Becoming Riff Raff
As a prepubescent boy in the early '90s, Horst Simco was enamored of Vanilla Ice. Like millions of other kids, Horst fell for the white rapper's slick dance moves and outrageous style — Evel Knievel-style jumpsuits, blow-dried, gravity-defying hair, slits cut into his eyebrows.
But before long Ice fell out of favor, amid questions of his authenticity. Though the man born Robert Van Winkle claimed to be a poor kid who'd attended high school in Miami, he'd actually grown up in a middle-class Dallas suburb — not exactly the streetwise image he was trying to convey.
Young Horst, though, maintained affection for his hero long after it ceased being cool. But when it came to charm and charisma, he was no Vanilla Ice. Family members recall a well-behaved, quiet kid who never got in trouble. And while the rap scene in Houston was bubbling up, Horst might as well have been a million miles from it: The family's ranch house was on a quiet cul-de-sac in the northwest suburbs about 25 miles outside downtown, with a towering ash tree out front and a big backyard. There wasn't much to do in the area; not long before Ronald and Anita Simco bought there in 1984, the area was mostly rice farms.
Horst wasn't much into making music — no one in the family really took to any musical instruments, his brother says — but he was obsessed with basketball, playing frequently with a group that included his next-door neighbor, Juan Sosa.
"He was nothing like he is today," says Sosa, now 34. He describes Horst as a "bookworm" and a "shy, clean-cut kid" who wore collared shirts and blue jeans.
The Simcos moved away and the boys fell out of touch. But years later, in 2009, Sosa was shocked to see his former basketball buddy on MTV reality show From G's to Gents. His look and manner couldn't have been more different.
In the ensuing decade, Horst Simco had transformed into Riff Raff: a controversial, wild-eyed rapper dripping in diamonds, his body coated with outrageous tattoos. With cornrows, a whimsical zigzag beard and notched eyebrows just like Vanilla Ice, he'd become an Internet sensation — a virtual caricature of a hip-hop star, a lightning rod called both brilliant and a brain-dead minstrel act.
Riff Raff is an endlessly quotable, sui generis pop-culture figure, a bona fide celebrity who pals around with Drake and Justin Bieber. His YouTube videos get millions of views.
There's something polarizing about him: Depending upon your point of view, Riff Raff seems either to embody the worst racial stereotypes or to transcend them. He peppers his rhymes about money, cars and women with surrealist humor that's crass but often hilarious — on his recent single "Dolce & Gabbana" he rhymes, "Your bitch playing strip poker / I'm outside eatin' fried okra / (With who?) With Oprah!" But despite some extremely catchy songs, he's had no chart success to speak of, and many folks paying attention to him don't necessarily find his music compelling. They just want to know if he's serious.
Today, Riff Raff sits sulking on a couch in the lobby of the Los Angeles headquarters of his record label, Mad Decent. Most artists in his situation would be waxing about their forthcoming album, particularly when it's got as much buzz as Riff Raff's Neon Icon. Although it doesn't yet have a firm release date, it's expected to feature a bevy of hot rappers and producers, including Wiz Khalifa, Skrillex and DJ Mustard. After countless mixtapes, this is Riff Raff's first official release — and his introduction to a wider audience.
Instead, he's brooding. Though his publicist was told otherwise, he thought this meeting would be for a cover shoot, and he'd clearly labored over his look: His beard is just right, and his braids done up with white and black beads. His orange T-shirt with cutoff sleeves matches his multicolored board shorts and his Nikes. He's eating from a bag of candy oranges, the two-for-a-dollar kind, and drinking a Snapple; even his snacks match his outfit.
Another problem: This interview isn't being videotaped. "Y'all should've added a video or some shit," he says. Indeed, video is where Riff Raff's charisma shines through. He's pure id, full of restless energy, and his non sequiturs are perhaps best understood via six-second looping clips on Vine.
So right now he's miserable. "I feel like I'm in a police station interrogation or something," he says, sounding downright depressed.
Even worse is when he's asked specific questions about his past. It's safe to say there's nothing Riff Raff would rather talk about less.
What's strange is that, for a guy as famous as he is, almost no one knows the most basic information about him. This is largely because he's been dispensing evasive answers since he began giving interviews. "My mom was a pilot, and my dad wrestled polar bears," he answers when asked what his parents did for a living. Other times he stretches the truth and lies with more conviction.
No one really questions what he says, and as a result countless outlets have published biographical information about him that is false. Almost nobody can agree on the most basic facts about him, starting with his real name and his age.
For the record, he was born Horst Christian Simco on January 29, 1982, making him 31. He was a normal, square kid throughout his childhood, and he studied liberal arts at a community college in Hibbing, Minnesota. Upon returning to Houston ten years ago, he was painting cars and gradually beginning to build his new identity.
It's unclear why he's so cagey about his past; perhaps he believes his middle-class background disqualifies him from rap stardom.
The details in this story weren't easy to get. They're culled from public records and dozens of interviews with family members, friends and rap peers, in an attempt to understand how a white, suburban kid became rap's most beguiling figure — and to answer one big question: Is the character of Riff Raff an elaborate piece of performance art or his true self?
His fabrications and deflections are redolent of those used by Vanilla Ice. Grilled in 1991 by Arsenio Hall about his past, Ice speculated that folks were gunning for him because he was on top, before concluding: "It ain't where you're from, man, it's where you're at."
Today Riff Raff is asked why he tells reporters his name is Jody Christian rather than Horst Simco. He responds, "My name is whatever anyone wants it to be. As a matter of fact, I might change my name to Captain Funzo — then what are they going to say?"
Like many up-and-coming Houston rappers, Fat Tony — now critically acclaimed, with a national profile — spent much of his time peddling CDs at colleges and malls.
In the mid-'00s, he began encountering Riff Raff, who had already shed Horst Simco. Tony recalls him sporting denim jean shorts that nearly touched his high-tops, a do-rag and a throwback jersey. "I thought he was corny-looking," says Tony, who has since become a fan.
But Ronald Vaughns, who raps under the name Freestyle Bully, immediately identified Riff Raff as a kindred spirit. "We both had a lot of jewelry, both had our CDs, and we stood out from regular people," Vaughns says, describing their 2007 meeting at Sharpstown Mall. They later twice lived together in apartments on the city's southwest side, according to Vaughns, plying their music, seducing women and selling drugs.
Horst had come a long way from the suburbs where he was raised.
Then majority-white, Copperfield boasted a low crime rate and a good school district. A family photo from the early '90s shows Horst's father, Ronald, with a caterpillar mustache, while mother Anita wears a floral-print dress and the four blond children smile with as much sincerity as they can muster. Horst, wearing a bowl cut and a T-shirt, looks somewhere between bored and bewildered. In his ninth-grade school picture for Langham Creek High School, his Caesar-style haircut is punctuated by a cowlick. The family considered itself solidly middle-class.
Today the eldest Simco child, Amber, lives in the Washington, D.C., area and works for the National Institutes of Health. The next sibling after Horst, Claire, works as a nurse and is raising a family in Duluth, Minnesota. Viktor, the youngest, is a sponsored snowboarder based in St. Paul.
But Horst took a different path. He claims he was a poor student, and says he didn't graduate high school.
However, their father insists that Horst did, in fact, graduate, and his former roommate Vaughns also believes he did. (Horst's photo disappears from Langham Creek High School after ninth grade; the local school district won't say whether he graduated.)
One of Riff Raff's managers told Gawker that Riff Raff dropped out, got his GED and played basketball at Louisiana State University on scholarship before being cut from the team. Riff Raff himself has referenced the LSU scholarship. But the Houston Chronicle reported last year that a spokesman for the school's athletic department had never heard of him.
For whatever reason, by 2000 Horst was in a rut. His parents had divorced, leaving Ronald Simco, a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, devastated. After being diagnosed with tonsil cancer, Ronald moved to Duluth to get out of the heat. For a time Horst and his siblings shuttled back and forth between there and Houston, where their mother remained.
In fall 2001, Horst enrolled at the community college in Hibbing, a tiny, homogeneous burg on the Minnesota iron range (motto: "We're Ore and More") best known as Bob Dylan's hometown. He played on the basketball team and studied liberal arts.
Ultimately, though, he felt out of place in staid Hibbing, and lasted only a month on the basketball team. Feeling homesick, he dropped out in 2003 and moved back to Houston. As he frequently changed apartments, including some on Houston's grittier Northside, Horst failed to find gainful employment. Sometimes even the checks his dad sent weren't enough to make the rent.
Ronald Simco thought his son's new environments were too dangerous. "He had guns pointed at his head, that kind of thing," he says. "I told him I didn't want to go to my own son's funeral."
Living in a tough part of Houston with a peer group almost entirely black, Horst painted cars in the in-vogue "candy-colored" style. He looked up to Northside Houston rappers from label Swishahouse, including Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Slim Thug, who were blowing up around that time.
It wasn't just their rhymes that Horst admired; it was their larger-than-life personas: They draped themselves in diamonds and drove ostentatious cars. They had women, they had money.
"Baller stuff," Riff Raff remembers. "The money, nice cars, getting crazy."
Riff Raff didn't necessarily want to be a rapper: He just wanted the baller stuff for himself. "I didn't even think about music back then," he says.
It was around the mid-'00s that Riff Raff debuted his now-famous look. He began doing his hair up in braids, as was popular among Northsiders like Slim Thug, and shopping for bling at TV Jewelry. "He didn't look like the type of white dude you'd want to run up on," explains former roommate Vaughns.
Eventually, Horst decided that being a rapper would be the most expedient way to achieve the celebrity he craved. He began absorbing the scene, doing his best to get noticed. "I always saw him around, at Swishahouse events, or in the club parking lot," says the label's co-founder, producer OG Ron C. Many folks were put off by his look, OG Ron C adds, but his jolly personality won over others.
It was around this time that Horst began to develop his Southern street twang. "When he started to get into rap, he started to emulate the black culture," Ronald Simco says.
Vaughns adds, "Riff used to hang with only black people. When you hang with all black people, you talk black."
Around this time, in 2008, Riff Raff and Vaughns moved in together. Vaughns recalls that Riff Raff was, for a brief period, selling Ecstasy pills. (Riff Raff did not respond to questions through his publicist concerning the allegations; asked in a radio interview if he'd ever sold drugs, he said he didn't want to "incriminate" himself.)
His raps were developing. As his confidence grew, he got sillier, donning girly, press-on nails for his early video "Juice." Riff Raff began making songs and videos with talent manager DB da Boss. Before long, his low-budget clips were gaining traction on YouTube and Worldstarhiphop. "He was very driven, very ambitious. You couldn't deny his work ethic," DB says. "Underneath that shell is a very intelligent man."
He acquired a pair of slick cars, according to Vaughns: a candy green Sebring and a candy pink Infiniti. The latter's exterior had spinning rims and speakers so everyone could hear his music. But the coup de grace was the trunk, which, when popped open, revealed glowing neon lights reading RIFF RAFF.
By then Horst Simco had been fully absorbed into the Riff Raff character. He looked woefully out of place at his sister's 2008 wedding in Duluth; instead of a suit, he wore a short-sleeved, turquoise polo shirt and a black baseball cap over a do-rag. During the reception he quietly freestyled in the back of the hall while someone toasted the bride and groom.
No one interviewed for this story professed to know much about Riff Raff's aspirations, about what was going on in his head. But his actions show a man determined to be famous.
In the late '00s he wanted, badly, to get on television, even flying to Atlanta on his own dime to try out for From G's to Gents, a show purporting to smooth out the edges of rough street guys. When he learned that he'd made the second season's cast, before taping even began, he immediately got a giant MTV logo tattooed on his neck and started calling himself MTV Riff Raff.
He was quickly voted off by his fellow contestants. But viewers were intrigued by his funny ad-libs and fashion touches. The show was his first major forum, and he undertook a bit of mythmaking, claiming to be estranged from his father and saying he'd attended school for only 11 years. Ironically, despite the show's stated purpose, he was undertaking the opposite transformation, hoping to turn from a gent into a G.
Upon the show's debut in early 2009, the reaction was immediate. Suddenly he was getting tens of thousands of clicks on his MySpace profile. His name was spreading. Hipped to him by producer Alchemist, former MTV VJ and rapper Simon Rex called him. Before long, Riff Raff was visiting L.A. and sleeping on Rex's couch. The pair later formed a rap group called Three Loco with comedian Andy Milonakis.
In 2011, Riff Raff arrived in L.A. to stay. He won over critics with collaborations with hot artists such as Action Bronson, Chief Keef, Kitty Pryde and Lil B, as well as solo tracks.
Last year he surprised everyone by signing a deal with electro imprint Mad Decent. Its chief, super-producer Diplo, compared Riff Raff to early Apple stock — strong potential upside.
Riff Raff's brother, Viktor, is a vision of what Horst Simco might have become: He has a narrow, handsome face and a tall, athletic build, but his clean-cut look lacks easily visible tattoos. Horst also might have followed the path to graduate school, like his older sister, Amber, who has a pair of master's degrees.
Improbably, he has instead achieved celebrity, and perhaps riches as well. He speaks gleefully of the Las Vegas home he's outfitting with a Jacuzzi in the living room, and lists off the cars he says he owns, including a Porsche Panamera.
He's become so well-known that the simulacrum is now a simulacrum. When acclaimed filmmaker Harmony Korine was planning his dystopian college-bacchanal film Spring Breakers, he attempted unsuccessfully to contact Riff Raff to participate. In the end, James Franco played a St. Petersburg drug dealer-cum-rapper named Alien, whose appearance and speaking style were similar to Riff Raff's. (Riff Raff influenced the character, say Korine and Franco, but so did others including a little-known Florida emcee named Dangeruss.)
In July, Riff Raff announced that he was suing the filmmakers for using his likeness. Countless outlets reported on his attempts to win $10 million, but it appears to be little more than a publicity stunt. A search of court records turned up no lawsuit.
His tawdrier exploits have only added to the Riff Raff myth. Two women publicly accused him of masturbating in front of them after he invited them into his home. (Riff Raff did not respond to a request for comment on that allegation.)
Other women who claim to have hooked up with him offer lurid accounts, but at least they don't suggest he's a phony. On a site called phatfriend.com, one woman wrote that, throughout their hookup, he didn't break character: "He is him. A caricature of himself maybe. He believes it, and I guess that's what makes the myth the man."
Riff Raff had high hopes when he showed up at behemoth New York radio station Hot 97 in May for an interview. But it was derailed by program director Ebro Darden, who harshly accused Riff Raff of perpetuating "a stereotype of a certain type of black person" and wondered if his look was a mere costume.
To Darden, it comes down to authenticity: If Riff Raff came from a hardscrabble, urban environment, he could understand the rationale for dressing as he did. Not otherwise.
Now, after being filled in on the details of Riff Raff's upbringing by a reporter, Darden is unconvinced. "I felt like it was an act, and based on the information you're giving me, it is an act," he says. "My main issue is the appropriation of what people think is black culture to gain credibility."
Following Miley Cyrus's much-derided performance at last month's MTV Video Music Awards, the pop starlet was similarly accused of crude racial appropriation. But when does a look stop being a costume and start being who you really are?
After all, maybe it was initially dress-up, but now the costume is more real than the boy who first donned it. Horst Simco was a quiet, pensive kid who turned from Horst (the one who played by the rules) into Riff Raff (the disreputable one) because hip-hop was a world where confident, sharp-dressed men succeeded. So, like countless rappers and movie stars before him, he faked it until he made it, and suddenly there was no Horst Simco anymore. There was only Riff Raff.
But Riff Raff hasn't abandoned Horst entirely. He might betray where he came from, but not the performer who inspired him.
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While white rappers like Eminem and 3rd Bass both have gone out of their way to diss Vanilla Ice, Riff Raff has repeatedly professed his admiration for his childhood idol, including during the Hot 97 interview.
"To me, you're the new Vanilla Ice!" Darden said, intending it as a jab.
"I love it," Riff Raff responded.
Ben Westhoff is LA Weekly Music Editor and Senior Music Editor of Voice Media Group.