The Meaning of Riff Raff: Why a Bizarre, Controversial Rapper Is One of Vine's Most Popular Users

When you point a camera at most people, they can't think of anything to say. When you point a camera at this guy, he can say anything.
More

riffraff.jpg

Today, Vine rolled out for Android phones, having made it onto 13 million iPhones since the Twitter-owned service launched in January. Vine works like this: Users record up to 6 seconds of video in chunks of any length. Hold a thumb to the screen and it records; release, and it stops. Then, on playback, that video loops.

Whether or not you've ever played with the app, it's reasonable to ask: What the hell is Vine good for, anyway? "Like Tweets, the brevity of videos on Vine inspires creativity," Twitter's VP of Product, Michael Sippey wrote when the service launched. "Now that you can easily capture motion and sound, we look forward to seeing what you create." 

But what kind of creativity, exactly, has been inspired? What works on Vine? 

The Boston marathon bombing loop of local TV may be the only Vine many non-users have actually seen, but there's a lot more to the genre. Many of the coolest Vines are stop-motion works of art. Then there are the David Lynchian Vines (Lynch himself just joined). And the normal ark full of cat, dog, and other animal videos. For sheer popularity, behind-the-scenes shots of celebrity life dominate the service, in part because of many famous people's already enormous Twitter followings. Also, being a celebrity is kind of awesome and looks fun, relative to sitting in an office or school. In particular, rappers have taken to the service. Tyler the Creator and Wiz Khalifa have two of the biggest fan bases on Vine, which makes sense as they are both popular rappers and regular users of the service. 

The mystery, then, is why some guy named Riff Raff, a rapper best known as the inspiration for the character Alien in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, is also one of the service's most popular users. He has more than 230,000 followers on the service, even though he's never had a song on any Billboard chart. 

In short: He's a six-second-video savant. When you point a camera at most people, they can't think of anything to say. When you point a camera at Riff Raff, he can say anything. He's a case-study in Vine success, and that what he does works so well says a lot about what Vine is. 

The first Riff Raff vine that caught my eye came out 34 days ago. The title is, "HEART TO HEART CONVO WiTH SALON SELECTiVES." (This is Riff Raff's spelling quirk: all caps except for i, which is always lower-case.) The video shows a bathroom rug in the foreground. Beyond it, a pink bottle of Salon Selectives shampoo sits on small tan tile. In Riff Raff's creepy-crawly voice, we hear, "Talk to me, object. Tell me everything I need to know." The loop is hypnotic and the narrative questions it raises are many: Where is Riff Raff sitting? (On the toilet, would be my best forensic guess.) Why is he talking to this bottle? (Unclear.) What secrets would a bottle of shampoo in a bathroom have? (Actually, a lot come to think of it.) And why that voice and that slow cadence? Why this particular bottle of shampoo?

Here's how another one goes: Riff Raff stands in front of a wall of tiles in what appears to be a bathroom. He's wearing a black tank top and a black and white hat to the side. His mouth is held stiffly open, one of his incisors clearly visible. The camera cuts several times as we see different close-ups of Riff Raff's mouth. Then he says, "F' real boy," and stares at the camera. The title is, "VAMPiRE TRYiNG TO CONViNCE HiMSELF THAT HE iS A REAL BOY."

And another: he comes spinning through a door in a robe, sneakers, and gold chains as someone behind him appears to do kung fu moves. As he presents himself to the camera, he says, "How can I help you?" in what can only be described as a transylvanian accent. Then, we see a room in a mansion with a spiral stair case against the wood paneled wall. The camera pans right and Riff Raff is dancing with a Louis Vuitton bag on top of a couch to the lyric, "I was born to be a baller."

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In