Get that Gouda, Get that Bread: Food’s Power in Hip Hop

By Natalie Crystal Doggett

Image via  @fabio_merche

Image via @fabio_merche

Just as Gwen Stefani taught a generation of elementary school children how to spell “bananas,” E-40 taught me, as a child, that “gouda” means money.

Food in rap music has been rapped about as a marker of rags-to-riches success, the finer things, and extravagant lifestyles, from Biggie’s “I can fill you with real millionaire shit: escargot” on “Hypnotize,” to Puff Daddy’s “Yeah, living the raw deal, three-course meal / Spaghetti, fettucini, and veal" on “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Here, escargot and multi-course meals represent the luxurious spending habits exclusive to those of wealthy status and economic power. Rappers have trained audiences’ ears through their lyricism to think of dough, cheese, bread, broccoli, and beef not as actual food products but as money, drugs, and harsh truths.  

Food culture, much like hip-hop culture, is a mode of self-expression, transparency, and sociopolitical conversation as much as it is a means of comfort and enjoyment. The language of hip-hop can be a resourceful tool for disenfranchised peoples to facilitate controversial but necessary conversation about the ways in which institutional racism manifests as poverty and police brutality, to name but a few struggles. These realities are normally otherwise censored by the language of non-disenfranchised peoples. Philadelphia-native rapper Meek Mill channels the language of hip-hop to shed light on criminal justice reform in his music with songs like “Trauma” (“How many times you send me to jail to know that I won't fail / Invisible shackles on the king, 'cause shit, I'm on bail / I went from selling out arenas, now shit, I'm on sale.”). Mill draws from his personal experience being recently released from a five-month stint in prison for simply popping a wheelie on a motorcycle in Manhattan. Hip-hop has always been about publicly speaking your truth — especially those truths that grown folk may categorize as “Subjects to Never be Brought up Over the Dinner Table”. In my opinion, small talk is oftentimes more uncomfortable, and rather unbearable, in comparison to these vital conversations which hip-hop makes space for.

Our everyday cuisines are symbolized in hip-hop as humble beginnings, familial roots, and nostalgia. Soul food is a staple, everyday food: a cuisine with origins in the restrictive diets of ancestral African slaves, now reclaimed as a fundamental part of Black American culture. Take Florida-native rapper Rick Ross, who has unofficially been named “The Next Colonel” by First We Feast. If it wasn’t already made clear by the rapper’s tireless mentions of “lemon pepper” in at least thirteen of his songs to date, Rick Ross loves lemon pepper wings, from “King of Diamonds” (“Take your bitch to get lemon pepper in a new Lotus) to “Buy Back the Block”  (“Yes I feed lemon pepper, angel wings with the feathers / If you feel like I feel, I pray you live Rich Forever"). If you didn’t grow up eating lemon pepper wings in Atlanta, you might have heard about the food staple in Episode Two of Donald Glover’s Atlanta. It is perhaps the most quotable scene of the first season, when Paper Boi disbelievingly gasps, “Lemon pepper wet?!” and peers over Darius’s shoulder at the glowing box of wings from JR Crickets. Ross’s dedication to the dish is partly strategic product placement, but is also largely a homage to the rich southern Black culture from which the cuisine is integral.

If the food industry has anything to learn from the powerful, candid language of hip-hop, it is how to rethink the ways in which chefs, servers, and diners verbally communicate with one another in formal dining spaces — when their mouths aren’t stuffed with food, that is. Jonah Reider, the twenty-four-year-old chef and creator of Pith, implements this kind of communal dining in his own restaurant and encourages other restaurateurs to do the same. Reider, aka the “Dorm Room Chef,” describes making food as “crafting experiences” and believes the current dining experience contradicts the communal experience of food. In a 2016 Forbes interview, he explains, “Food should require interaction…restaurants are so weird; we tell someone what to bring us, and then they leave.” This disconnect between chef, waiter, and customer does not emulate the cathartic, ephemeral, and connective culture of food. It is no wonder the standard dining experience perpetuates dry small talk over the dinner table. Small restaurants, on the contrary, facilitate the most real and important conversations given their relaxed, comforting atmosphere. Small restaurant owners are to the food industry what hip-hop artists are to the music industry.

Michael “Mikey” Cole, the founder and owner of Mikey Likes It Ice Cream, located in the Lower East Side and Harlem, names his premium ice cream flavors after moments in pop culture. To name a few of his locally-sourced, organic treats: Foxy Brown, Mint Condition, and “Southern Hospitality” which takes inspiration from the song of the same name by Ludacris. Not only does Cole directly pay tribute to influential hip-hop artists in naming his products, but the spirit of Mikey Likes It as a company also embodies the creative, authentic and unapologetic essence of hip-hop by prioritizing relationship-building as the foundation of his business. Cole has collaborated with other local black business owners in the city like Soul Snacks Cookie Company to create limited-edition ice cream cookie sandwiches for Mikey Likes It’s debut at Coney Island in 2018.

Soul Snacks, primarily based in the South Bronx, is founded and owned by Ralph Rolle, an illustrious former drummer for class acts within the hip-hop industry such as Queen Latifah and Biggie Smalls. His transition from music to baking was organic — he values the art of satisfying one’s senses in the kitchen, as much as he does onstage. Like Cole, Rolle employs a philosophy deeply committed to giving back to the community — a community, as Cole writes, “...whose rhythms make up the essence of what has become one heck of a soulful concoction.” Rolle’s commitment to community is inspired by his maternal grandmother, who started baking for her local community in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. Flavors like the Sweet Potato cookie practically holds the history of soul food in its name. The simple naming and flavoring of Soul Snacks’ cookies is a way for people within a community to bridge their more intimate experiences to intercommunal conversations.

As former chef and rapper Action Bronson raps in “Tapas,” “I'm on the art and the food scene / Fuck rap, laying back eatin' poutine,” culture has proven time and time again the inextricable ties between hip-hop and food, as well as to the people who inform them. Both are sustenance to Black life, enlivening tired spirits at the end of long days. It only makes sense that universally recognized food products are repurposed as code for communal experiences in hip-hop, and vice-versa: these forms, although different, are ultimately modes of speaking. We indulge in Rick Ross’ beats the same way we devour a box of lemon-pepper wings — in a celebratory union of head-bobbing and satisfied stank faces.

Kaylee WarrenComment