RIFF RAFF @ BLACK BETTY’S, SATURDAY JUNE 1
For many artists, the internet hasn’t much changed their ethos or sound. Most independent rock bands, for instance, still employ a modus operandi that resembles pre-digital age DIY, or indeed, imitates the release cycle process of old-school record labels. Tracks come out once in a while; albums drop every year or two or three – the only real difference is that the songs are now hosted on websites as well as in shops and on radio stations.
For others, the internet has been a fundamental game-changer: a tidal wave of new ideas, methods and possibilities. When it comes to EDM and hip-hop – styles that have long been more concerned with individual tracks, song-sketches, remixes and fluid arrangements than definitive album-type statements – we’ve seen the internet open up a new world, crystallizing a paradigm that was already taking shape ever since these genres were born. It’s meant an explosion of mixtapes, collaborations, free downloads, unsolicited reworkings, works-in-progress, and crucially, “risky” musical efforts that might otherwise gather dust in a drawer or be ditched altogether. Let’s be honest, would esteemed rapper/producer Blu’s “ar r ie mx a ll pink r” EP (a small batch of instrumental hip-hop tracks made from sampling/remixing Ariel Pink songs, of all things) ever have seen the light of day if not for the instant, laissez-faire nature of releasing music online? How about electronic producer White Rainbow’s fifteen recent albums, all self-released on Bandcamp since 2010? And who would have guessed back in ’94 that we’d eventually be privy, almost in real-time, to Snoop Dogg’s amateur beat-making attempts via Soundcloud? Granted, there have always been prolific musicians keen to release as-much-as-possible; R. Stevie Moore, to cite a classic example, has put out more than 400 cassette and CD-R records since 1968, with no help from the www. But these guys were the outliers. Increasingly, sharing more – be it polished, rough or even incomplete – is the norm.
You might think that this new culture of readily sharing everything you produce, as it happens and whenever it happens, as being of detriment to an artist’s consistency and quality control. Of course, you’d be right. But for some musicians, those concerns pale compared to other priorities – such as spreading a worldview, maintaining a steady output, carving out an aesthetic, or building a personal mythology.
If you really want fascinating – and often bewildering – examples of this hyperactive, prolific, internet-bombardment approach, you need look no further than two doyens of social-media rap: Berkeley’s Brandon McCartney, better known as ‘Lil B’ aka ‘The BasedGod,’ and Houston’s Jody Christian, aka RiFF RAFF aka Jody Highroller. Musicially, they’re dissimilar enough (though both boast fairly unusual vocal styles), and RiFF RAFF (having signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and Soulja Boy’s SODMG before that) operates on a much bigger budget. But crucially, the two share a penchant for online ubiquity, uploading endless streams of Youtube videos, freestyles, mixtapes, new tracks and non-musical tidbits on Twitter, Facebook, Vine et al, serving to create expansive artist-specific ‘worlds’ in which to lose oneself.
It was RiFF RAFF’s personal world that I set out to penetrate on Saturday night. He was in town, and curiously enough, Lil B was set to appear a couple of weeks later, too. My friend (and rabid RiFF RAFF fan) Clifford picked me up from my doorstop at a quarter-to-ten; we rode the whip through the frosty night and rolled into the dense streets of Northbridge. There, we lined up outside the former Black Betty’s bar, now referred to evasively as 133 Aberdeen St. There’s nothing grating about the idea of RiFF RAFF performing at Black Betty’s, though. His shtick is infinitely (a) bizarre and (b) trashy, making this former bastion of bourbon-fuelled boganism a great candidate for hosting a Jody Highroller experience.
We’re not outrageously early, yet the room is still pretty empty, and with few bodies to soak up the sound, things seem implausibly loud. On stage is DJ ASLAN aka Ash Keogh, who actually masqueraded as RiFF RAFF when DJing at a recent local screening of “Spring Breakers” (Harmony Korine’s new film, in which James Franco’s stars as ‘Alien,’ a character largely based upon the unusual rapper). ASLAN is brandishing an Icey slurpee bling, probably Riff’s own, and maintaining the room’s good vibe with solid, but not overly adrenalized tunes, spanning dirty south rap, crunk and trap. A man in a Chicago Bulls cap, fingerless driving gloves and a majestic sports jacket is the sole mover of the dancefloor, but he can certainly hold his own.
KIT POP picks up where Asland leaves off, upping the energy as more bodies arrive by introducing more dubstep flavours, nice beat-matching and scratch-work. DONALD CRUNK and CHARLIE CHAN also take a set each, and neither warrants complaint – they drop (sometimes guilty) aural pleasures from the likes of 2 Chainz, Rick Ross and A$AP Rocky – each set increasing in intensity and suspense. But it’s been over 3 hours since we arrived, and we’re hankering for RiFF – meanwhile, the overloud PA is starting to become exhausting on the ears. So slide outside a quick wander, consume some chips in a Turkish restaurant, and wander back.
RiFF RAFF has begun. The place is pretty electric, a crowd surging as Jody Highroller and his co-perfomer/hypeman hop like fluorescent post-gangster kangaroos onstage beneath Black Betty’s giant elephant head. DJ Trapzilla is manning the decks/laptop. If you haven’t seen RiFF RAFF’s appearance, it’s hard to imagine or make sense of: we’re talking a geeky-lookin’ white guy with grills, cornrows, polarized sunnies, a zig-zagging close-cropped micro-beard plus Gucci Mane style diamonte bling and countless pop culture tattoos (the MTV logo on his neck is one of the most distinctive). If that wasn’t enough to bemuse you, his lyrics constantly straddle the line between ostentatious modern rap swagger and surreal nonsense. “Marc Jacobs” is up first – “Leanin’ like the Eiffel Tower/ Swangin’ on you cowards / Got your whole team sour like pork / Dunkin’ on you dorks.”
The fizzy, fat, over-the-top trappy beats come hard and fast. RiFF strides and leaps around the stage, braids swangin’, grills glinting in the arc and swoop of oscillating party lights. His intense Texan drawl barks out bangers like “Midnight Sprite,” (in which he announces he’s RAP GAME HUCKLE FINN!) “Chop Another Rock,” (RAP GAME WARREN MOON!) “Freeze Dried” (RAP GAME CHEVY CHASE!) and “Cuz My Gear” (incorporating the lyrics to related jam “Bat Phone,” referencing the Blackberry a whole lot). This latter is as good as any to understand the warped poetry of Riff Raff’s seemingly fried lyricism: “Hanging fangs down like a vampire – Twilight / Sapphires dancing on my hand like a campfire – Dancing / Camp counselor, living in the lap of luxe / Double cheese deluxe in the penguin tux.” Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats, but it’s not your run-of-the-mill gangsta rap either (as RiFF would say – it ain’t no middle of the mall shit). Though RiFF RAFF, in his ridiculousness, can easily be written off as a weird blip on the radar, encrusted with gimmicks, his quirky lexicon and unforgettable delivery-style means it’s not outrageous to mention him in the same breath as other oddball wordsmiths like MF Doom. In some ways, it’s a shame that his snake-handling, coke-snorting, rambling antics – as well as the perennial question, “is he serious, or is it a joke/performance art?” – have overshadowed what is arguably the most intriguing about RiFF RAFF: his writing. Here are some other lines that must be heard to be believed:
“Candy fuchsia Buick/ Martha Stewart transmission fluid.” (“Jenny Craig”)
“So far from clear ‘cause they resemble frozen lettuce/ 91 degrees out and buzzin’, you ever seen melted lime jello?” (“Orion’s Belt,” RiFF’s collab with fellow internet rapper Kitty Pryde)
“Butter-knife the chopper, razor blade the marg’/ I beg your pardon Olive Garden Aston Martin.” (“Squirt”)
“My sandals are perpendicular.” (“Tatted Like A Biker Boy”)
Soon, the Highroller betrays his fondness for contemporary pop silliness with tracks like “Rice Out,” which despite being the most tween-esque tune in the set, sees Riff jumping like a flea, totally getting into it. In another register of feel-good pop comes “Neon Freedom,” a RiFF RAFF reworking of the Major Lazer track “Get Free,” produced by Riff’s label-head Diplo and featuring Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors. That there’s any link between RiFF RAFF and Dirty Projectors is weird enough, but things get truly hallucinogenic when you see Jody mouthing Amber’s vocals, shirt now removed, gym towel draped over his corn-rowed dome. Soon, he tips Red Bull and champagne in audience members’ mouths, and then just pours it direct onto their heads and faces. RiFF RAFF is perhaps the most surreal entity in pop music right now, making Gaga’s attempted weirdness look like an accountant on crazy-tie Friday. The crowd, growing sleepy as the night wears on and perhaps satisfied with an hour or so of his shtick, begins to dwindle into the second half of RiFF RAFF’s set. “We ain’t ready t’go t’bed yit!” Jody exclaims on several occasions, saying that the previous track was the “final song” but that they’re going to keep going. “Turn around!” RiFF RAFF commands. “Look how many people left! They can’t keep UP with the RIFF!”
The night, all in all, WAS a little too protracted. Still, RiFF RAFF made it worth it – and while he was rapping over backing tracks featuring his own vocals and not exactly delivering a super-slick performance, his appeal isn’t really situated in slickness to begin with. Tonight was a bizarre and unforgettable trip on the Jody Highrollercoaster. What’s more, it was an uncanny intersection of art and life, fact and fiction, with RiFF RAFF’s elaborate persona suddenly blending seamslessly into your real-world lived experience. We have the internet to thank for this strange turn of events, since the internet is both the conduit and, in many ways, the foundation and inspiration for RiFF RAFF’s alien, skewed, patchwork aesthetic. Without the internet, RiFF RAFF would not – could not – exist; whether you thank or curse the internet for that is your call. Either way, RiFF RAFF will keep riding his wave of weirdness. The rest of us will try to keep up.