Rap Game Al Sharpton: RiFF RAFF's Disastrous Iowa City Debut
"The hard-working people of Iowa deserve a good quality sound system!"
- RiFF RAFF
The line outside Blue Moose in Iowa City stretched down the block, curling back toward itself instead of spilling into the street. It was 7:00 PM on a Thursday night, and these college kids wanted to see Riff Raff. Or at least his dog.
On paper, it sounds like an embarrassing situation for yours truly. Six years older than most people in line, I was alone, waiting outside an old college bar on a weeknight just so I could see a guy with both MTV and BET tattoos rap about made-up Versace products and eating fried okra with Oprah. For the third time in 12 months.
Luckily, I wasn't embarrassed. Old, sure. But not embarrassed. My fascination with Riff Raff began many years ago, and I fancy myself somewhat of a historian. What kind of fan would I be if I didn't drive 20 minutes to see a performance?
Unfortunately, "performance" probably isn't the best way to describe what took place that night.
* * *
The back concert room at Blue Moose is, as I used to say in the real estate biz, "cozy." There are two slightly raised platforms on either side, each with a railing. The rest of the room is open up to the stage, which sits only a few feet above the ground. The ceiling is lower than it is in the bar area.
I settled in at the back of a bench along the left wall, just in front of the sound booth. There was no need to push my way toward the front, and I wanted to stay inconspicuous. Also my back was giving me trouble, because I am old.
After a local opening act and an hourlong wait, Riff's DJ appeared at around 9:00. This was the first sign that something was amiss. The microphone wasn't working, so his only recourse was to make hand signals to the two guys in the sound booth.
Eventually, a new microphone was delivered. "Are you guys ready for Jody Highroller in the building?" Most everyone was ready.
Still, there was negotiating to be done. As the DJ played Riff's new single without Riff, the sound was far from crisp. "What's going on with these speakers?" he asked. The sound guy stared silently, occasionally moving some knobs around. But he knew it was futile. He knew.
With the sound quality problems far from solved, Riff gave the people what they wanted by running on stage a few minutes later. Instead of the blue or blonde braids he usually sported, Riff's hair was long, straight and pink. A sleeveless shirt was all he needed for this December night in Iowa, and obviously he couldn't do without black batting gloves on each hand.
Before the end of the first song, Riff had his DJ stop the music. "Hold on, hold on, hold on. Can we get these speakers fixed please? Just a little bit? The hard-working people of Iowa deserve a good quality sound system!"
The speakers weren't low-quality in the same way your laptop speakers pale in comparison to those in a movie theater. In fact, they performed just fine for short portions of each song. But during times of heavy bass, it sounded as if they were buried inside the stomach of a giant gorilla suffering from horrible indigestion, and we were stuck in there with them.
As the sound quality worsened, Riff's frustration grew. Fans — many of whom weren't familiar with the entire Jody Highroller library — struggled to recognize what songs they were hearing. Meanwhile, the DJ pleaded with the sound engineers to "turn the bass all the way up."
Certainly I am no sound expert, but when something is terrible, I feel like increasing its prevalence rarely solves the problem. Alas.
Riff and his DJ tried their best to entertain the crowd, rolling through "songs" while continuing to comment on the speakers, which had clearly reached the end of their useful life. One song was so unclear that Riff gave up on rapping and instead poured peach-flavored Ciroc down the throats of anyone who would have it.
The show stopped six or seven times, and each speech was longer and more scathing than the last. ("I couldn't even tell this was my own song the speakers are so bad.") The final break provided the best entertainment of the night, during which Riff compared himself to civil rights activist Al Sharpton (complete with an impression) and implied that the only way to solve this issue would be for Riff himself to purchase Blue Moose:
The show continued uninterrupted for several more songs, each lasting around two minutes. The energy picked up for a few, particularly during a bass-light "Tip Toe Wing In My Jawwdinz" (below), and when the DJ teased the crowd with a glimpse of Riff Raff's dog, Jody Husky.
But after about 40 minutes on stage, enough was enough for Horst Simco. There was no grand exit, no goodbye. Only the sound of Riff saying into the mic "Fuck this, I'm going outside." A door to the alley was open for a few moments, and I could see Riff pacing, mic still in hand.
To say Riff "walked off" the stage, while accurate, doesn't tell the whole story. The fact that he stayed on as long as he did, with his music all but indecipherable, is impressive. Of course, had this been my first Jody Highroller concert, I probably would have been more upset. But luckily I had seen a few Riff Raff shows in my day.* This just happened to be the worst.
So, in addition to needing an entirely new speaker system, Blue Moose ensured that Riff Raff will never return to Iowa City again. How they will continue to host rap shows is beyond me. The hard-working people of Iowa deserve better.
*Please file this quote away as a potential gravestone marking.