Rap Game Crazy: What we can learn from Riff Raff

Mad Decent

By Kenneth Selander , Daily Arts Writer
Published February 9, 2015

Iggy Azalea. Yes, she’s a huge controversy. She’s T.I.’s big-time money maker. The topic has been plowed over many times: Iggy is a white girl from Australia imitating Black hip-hop culture for personal gain. As far as I can remember, she pretty much came out of nowhere, got produced and suddenly had hits climbing to the top of the Billboard charts. I feel that most critiques of her are valid and see little point in stacking yet another article onto the skyscraper of existing hate.

In light of the recent craze around Iggy, it seems logical to talk about Riff Raff, an artist in a similar situation. Riff Raff is also a very controversial figure, drawing criticism similar to that directed at Iggy, but with questions of even higher consequence, perhaps. Sure, Iggy is imitating Black, Southern rap culture, but some, such as Lord Jamar and Hot 97’s music production manager Ebro, have in the past gone so far as to accuse Riff Raff of being a full-on mockery of black rap culture.

Riff Raff is unique to me not because he mocks other rappers, but because his crazy persona is just who he is. He’s a character, not a caricature. His comedic antics that are ever-present in his Vines and his outlandish interviews are off-the-cuff, an aspect for which I give him lots of credit. He strikes me as a fun-loving dude who doesn’t take himself too seriously – a refreshing quality in rapper. He’s signed to the Mad Decent label, so his primary audience should be suburban youth. Hell, he’s even teamed up with Hulk Hogan to work on a potential career in wrestling.

Riff Raff is one of a few rappers in the game who actually “freestyles,” as far as I can tell. No, his sounds are not perfectly structured, and sometimes he recycles rhymes, but at least he’s honest. Riff Raff often jokes about “putting away his phone” before a freestyle, but this is a serious critique of rappers who read their so-called freestyles off their smartphones. It takes skill to sit down in a studio and write a track, but it takes even more to craft something lyrical and original on the spot, under pressure.

In “The Monument,” rap’s longest, most unnecessary and inconsequential so-called freestyle compilation, a number of rappers have their phones in hand, reading lines as they “freestyle.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with freestyles is that their originality is unknown to listeners, unless, of course, the artist literally reads lines off. Maybe it was written in the car on the way over to the studio – maybe it was not. Some artists have done long, extended freestyle sessions. Maybe they started out as pre-written works and then went off the cuff, or perhaps it's just a lot of recycled material? I don’t know. Anyway, there are definitely concise, time-limited freestyles (usually done on the radio) that are truly good – too good. I’m looking at you, guests on “Sway in the Morning” (among countless other shows).

A freestyle should be off the cuff, much like Riff Raff’s overall persona, rather than planned out. While Ebro calls Riff Raff out for claiming to bench 370 pounds during a freestyle, the actual radio personalities are having a grand old time, and I’m balling out in my desk chair. This goes back to Riff Raff’s take on life; he’s trying to have fun, and that’s just his style.

The question that has been repeated ad naseum is whether Riff Raff is serious or not. I don’t know. I don’t think Riff Raff really knows. What’s really at stake isn’t just how serious he is or how good you think his music isn’t. Rather, it’s what lens his sincerity is questioned through.

Ebro, Hot 97’s production manager, had some serious problems with Riff Raff in an infamous 2013 radio interview. What’s problematic about the whole controversy is how Ebro approaches much of his critique of Riff Raff. He repeatedly asks Riff Raff about his credentials, but usually not in a beneficial or constructive way.

Ebro asks if Riff Raff has sold drugs before or if he grew up in a poor neighborhood. Through his questions, he seems to insinuate that only drug dealers from bad neighborhoods have a valid place in the rap game. He explains that the reason many people dress flashy, as Riff Raff does, is because they grew up without much and want to show off their possessions. While Ebro thinks he’s the ultimate authority on rap music, which he may be for Hot 97, his line of questioning works to glorify drug dealing and more. He even asks Riff Raff if he’s pimped girls, which is messed up.

While gangsta rap from Houston does glorify much of the same thing, this isn’t the right way to go about questioning Riff Raff’s motives. Riff Raff has a trap sound, but he isn’t claiming to be a gangster. This sort of thinking is a very narrow-minded view of the genre. The right way to go about questioning Riff Raff is in a deeper line of inquiry that requires more intricate answers.

I don’t think Riff Raff articulates a strong or convincing answer regarding his seriousness overall, and Ebro picks on him for this. The fact that his tattoos are permanent isn’t important. Yeah, he spent a lot of money on jewelry, but that doesn’t change the fact that he might be the second Vanilla Ice, or male Iggy. His motives are still a bit murky, and his credentials are inconclusive.

On a personal level, Riff Raff’s persona can certainly be taken as insulting or preposterous, but I don’t think Riff Raff is harmful to the music industry like Iggy is. In some ways, Riff Raff is still on the fringes of rap. He has recently gotten more fame, but because of his image, his age (32 already), his bizarre music and the question of his sincerity, I don’t think he’ll every truly get closer to the center. Iggy is front and center with motives and lack of credentials far more lucid. This is a much larger problem that has been addressed.

Iggy Azalea and Macklemore are two of most recent commercially successful rappers, but I can’t help but see them as phonies. In a vacuum, Macklemore’s actions characterize him as a good, legitimate guy. A prominent example was his participation in the Ferguson protests. Viewing this action in a vacuum, it’s great – an artist taking a stance against racial injustice in America. But this action didn’t take place in a vacuum. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but feel like it was just a big PR move for Macklemore.

Similarly, he proclaims his support for gay rights in one of his most meaningful tracks, “Same Love.” On paper, the lyrics and message promote positive progress and equality, but when you infuse Macklemore’s smugness and frat-rap sound, I can’t help but imagine the song as anything but an artificial means of garnering the type of grassroots support that, say, Lady Gaga has received from the LGBTQ community.

Worst of all, who could forget his text to Kendrick Lamar after he won a Grammy, boasting to social media how he sent Lamar support after the show. Really? He couldn’t just text him without publicizing it for his own gain?

Recently, I was impressed when listening to an interview Macklemore had with Hot 97 where he indirectly discussed Iggy and broader racial themes brought about by recent controversy. Macklemore actually had a lot to say on the issue of race in music, which made me step away from my wholly negative opinion of him – for a minute. It felt practiced, but he brought up great points. Perhaps his actions do add up in a positive way, and he really is trying to contribute in a respectful manner to promote such social causes. I think Macklemore is a perfectly acceptable artist, but his personality still feels insincere.

Regarding conversations on race in America, I agree with most of what Macklemore says. Yet, I still don’t believe he’s genuine. Am I wrong? If he really is sincere, then that’s still extremely problematic. At a “secret” show in Seattle, he dressed up as a stereotypical Jewish caricature. Oh, it was a random costume? That’s fucked up. If you really are so conscious about race and equality, then there’s no way you would’ve risked wearing that costume. That makes it hard for me to whole-heartedly believe his activist image. That’s the obvious red flag that isn’t present in Riff Raff’s image. The problem is that I’ll never know what’s truly going on inside Riff Raff’s head unless there’s a opening to key me in, similar to the crux of freestyle rapping.

Because of their actions, there is validity to the accusation that Riff Raff and/or Iggy are pretending to be something they’re not. Macklemore, on the other hand, might be cocky and self-obsessed after his rise to fame, but he doesn’t attempt to be something he’s not musically. Sure, he might be a hip-hop artist, which is a historically Black genre of music, but he should be allowed to respectfully partake regardless.

And now here’s my unsurprising plug for Eminem. Most agree he has the credentials to be a rapper (“8 Mile,” you know?). Looking back on my discussion of Riff Raff and Macklemore, is the fact that Eminem grew up in a bad neighborhood with a screwed up childhood the underlying reason why he’s not questioned as a rapper? His early works heavily discusses the trouble he had proving himself as a white rapper when he entered the scene. Yes, he’s lyrically talented, but so is Childish Gambino, who gets flack for not having enough of his own story in his songs. Perhaps this is really a euphemistic way to say he’s not “hard” enough.

I can’t help but think of a quote from Andre 3000’s guest verse in “Royal Flush:” “Unfortunate that if you come up fortunate the streets consider you lame / Ha, I thought the name of the game was to have a better life / I guess it ain’t, what a shame.”

So, it seems that, yes, most of Eminem’s underlying legitimacy stems from what you might consider a “hood pass.” If he would have been from the suburbs, no one would have listened to him, even if he was talented. But how about Eminem as a rapper? He’s lost his appeal to me, and not just because my friends overplay his records. Kim’s long out of his life, Mariah’s over with, he’s made peace with his mom in that corny song featuring F.U.N., he’s 42 and strapped with cash. His material and relevance is running out. It’s time to end it soon, but that’s hard to do when everything he makes will sell regardless of the quality. He’s even talked about it in his songs.

I had hope after Marshall Mathers LP II, though. There were a variety of sounds and tones, and I was looking forward to a surprising progression from an older Eminem. Yet, if Shady XV has any value, it tells us that he’s sticking with a fast pace, an angry tone and that same exact style of simile on repeat. And who’s going to replace Eminem? Yelawolf? Machine Gun Kelly? Action Bronson? I don’t see it. It's only one more way Eminem manages to stay relevant as the “Rap God” of all the mediocre white rappers around.