Drew Millard once shot dice with Lady Bird Johnson in Barcelona.
A rapper holding a press conference is an inherently absurd act. There might have been eight people who didn’t take Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group press conference with a grain of rice, and they were the guys standing onstage doling out platitudes about how powerful Rick Ross was. But regular absurdity doesn’t cut it for Riff Raff. Last week, the Houston rapper as spacey as the Astrodome started his concert at Santos Party House with a “press conference,” fielding inane questions from the audience and giving equally inane answers back.
Someone asked if he would “bring the rice out.” “Rice will be brought,” he replied. Five minutes later, stagehands brought bags of rice out and threw it on the audience. Instead of creating some sort of Rossian event, Riff just snuck it his into his show as an opening act. Here’s what you need to understand about a Riff Raff show: it takes the idea of a rap concert and pushes it beyond the realm of conventional thought.
Riff Raff’s bizarre, self-aggrandizing antics felt like the stage histrionics of Kanye or Weezy, but scaled down — the stadium-level antics become even more ridiculous in a small club. It allowed Riff Raff to become the the American analogue to PSY, the South Korean rapper behind “Gangnam Style.” After all, his video accomplishes what Riff Raff does, playing up the self-subversion for laughs. Like Riff Raff, PSY, or the character he’s playing, acts like a rich and powerful dandy, but as shots wear on it turns out he’s just an idiot. At its core, the video is a parody of contemporary Korean culture, one that’s largely lost on the Americans due to the stiff language barrier and the fact that the video’s crazy as shit.
The “Gangnam” in the title refers to a nouveau-riche neighborhood in Seoul. It lampoons South Koreans spending beyond their means in a hollow attempt to replicate “that life.” If you read a translation of the lyrics, the first bit is about wanting to find a girl who chugs her coffee—a non-sequitur initially, but one that becomes clear when you remember that coffee is expensive as fuck in South Korea. People scrimp on food in order to show off and drop bank at Starbucks. PSY is very obviously in on his own joke; but with Riff Raff, it’s hard to tell if it’s a joke at all.
If you didn’t know his background, you might think that Riff Raff is merely a troll. But more than anything, Riff Raff is a child of two places: Houston, and the Internet. These dueling contexts allow for a dynamism and frustration within his persona: he’s a guy who grew up poor in a predominantly black neighborhood and genuinely raps well, but couldn’t seem to find a foothold amongst the million other struggle rappers out there until he took to the Internet and allowed the bizarreness of his personality to hang out.
He found true popularity once he started a potato salad-tossing Twitter account and unleashing a succession of YouTube videos — some of which were day-glo takes on the gangsta rap aesthetic, others were him just fucking around and being weird. It’s this eccentricity that often overshadows his actual skills, and he seems aggravated by it. In a long piece published by XXL, he appeared trapped in a prison of his own design, camera crews following him around and asking him to dial up the weirdness and force spectacle after spectacle.
As for the performance itself, it felt perfunctory: a six-song set comprised of Riff Raff deep cuts, culminating in the Chief Keef collaboration “Cuz My Gear.” The show was punctuated by an intermission that functioned as a de facto smoke break for the audience. Rather than a microphone, he wore a boy band headset. Yet the show felt like a genuine extension of his personality. He knew he was funny, but he was trying not to be a complete joke.
Riff Raff is basically doing performance art in the way that Lou Reed was when he made Metal Machine Music or G.G. Allin living life like a preamble to suicide. It’s evidence of a drugged-out mind, sure, but it’s also groundbreaking. If you asked any of these people if they were trying to create “performance art,” including Riff, they’d probably deny it. They live to fuck with our expectations. What the Internet has give us is the ability to live theatrically at all times — the cameras never have to turn off. And no rapper has grasped that concept with as much tenacity as Riff Raff. When he’s making YouTube videos pretending to be Bill Brasky or even doing gator tails of coke and then freestyling, he’s showing us his genuinely funny, troubled self. But by providing so much of himself for public consumption, he surrenders control of his own image.
If PSY tries to make South Korea question the way that it’s living beyond its means, Riff Raff is making American hip-hop question its own conventions. Why would you throw rice out on your audience? Why hold a press conference before you rap? Why have an intermission? Well, why not? The brilliance of Riff Raff is that he simply acts differently than what you’ve come to expect from a rapper, and like the late Dash Snow taking a bunch of mushrooms and pretending to be a hamster for an art exhibit, it’s up to us to determine the meaning for ourselves.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously argued that theater, in and of itself, is not reality, merely a representation of it. What’s holding us back from saying that a hip-hop show isn’t the exact same way? If a rap concert is not inherently hip-hop in its purest form, then just like theater, it’s nothing more than a representation. And what’s better representation of the often empty grandstanding of hip-hop than a six-song show that lasts twenty minutes with an intermission and a press conference thrown in?
When it was over, there were cheers, followed quickly by a sense of shock. Everyone wondered what had just happened. The answer was everything and nothing — all at the same time.