Birth of an Icon, Death of an Icon: Notes on RiFF RAFF and Our Contemporaneity

ESSAY by Harrison M.J. Sherrod

Yesterday’s weirdness is tomorrow’s reason why – Hunter S. Thompson

Quick draw McGraw, I went to art school – Lil Wayne

Inside my mind, kaleidoscope – RiFF RAFF

The YouTube-era “outsider” rapper/performance artist known as RiFF RAFF (alias Jody Highroller a k a rap game Ferris Bueller)[1] is a figure encompassed by hype, intrigue and controversy. His eccentric, turbocharged persona and idiosyncratic brand of hip-hop, characterized by obscure pop culture references and surreal non-sequiturs, have solidified him as a supremely contentious persona. RiFF RAFF’s gambit is predicated on an iPod generation mashup aesthetic in which everything from video games to high fashion labels to 90s sports references are fed into a centrifuge, spun around at light speed and spit out as a gargantuan, coagulated bricolage of mass culture. RiFF RAFF is equally well-known for his hyperactive social media presence. In the past year he has garnered attention as a viral video hit factory, providing compulsively watchable footage on a regular basis. He is also a prolific tweeter, inundating followers with daily musings and rap stanzas. RiFF RAFF’s rise to fame began with a brief appearance on MTV’s 2008 reality show From G’s to Gent, in which uncouth gangstas undergo a crash course in civility. The trajectory of his meteor reached an apex with the release of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a Day-Glo-suffused tale of teenybopper bacchanalian revelry-turned-nightmare.[2] The film features an oddball drug dealer named Alien, played by James Franco and inspired at least in part by RiFF RAFF, creating multilayered intertexual metadiscourse that short-circuits the binary between fact and fiction.[3] The diverse mix of signifiers in RiFF RAFF’s music is mirrored by his myriad tattoos of Viacom entities and media outlets, representing a literal embodiment of late late capital.

Despite parading in lowbrow regalia, RiFF RAFF should be positioned against a Frankfurt School vilification of mass culture, as well as the affect of postmodern disenchantment. Instead, he can be aligned with the neo-romantic position of Metamodernism (related to “New Sincerity” or the Kitsch Movement), embracing an optimistic, free-form appropriation of pop iconography for utopian means. The kaleidoscopic array of RiFF RAFF’s reference points is so dense that each symbol loses its original meaning and morphs into an open text. This phenomenon could only take place in the digital age, which allows for a total deregulation of content via the overload of data provided by the internet. RiFF RAFF epitomizes the conditions of our contemporary moment, especially as they relate to the issues that preoccupy art discourse such as legitimacy, web 2.0 and the contentious relationship between elite and popular culture. A protean jack of all trades, he occupies a liminal gray area amid hip-hop and art, cyberspace and reality, seriousness and humor. How does RiFF RAFF blur these boundaries and why does he elicit equal parts praise and derision for doing so? Using Jody Highroller[4] as a case study, one can begin to map the topography of today’s cultural badlands.

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For a good portion of the 20th century, as a result of Duchamp’s conceptual provocations, a singular question endured: What counts as art? Today there exist two shifts that render this question moot. On one hand, art-making tools once reserved for experts are widely accessible to the masses, and on the other, visuality itself has become a nonessential element of a practice that for the history of civilization was premised on seeing. Thus, as Jean-Luc Nancy has posited, the more appropriate inquiry today is: What doesn’t count as art?[5] From Lil B’s lecture at NYU to Hennessy Youngman’s “Art Thoughtz” videos, this free-for-all climate has allowed for a dialogue between the art world and hip-hop culture.[6] As a result of these ossified barriers softening, RiFF RAFF has been able to ping-pong back and forth along the high/low continuum, resisting ghettoization within either camp. In his essay “Elite Art in an Age of Populism” Julian Stallabrass argues, “Vast numbers of people are now making things that look a bit like art, and are finding that it is not hard to do.”[7] This is enabled by the fact that everyone with an internet connection is always already in the process of reassembling culture via social media platforms. Contemporary art, especially that of a populist stripe (Koons, Murakami, Banksy), has followed suit, becoming less about forging proto-objects and more about commandeering preexisting images. The shock of the new has been supplanted by the shock of the old returning to life as a reanimated Frankenstein-esque monster jury-rigged together with bits and pieces of pop culture detritus.

Stallabrass proposes that we all suffer from attention deficit disorder as a result of our exposure to this constant blur of montage: “The vast flow of culture is taken in by viewers with an aesthetic of overload and rapid switching from one source to another.” Indeed, listening to RiFF RAFF’s music is effectively like channel surfing or performing an aleatoric Google search. For example, on his recent mixtape Hologram Panda, he references goth rocker Marilyn Manson, Ted Danson of Cheers fame, cosmic comic book hero Green Lantern, the Grand Canyon, NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani, San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginóbili, the Grim Reaper, chess master Bobby Fisher and the Sega video game series Shinobi. The sheer density and diversity of these allusions shield him from being typecast as a one-dimensional caricature, i.e. his scatter-shot approach is too all-encompassing to count as the satirization of any one given thing. RiFF RAFF recycles mass culture to the extent that it loses all original meaning. His allusions are mined from every vector of the map and reprocessed into a refined material devoid of any source code. This finds an analog in Nicolas Bourriaud’s model of the deejay as collage artist in which culture becomes so sampled that it shakes off all connotations. Moreover, RiFF RAFF is not the typical postmodern marriage of big business and popular taste. In keeping with what David Robbins terms “High Entertainment,” he co-opts the channels of digital distribution (YouTube, Vine, WorldstarHipHop) to transmit noncommercial content via mainstream forms.

Spend a moment perusing the comments section of RiFF RAFF’s music videos and it becomes apparent that he engenders heated debate. Why so much venom for an artist who offers a breath of fresh air in a genre suffocated by hackneyed, ethically suspect machismo tropes?[8] The answer lies in a problem that troubles both the rap game and contemporary art world: legitimacy. Ours is an age of paranoia. Due in large part to never-ending cascade of info churned out by the web, we find ourselves incessantly interrogating the validity of everything we read, hear, see; however, this anxiety extends to the way that culture is consumed today as well. The postmodern sensibility that dominated the latter half of the 20th century was rooted in a feeling of cynicism and coolness caused by the overwhelming juggernaut of mass media coupled with the Weltschmerz of unbridled capitalism. Erasing the barrier dividing high and low, artists appropriated the trappings of pop to critique a world saturated in the ectoplasm of rampant consumption (Kruger’s magazine advertisements, Nauman’s neon signage). Much of this work espoused an ironic or sarcastic tone and the more it was rechanneled back into the system it attempted to denounce, the more the boundaries between “blank parody” and prototype became hazy.[9] Against this backdrop of white noise the modernist notion of the artist as harbinger of truth evaporated. Similarly, the slippage between an authentic experience and its simulacra/simulation, exemplified by the “almost all right”[10] Las Vegas Strip and virtual microcosms of video games, dealt another blow to the real.

Postmodernism gave rise to a pervasive skepticism regarding the credibility of all cultural products, but especially artworks, which were already shrouded in the mystique of subjective interpretation. It’s no coincidence that the 60s and 70s witnessed the boom of critical theory—post-structuralism, semiotics, et cetera—all modalities of analysis that sought to classify and categorize so as to reveal a covert meaning. Aside from the art world, this urge to label has trickled down to the practice of music journalism, which suffers from a pathological impulse to invent new genealogies on what seems like a daily basis: brostep, vaporwave, seapunk, microhouse, sludge metal, chiptune. This is the symptom of an insecure culture that is perpetually concerned with understanding the position of a given text. We must annotate and anthropologize lest we be unmasked as philistines unschooled in the science of cultural decryption. It’s easy to see why our current climate, hypersensitive to the postmodern minefield of abstruse referents and double entendres, would be suspicious of RiFF RAFF. Like Schrödinger’s cat or what Carrie Lambert-Beatty has termed the parafictional, he always occupies the position of both/and, never either/or. People who like or dislike RiFF RAFF can roughly be converted into two parallel categories: those who require zero contextualization and happily take things at face value versus those who demand a lucid understanding of an artist’s identity, agenda and coordinates on the axis of history (what David Shields would call “reality hunger”).[11] This is the difference between encountering an artwork in a museum without any frame of reference and being supplied with the title/date, program booklet and guided audio tour.

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The war over the merits of mass culture can be distilled into a debate between two factions, with the Frankfurt School and John Fiske at opposite ends of the spectrum. While the former group regards mass culture as an opioid that dulls the populace and allows for the surreptitious dissemination of ideological propaganda, the latter maintains a more moderate stance, suggesting that consumers possess agency and can therefore make their own interpretations about the meaning of advertisements, consumer goods and pop ideograms. This allows for what Fiske calls an “economy of signification” in which the spectator has the ability to empty a cultural object of its intended value and refashion it for his or her own usage. To place it in the context of semiotics, if David Foster Wallace’s Signifying Rappers functions as a Rosetta Stone for decoding the hieroglyphs of hip-hop, then RiFF RAFF can be aligned with Derrida’s Of Grammatology, revealing the mallability of lyrical language. Much of contemporary art discourse has concerned itself with the question of whether the postmodern age has come to pass. The response is often a tepid yes and no answer. Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker have attempted to remedy this stalemate with their blog “Notes on Metamodernism,” which they describe as a pragmatic return to earnestness. In this vision, postmodern tactics like crisscrossing the wires of high/low circuits and the deployment of humor can be used to achieve the modern effect of divine truth. This is no doubt the position of RiFF RAFF, who is never tongue-in-cheek, but sincerely attempting to unearth the hidden magic of mass culture.

RiFF RAFF’s hijacking of mighty cultural motifs finds a historical analog in M.M. Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, born out of his analysis of the two epic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel by the 15th century French author Rabelais.[12] The carnivalesque functions as an antidote to the tyrannical forces of the church and the state, acting as a safety value for releasing the pent-up anxiety and indignation of the masses. Mockery and satire become the primary tools for challenging the oppressive burden of official rules and regulations, but Bakhtin also identifies a number of other traits that constitute carnivalesque protest: topsy-turvy inversion, emphasis on the collective corpus, embrace of lewd behavior, use of costumes and focus on rebirth. All of these characteristics alleviate the misery of everyday life and offer a temporarily glimpse of revolutionary change. Though RiFF RAFF is unconcerned with revolting against bureaucracy, he does attempt to upset the hypnosis of quotidian existence and reveal the underlying madness of consumerism.

The objective of postmodern art is remarkably similar to the aim of the carnivalesque: both function as a kind of détournement, masquerading in the garb of a dominant mode with the intention of subverting it from within. Contemporary practitioners of the carnivalesque like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy are at the forefront of a pell-mell style saturated in the flotsam and jetsam of mass culture, excavating the latent content of an American unconscious hooked on consumerism. Describing “the New Cacophony” Jerry Saltz writes, “Nowadays this all-at-once gambit can be seen as a way to compete with the paranoia and havoc of everyday life; a homeopathic dose of poison whereby ruins are created to counteract ruin; a manic-depressive panic attack in the face of information overload; a rejoinder to minimalism; a way to fill space and get attention.”[13] The downside of this tactic is that it inevitably serves to reinforce the supremacy of the prevailing ideology, i.e. by dressing in the garb of the oppressor, one surrenders to his power. In the exhibition catalogue for her ‘87 show Comic Iconoclasm, curator Sheena Wagstaff touches on this drawback: “Sometimes it feels as if by celebrating the mass-produced images of capitalism, many artists are simply eulogizing an emptiness which would otherwise destroy them. They are afraid, and couch their fear in comic fakery by laughing on the surface and trembling underneath.”[14] However, RiFF RAFF doesn’t fall into the same trap as the Kelley and McCarthy—he cannot be charged with hypocrisy because his vision of a 24/7 carnivalesque utopia has no use for opprobrium.

RiFF RAFF’s name alone suggests the two main ingredients of the grimy gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic outlined by Saltz: trash and appropriation. Yet in contrast with fine artists, RiFF RAFF’s engagement with kitsch does not take place within the hallowed grounds of a museum or gallery space; instead, he is the true incarnation of the carnivalesque AWOL lifestyle championed by Bakhtin. Furthermore, RiFF RAFF sports the vestments of pop not as a burlesque critique of free market madness, but rather as a sincere, positivist attempt to find the sublime or maximum fun in a zeitgeist where entropy and disenchantment reign supreme. Frivolity is too often viewed as the obverse of serious inquiry, especially when it comes to the art world, and as RiFF RAFF declared on a recent HOT 97 interview, “The shit I’m doing ain’t a joke.” Of course, he is joking, but if everything is a joke then nothing is.[15] Translation: this is more than just another incarnation of postmodern satire. His worldview might be summed up as: if we’re stuck with this Saltz’s “raging bile duct” of mass culture we might as well fashion it into a slip-n-slide.[16] Though RiFF RAFF doesn’t offer a crystallized critique of his milieu, he does reveal its unconscious humor, and as Bakhtin, Freud, Robbins, the Surrealists et al. have noted, joking possesses the unique ability to loosen the grip of the status quo and suggest an alternative, other way.

RiFF RAFF’s antics acquire a subversive potency because they are conducted within contexts that rely upon a stony-faced gravitas. In no stunt is this more evident than his recent trip to Art Basel Miami. Playing the role of court jester, RiFF RAFF poses as a sculpture, asks patrons about their net worth and provides a trenchant exegesis of various artworks. Describing the frame of a photograph featuring a fiery planet, he observes: “This is fine tuned granite from a stainless steel which is the same material used on Louisville sluggers, so that’s that.” The piece is also compared to a time-traveling incarnation of Romeo and Juliet as well as his bottle of Budweiser. Art is removed from the lofty echelon of abstraction and placed amongst ubiquitous reference points and everyday consumer items, thereby revealing its collusion with capitalism in a lighthearted way.[17] RiFF RAFF’s juxtaposition generates a twofold effect: the insular, hermetically sealed bubble of the art world suddenly seems permeable and mass culture becomes detached from its mundane connotations. This is the antithesis of Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film” in which the rapper anoints himself “the modern day Pablo.” Shot at the Pace Gallery in NYC with supporting cast of artists and dealers like Marina Abramović, George Condo, and Bill Powers, the video is less of a performance piece, more of a highly staged marketing campaign (the apotheosis of uncool) that portrays Jay-Z as an art world insider toeing the party line. In contrast, RiFF RAFF’s outsider status allows him to engage in a genuine dialectic with the absurdity of Art Basel.

As Stallabrass suggests: “The threat to elite art comes from the lack of pretense in populist art: it does not pretend not to be a commodity, or to be uninterested in publicity; it does not refuse to bear the marks of its reception; it is relatively open about its methods, and encourages participation; it is generally uninterested in expert opinion.”[18] Stallabrass points to Nicholas Roeg’s alien from The Man Who Fell to Earth (played by David Bowie) as the ultimate personification of postmodern malaise, rendered comatose by his wall of television screens. Following this analogy, RiFF RAFF represents the contemporary extraterrestrial, one for whom entertainment culture acts not as a mind-numbing, noxious narcotic, but constitutive life force. This is a creature that transcends screen fatigue and the paralysis of information overload in favor of a “Yes Is More” ethos.[19] Indeed, if postmodernism signaled the effacement of the artist’s identity, then our contemporary moment heralds to the evacuation of content. Today, mass culture is grist for the mill. Following Niklas Luhmann, it functions as the invisible orthopedic scaffolding of our society, and thus constitutes its own autopoetic, self-cannibalizing medium. The proper response to our situation is not reactionary escapism; instead, we should seek to embrace this moment of alchemy, in which trash can be transformed into art. The contents of the essay may represent the silver lining of our contemporaneity identified by Stallabrass: a fusion of populist art and elite critique. To those who can’t endorse this helter-skelter hybridization of cultural coordinates: “You set your alarm clock just to start hating—get your ass back to sleep boy!”[20]

 

Works Cited

Saltz, Jerry. “Clusterfuck Esthetics.” Artnet Magazine. N.p., 07 Dec. 2005. Web. 11 June 2013.

Smith, Terry. “”Our” Contemporaneity.” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present. Ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 17-27. Print.

Stallabrass, Julian. “Elite Art in an Age of Populism.” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present. Ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 39-49. Print.

Wagstaff, Sheena. Comic Iconoclasm. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1987.

 

Notes

[1] Throughout his songs RiFF RAFF often refers to himself as “rap game (fill in the blank with washed-up celebrity).” Fans have taken it upon themselves to submit their own monikers, but this joke may have reached a limit case with a recent tweet from the artist himself: “RAP GAME SUPER MARiO BROS. 3 WHEN U DUCK BEHiND THE BRiCKS & THEN FLY UP BEHiND THE BLACK SCREEN AT THE END & GET STUFF.” Once again, RiFF RAFF extends cultural citation beyond its logical confines.

[2] Perhaps fittingly, Spring Breakers addresses the reality of the virtual and the verisimilitude of the digital world.

[3] Depending on whom you ask, RiFF RAFF was originally slated to star in the film, but didn’t respond to Korine’s offer in time. Meanwhile, Franco has denied that his character is based exclusively on RiFF RAFF, claiming that the Florida rapper Dangeruss was his primary source of inspiration. In retaliation, RiFF RAFF recently appeared on the soap opera One Life to Live portraying an art dealer named “Jamie Franco.”

[4] Yet another RiFF RAFF sobriquet

[5] Terry Smith, “Our Contemporaneity?” pg. 20-21

[6] This can be traced back to the success of street artists with hip-hop ties like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

[7] Stallabrass, “Elite Art in an Age of Populism” pg. 45

[8] I concede that this is a sweeping generalization on my part, but it seems that so called “indie” or “socially conscious” hip-hop suffers from one or two drawbacks: (a) it quickly becomes just another formulaic cliché commandeered and commodified by mega labels, or (b) from a lyrical stand point, it fails to distance itself from the mainstream mode it purports to contradict, e.g. even J Dilla raps about murder.

[10] An allusion to Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas, which encouraged architects to be more receptive to the hybrid styles of the Strip.

[11] Not unlike Saussure’s distinction between diachronic and synchronic. Also similar to Eve Sedgwick’s reparative versus paranoid reading.

[12] Also the springboard for Stallabrass’ text on manufactured mass culture.

[13] Jerry Saltz, “Clusterfuck Esthetics”

[14] Sheena Wagstaff, Comic Iconoclasm

[15] This is a variation on the mantra of Chicago-based video bloggers Everything is Terrible, who create mash-ups comprised of 80s and 90s VHS footage.

[16] Incidentally, RiFF RAFF has proposed opening a 21+ baby oil waterpark complete with a full bar and deejay.

[17] Indeed, RiFF RAFF’s hyper-materiality is a provocative rejoinder to the Tino Sehgal, who represents the limit case of experience > objectness.

[18] Stallabrass, “Elite Art in an Age of Populism,” pg. 44

[19]  Conversely, RiFF RAFF’s involvement in the chopped and screwed music scene, a subgenus of Southern hip-hop that involves slowing down the tempo of a song to a glacial pace and imbibing purple drank (a dangerous mix of codeine and promethazine), can be interpreted as a protest against the instantaneous nature of global communications and dizzying blur of present-day life.

[20] RiFF RAFF interview with “Sway in the Moring,” August 2012

Harrison Sherrod (MAPH’13) studied paradigms of play in the postwar American avant-garde and paranoia in the films of Luis Buñuel during MAPH. He recently completed a fellowship at the Chicago Humanities Festival and currently holds the position of Assistant Programmer at South Side Projections, a non-profit organization committed to bringing unique screenings to pockets of the city deprived of cultural enrichment. Additionally, he teaches film history around town and periodically writes about local underground cinema happenings for CINE-FILE Chicago



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