How to Rap About Food
With the most gluttonous holiday of the year upon us, we speak to gourmet masters The Doppelgangaz about the history of gastro-rap.
Photo via The Doppelgangaz on Instagram
We are in the midst of a glorious food-rap era. Spearheaded by the chef-turned-rapper-turned-food show host Action Bronson, the idea of MCs dropping a smorgasbord of chow references into rhyme has caught on massively. Of course, there's always been a place for sustenance in hip-hop: back in the old school era, "Rapper's Delight" included the Sugarhill Gang complaining about being served soggy macaroni and chicken that’s "slowly rotting into something that looks like cheese"; the Disco 3 transformed into the Fat Boys and embraced a Sbarro pizza habit; and Bronx oddball Funkmaster Wizard Wiz pulled off the pre-Seinfeldian move of eating a sandwich he'd dropped on the ground.
Today, the culinary and rapping arts have never been so closely intertwined, with fans learning about fusing bucatini with razor clams with the same sort of enthusiasm they once reserved for hearing The Clipse and Dipset talk about cooking crack in the mid-2000s.
But how does an MC go about coining a mighty healthy food rhyme without coming off as the lyrical equivalent of your newly vegan friend's struggle salad pics on Instagram? To find out, I met up with The Doppelgangaz, a New York-based hip-hop group whose music is second to only Chef Bronsolini when it comes to packing in the food references. The duo's new album, Dopp Hopp, includes members EP and Matter ov Fact smartly pairing a Robert Mondavi wine with a kohlrabi and pear salad, feasting on Crab Louie chased with andouille sausage and Celery Victor, and plumping for the very specific Carolina-style slaw with their Frito pies.
"You've got to think, has the reference been used before? Do we like the way it rolls off the tongue? Is it interesting? Is it something we can bring to the attention of other people?" says EP when asked about incorporating food terms in verse. Matter ov Fact adds, "It's like the other day I came across a mangosteen, which is like a little derivative of the mango, and I was taken with it so I had to put it in there with the langoustine."
Digging deeper into the intricacies of food rhymes, I asked the Dopp Gang to explain how rappers use food as a status symbol, detail the sleazy history of pasta dishes, and break down hip-hop's long-standing fish and seafood infatuation.
Living That Gourmand Life
Just like boasting about owning a fleet of sports cars, racks of designer clothing, and mansions with oceans in the backyard, food is used to showcase a rapper's high-rolling lifestyle. Rick Ross's breakfast routine is king. "Am I really just a narcissist / 'Cause I wake up to a bowl of lobster bisque?" ponders the Bawse on "I Love My Bitches." Based on his first dish of the day, you know that Rozay is truly rising like royalty.
"The thing about bisque is it's so easy to get just emulsified orange paint when you really need to have the lobster chunks in it," warns Matter ov Fact. "But I would say Ross gets some good bisque. I don't think the people around him would allow him to be served anything less than quality."
The trend of rappers like Kanye West, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar name-dropping Grey Poupon mustard taps into similar upwardly mobile ambitions. "That one comes from back in the day when they had the advert in the back of the Rolls Royce and one of the parties is royalty and the other person is aware of this high-class condiment," says Matter ov Fact. "I think it's been programmed in our minds that Grey Poupon is fancy."
Sardines For Dinner
On the bottom end of the success spectrum, rappers use low budget food situations to reflect back on hardscrabble days. Ghostface has reminisced about plucking roaches out of cereal boxes, 2 Chainz has recalled surviving on canned goods, and on “Juicy” Biggie coined the immortal line, ”Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner.”
"It's a good connector piece with fans," says EP. "You can equate certain foods to certain price points and you're saying, 'Hey, I ate that when I had to be more economical with my choices.'"
Bridging from cheap to expensive foods also works as a way to show how a rapper’s situation has changed. On the Dopp Gang's "Beak Wet," Matter ov Fact raps, "A ganga known to be a swinger to your pale spouse / Eating 20 zingers at a Miller's Ale House / Yeah, negotiate the right amounts / And now all the sage butter got the braised quail doused."
He explains, "Miller's is a sports bar in Jersey that's got the illest chicken fingers for the cheap-as-hell price point. It's the highs and lows: You might have to keep it low and get some zingers with the squad and another time you might have a come up and want to get something more fancy. That's life in a nutshell."
Link Your Flavor Profiles
When incorporating food references into rhyme, it's vital to make sure the ingredients and dishes would be pleasing on the palette. On "Olympics," EP celebrates copping a fleet of homes next to Rashida Jones by "slurping bivalves of the East Coast variety" before indulging in "Himalayan rock salt topped with Tajima steak." This menu is all about linking tastes: "Your oysters already have a lot of salinity, so if you're gonna add salt something you might as well get that Himalayan pink rock salt, some of the best out there. It's tying things in with that salty factor."
Befitting his chef roots, this ideal of taste-testing food references is something Action Bronson excels at. On "Tan Leather" he celebrates coming into money with "bone marrow roasted / Spread it on the rosemary bread, lightly toasted / Drizzled with the vinaigrette." Going deeper, it's like he's freestyling menu additions for the evening on “Nordic Wind” as he raps, "Got the lamb rack, pan-roasted, laced it with fennel / Little yoghurt that's been drizzled over might be a winner.” It’s a dish that works.
Strive To Be Healthy
Rappers giving out dietary advice might sound overly self-righteous, but there's nothing wrong with attempting to get fans to eat a little healthier. Dead Prez's "Be Healthy" is a classic manifesto, with the duo claiming "lentil soup is mental fruit."
"Stic Man is on a crazy healthy kick, I'd take his advice, he's in peak shape," says EP, before being reminded that the rest of Dead Prez's menu mandates "no meat, no dairy, no sweets." With a laugh he adds, ”See, I can't fuck with that. But if Stic Man could tailor my diet, I'd trust him." Addressing his own contribution to the canon, where he claimed to be ”cutting out the beef, ate a ton of kale," EP admits it was a dig at the kale trend of a few years ago.
Nas's "Fried Chicken" also wants listeners to take note of what they are shoveling down their gullet, with the Queensbridge MC commenting, "Mmm, fried chicken, fly vixen / Give me heart disease but need you in my kitchen." Matter ov Fact breaks down the nuances: "Nas's point was for people who eat fried chicken on a weekly basis. You've got to just eat it once every three months, like if I go to New Orleans I'll go to Willie Mae’s, so it's some type of occasion."
Fish, Every Rapper's Favorite Dish
Back in 1987, Rakim coined one of the all-time great hip-hop food lines. In the middle of reflecting on his days as a stick-up kid, he declared, "Fish, which is my favorite dish." It might sound esoteric or random at first but, as EP says, "I feel like that line is so beautiful because he's talking about coming up and if you go to the fish market and you want a fresh piece of fish, it's going to cost much more than ground beef. He's aspiring to a plate of fish. At restaurants, fish is the only thing listed on the menu as 'market price'—you don't get to see the price and there's an allure to it. Everything else is listed but for the fish they had to go to the auction, like in Japan they got dudes showing up to bid on a fish. Fish is serious."
Our finned friends are also said to be food for the brain, which ties in with Rakim's stature as the God MC.
Stack Bread and Cheddar
On Outkast's "Aquemini," André 3000 added on to the common use of bread and cheese as slang for money: "Street scholars majoring in culinary arts / You know, how to work bread, cheese and dough." The origin of cheese being synonymous with cash isn't entirely clear; it's been suggested it dates back to the times of people receiving packages of government cheese. EP speculates that maybe it stems from "certain cheeses being hard to have at one time, and people equated them to a certain stature, like wine and cheese and you have to go to these cheese markets."
Dopp Gang's world embraces this usage. Matter ov Fact laments, "Look inside the wallet ain't no gorgonzola in it.” On the bucolic "Barbiturates," EP demands, "Doppel need bread and some cheese, but not fondue." The meaning is prescriptive: "I'm saying don't get it confused. I would love some fondue but at this point in time I have to clarify that I'm literally looking for money specifically right now."
In Nobu With No Shoes
Name-dropping high-end restaurants is meant to show that a rapper is flush with cash. Examples are many: Greg Nice was sipping on a glass of wine at Tavern on the Green back in the early-‘90s, Kanye has claimed to stroll into Japanese spot Nobu without wearing shoes, and Action Bronson has boasted about devouring Gipsy salami, wild dandelion greens, and Parmesan crisps at Marea. Name-dropping also has the knock-on effect of introducing listeners to new culinary standards.
"Think about how many people look at going to Mr. Chow's as a sign of making it," says EP. "It might not be the top dining experience any more but it's like Jay-Z said go there, so when you're in hip-hop and you've only eaten McDonalds, when somebody tells you they've got money, where do you go? They say Mr. Chow's."
Cooking As Seduction
Having a romantic pursuit offer to cook for you is an alluring thing in hip-hop. On "Camay," Ghostface woos the lady he's pursuing by calling her "you sexy motherfucker" before asking, "Can you cook, darling? / At the stove you're evolving / Baked macaroni, turkey wings, a nigga starving / Here take my number, let me pull the chair from under / I had fun plus your backyard speak with thunder."
It turns out that the interplay between getting busy in the kitchen and making moves between the sheets has a long history. "Spaghetti alla puttanesca is a dish that has a tradition of prostitutes making it to attract clientele," explains Matter ov Fact, who's rapped about enjoying the dish with a can of Fresca. "They'd make it in an area that attracts mad Johns: Are you gonna go to a shorty that's by herself or a shorty who's cooking? When I rhyme in the present day, I'm saying I have a lady of the night making me spaghetti, it's very meta.”
"There's love involved in cooking for someone," continues Matter ov Fact. "But just because you're in a relationship, don't mean you can cook. Think of all the times you see a picture on Facebook with someone saying they cooked for their man and it looks like slop. It's not taking care of your man if you're serving up that pale chicken—if anything you're hurting your man, you're clogging up his arteries and you're giving him salmonella."
Get In On The Wine Game
Traditionally, hip-hop's imbibing has been about swigging 40 ounces of malt liquor and drowning sorrows with Hennessy. But EP predicts we're about to enter the wine era. Having previously rhymed about Ashanti's twerk video almost causing him to spill a glass of Chianti down his shirt, he ups his game on "E.W.W." where a sought after bottle of 1990 Chave from the Hill of Hermitage is poured out in remembrance of friends who've passed away. "Wine is coming," he says. "You see Lebron James is into wine and posts about it a lot and Carmelo is all about his wine game. You're gonna see people taking notes and rapping about wine soon."
Time To Give Thanks
Finally, a word on Thanksgiving. It's fair to say that, despite loving to gloat about their dining choices, rappers have not exactly embraced the traditions of the holiday. In rap parlance, cranberry sauce is more likely to be used to denote the color of a new sports car (see: Pusha T's Ferrari, 50 Cent's Porsche) than a gelatinous side, while Cage has even threatened to insert his appendage into the turkey. It's enough to make you ditch the holiday menu in favor of scarfing down fast food—which is precisely what Lil B has suggested.
But a staple Thanksgiving dish was used by '90s Long Beach rapper Domino for "Sweet Potato Pie," in which our hero gets "fucked up off chocolate thai" and goes on a hunt for some sweet potato pie—which in Domino’s lexicon means a lady’s most intimate area. According to Matter ov Fact, this non-traditional conception of the holiday dish is likely due to the girl’s "sweetness, like ain't nothing salty about shorty.” Then he adds, “Also, that's what Domino enjoys so he equates it as much as he likes sweet potato pie. I mean he didn't say Idaho potato with chives and butter...."