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The Curious Case of Riff Raff vs. Spring Breakers

How a viral rap oddball inspired — or did he? — the year's most controversial and mind-blowing movie

The first time Harmony Korine appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman it was 1995 and he was there, ostensibly, to talk about his screenplay for Kids, a movie that was just starting to give parental watchdog groups heart palpitations. He was barely 22, and looked it: shy, clean-shaven, and wearing an ill-fitting suit, he came off like a real-life Max Fischer. He told Letterman that Kids came about when he was trying to write a sequel to Caddyshack; he also shared anecdotes about a childhood friend named Barfunk he’d once almost accidentally drowned, and a guy he knew in Delaware who had “shish kebab skewers stuck through both his asscheeks.”

Letterman, thoroughly amused by this odd, fidgety kid, brought Korine back regularly over the next few years. In 1997, when Korine showed up to plug his directorial debut, the arthouse shitshow Gummo, he was still dressed like a sweet nerd. But he’d grown his hair out, and was more self-assured. “I wanted to make a different kind of movie,” Korine said, defending Gummo. “I don’t see cinema in the same — on the same kind of terms or the same way that narrative movies have been made for the past hundred years. I wanted to see moving images coming from all directions.” He also told Letterman, “I wanna do a minstrel with Tom Cruise. And I want him to play it on his knees.”

One year later, at Korine’s next appearance, he was sporting a scruffy beard, and he’d ditched the sweater vests for hoodies and a pair of crumbling Vans. By then, Letterman was making overt references to Korine’s drugged-out aura. “This, by the way, is why they invented childproof caps,” Letterman cracked during an impromptu Korine giggle fest, while miming a kid struggling to twist open a prescription pill vial. Korine was booked on the show once more, in 1999, but didn’t appear, and hasn’t been back since. It has never been confirmed why, but, at the time, a Toronto gossip columnist reported that “after being bumped for the second time in two weeks, this time in favour of the world’s largest pumpkin, [Harmony] threw a tantrum in the Green Room and” — oh no — “shoved Meryl Streep.”

Shortly after he drifted out of mainstream consciousness, his drug habit — including dalliances with crack and heroin — intensified. Roughly a decade ago, he got sober; four years ago he had a daughter, Lefty, with his wife, Rachel. Not that that necessarily augured a return to the main stage. His last film, 2009′s Trash Humpers, was shot on fuzzed-out VHS tape and followed a crew of Nashville burnouts in unnerving old-man masks as they cackled, screeched, murdered, and, you know, humped trash.

But now Spring Breakers is here. By far Korine’s most commercial project to date, the movie synthesizes a slew of unlikely pop culture strands — the wholesomeness of Disney starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens; the artsy mania of latter-day James Franco; the squibbly robot-voice-of-a-generation of Skrillex; the timeless hood shit of Gucci Mane. Taken together, Korine has crafted some sort of epic. Like Kids, Spring Breakers is destined to become a sacred testament to a legion of restless American children — they’ll memorize the lines and act out the scenes, all while abandoning any hint of morality. Purposefully fragmented and surreal (Korine calls it a “pop poem”), it’s not the best movie of the year. But there likely isn’t another that will lodge itself inside your brain quite so thoroughly. Spring break. Spring break. Spring break foreeeeeeveeer.

Korine covertly tapped another pop culture inspiration for Spring Breakers: the irrepressible rapper — rapper?1 — Riff Raff. Franco’s character, Alien, is a hustling “cosmic gangster,” and the actor joyfully commits to the role; it’s a knockout performance. Cloaked in mismatched tattoos, grills, beaded braids, and a perma-shirtless state, he also happens to look exactly like Riff Raff.

After on-set photos surfaced, Korine and Franco played down the association, saying Alien was based on an amalgamation of people that included Riff Raff but, more specifically centered on an obscure Florida rapper named Dangeruss. Riff Raff wasn’t having it. He Instagrammed a convincing side-by-side, dubbed himself Rap Game James Franco, and crowed that he’d have been in the movie if he’d responded to Korine’s overtures in time.2 And ultimately, despite the lack of recognition, he seemed excited about the selection of Franco: “That’s like if Denzel Washington was playing the role of O.J. Simpson,” he said. “Even though it’s not O.J. Simpson, O.J. Simpson still gotta be like, ‘Denzel Washington is playing me.’”

And why wouldn’t he be psyched? Riff Raff first appeared, as fully formed Internet bait, in 2010.3His look was aggressively preposterous. His rhymes were absurdist: You could click a YouTube link at random and you’ll land on something like “Seven on my wrist, my ice Toucan Sammy / left with the whammy, came back with the Grammy / streets sweeper legal, avocado bandanna / Lysol walk to candy banana.” And he dropped songs incessantly, through an endless string of mixtapes and one-offs, with titles like “Deion Sandals” and “Orion’s Belt” and “Obtuse Angle.” He solidified his brand on YouTube, showing off his women and his jewelry and his coffee pots in delightful little bursts of mania.

If you stumbled upon Riff Raff, you either lapped him up, dismissed him, or drove yourself crazy trying to identify the line between sincerity and put-on. In 2013, having James Franco pay homage in a Harmony Korine movie is as close as an Internet butterfly like Riff Raff is going to get to platinum.

Last week I tracked down Riff Raff in Austin in the middle of the South by Southwest Music Festival. I’d been texting with him and his manager all day, but the plans kept changing: Meet us at the hotel, no, we’ll come to you, wait actually who are you and what do you need again? I monitored him online: At one point he Instagrammed a photo with Trinidad James that highlighted that the two rappers were the same height.

When we finally met at the Scoot Inn, a kitschy, dumpy, hunting lodge–themed venue, Riff Raff arrives wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt of his own face. With him were his hype man, a slim white man in a beanie; his security guard, a massive black man in a Nirvana Bleach T-shirt; two hangers-on; and his manager, a portly Hispanic man with a neatly trimmed goatee, a large glitzy cross, and a work shirt open over a Portishead tee.

Riff Raff and his manager discussed relocating to the Escalade for the interview, before realizing I didn’t have a cameraman or a camera with me. “This isn’t for TV?” Riff asked. “Oh, that sucks.” We settled in the back office of the venue, a tiny, cramped room furnished with a computer chair, a string of tangled Christmas lights, and one well-kept Huey Lewis and the News poster.

Before we talked, Riff Raff seemed chipper about Spring Breakers. He’d recently changed his Twitter background photo to his re-creation of the promo art from the movie — Franco, mean-mugging alongside a gaggle of bikinied girls — and tweeted his support for the flick. Did he like the movie? He burped loudly, then answered lazily. “I mean, I’m in the movie? So, yeah, anything that’s about me I’m gonna promote.”

One minute later his iPhone was out, and he was showing me the original e-mail exchange he had with Korine. He began to read the exchange.

“‘Yo Riff Raff what’s up I wanna put you in a movie you down?’ I didn’t answer this.”

Next: “This is Chelsea Sullivan I am Riff Raff’s assistant how much would he be paid?’”

Then, from Korine: “‘Not sure yet I need to put you into contact with the producers about that.’”

After a few more: “‘Don’t worry about it, I guess you’re not familiar with my films.’ He’s feeling disrespected now, you know what I mean? But it’s not me, it’s my assistant! I get hundreds of millions [of e-mails] a day! OK, this is me finally cutting through the bullshit: ‘What’s up man, you trying to do a movie?’”

Korine, again: ‘”Shit, man, I had to get someone else cause I thought you weren’t interested. I’m a fan of yours we should figure this out somehow, to do something in the future.’ This is me: ‘How you gonna get someone else to play Riff Raff, that’s like telling Bill Clinton to sub in for Michael Jordan in the NBA playoffs fourth quarter down two points five seconds left.’”4

It turns out Riff Raff’s sad about how this played out. “It even came to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t need to get paid. I’ll fly out there and do the movie.’ But [Korine] also didn’t put me on the soundtrack, so now I’m looking at it like maybe he’s not my friend? And the fact that I have to fight this quote unquote James Franco situation — I don’t know, man. Just watch the movie.”

Spring Breakers

Once he’s finished brandishing his phone, he was on to brandishing his accoutrements. “If you see somebody with braids and colored beads and a zigzag beard, a white dude with pieces of chains, who you think about?” he asked excitedly. “And the thing about me is, I’m not a joke. I make a lot of money. I wear a lot of jewelry. And the reason I buy so much jewelry is to show you that it’s not a joke. You walk around with $20,000 on, you not to be played with.” He clutched his chain for proof, which happens to be an excellent white-gold and yellow-diamond rendering of Alice in Wonderland‘s grinning Cheshire Cat. Then he asked me if I had a charger for an iPhone 5.

Before their relationship fizzled, Korine and Riff posed together for the cover of Sneeze Magazine. The corresponding interview says “RiFFmony” has recently been “spotted trying to dunk on West Hollywood’s public courts.” In the piece, Korine refers to Riff Raff as “rap game autistic” and explains why he likes him so much: “RiFF is the first rapper seriously to [go] post rhyming. He can make words sound like they’re rhyming that don’t really rhyme. I don’t mean like an occasional rhyme, I mean like none of it rhymes.”

It’s not hard to see what else drew Korine to Riff Raff. There’s Korine’s well-documented obsession with fringe characters: the cat-killing, glue-huffing survivors of Gummo; the tender schizophrenic in Julien Donkey-Boy; the cracked celebrity-impersonator community of Mister Lonely. Korine himself has long been a smartass pop culture enigma. He’s exactly the kind of person about whom you’d argue, Bullshit or genius?

I meet Korine at a boutique L.A. hotel. In the lobby, there’s a standing lamp fashioned to look like an AK-47 and another like a giant horse. Korine is at the tail end of months of Spring Breakers promotion and his voice is ground down to a rasp. He’s put on what looks like 30 pounds since his Letterman days. His beard has gone salt-and-pepper, his hair artfully greasy. The gear is still pretty much the same, though: He’s in jeans, a flannel open over a T-shirt, and unlaced blue Vans.

Korine grew up in Tennessee and lived on a commune for a time. His father made documentaries; his mother ran a children’s clothing store. “They would encourage me, but I think for a while they were trying to get me to get kidnapped,” he says. “I have all of these memories of my dad dropping me off on the side of a highway, and then just saying, ‘See you later,’ and driving home, and me having to walk back 15 miles. I was only like 8 years old. He said he did it because I was driving him crazy. But if you think about it, that’s an insane thing for a dad to do.”

When he was 19, while skating New York’s Washington Square Park with his friends, Korine met the photographer Larry Clark. Clark was doing research for a movie about young skateboarders. Korine sat down next to him and started chewing his ear off, about Leica cameras, Robert Frank, and the Paul Schrader movie Light Sleeper. “I didn’t know he was making [the stories] up,” Clark recalls, “but the first thing he says to me is, ‘You know the sex scenes between Willem Dafoe and so-and-so? I said ‘Yeah.’ And he said ‘To get ready for the sex scene what they did was she, like, blew him for about 20 minutes, you know, and they got all hot, and then they shot.’” Clark thought the kid was brilliant, and they stayed in touch. A year later, when Clark had an idea for the skateboarders movie — he wanted it to revolve around a kid famous for deflowering virgins — he hired Korine to write it. Three weeks later, Korine had the script for Kids.

Kids made Korine a downtown star. Along with his girlfriend Chloe Sevigny,5 he was a scene staple, running through clubs with David Blaine, Lukas Haas, and the rest of Leonardo DiCaprio’s notorious “pussy posse.” In 1999, Korine released his second movie, Julien Donkey-Boy, a logical companion to Gummo. Centered on a peculiar family — Ewen Bremner played the tortured Julien, Sevigny his pregnant sister, Werner Herzog their iron-willed father, fond of doling out discomfiting garden hose showers and drinking cough syrup out of slippers — it was as uncompromised as it was difficult to swallow.

By the time he and Sevigny broke up, Korine was a mess. A brief laundry list of misdeeds: two houses burned to a crisp; a sojourn into the Panamanian jungle; relocations to London, then Paris, where the drugs started making his teeth fall out. After Julien he worked on a project called Fight Harm. The premise: He’d get high, then pick fights with strangers that Blaine filmed. That one he never finished.

James Franco

Ashley Benson — who plays Spring Breakers‘ Brit — told me Korine would share tales from the wild days in New York and Paris with the cast. “Some of the things we did in the movie, he did when he was younger,” she said. “He actually used to rob people with squirt guns.” He used the practice for the movie’s initiating event, as the girls hold up a chicken shack to fund their spring break.

Eventually Korine’s friend agnès b., the fashion designer (and a Julien Donkey-Boy booster), pushed him to enter rehab. Somehow, after years of unmoored overconsumption, Korine cleaned up and found himself back in Nashville. “Of course it’s surprising,” Korine says. “Like, I was burning the candle at every fucking end. So the fact that I have a daughter now, and a wife … I mean, I didn’t think I was gonna live as long as I have. It goes without saying that it’s crazy. And the friends, the ones that are still alive — well, probably, most of them have been messed up, too. But we’re all just like, ‘Holy shit.’ The people that really knew me back then know it’s a miracle.”

So how did he do it?

“I just didn’t die. I just kept going,” he says. “Man, I don’t remember anything. Like, most of my life. Like, [age] 9 to 30. But I can’t take any of the really fucked-up parts of my life back. Because it wouldn’t get me to where I am now. That’s why you really can’t have regrets. Not even one thing.”

He pauses here for a moment.

“If you wanna be great, I would encourage all that. I would encourage experiencing living life like a criminal.”

“When Harmony decided he wanted to get sober,” says his wife, Rachel, who plays Cotty in the movie, “one of the hardest things was, ‘Will I be able to keep on doing what I’m doing? I’ve been in this state for so long — is that gonna take something away from me?’ Luckily, he was strong enough to make that decision.”

Now, Korine says, whatever mania comes will have to come in the work. Not that he’s particularly interested in figuring out how, where, or why it’s being channeled. “I never wanted to know why I did anything,” Korine says. “I have no desire for any type of introspection at all. I don’t ever ask myself any questions. I don’t want answers.”

With Riff Raff, a verifiable personal biography is scant. That’s part of the game.6 When Gawker profiled him in 2012, they managed to pin down some of the details. He’s from Katy, Texas, near Houston. His birth name is Simco, but he legally changed it to Jody. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade.7 And then there’s stuff like this: “He says that he is 6-foot-4, but he is actually 6-foot-2 … according to his MTV bio, he was 26 in 2009, but when I asked him his age last week, he said 26.” His SXSW artist bio reads “RiFF RaFF aka JODY HiGHROLLER, the 25 year old phenomenal Phenom born in Sweden, then raised in the USA in Texas, Arizona, and now Hollywood, is a lucrative luxury outlandish non-comparable Neon Icon.8 “When we spoke, he offhandedly mentioned he was 19 in 2003 — well, more specifically, “19 and famous in Houston with five candy-painted cars” — which would make him 29 today.

Riff Raff got his rap name from playing street ball. When he was in high school the AND1 mixtapes were big, and he and his friends would attempt to imitate the elaborate moves they’d see on the tapes. “We’d be dribbling crossovers and all that,” Riff says, “and we’d be playing with people’s dads and kids from college that didn’t go to the pros yet. And the older folks would be like, ‘Man, don’t come over here with all that dribbling, don’t come over here with all that riff raff. And since ninth grade, it stuck.”

After high school Riff played basketball at a college in Louisiana, but quit when he didn’t jell with the traditionalist coach. He insists he could have, at one point, played professional basketball. “I used to have 40-point, 50-point games, 13 3s in a game,” he says. “It’s like that! If I decided to get back into basketball I wouldn’t be drinking this beer, I wouldn’t be doing no drugs. I’d only be drinking water, eating fruits and vegetables, tuna fish, and grilled chicken breast.”

After basketball, he “started doing the freestyling, doing whatever I had to do. That was a time where I didn’t have too much money. But I was happy. Then I got bored. Now, luckily, I’m in a position where I can make a lot of money and have friends around me. I feel like I’m back in high school again.”

He’s currently recording his debut album, Neon Icon, with Diplo at the space formerly known as G-Son Studios in L.A.’s Atwater Village, where the Beastie Boys recorded Check Your Head and Ill Communication.

“I have country songs, I have rock songs, I have songs that don’t even sound like songs.” He’s promising a classic. But he’s not working too hard. “I’m not one of those rapper guys that spend nights in the studio. I hate being in the studio. I go in there two hours and I’m sick of it — get me the fuck out of there, I’m done.”

His goals for Neon Icon are not small.

“I’ve had the same mentality since I was 5 years old,” he says. “I remember being 5 wanting these Jordans, wanting these swim trunks, wanting these colors. I just never had the money to do this shit. As time progresses, you’re able to make small goals at a time — bing, bing, bing. But you can’t do it fast enough, and shit slides in there like Spring Breakers with James Franco. ‘Cause I’m not the top level — I’m not Denzel Washington where I can be like, ‘Hey, motherfucker!’ and throw my lawyers.”

In recent months, Riff Raff says, the groundswell has risen, and he’s only gotten stronger.

“Now I’m able to go up against four, five, 10 people, a whole cast of a movie, whatever. No one can touch me. Because I can hit people with key points. I didn’t finish high school but I feel like if I was in college I could debate with anybody. [The things I say] no one would have said that. Ever. In life. It’s a piece of history.”

Whatever is happening here, it’s full immersion. These are the moments you have to choose with Riff Raff. Is he serious? And do you care if he is or not? A quick scan of his Twitter page reveals this gem:

“DiD U EVER THiNK ABOUT EYELASHES ?LiKE WTF ?!OH LiKE 10,000 YEARS AGO WHEN THERE WAS SANDSTORMS iN EGYPT i GUESS THESE CAME iN SEMi HANDY”

When I ask him about his own spring break exploits, he says, “At school, there’s a seldom group of things you can fuck with: lunch, recess, spring break, buying new clothes. I always loved spring break.” Later that night, when he’s onstage, I’m pretty sure he asks Shwayze, one of the opening acts, if he’s ever seen Sleepless in Seattle.

I dreamt this picture in my mind of girls in bikinis robbin’ fat tourists with guns,” Korine says when explaining the movie’s inspiration. He started collecting spring break imagery, stuff like YouTube videos of girls getting into fights at gas stations in the middle of the night. Korine and Franco developed Alien by trading these clips and links on and off for a year. “We talked about him being a sociopath, a mystic, a gangster,” Korine says. “Something almost like a poet, where his charisma is just insane.”

Korine headed to Panama City, Florida, to write the screenplay, in the heart of spring break mania. “People fucking in the hallways, puking on your doorstep, blasting Taylor Swift, and snorting doughnuts,” he told Opening Ceremony. “It was like a beach apocalypse!” Too distracted to write, he drove to a golf course hotel populated with dwarves, in town shooting a Hulk Hogan reality show. He banged out the script in 10 days.

Shooting was complicated by the star wattage. “There was paparazzi constantly,” his wife Rachel says. “Sometimes we would be acting and there would be crowds surrounding us, almost like it was a play. And a lot of the film was being photographed in real time. The robbery scene, we did the first take, and then we looked on our cell phones, and there were already images of that scene online.”

They shot in Florida, again during real spring break, shepherding real revelers into old broken-down hotels to shoot the unhinged party scenes. Of Selena Gomez, Korine says, “I remember a lot of dudes wanting to hump her.”

For the cast, Korine wanted girls “representative of a pop mythology.” He says he was amazed by how game the actresses were. “They were all pretty much fearless. None of them needed convincing.” That seems maybe not that shocking: What would Gomez and Hudgens, born and bred in the Disney entertainment machine, be if not good soldiers?9 Meanwhile, there was Franco, leading by example: On set, Alien stayed Alien. “Vanessa and I met him one night around midnight,” says Benson. “He was in his trailer getting his braids in and we peeked in, and he was like” — and here she switches to a fairly convincing approximation of Franco’s Alien via Riff Raff drawl — ‘Heeeey, I’m Jaaaames — naaaaice to meeet you.’”

At home, in the evenings, the Korines would watch dailies. “Our daughter saw so much of the movie just by default,” Rachel says. “She’d walk in and she was always very aware: ‘Oh, you’re watching Spring Breakers again? Can’t I watch cartoons?’”

James Franco

Spring Breakers kicks off audaciously, with the sharp shards of Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” soundtracking a sweaty, grimy, slo-mo avalanche of funnels, middle fingers, butts, boobs, Natty Light, and leering dudes pouring can-humped crotch-beers. A few minutes later, Hudgens pretends to lick a drawing of a penis. Thirty seconds after that, Benson fellates a squirt gun full of whiskey.

Kids was about kids that were trying to disappear — oblivion seekers,” Korine says. “Spring Breakers is about a culture on display. It’s more performative, more socialized, more hyper, more violent — you know, drugs, video games.” To that end, the movie sometimes seems like a series of stand-alone set pieces: Feast your eyes on James Franco, at a white piano, tinkling out Britney Spears’s “Everytime” as the girls — in sweatpants and sea-punk one-pieces and pink unicorn ski masks — twirl their automatic weapons. Korine insists he wants you to get lost in the characters, but then he goes and builds a major turning point around Gucci Mane peeling out in a Ferrari while dropping his trademark “Burrrr!

A giant Lil Wayne poster, Kimbo Slice videos on YouTube, the girls rolling around their dorm hallways singing “Hot in Herre” — Korine nails the mundane little details of college life. Things get trippy fast, though, with the chicken shack hold-up. The act is filmed from the getaway car as it circles the perimeter, and the girls repeat phrases like a mantra: “Pretend like it’s a video game. Get this fucking money.” Back at the dorms, Hudgens rolls around the dollar bills, cooing, “This money makes my pussy wet. It makes my tits look bigger.”

In Florida, the girls bomb around town on scooters, wreaking havoc. At one point, Gomez calls her grandmother as the rest of the girls squat together to urinate. With the camera trained on them, we hear Gomez say, “This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” Then later: “It feels like the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end.” This is where Spring Breakers might lose you. Korine’s fucking with us, right?

Halfway through the movie, the girls are lured into Alien’s lair, and he begins enumerating his many impressive possessions. “Look at my shee-it!” he squeals, bouncing on his bed. “I got … I got shorts! Every fuckin’ color. I got designer T-shirts! I got gold bullets. Motherfuckin’ vam-pires.” It’s the best scene in the movie, and it’s the one you’ll walk out of the theater running back: “Look at all my shee-it!”

There’s a classic Riff Raff YouTube video called “iN BRaZiL BaD BiTCH STRiPPER” that finds our hero at home in what he calls East Brazilia, conducting a similar inventory. “You see the ice — this ain’t no middle-of-the-mall shit,” he says, flashing his chain and watch. “Hold up — you know I stay with some seasoning salt,” shaking up a green can of Tony Chachere’s. “Been have this,” tapping a multicolored light fixture with a sieve. “Bought this from Mike Tyson before he sold his house to Michael Jackson and ‘dem. Stupid flat-screens … what you want, you want coffee? I can pour you a fresh pot.” Then, picking up a seemingly ordinary can opener, he says: “I been opening my shit up with Gucci can trap openers.”

Maybe it’s for the best that Riff Raff hasn’t been acknowledged as the inspiration for Alien: Harmony Korine’s characters are meant to live on the fringes. One day, though — years from now, when all this has faded — maybe Riff and Korine will sit down together again. By that point they’ll have a lot to talk about. After all, it’s Korine, not Riff Raff, who best explains the notion of self-mythology. “My greatest skill is just being me,” he says. “My greatest talent is inventing myself.”

Filed Under: Celebrities, Franco, Harmony Korine, James Franco, Movies, Spring Breakers

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Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad