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.
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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."

And finally, sitting in a faux-rock room that may be a recording studio, he says (with a midwestern accent?) into a corded telephone, "Johnny and Smokey, please come to the front office," then hanging up the phone says, "These fucking kids." Smacking his gum, he swings his head from side to side.

While Riff Raff's authenticity as a member of the music world may be in doubt, his Vine account is a xenoglossic, coprolalic trip, a bizarre outpouring of creative energy. I'm not sure that Riff Raff knows what he's doing, but he has a gift for creating microgenres within the six-second video format. He invents voices. He invents characters. He invents scenes. It's like flash improv that's over in less time than it takes to down a bottle of cough syrup. Is it stupid? Yes, most of the time. But it's joyously stupid, and sometimes very clever, and people love it.

He acts like Frankenstein going for Monster energy drinks. He plays basketball in the aisle of a grocery store. He sings along to Madonna. He records cartoons on TV. He pretends to be his uncle buying beer or your old 5th grade teacher or a mom. He uses strange voices and wears strange clothes and shows off his consumer purchasing power. And every few clips, a beautiful young woman, Internet celebrity, or hip hop star appears.

Is it silly to think about these too much? Maybe. But that's what short, looping video clips do! You want to know what's been left out, and what's beyond the frame, and how the clips fit together into something like a life.

It was Riff Raff Vines that sent me searching for a term I knew I'd heard some time in college: "[E]xtra-diegetic elements of a film do not 'exist' or 'take place' in the same plane of reality that the characters inhabit," one glossary helpfully offers. With Riff Raff's Vines, there are so many planes of reality -- Riff Raff the person's story, Riff Raff the persona's story, Riff Raff's many characters stories -- and he mixes them freely within and across Vines.

You're constantly forced to ask: How far does the narrative world extend? Figuring that out is, in fact, a structural part of why Riff Raff is compelling, even if you hate him. A white guy in cornrows with vertical lines shaved into his eyebrows and the BET logo tattooed on his chest. The standard reaction to him is, "Can this guy be serious?"

Some in the hip hop community, like Hot 97's supersmart program director, Ebro Darden, have called Riff Raff out for what they see as a persona that mocks hip hop culture, or performs blackness in a disrespectful way. Is he an artist or is he minstrel? Is his persona a novel recombination of hip hop elements by a crazy person or the same old racist buffoonery?

I can't rule out the latter -- maybe a third of his Vines are offensive in one way or another -- but I tend to think it's mostly the former. The guy is, as one Vice writer put it, a "professional crazy person," and as his Vines show, the level and novelty of his weirdness go beyond any simple performance of racial stereotypes.

But it's not just Riff Raff who we want to understand through social media. We want to know if our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are authentic, too. "What's this person really like?" Facebook profiles give one answer. Twitter another. Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube yet others. But it's Vine, new and molten as it is, that gives the most tantalizingly intimate looks at our friends and icons. When we ask, "Who are you?" the accumulation of Vines seems to provide real answers, both intended and unintended. We're right there, after all, and we can see with our own two eyes how these people appear to be. 


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. 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 Web site 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.

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