Pandora's Bag: Rap Snacks Are Proof that Time Is a Flat Circle
We go long on the curious case of the continued existence of Rap Snacks, the potato chips with rappers on the packaging.
MC Potato wore a baggy hoodie and a flat brimmed hat to the side. As he winked behind a pair of turntables, he asked kids the question, “Can you rap and snack at the same time?” And thanks to Rap Snacks, the answer—at least in corner stores around the country—was then, and still remains, yes. That was in 1995 though, when Rap Snacks sold for 25 cents instead of 35 and before the company diversified their products to include cheese curls, popcorn, and pork rinds. A simpler time, before rappers like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Master P took MC Potato’s place on the front of the foil packaging.
For over ten years now, Rap Snacks have advertised themselves as “The Official Snack of Hip-Hop.” They’ve used the likeness of Meek Mill, Warren G, The Big Tymers, R&B group Bell Biv Devoe, and a random selection of artists from areas of the country not typically represented in mainstream rap; the Alabama duo Dirty was featured on a bag of ‘Back to the Ranch’ flavored chips, Detroit hometown hero Big Herk was featured on the ‘Hot Sauce’ chips and Murphy Lee, of Nelly’s St. Lunatics crew, pointed in front of the St. Louis Arch on the cover of the “Red Hot Ripplets” bag. Each Rap Snack contained the visage of a rapper, as well as semi-relevant puns based on chip flavor and a not quite customized inspirational saying (ODB’s was “Think Responsibly”).
Rap Snacks Inc, is the brainchild of Philadelphia businessman James ‘Fly’ Lindsay, who according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from 2002, felt that a socially conscious message directed at inner city youth was missing from rap music. So instead of rapping, or promoting socially conscious rappers, Lindsay approached Universal Music Group with an advertising proposal. Because Lindsay’s products were not distributed to major convenience stores or supermarket chains, and were instead sold in the large food deserts that make up America’s inner cities, Universal Product Managers saw Rap Snacks as an ideal place to market their newly signed rappers to their target audience of urban youth.
Because Universal Music Group is the parent company to a number of independent, regional rap labels, Rap Snacks were able to tap into localized rap scenes to promote their chips, with access to Atlanta’s So-So Def Ent, St. Louis’ Derrty Ent, and No Limit Records (by then relocated from Richmond, CA to New Orleans), the partnership looked to capitalize on a market that was not often advertised to on eye level, as advertising from major labels has usually focused on a suburban audience that carries more spending power. In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, a product manager at Universal compared Rap Snacks advertising techniques to those of other urban-specific ad campaign, “They do that with everything now... cigarettes, alcohol. Why not snacks?”
This strategy seemed to have worked, if you’re to believe Lindsay who, in the same 2002 interview, claimed that the company was selling 2 million of the 25-cent bags a week in inner cities around the country. It isn’t that far fetched of a number when you consider the amount of snack foods bought in this country, with Frito-Lay, the biggest competitor in the market, bringing in $13 billion in annual sales. But because the Rap Snacks website has not been updated since 2007, and pretty much no information on the internet concerning Rap Snacks exists, the 2,000 racks per week stat hasn’t been confirmed. What we do know though, is that Rap Snacks were partnered with Universal, selling well enough to continue a rotation of new artists onto the packaging, and that their involvement with No Limit Records would be a very important move for Lindsay.
In 2007, the then 18-year-old rapper Lil Romeo (son of No Limit Records owner Master P), bought the company from Lindsay. The amount of money for which the company was sold was not released to the public, and Romeo, who had been featured on the packaging for the “Bar-B-Qin’ with my Honey” flavored chips since his entrance into the rap world in the first years of the new millennium, reportedly left day-to-day operations of the company in Lindsay’s hands, according to the sourceless Rap Snacks Wikipedia page.
It was around this time that Rap Snacks started disappearing from the media. Rap music magazines and urban culture publications stopped writing pieces about Lindsay’s unlikely start-up, local newspapers stopped doing stories about the branding strategies of the urban potato chip, stopped asking North Philadelphia children why Rap Snacks appealed to them more than Wise and Utz and, CD sales went down, and with them the incentive to market the purchase of them in unconventional ways. The Rap Snacks website, with a flash animation intro of a child climbing out of a Philadelphia sewer to grab a bag of chips off the street before returning to the underground pipes, went down around the end of 2007 (view an archived version here), and was replaced by a cleaner format Wordpress on February 2nd, 2010 that was never developed past font and photo before going down again, this time for good sometime around 2011. On the snack food specific wiki potatopro.com, it’s noted that Rap Snacks had a banner year in 2006, the (again) sourceless potato experts say that in that year before being taken over by Romeo, Lindsay’s company sold over 3 million bags of chips. Not quite the 2 million a week Lindsay claimed in the year’s prior, but still a functioning company. Below this sales estimate though, the Potato Pro’s note that Rap Snacks is no longer in business.
The Rap Snacks timeline is hazy at best though. Photos of Rap Snacks available in a Los Angeles 7-11 from 2005 point to increased distribution exposure for the brand in the time directly before Romeo’s purchase, but it seems that mainstream relevance was short lived. Timing issues seem to be at the center of the Rap Snacks story. They produced the Meek Mill snack when he was a local hero, but seem to have stopped producing it since he acquired lasting mainstream fame. The previously mentioned ODB chips were sold well into 2007, three years after his untimely death. Romeo’s chips still say "Stay in School" on the bag, years after he dropped out of USC.
It would seem reasonable to assume that the company is defunct. Again, they don’t have a website. Rap Snacks aren’t dead though, not in the least bit. Without some digging, it’s hard to tell who specifically is behind the production of Rap Snacks, if anyone. During the initial stages of my research for this piece, the theory that there might have just been some phantom conveyor belt shoving Honey Dew flavored cheese curls into a bag with Yung Joc’s face on it would have been as viable as any other. It is certain, however, that Rap Snacks are most definitely still being made. For proof of the snack’s continued existence, just check Instagram. At the time of this writing, there have been two photos posted within the last 48 hours showing Rap Snacks available for purchase in stores. Both photos are from St. Louis and both feature Romeo’s “BBQing with my Honey” flavor. In the second photo the expiration date is visible: 07-19-2014. Conclusion? Rap Snacks survive, cockroach-like, flexing in the face of all logic.
To my knowledge the only Rap Snacks still being sold in stores are those featuring Romeo and Yung Joc. It appears as if the Universal licensing agreement that Rap Snacks had under the ownership of Lindsay did not carry over with new ownership—while labels underneath the Universal umbrella once distributed both artists, Yung Joc’s current label, Swagg Team Ent, is a subsidiary of Jive Records and eventually the Sony Music Group, while Romeo restarted his father’s since-defunct label as No Limit Forever Records, and distributes independently.
But as America’s urban centers become more and more gentrified, and Rap Snacks stay the same, the chips have come to represent more than just a way to promote fledgling rap careers. Instead, through hashtags and photos of bodega shelves, Rap Snacks have become a signifier of regional urban pride. It appears that most of the recent posts with a #rapsnacks attached to them come from a largely white population of urban transplants. Cities like the aforementioned St. Louis, Memphis, Philadelphia, Detroit and Kansas City are all well represented in the tagged photos.
More than just associating Rap Snacks with their personal locales, the people who find Rap Snacks funny or esoteric enough to post on instagram also seem to think that the chips are so ludicrous, that they could only still be available in their chosen neighborhood. A significant number of the photo captions go something like “Only in North Philly” or “Ghetto….As Fuck only in the ‘D’.” By captioning a photo of Rap Snacks “This is a real thing in the Detroit Ghetto” what you really mean is, “Only Detroit could be so fucked up that they are still selling a bag of potato chips with Romeo’s face on them, nowhere else is so fucked up that they would still be selling this.” Apparently, a lot of Rap Snacks consumers feel the same way about the cities they reside in.
In the era of soundcloud and tumblr, has a photo of Yung Joc on a bag of cheese curls come to symbolize the same image of Detroit as a disaster-porn paradise as a photo of the abandoned Packard Plant? It might be a stretch, but the idea is the same, and a trip to a Detroit gas station for relics of hip-hop’s past might get you more instagram likes.
Having already failed at my attempt to live in Detroit though, and with access to Meek Mill’s hometown of Philadelphia within Chinatown bus’ reach, I decided to trek two hours down 95 in search of my own ironic Instagram photo and to find out firsthand what BBQin’ with Romeo and his Honey tasted like in potato form. My plan was to arrive in Philly, go to City Hall and start walking north, stopping at every corner store on 15th street until I found Rap Snacks. This all proved wholly unnecessary once I arrived at a friends’ house to drop my backpack off; “Rap Snacks? You mean the Romeo chips? They sell them down the street.” Down the street was Cruz Minimart, on the corner of 18th and Mifflin in South Philly’s Point Breeze, a neighborhood in the middle of gentrification; it’s the neighborhood where Beanie Sigel was born and raised, that now has a combined craft beer/individual drip coffee shop.
Inside the minimart I bought two bags of the Romeo flavor for 70 cents total. The chips come in one-ounce servings and still say “Stay in School” under the brand name. On the back of the package, there is a rambling paragraph, presumably written by Romeo, in which he discusses how much more important school is to him than fame and fortune, while simultaneously proving he doesn’t know how to use commas.
Beneath Romeo’s proclamation that education is his life, there is a distribution line that says Rap Snacks, Inc. with a P.O. box address in North Carolina and a phone number. I called the number, a High Point, NC area code, half expecting an out-of-service tone, when after three or four rings, Rap Snacks founder James Lindsay himself answered. No answering machine, no secretary, nothing. After ignoring my requests for interviews on twitter and any email I could find attached with his name or the company, it turns out he wasn’t that hard to find: his personal phone number is printed on every single bag of chips.
James Lindsay: Entrepreneur, businessman, fucking horrible at answering the phone
The fact that the phone was still active, and more so that Lindsay himself was on other end had me equal parts shocked and bewildered; it felt like I had called Oz and the wizard picked up, asking casually what I wanted. Not expecting the holy grail of Rap Snacks interviews, I was in no way prepared for any sort of real journalism. I didn’t record the conversation, had to fish for a pen and paper half way through the call and hung up the phone still in a state of shock. I’ve tried to get in touch with Lindsay again, leaving a number of voicemails and missed calls on the Rap Snacks Inc. cell phone, but haven’t heard a word back; just as quickly as I found him, he disappeared again. Because of this, I didn’t speak to Lindsay long and have no real proof that the conversation took place, but what I was able to find out was that most of my questions had fairly simple answers. He and Romeo are partners, but Lindsay operates the brand’s heavy lifting, with Romeo as its recognizable face. Yung Joc is no longer involved in the company, as it appears Yung Joc is no longer involved with anything, and most importantly, Lindsay claims Rap Snacks will be relaunching in “About three months.” With a new roster of rappers and brand associations Lindsay, who also claims he is Meek Mill’s manager (Meek’s publicist did not return Noisey’s emails seeking confirmation of this), said that they are working on reaching a much larger audience with the reboot, and while remaining in independently owned corner stores, will also be sold in chain convenience stores across the country. Lindsay says that the only Rap Snacks still in production in the mean time are the Romeo branded chips that I was able to find so easily in Philly.
Lindsay was sparse in his discussion of the new Snacks, and would not mention any of the artists or brands (he used the word brands a lot) that would be featured in the new campaign, but stressed the same company goals that were written about when Rap Snacks first hit bodegas; creating a positive image and socially conscious message within rap music through potato chips. He did confirm that there would be at least one Philadelphia based rapper involved in the reincarnation of Rap Snacks, and with Meek Mill’s history with the company, don’t be surprised if you see some Maybach Music Group branded Rap Snacks on shelves come August.
The chips themselves, in a bag that looks like it has orange flavor dust coating the outside as well as inside, are pretty good. It’s a standard Bar-B-Q flavored chip, the honey flavoring isn’t really noticeable, but I’m okay with that. I personally prefer a potato chip with ridges (shoutout Utz Wavy, Free Max B) but all things considered, for 35 cents Rap Snacks are just as viable a snack option as Ruffles or Lay’s…in the end it’s just a fuckin’ potato chip. But I’d bet good money that if you call up Lay’s, the CEO doesn’t answer the phone.
Zach Harris writes and snacks at the same time. He's on Twitter - @10000youtubes