For the January Issue of Dazed & Confused, Danna Takako spent two days in the company of RiFF RAFF, hip hop’s next great white hope. Watch the exclusive behind the scenes video above and read her full interview with him below.
Clad in a silk Tom Ford robe on a red, satin-lined bed in his North Hollywood apartment, viral hip pop wonder RiFF RaFF is licking my hand. A camera flashes, as do the gold grills on his teeth when he smiles afterwards. “I love Tom Ford,” the Houstonite says. “I love Harrison Ford, too.” A few minutes later, he’s throwing a cooking pot filled with Trix cereal over his apartment balcony, yelling “breakfast coming!” in an exaggerated hillbilly accent. At one point, without a word, he walks out of a room squeezing his ass with both hands. Once you spend 48 hours with one of the most loved (and loathed) men in music, you begin to realise that it is impossible to predict – or prepare for – what is going to happen next.
Over the last two years, RiFF RAFF (ne Jody Christian, aka the rap-game autistic, aka the rap-game Jodie Foster, aka the rap-game Dawson’s Creek) has become a star of today’s visually led, ADD-heavy generation. He calls himself a “part-time head turner, full-time jaw dropper” in his underground hit “Jose Canseco”, and has a shoulder-length mane teased like an 80s hair-metal god (or braided into patterned cornrows with yarn), while MTV and BET tattoos fight for space on his neck and torso. The 28-year-old has brought a bizarro sense of humour to the world of rap, keeping jaws on the floor with indecipherable couplets about Ninja Turtles, old white basketball-players and rabies. And weirdly, he makes you want to rap about them too.
“He is a walking entertainment chamber before anything even comes out of his mouth,” says OG Ron C, the founder of key southern-rap label Swishahouse, who grew up in the same North Houston neighbourhood as Christian and was his first manager. “Everybody forgets that the rap game is part of the entertainment business. That’s why he’s winning.” Pop shapeshifter Diplo, who signed RiFF RAFF for a supposed eight-album deal on his Mad Decent imprint last autumn, agrees. “He’s like a walking, talking funny-pages. In the streets he gets stopped by black kids, white kids, old people, young people, because he’s so flamboyant. But as a rapper, he’s one of my favourites. He has the best punchlines, he’s the funniest and he’s got the craziest imagination. He writes hooks for days.”
RiFF RAFF is trying on different pairs of garish sunglasses. “I’ll get the person who tweets me randomly, like, ‘You’re white, I hate you. Why do you got braids?’ Then a couple weeks later I’ll see the same Twitter name saying, ‘Damn man, this is my new favourite artist, I love him.’ I’m not the average person so when somebody sees me it’s going to be bipolar: it’s one or the other, you’re going to love me or hate me.” He adjusts a gold $100 bill ring that covers his first two fingers. “I can’t change me and I can’t change other people’s thinking. All I can do is continuously get better. So if I’m doing that, even if somebody doesn’t like me or respect me, I don’t care.”
His “MTV” neck tattoo serves as a memento of his first show-stealing entry into the media world in 2009: a memorable stint on the thugreform reality series From G’s To Gents. Eliminated after two episodes, RiFF RAFF described the show as “an hors d’oeuvre on a table. It’s not a steak and shrimp, it’s like somebody had some cheese crackers on a table and I decided to eat a couple.”
The main meal came in 2012, it seems. He’s been impossible to avoid this year, thanks to an endless maze of wavy music videos and improv comedy sketches, and a bewildering variety of famous alter-egos (most notably his posh British alias Jody Highroller). His videos hit colossal figures; after his original YouTube account got banned for inappropriate content, his JodyHighroller channel racked up over 17 million views in ten months. He’s flooded the market with mixtapes and internet hits (including collabs with Action Bronson, Kitty Pryde, Wiz Khalifa and Lil B), but has yet to release a debut album. He is the quintessential modern musical phenomenon.
“If you watch one YouTube of his,” Diplo explains, “you automatically think, ‘This is the wackest shit I’ve ever seen.’ You watch two of his YouTubes and think, ‘Damn, this is weird. Why am I watching this again?’ But on the third one, you realise he’s a fucking genius.” He laughs and adds, “But the best thing about him is he’s just genuine. He genuinely exists in this other world – the rap twilight-zone.”
Just as with his tattoo-wrapped body, the inside of RiFF RAFF’s two-room studio is dotted with splashes of colour, impulse and weirdness. Retro abstract modern art fills the walls. Four different shades of du-rags and a packet of dazzle beads (usually worn on the end of his braids) are spread across a table in his living room. Piles of bombastic vintage clothes line the floors, including LA Light sneakers and a few aerobic jackets that must have graced the wardrobe of a soccer mom in the 90s. Shopping bags from Gucci and Versace sit upright on the carpet. His kitchen cupboards store iced-out chains that he designed himself, hiring a local LA jeweller to create a bejewelled Cheshire cat and an oversized pendant in the shape of an ICEE slush cup.
“I haven’t even started my career yet, really,” RiFF RAFF says, spreading out a wad of $100 bills on his bedspread for a photo. “I haven’t dropped my first album yet, I haven’t been on a world tour, I’ve never done a big-deal song. So all this buzz and everybody talking about me is all…” He trails off and shrugs. “My shit, it started at ground zero. All of my fans and the people who really understand, they research me – they see this shit day by day, building. It’s like a boxer training for a fight. I started out this chubby kid who started working out progressively everyday. So everyday for the last year or two I’ve just been training, and now I’m in top-quality shape, ready to go. I’m jumping past all the lightweights, featherweights, and going straight to the title fight.”
For a guy who has built his career off DIY videos, it’s no surprise that he harbours dreams of becoming a Hollywood Highroller. Rumours abound that Harmony Korine based James Franco’s lead character in the forthcoming Spring Breakers on the Houston native, and although Korine and Franco have stated otherwise, RiFF RAFF’s not entirely convinced. “When people see James Franco in this movie, they’re gonna see me,” he says while shuffling through his music collection – an interesting mix of Gucci Mane, Little Dragon, SBTRKT and Culture Club. “Since the movie, me and Harmony have become good friends. We have some bigger shit coming, more movies will come. I got so much going on in my mind, I’m never comfortable. I always need more, more, more.”
His hunger for more is deeply rooted. Raised in the streets of the south, he was the middle son in a family of seven. When asked about the music played in his house, he puts on the lowdown country songs of John Anderson and Toby Keith and hilariously belts out every single lyric. It makes sense of the country influence in his acousticguitar jam “Time”. But growing up, he says, “It went off to where there was not a lot of money. I’ve had no money, I’ve had a lot of money, I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve been back and forth with everything.” He pauses. “That’s why other people’s input doesn’t really matter to me, because nobody’s put me where I’m at. I don’t owe anyone shit. No one’s responsible for me and I’m not responsible for anyone.”
The cameras are off and RiFF RAFF lies on his couch, facing the ceiling. While speaking, he forms a circle with his forefinger and thumb in the same shape as a circular lamp above him, and moves it up and down repeatedly towards the lamp and back down towards his eye. It’s reminiscent of a hyperactive, daydreaming kid at school not listening to the teacher. “School was so boring,” he says. (Supposedly he dropped out in tenth grade.) “It’s like, if you don’t like coffee, drink something else. And if you don’t like school, do something else.” In many ways, RiFF RAFF is rap’s Peter Pan, refusing to grow up or play by anyone else’s rules.
He tends to keep to himself for that same reason. “If I do let someone into my life, then we have to do things my way,” he says, shortly after directing the Dazed team with shot ideas. “Otherwise we’ll be clashing heads. And after one or two times of clashing heads I’m going to erase you out of my phone and out of my life. I don’t argue. I do things my way… Nobody can hurt you if they’re not in your life. Once you totally sever someone from your life and cut all ties, you have no more emotion towards them because they don’t exist in your memory.”
Perhaps he does truly live moment by moment without looking back, solely “based off instinct and feeling”, as he claims. Or it could be that he uses his raps and characters as an escape route. His rhymed free-association flies at a staggering pace, hopping between obscure metaphors and pop-culture references. The lyrics from “Squirt” (with Lil Debbie) attest: “I want the world in my hands, PalmPilot / Butterknife the chopper, razorblade the margarine / I beg your pardon Olive Garden Aston Martin.”
Producer Paul Devro, creative director at Mad Decent, highlights the intensity of RiFF RAFF’s creative output. “When we go to the studio, I’ll play him at least 30–40 beats every session. Within five to ten seconds of each song, he’ll either mumble a melody to it or say, ‘Next.’ I hear ‘next’ a lot.” He laughs. “With each one he picks, he’ll write to it, usually one hook and one verse. We record six to ten songs in about a three-hour period this way. We laugh when we record them a lot. He knows how insane some things he says are, but it all makes sense.” When asked about the album deal they signed, Devro says, “It’s either eight or 44 albums. No one will ever know.”
RiFF RAFF’s transition into America’s wildest white rapper began in earnest when signed by Soulja Boy’s label, S.O.D. Money Gang (as the “SODMG” tat on his stomach indicates). Dismissive as he may be about the past, RiFF RAFF’s upbringing is throwed throughout his diverse tracks. He holds down the hypnotic flows of H-Town’s syrup-sippin’ idols from the late 90s (such as Fat Pat), and he can sing with the R&B funk of the legendary Pimp C (his “Lil Mama I’m Sorry” anthem is proof). “The reason why he probably doesn’t really talk too much about Houston,” OG Ron C explains, “is because a lot of people thought his style is the old Houston. That’s what he grew up on so that’s what he knows, but people hated. I knew it would work. I just loved the creativity and his personality. He’s always seen a bigger picture than everyone.”
Back at the hand Back at the hand-licking photoshoot, RiFF RAFF is throwing and catching Haribo gummies in his mouth. He’d arrived a half-hour late to the shoot (“My condolences… I brought a bottle of vodka!” was his intro) after a full morning of shooting a music video “for some internet thing.” The night before he had a studio recording session with Mike Posner, the underground Drake. With his translucent blue eyes widely dilated, he admits to living “a fast life. I do a lot of shit that I probably shouldn’t.”
Life in the fast lane is one thing; the hype machine moves even faster. RiFF RAFF’s homegirl Kreayshawn is certainly an interesting case-study in viral rap-wonders gone wrong: her debut album is rumoured to have set the all-time record for the lowest first-week sales in major-label history. When asked which is the better fate – to live too fast and lose one’s mind, or to disappear into oblivion and lose the public’s mind – he doesn’t flinch. But he doesn’t exactly answer, either.
“Bottom line,” he says, “either you’re gonna accept that I’m great, or you’re gonna ignore it. You know what I mean?” Two of his friends arrive unexpectedly. Shouting “turnt up!”, when he opens the door, they mob in, putting Chief Keef on full-blast. Young, reckless and infectious, they down shots of Russian vodka (with a milk chaser) and make joke variations of the phrase “turnt up”. One of them, Jackson, says he’s been friends with RiFF RAFF for five years, and works with him in a capacity that’s “hard to explain”. His companion offers that Jackson is the “rap-game Robin”, as in Batman and Robin.
“When it comes to friends,” RiFF RAFF had said earlier, “I don’t like to be around just anybody. Everything has to happen for a reason.” Later that night, RiFF RAFF is arriving at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood with the ATL Twins, following a live radio session. The blond identical twins (Sidney and Thurman Sewell, aka Sid & Thurm) are also featured in Spring Breakers. They not only dress, think and talk the same, they also always have sex with the same girl at the same time. Tonight they’re with a striking, voluptuous French siren.
The trio’s shared hotel-room has become the set for an impromptu music video shot by @MATTHEWBOMAN (director of stripper/rapper Brooke Candy’s “Das Me” video). Someone in the room spontaneously rips open one of the hotel pillows and turns on a giant fan. Whirring feathers fill the air, the French girl’s shirt comes off, and questions of a journalist’s duties arise when asked to “dance and twerk on the silver beanbag on the bed.” As I twerk in a Venetian mask, coughing on feathers, I wonder if I would ever believe this story myself.
Just as RiFF RAFF is in the middle of lip-syncing his verse, a pounding on the door rises above the iPod dock. A dreadlocked skater, drinking vodka out of a large Evian bottle, stumbles over to open it. Most of what he says to the unimpressed security guards in the doorway is incomprehensible, but a distinct line jumps out: “A woman on PCP ran into this room, ripped open one of the pillows and then ran off. We don’t know who she was or where she went.” The ATL Twins look slightly worried about room charges. They talk in hushed tones with an occasional glint from their matching top-teeth grills. RiFF RAFF is freestyling in the corner, covered head to toe in feather shrapnel, totally unfazed. In a glance, it sums him up: amused in his own abstruse world, completely self-aware but unconcerned with much else.
“People have to use ignorance to catch up or to dumb (what I do) down,” he’d said earlier in the day. “When you haven’t seen anything before, it’s like a UFO. I’m like the Loch Ness monster. But I’m not a myth. I’m right here, in the flesh.”
Text by Danna Takako
Photography Nick Haymes
Film by UZI