We analyzed Riff Raff using the greatest tool of all: science.
This month, Ben Westhoff published an LA Weekly cover story on RiFF RaFF, or his real name, Horst Christian Simco, that nailed down the rapper’s elusive past. Details surrounding Riff’s childhood and early career have been unknown until now—last June, Complex called him “arguably the most eccentric, unpredictable rapper making music today.” In interviews, he claims he gets mistaken for Bill Cosby and Denziel Washington and that his father was a professional street basketball player (actually a police officer.) He told the FADER, on whether his persona is an act, that he “can do anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an act. It’s just one of my many entities and one of my many formulas and ingredients that makes up me.” Westhoff’s research unveiled his suburban childhood as a shy bookworm, and stands in contrast to who the man has become: A meta-parody of Southern rap that, by volume of presence and unseen lyrical absurdity, has made him famous, both online and increasingly off.
But look to Rick Ross to see how much one’s persona can differ from their past. Riff’s lyrics are often incomprehensible, a form of anti-comedy whose non-sequiturs and subtleties provide an immediate punch line and, when read in retrospect, a glimpse of outlandish genius.
Lines like “Swung through East Switzerland in a dope fiend rental [...] Swung through Olive Garden getting Egyptian massages” blend incongruous images with a parody of rap bravado. He bends the English language to his will; the way he can rhyme facial, glacial and spaceship, or jacuzzi, Ruby Tuesday’s and Oklahoma Sooners is impressive, and much the reason his popularity is skyrocketing.
To that end, we undertook a textual analysis of Riff Raff’s lyrical canon. We cleaned up every Riff lyric on Rap Genius: 116 songs and feature verses clocking in at over 20,000 words. We then threw the gigantic word document into a few fun experiments.
Here’s a word cloud of Riff’s most-used words. (We told the program to ignore common words and articles.)
Fairly obvious: Jody loves Versace and diamonds (a.k.a. chains, ice and rice in his world.) He has an affinity for the designer Marc Jacobs. His favorite verbs are ball, play, rap, freestyle, drop, might, and broke (as in, “Broke these boys off, three wheeled the ancient ruins,” wherein one swerves through Egyptian monuments in their vehicle so vigorously that only three of its wheels are touching the ground.) He enjoys dunking on his haters. There are often expensive objects on his wrist. It also reveals his inquisitive, philosophical nature: some of his favorite words are why, figured, life and ‘cause. He’s more than the man who could have been a professional basketball player, giving up the life for his love of drugs, jewelry and money: he’s a thinker. His most used words are game (80 mentions), diamonds (70), rap (66), might (60), pull (59), riff (59), down (52) and ice (52.)
With a word tree, we can drill deeper to see exactly how he uses these words, and what he claims to be. (Click here to check out the tool yourself, but note it only works in Safari and Firefox, requires Java 7, will change everything you've ever known about rap music forever, and may cause your computer to explode—that's how rich and intensive these findings are.) Let’s start with his favorite object, the golden idol for which Jody risks the perils of haters and critics alike, in his Indiana Jones-like quest to survive the temple of rap: diamonds.
Riff has ice on his wrist, ears, neck, fingers, devices made by Nike, behind his gums, and on his teeth like glaciers. His ice is glistening, bright enough to blind, is cold enough to give a man brain freeze, frostbite, freeze dry nearby objects and leave him frozen solid. He has more of it than a klondike; his diamonds, he claims, are priceless, and his chains look like ant piles when stacked. He has rice in his vodka boats, in his saddle (he may moonlight as a cowboy,) packed and sacked like former Giants defensive end and record holder for sacks recorded in a single season, Michael Strahan. (Riff claims he can sack his rice in two hours flat.) He pulls up to clubs with rice and pasta in helicopters.
Westhoff, in his piece, cites Riff’s early days painting cars in Houston in the popular candy-colored style. Riff proclaims a deep admiration for all-things candy colored in his lyrics: He’s rapped about candy apple cider and candy apple grammy smith apples, candy corn pumpkin bonsai leaves, his candy Buicks and Hummers, a “candy John Wayne off the chain,” candy swans, nunchucks, seashells, banana chips, cheetos, relish, marmelade, yarn, pumpkins, goldfish, chrome, Vidal Sassoon, butterscotch, cactus, maple and lime. Those are probably just a few of the hundreds of candy-colored cars Riff owns; the world may never know the full extent.
What else can we learn? The possibilities are far-reaching. For example, did you know Riff owns Versace baby rattles, sweatpants, ice skates, night lights, station wagons, lettuce, water, lasagna, helicopters, coffins, noodle soup and car rims? That his wrists are like a cool cup of ice, a ballerina, a glacier—so heavy they have sprained his hands? That his chains are “super stupid” and look like beef brisket, Mufasa from Lion King, Orion’s Belt, Hawaiian Punch, ebola and blizzards—that they are so enormous and cold they actually change nearby weather conditions?
Riff Raff also loves basketball, and this is where his most wide-ranging personal claims surface. (Westhoff uncovered that a much-touted basketball scholarship with Louisiana State University was a fraud, but that he did play on the team of his community college in Hibbing, Minnesota.) It is unfortunate that Louisiana State ignored his talents, for if they had actually seen how Riff plays, they surely would have been catapulted into NCAA history books. He balls like a science fiction book, like it ain’t nothing, like Emanuel Ginóbilli, from coast to coast, across the seven seas, across the atlas—he is so powerful, in fact, he can tear baskets clean off backboards.
More impressive is the mind-blowing list of NBA, collegiate and professional sports teams Riff went on to play for after college. He has played for the Raiders, Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Colts, Lakers, Chargers, Bruins, Ruckus, Seahawks, Mavericks, Pistons, Hornets, Sooners, Rangers, Raptors, Nets, Redskins, Vanderbilt and the Cougars. In fact, he has played in up to seven sports and various leagues for 20 years, dabbled in tennis, threw so many touchdowns he could have brought back the Raiders to their former glory, and handles tailback, halfback and hatchback positions with aplomb (apparently, he has invented the position of hatchback—and, given this new evidence of his sporting prowess, there is no doubt he could.)
Riff is equally adept at freestyling—he is the freestyle Bill Gates, lieutenant, king, genius, scientist, dentist, chemist and doctor; his freestyle game is disgusting. He has freestyled in Atlanta and Tibet, with Art Monk in Washington.
He is also the most fervent proponent of the Rap Game moniker, where he claims to be any number of pop culture figures within the rap game. He is the Rap Game Cassius Clay, Kemosabe, Stacy Augmon, Alonz Mourning, Alfred Hitchcock, Alfalfa, Janet Jackson, Pink Panther, Ryan Sandberg, Warren Moon, Christian Laettner, Charles in Charge, Julio Franco, Bo Jackson, Action Jackson, Ferris Bueller, Drew Brees, Jack Sparrow, Chevy Chase, Zack Morris, Marilyn Manson, Peyton Manning, Michael Myers, Johnny Bravo, Herman Caine, Huckleberry Finn, Travis Tritt, Bernard Hopkins, Mozart, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Peppermint Patty, Grim Reaper, Samuel L. Jackson, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Lenny Dykstra, Bob Barker, Barbie, Chuck Norris, Jerry Springer, Clark Kent, Muhammad Ali, Axel Foley, Joe Frazier, Stromile Swift, Martha Stewart, I Dream of Jeannie, Dawson’s Creek, Mickey Mantle, Katy Perry and Matlock.
Riff claims he might be the sergeant, a chemist, a diamond ring, a holiday, a ten’s league, balling, Berry Gordy, pimpin’ Garnett, Houdini, rollin’ in stores, carrying grape print, Dan Marino, Lake Placid, pull up in Milan or Ace of Spades. He might have to run for mayor of New York, might buy two states (North and South Dakota,) swing through your prom with the wand in his palm, swing through White Castle, turn your heart to stone, pop up in Yellowstone National Park. He might ride in a Diamondback or in a GT, work the wood, eat a steak, snap a neck, or go triple sterling silver past the civilians in a Brazilian.
Type any number of verbs, nouns or adjectives into this tool and let Riff reveal himself to you.
Riff Raff may have aspired to rap because he wanted luxury goods and cars, as he claims in Westhoff’s piece, or because he wanted to act out his wildest fantasies, or simply to escape that suburban childhood he was so unwilling to reveal. And obviously, we can’t take anything he says seriously, but he has blurred the edges of his persona to such a point that it becomes spectacle; watching who he’ll say he is next is half the fun. It’s hard to earnestly call him a poet, but he created a new style within the genre, and emerged a man willing to take rap’s bravado to unseen heights of absurdity. Chains become diamonds so large he slap-boxed a penguin to get them. It’s the success story of self-transformation: If you don’t like who you are, become someone else; if no archetype exists for what you want to become, create it. Rap has never seen anyone like Riff, but his willingness to challenge it will lead to less of the same, and more of the strange.
Tyler Trykowski is a journalist living in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter - @tylertry