New Jersey’s Restless Riovaz Finds His Groove – And He’s Already Eying the Next Thing
He's only 18, but his art touches on everything from trap to '90s drum'n'bass to classic French film from the 1950s.
Even by the standards of Baby’s All Right – the low-slung Williamsburg, Brooklyn music space with a tendency to become a turnt-up room both in terms of energy and literal heat — last Thursday (Feb. 23) was a crazy night. Jersey City’s irrepressible 18-year-old dance king Riovaz was back in the tristate area for the penultimate show of the sold-out RIORAVE, his first headlining tour of the States. It was also the eve of the release of Rio’s third EP, a rush of high-energy club bangers called Disturb The Norm.
“I’m home! I missed you all,” Rio declared halfway while tearing through 18 songs in less than an hour, adding: “It’s f–king hot up here!” Sure enough, the venue was drenched and jumping. A couple of times the mop-topped singer tried to get the 280-strong crowd to open up a pit – not the easiest feat in the narrow confines of the venue – but it spoke to who Riovaz is: A young artist making dance music with the soul of a rapper and a punk rocker.
You’d never know that he’s played fewer than 20 shows in his life. He has the onstage ease of a veteran, as if, like his childhood idol Michael Jackson, he was born to be there. Footage on YouTube of his first ever show, last June at Brooklyn indie mainstay Market Hotel, confirms he’s had that ease since day one of performing. A week earlier over Zoom from Texas, Rio confirms that the live part comes naturally. “When I’m on stage I feel like a whole different person,” he says. “Then I remember [that] before I had any sort of platform or was making any money off of music, I was really scared to be on stage. I thought I wasn’t gonna be good, and I wouldn’t even show my face on social media. I was really terrified to do that. But then, I don’t know why, when the time came, I just did it. I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense.”
Surely the level of adulation he gets from the RIORAVE audiences does wonders for that confidence, as the Riomania is off the charts. “The turnout has been crazy, the crowds have been screaming my songs,” he says. “It’s been so unreal.” They’re not just singing along with the song that put him on the map, 2020’s viral hit “Prom Night” (approaching 130M plays on Spotify alone), but also its multi-million-streaming successors, including “I Feel Fantastic”, “see u there” and “you’re a parasite.” Even new songs, like “Hypnotize” from Disturb The Norm, and older, lesser-known tracks he dips into (from his early incarnation as a melodic rapper and a bedroom-indie-pop artist) move the crowd. “The whole set list is like a journey through my discography. It’s cool to do switch-ups. And then to see that people know those songs, too?”
Switch-ups are pretty much the name of the game for Rio. Disturb The Norm could hardly be a more apt title — going against the grain and defying expectations are what he’s been doing for most of a still young career.
As any visit to the archives on his Soundcloud or Spotify will reveal, before he melded house, 2-step and drum’n’bass with emo lyrics about heartache, he was a much different artist. His DSPs serve as a fascinating scrapbook of a journey in real time. “I also like surprising myself, too,” he says. “So whenever I do disturb the norm, or whatever, at the end of the day I end up surprising myself, one-upping what I did before. And what comes with that is a disturbance to other people. ‘Cause they won’t get it; they won’t get it until it marinates. I feel like that title is very fitting for what I’m doing.”
If music wasn’t a preordained path for Riovaz, it was always around, growing up in the ‘00s and ‘10s in an Ecuadorian-American household in Jersey City with a musician brother and a sister who is a singer. “My family is very musical. They’d all show me, just playing music always in the house, so I was always tapped into music.” Prior to recording, he describes himself as “just an internet nerd” who played video games with his cousin, loved basketball and even entertained early hoop dreams before discovering music making at 13 through his cousin’s GarageBand.
To his surprise, his first single posted to SoundCloud quickly did more than 60,000 plays, stoking a fire. Discovering beatmakers, writing lyrics and melodies got him hooked, and hip-hop was his inevitable early landing place. New York’s Nebu Kiniza and Chicago’s Famous Dex were favorites for their finesse with trap and plug, as well as Dex’s skills as a live performer. But there were iconic alt-rock inspirations as well. “Famous Dex influenced me as far as how I am onstage,” he explains. “He was a wild performer. And Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana influenced me in terms of my voice, ‘cause I do have a kind of late ‘90s-early 2000s kind of alt-rock voice, over club beats. It’s a strange blend, but it works. All these influences mashed up into one and influenced my sound. And then my writing – like Morrissey, I feel like I take my writing a lot more seriously after listening to The Smiths a lot [during quarantine]. It’s an accumulation of everything.”
Riovaz – the name came from inverting the letters in his early artist alias, “Savior” and changing the “s” to a “z” – did respectable numbers early on, but he was restless. With many around him dismissing his music as more of a hobby than anything serious, by age 14, he was ready to hang it up, but with the encouragement of online friends — in particular like-minded indie rapper MrHeadA$$Trendy — Rio stuck it out. Over the next two years he honed his skills and upped his SoundCloud output. There were rap collabs with Trendy, melodic hip-hop standouts including “Endless Summer” and “Aquamarine” and a shift toward indie rock. A self-released first EP, 2020’s Into The Unknown, leads off with the breezy jangle of “Girl Who Chants Misery,” sounding more like Beach Fossils circa 2010 than the Riovaz operating now. The EP merges bedroom pop with melodic rap – a distillation of the two sides of Riovaz up to that point.
But there was a third side to come. Two pivotal events blew life open for Riovaz: call them The Break and The Change. In the spring of 2020, a once-in-a-century pandemic suddenly had the high school sophomore stuck at home and doing classes online. At the urging of friends and his brother, he finally dropped a song he’d been sitting on for months, a hazy, jittery but danceable track laced with heartbreak called “Prom Night.” Rio had never loved it, but the world thought otherwise. Buoyed by an edit community on Instagram that would set rap videos to indie tracks, Riovaz saw his unassuming song cut to visuals by the likes of Polo G and Ron Suno. Virality assured, “Prom Night” gained traction when the rocket fuel that is TikTok got involved. “The song was just mad catchy, nobody had heard it at the time, and people just kept making videos every day,” he recalls. “It was just a migration, from Instagram to TikTok.” The song reached its zenith nearly a year later, reaching No. 26 on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart, by which point Rio was already in what he calls a “transitional period.” “I never even really liked the song. So I was kind of over it, but I was excited that it was going up.”
“Prom Night” opened doors. But by summer of 2021 it was an evolved Riovaz who was ready to walk through them. The change was sparked when, months earlier, he came across the cheeky fun of “Naked” by Atlanta underground pop artist Bickle. “I found the song on TikTok, and then saw the video,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘Holy sh-t, this is so cool, I could definitely do this.’ I couldn’t stop listening to it, and it really was my gateway into dance music. That song just made me dig deeper, and I fell in love with the genre, people singing over any sort of club beat.”
That led to summer 2021’s “Leaving You” – the moment at which the new Riovaz showed himself to the world. Fully four-on-the-floor, topped by staccato synths and a smooth vocal, it was a kiss-off song for the clubs. Some described the song as merely an evolution, but it felt like more. “When I made it, it felt like a rebirth,” he concedes. “I made that song, and it switched my whole perspective on music, and who I wanted to be. And that was a good time, bro. I miss the feeling of making that song and being, ‘Alright, I want to keep making dance songs!’”
After that, the reborn Rio came with a flood of new club-ready tracks: the irresistible “I Feel Fantastic,” with its skittish 2-step vibes and lyrics addressing a breakup, anchored last spring’s Better Late Than Forever. That EP also featured “God Save The Girl,” a song whose disco vibes and squiggly synth runs came with a charmer of a video inspired by the 1956 French film The Red Balloon — filmed in Paris’ iconic Montmartre district by New York director Dito, to boot. More singles followed in the fall: “you’re a parasite,” “Tell Me Your Fears,” the insistent fan-favorite “Tantrum (Pace Yourself)” and this January’s earworm “U Neva.” The latter two tracks are included on Disturb The Norm, along with the high-energy electricity of “Hypnotized,” featuring Rio’s friend and collaborator, U.K. artist skaiwater. The track’s frantic night-out video is another Dito creation, filmed in London’s clublands of Shoreditch and Soho, and also cinema-inspired, by the 1999 rave movie Human Traffic.
This flood of hectic club music has raised in many a write-up a question: what exactly to call Rio’s sound? It’s undeniably dance – but beyond that? While “Leaving You” and “U Neva” are house-adjacent, “see u there” and “parasite” feel more like glitchy drum’n’bass, and the “untz-untz” ‘90s feel of “Tantrum,” “Tell Me Your Fears” and little ripper “The Rex” practically mandate glow sticks. The new EP delivers Rio’s poppiest, bounciest hook to date in “HeartStrung,” while “Can’t Keep Myself Intact” nods to ‘80s New Romantics. (Speaking of which, can we please get Duran Duran’s iconic “Rio” as his play-on music? Sure, it’s about a woman, but it’s too perfect.) I’ve never met a musician who wanted to be put in a genre box — least of all a young artist who’s still evolving — and Rio bristles at it, though he does laugh when I show him a 13-year-old “Genre Shirt” from the ironic erstwhile indie blog Hipster Runoff that’s covered in absurd micro-genre names, like “metal bloghouse” and “techno-boyband-core.” [“That’s fire!” Rio raves.]
Rio took to social media a while back to shut down those calling his music “hyperpop.” While he is friends with the capital letter-eschewing young luminaries from that caffeinated 2020s scene – he toured with glaive last fall, and features on aldn’s infectious single “say what u mean” – Riovaz is hardly hyperpop. And while Rio makes club music and is from New Jersey, it’s not “Jersey club,” a term usually referring the sound that’s dominated the Newark scene for most of the century. He even thought about adopting “New Rave” before realizing that already has another meaning. Ultimately, he stuck with his own name for his sound. “I just say it’s ‘Riovaz,’” he explains. “’Cause really, there’s no other Riovaz. There’s no other artist that sounds like me.”
One consistent feature of Rio’s music – a thematic throughline across the genres he’s hopscotched – is heartbreak. As it happened, our Zoom call took place on Valentine’s Day, which, given his steady flow of sad sack lyrics about unrequited feelings and busted relationships, you might imagine is not his favorite holiday. While he hedges on the question of whether he has a current valentine, he admits the breakups that are part of the Rio brand come from real life. “Yeah, usually all the relationships I have been in have ended in a toxic way,” he says with a laugh. “But like, I say it in my lyrics, ‘dance the pain away’ [from ‘God Save The Girl’]. I’m young, so I don’t hang myself over what just happened. I just move on, and dance the pain away, or sing the pain away. But yeah! Sh-t always ends up, like, toxic as hell! Either from my part or the other person’s part.”
A glimpse into one of those situations came last year, in the opening of Better Late Than Forever, as Rio dropped in a voice message from an old flame, berating him about making “everything about you” and being “a narcissist.” “That was a real message from my ex,” he says. “She sent me that, and I was like, ‘I have to use that for a song, I don’t care. It’s so fire.’ And she was like, ‘No! No!’ But she likes it now. She’s fine with it now, and that’s what matters.” As for being a narcissist, the artist who sings in “Tantrum,” “I love me way too much girl, I’m my ecstasy” adds: “I feel like it took me a while to really love myself. Like growing up, as a kid, of course, on the internet. To where now, I kind of embrace it. I f–king love myself now, so I feel like that could also rub people the wrong way.”
If TikTok paid some mighty dividends with “Prom Night,” Rio knows slow and steady often wins the race, and is interested in a long game that’s open to evolution – a view that he says is understood by his label Darkroom Records, in partnership with Geffen. (He signed with the imprint last summer.) “Right after I graduated, I was just in L.A. a lot, talking to a lot of label people,” he recounts. “I just really clicked with Darkroom. Justin [Lubliner, CEO] at the label was just really dope. And then we have Tom March from Geffen [president] who is really fire, and all of our ideas just really meshed well together. They just get it. And working with a team like that, it helps a lot.”
Not long after his tristate homecoming show in Brooklyn, Rio jetted off to Europe – as a famously receptive dance market, it’s key to the Rio plan. But for all his success in the club space, to think Riovaz will forever remain strictly a dance artist would be a mistake. Lowkey, he’s an increasingly avid fan of punk and hardcore, and don’t be surprised if there are more pivots to come.
His most experimental track ever ends Disturb The Norm. In less than two minutes, “Grown Hatred For You” goes from screamo, Linkin Park-esque rock aimed an ex-friend to a spoken word section about someone with an acute sensitivity to noise (performed by his brother) to a brief, orchestral coda. That bold little track just might preview what’s to come. “I wanted it to feel like a finale, but not like the end of anything. Just like the end of the beginning, because that’s also a hint of what my album’s gonna sound like.”
Despite that tease, Rio insists he’s not thinking too much about his debut album just yet, only that, “I know how it’s gonna feel. It’s gonna be more like, hard-hitting, rock sh-t, but with strings and stuff. It’s gonna be really different from Disturb The Norm, and it’s gonna be incredible.” So, get ready for Riovaz, rocker? Maybe. Because for Rio, disturbing the norm is more than an EP title — it’s an ethos.