glenn Beck or Alex Jones prey on the same desire, constantly spitballing the “real” structure of power in the world for a ravenous public. The major networks are no different--there is always a specific secret desire that caused a crime or fifty things you don’t know about in your home that could kill you or a politician’s secret sex addiction that made him or her unable to properly vote on health care.

So when we see Riff Raff, we imagine that there is a secret behind him. Is he a parody or a joke? Is he a media personality, a reality tv star constantly covering himself and therefore always in character? Repeating the question: Who is Riff Raff?

Riff Raff’s secret is that there is no secret. There is no hidden depths that we can delve down into to find facts and reasons for why he acts the way he does. Riff Raff is pure surface, pure media event. He’s a spectacle, a flash of light.

Recently, Riff Raff was on New York City Hot 97’s Morning Show and Ebro, the show’s program director and so-called “old man,” grilled him about his self presentation. The video is below, but I’ll transcribe some key parts.

EBRO: Sometimes my fear and I guess this is where my understanding is, cause I don’t understand your skillset as an artist so I don’t know if you’re a great rapper or a shitty rapper or would I like your music I have no idea, but when I see what you present, right, it looks to me as a stereotype of a certain type of black person. Now, and like I said, I don’t know nothing about you. But I do want to understand if what you’re doing is serious or a costume.

Riff Raff dodges around the question with answers about his tattoos, his videos and songs, and his chains. This is a critical argument that Riff Raff makes all the time--if he presents himself a certain way, why can’t everyone take him that way? My love of Riff Raff doesn’t diminish Ebro’s point in the slightest; co-option of black arts movements is literally the history of white musical and visual art forms in the 20th century and beyond. However, I believe that in the case of Riff Raff, and I am more than willing to be told that I am wrong here, it is less about the cooption of an art form and more about the fact that Riff Raff is a pure surface onto which anything can be written. Riff Raff is a mirror that condenses and reflects our culture back to us. Take the following exchange from the same Morning Show segment:

RIFF RAFF: I can see it from all angles, from third perspective, from all that--somebody looking in they might be like “oh, he just some goofy white boy blah blah blah.” [holds up watch] This a Breitling watch, you know what I’m saying? Like, the shit I be doing--

EBRO: That’s so crazy. No, but see, I’m laughing--

RIFF RAFF: What I’m doing ain’t...ain’t a joke!

EBRO: But you have to understand that it is, though, because you just sat here and tried to tell me that I should think you’re serious because you have tattoos and Breit--

RIFF RAFF: You don’t have to think I’m serious!

Ebro responds to Riff Raff’s assertion of authenticity by giving him a history of the poverty consumption practices that birthed Cadillac and chain culture, but he ignores the core of Riff Raff’s statement. For Riff Raff, the watch’s materiality doesn’t matter. It is a sign that he’s committed to a certain lifestyle, a way of being in the world. Late capitalism has created a system in which the value of a human being’s life is determined by how much that human can destroy, waste, or consume. Riff Raff is just reflecting that back to us: he has value because of the way that he consumes, and he has no pretenses about it.

The difference between Riff Raff and any other American media darling is that nothing is covered over. A horrifying byproduct of being pure surface, of having nothing hidden, is that nothing is hidden. As David Lynch’s most terrifying work reminds us, there is something especially brutal about knowing all the facts. Similarly, a real awareness of the social structures that reify racism, sexism, transphobia, and a variety of other oppressions has a paralytic effect on acting in the face of those structures. Both of these examples cut down to the same fact: knowing is painful.

Repressing this knowing is why the secret is so important. We forgive Jay-Z his conspicuous consumption because his mother told us all about how wonderful he was as a child and how much he deserved something good to happen to him through hard work. His life is revealed to us, his hidden, yearning desire. We’re placated because we now have a reason that Jay-Z “deserves” his wealth. 

The secret of his life was revealed to us. The secret generates a narrative of deserving, and this is precisely why Riff Raff’s lack of history is so frustrating for so many. More than this, the secret is important as a gift that keeps on giving. 

There is always a new scandal or a new trauma to be brought to life to justify any action or consumption pattern. A new boat? Could be trouble at home. A sports team? Maybe a disagreement with a manager. There is a comfort in knowing that there is always more truth to be revealed about someone, that the source of reasons is never exhausted. What if that font of explanation doesn’t exist? The pain of knowing everything already stings.

Back on the Morning Show interview, Ebro pushes Riff Raff to explain “the world” that he is from. He wants a stable history, a line of inquiry, that he can pursue Riff Raff down to make everything about Riff Raff sensible. He, like us, wants the secret to Riff Raff so that he can unlock everything. He wants the admission of a parody, of a history of dealing, of extreme poverty in Texas. Anything to justify Riff Raff’s brutal polysemy. The frustration that Ebro feels, the glaring indeterminacy of the whole thing, is that there’s nothing to learn. Riff Raff is what he is, and much like late capitalism, he sets the conditions for his own existence. He enables himself, and looking into the past is like looking into a black hole of meaning.

RIFF RAFF: Like I said, I don’t need to be in the human society. I know people say whatever, I don’t have to be around NO SOCIETY. I don’t got to. 

EBRO: So do you see yourself as like an emcee or do you see yourself as like “I’m stylin--”

RIFF RAFF: I’m an icon, I’m the neon icon, that’s why I’m dropping the album Neon Icon because I could stop doing music. I could go back to my car and start freestyling and still do my shit.


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Dick Destiny said...

Well done! Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 90 videos in a year, though, sheds some light on why he's so successful. That's a lot of work. Liked the post's lead-off video, it made me laugh. Not sure I could get through 89 more like it but that was great.

chauncey devega said...

90 videos of questionable quality and music. I don't even know if porn stars do that many scenes a year.

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bruto alto said...

First off the top I gotta ask, Why Riff Raff? Why not Yellawolf, Mac Miller, Asher Roth, Action Bronson or Em? Also on the other side of the coin can rappers like Childish Gambino get called out for looking "white". He wrote for 30 rock then got his name from a cheap Wu Tang name maker flash site. Do I even need to mention Andre 3000 or BoB?
Second, Ice sold millons of copies while Riff Raff doesn't have a video in daily rotation. Apples to Oranges
Lastly, when was the last time you went to Houston Mall? Check the second floor on the westside of the mall. Paul Wall's store is there. After that sit in the food court. He is right on in their idea of Houston style. Riff Raff is a regional artist at most. He's as honest as Lonely Island (better than most albums that came out last year).

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