Ben Westhoff


Best Longform Stories

Photo by Amanda Lopez

Photo by Amanda Lopez

Becoming Riff Raff: How a White Suburban Kid Morphed Into Today's Most Enigmatic Rapper

LA Weekly | 2013

"'He was nothing like he is today,' says Sosa. He describes Horst Simco as a 'bookworm' and a 'shy, clean-cut kid' who wore collared shirts and blue jeans. The Simcos moved away and the boys fell out of touch. But years later, in 2009, Sosa was shocked to see his former basketball buddy on MTV reality show From G's to Gents. His look and manner couldn't have been more different. In the ensuing decade, Horst Simco had transformed into Riff Raff: a controversial, wild-eyed rapper dripping in diamonds, his body coated with outrageous tattoos. With cornrows, a whimsical zigzag beard and notched eyebrows just like Vanilla Ice, he'd become an Internet sensation -- a virtual caricature of a hip-hop star, a lightning rod called both brilliant and a brain-dead minstrel act."

Winner: 2014 Southern California Journalism Awards, Personality Profile

Illustration by Craig Larotonda

Illustration by Craig Larotonda

Pala's Big Gamble: A SoCal Tribe's Casino Made Them Rich. But At What Cost?

LA Weekly | 2013

"Tribe members have benefited: Today, each receives monthly payouts that add up to more than $150,000 per year, as well as free health care and free college. Parts of the reservation feel like a posh suburb, as luxury cars cruise past a gleaming sports complex and administration building. Minors receiving payments via a trust often are presented with huge checks when they come of age, so long as they graduate high school. But with big money has come some big problems: Longtime members have been kicked out, resulting in bitter feuds about who should be considered a member of the tribe, who deserves the payouts and even what it means to be Native American. While the Pala casino has finally allowed the tribe's members entree to the American dream, it also has turned neighbors against one another — with devastating consequences.

Elizabeth Reed, courtesy of Catherine Reed

Elizabeth Reed, courtesy of Catherine Reed

Eugenics & Me: How a Hitler fan paid my mother's college tuition and sent me down a rabbit hole

City Pages | 2017

"Back in the Twin Cities, my grandfather faced a reckoning. He’d arrived from Harvard to lead the Dight Institute, a new genetics program at the University of Minnesota. In the ’50s and ’60s, he fostered an important new scientific discipline called genetic counseling — advising parents on the likelihood their kids would have hereditary diseases — and was featured in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, traveling the world and receiving praise from admirers that included the Pope. But the source of his University of Minnesota funding, as well as his children’s college, would become increasingly problematic."

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

How Tupac and Biggie Went from Friends to Deadly Rivals

Vice | September 2016

"Tupac devoted special attention to Biggie, grooming him and letting him perform at his concerts. Biggie even told him he'd like to be a part of another of his affiliated groups, called Thug Life. 'I trained the nigga, he used to be under me like my lieutenant,' Tupac said.

"He owed me more than to turn his head and act like he didn't know niggas was about to blow my fucking head off,' he said later. And even if Biggie hadn't set him up, he should at least have been able to find out who did it. 'You don't know who shot me in your hometown, these niggas from your neighborhood?'

The way Tupac saw it, his own friend had betrayed him—a friend whom Tupac had helped to acquire fame and fortune."

Excerpted from Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast


"Cock" Means "Vagina." Let Us Explain

L.A. Weekly | 2014

"Carmichael wasn't alone in his confusion, as this odd bit of slang had been forced into a head-on collision with the broader culture: For one group of people, 'cock' referred to the male genitalia. For another, it referenced the female."

This story is the subject of an episode of the podcast Very Bad Words

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Hillbilly Noir: The literary world is abuzz over Daniel Woodrell, bard of the Ozarks

Riverfront Times | 2006

"Authors of New York Times Notable Books aren't typically found in West Plains, Missouri, a town of about 11,000 residents pinned deep into the "bull's-eye heart of the Ozarks," as Daniel Woodrell likes to put it. As in other parts of this grizzled Missouri backwater, West Plains' toothless moonshiners have been largely replaced by half-crazed crank cooks — although its poverty and isolation lingers on.


The enigma of Kanye West – and how the world's biggest pop star ended up being its most reviled, too

Guardian | 2015

"West learned the rules of engagement a long time ago, and nonetheless continues to play the lamb to our slaughter. As a result, he occupies a bizarre place in the zeitgeist – absolutely beloved and absolutely reviled, simultaneously, sometimes by the same people. "

Best Guardian Music Writing, 2015

Illustration by Tom Richmond

Illustration by Tom Richmond

Finger-Lickin’ Rap: A viral sensation pulls back the curtain on Southern hip-hop

Utne Reader | July 2011

"It’s a nursery rhyme crossed with a Mardi Gras march, springy brass propelling the beat while high-register synth notes chime like Pavlov’s bell: “I got a pan, and I got a plan / I’m a fry this chicken in my hand! / Everybody want a piece of my chicken / Southern fried chicken / Finger-lickin’.”

The low-budget video takes place in the yard of a rural shack. The scene is a country barbecue, with Ms. Peachez holding raw chickens and taunting a group of children. Peachez’s blue hair, and her T-shirt bearing an oversized peach, are nearly consumed by smoke from the grill, which heats a giant pan of bubbling grease. 

“I think ‘Fry That Chicken,’ ” Kelefa Sanneh said, “is very clearly a novelty and a parody.”

But was it? I figured the only way to get to the bottom of this was to hunt down Ms. Peachez herself."

Excerpted from Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop

Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

Twist of Fate: This former St. Louis Blues star has skated on some thin ice since leaving the rink

Riverfront Times | 2006

"Tony Twist asked Blues management for a bump in salary, from $725,000 to nearly a million. Not only was the raise request summarily rejected, but general manager Larry Pleau let Twist go.  "I was upset about it," Twist says of his release. "I was kind of depressed. I thought I had something to add to St. Louis."

Later on that same August day, Twist walked out of his Creve Coeur home, mounted his self-built chopper and, hoping to clear his head, motored west on Olive Boulevard toward St. Charles county. Without warning, a car pulled out of a parking lot directly in front of him. "I flipped in the air, traveled about 50 feet and landed on my feet like Fred Flintstone," Twist recalls. "When I landed, I ripped through my boots, my pelvis broke, and I was completely naked. My pants, my belt, and everything else was gone."

Arabian Prince, Jerry Heller, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella  Courtesy of Juana Sperling

Arabian Prince, Jerry Heller, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella Courtesy of Juana Sperling

Eazy-E’s Deathbed: A Wedding, a $30 Million Will and a 'Cure' for AIDS

Playboy | September 2016

"The Nation of Islam wasn’t just interested in protecting Eazy; according to some, they were interested in curing him. Rumors began circulating that the black nationalist group had a remedy for AIDS. 'I heard that they were saying they had the cure,' Ruthless Records rapper Steffon told me."

Excerpted from Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast

Photo by David Yellen

Photo by David Yellen

Private Enemy

Village Voice | 2006

"But it wasn’t to be. MF Doom had left his friend in his dust. He says they grew apart, but MF Grimm feels betrayed. “I consider him a brother to me, and it shouldn’t have gotten to the point where it’s at,” he says. “Sometimes the line of genius and acting crazy is so thin, you might fall over the line and need someone to bring you back.”

Notable Essay, Da Capo Press’ Best Music Writing 2007