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Hip-Hop Foodies: When Rappers Turn to the Kitchen

What hip-hop's cooking boom could mean for the next generation.
 
 
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The Roots' Questlove has embarked on a new venture with celeb chef Graham Elliott.
Photo Credit: Naoharu at Flickr Creative Commons

 
 
 
 

When Queens rapper Action Bronson rose to prominence last year, the most defining thing about him was his attention to food detail in his rhymes. And it wasn’t in a cursory way, like the way Lil Wayne has referenced lasagna or Ghostface Killah has namedropped baked ziti. Action Bronson rapped with the precision and language of someone whose first passion was that of a chef—which is what he was. Bronson graduated from New York City’s culinary program at the Art Institute, and after working a swathe of restaurants as well as a stint as the Mets’ personal chef, he got cooking on the mic. One of his best brags, from the song “Tapas”:

"I'm known to eat expensive lunches/from the farm right to the table/air straight to the plate/I doubt you can relate/figs at the peak of their ripeness."

As foodie culture has developed, so has the perception that it’s the bougie provenance of upper middle-class, mostly white people. This original framing is partly because of how the media has portrayed it, from early New York Times trend pieces (when foodieism was, apparently, confined to the natty Upper West Side) to New York magazine’s recent piece on artisanal food in Brooklyn (which portrayed almost solely white people, in the most diverse city in the nation).

It’s also got a lot to do with the concept of, and constant fight for access to good, nutritious food in lower-income communities of color, which has gotten slightly better thanks to activists such as Majora Carter and educational efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama. As the term “foodie” (which is annoying but will be used here as shorthand) becomes increasingly known, it has brought with it the normalized desire for organic, good food (see Action Bronson’s “farm to table” line), as well as the disdain for its astronomical prices, whether perceived or true. However, there’s a subsect of foodies that has emerged that both defies conventional wisdom, and could help further debunk the idea that eating well is equivalent to being wealthy. That is, of course, the hip-hop foodie, and Action Bronson’s chefdom is just the beginning.

Coolio’s as good a place to start as any. The Compton rapper who had a string of hits in the 1990s (“Fantastic Voyage,” “Gangstas Paradise”) spent his oughties promoting a cookbook, Cookin’ With Coolio: Five Star Meals at a One Star Price. Touting his personal cooking style, which he called “Ghetto Gourmet,” the cookbook lived up to its title, offering mostly healthy options that won’t break the bank but do stretch creatively. And while it wasn’t a bestseller, Coolio’s cooking profile got a boost this year from the Food Network, which has made good cooking more accessible to an unprecedented number of people (or in my case, even fathomable at all), when he participated in "Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off." Competing against other good-cook celebs like Cheech Marin, singer Taylor Dayne and Lou Diamond Phillips, Coolio [spoiler alert] almost won the competition with dishes like “soul rolls” (fusion egg rolls).

As the prominence and influence of the Food Network has grown, so have do-it-yourself cooking shows, which is where lots of hip-hop foodies reside. Aside from Coolio's "Cookin' with Coolio," Action Bronson has one called “Action in the Kitchen,” and features tutorials for dishes like ahi tuna and the “Bronson burger.” Still others are hosted by chefs who are not officially trained, yet have the same chutzpah and cooking acumen as anyone with a certificate.

Last year, Memphis veterans, cooking fans and Oscar winners Three 6 Mafia landed in the VH-1 show "Famous Food," and Bronx rapper Fat Joe has also been reportedly working on his own show. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn-based rapper Jean Grae is a self-described foodie, and as resourceful as Coolio; last month, over drinks in acclaimed Crown Heights restaurant Franklin Park, she told me she considered cooking analogous to rapping or editing film. “I love the creative process,” she said.

Grae has also appeared on the YouTube show of fellow progressive rapper Sadat X, whose connoisseurship focuses not on food but on wine. Of course, it works both ways—step into NYC celeb chef Eddie Huang’s affordable bao spot, Baohaus, and not only will you be bombarded by the latest beats, you’ll also enjoy cheeky rap-inspired food paintings. It wouldn't be hip-hop if it didn't have a sense of humor.

Yet perhaps the most high-profile example of hip-hop foodieism has yet to come. In spring, it was announced that Questlove, the celebrated drummer for the Roots, is going into business with Graham Elliott, the Chicago-based celebrity chef who curates all the food services and eating options for the megafestival Lollapalooza. Their venture, “Quest Loves Food Curated by Graham Elliott,” will provide food and a Questlove DJ set for events, parties and festivals, something the Chicago Tribune called “hip-hop catering.” And if it sounds more capitalist than foodie—and it’s certainly bougier than all of the above, there’s something else that more of us can enjoy. Questlove already owns Love’s Drumsticks, an artisanal food truck that serves fried chicken around New York City. Elliott’s take on the fare: “It's an incredibly seasoned free-range organic chicken, fried crispy, and presented in this cool origami wrap." Foodie language at its finest.

So, if this era of cooking is all about the celebrity chef with the outsized persona, who better but rappers to match them? Will the increased acceptance of good (affordable) food among rappers and others in hip-hop help break down the racist, classist perception that only fancy schmancy white folks like to eat well? And more importantly, how can the dissolution of that stereotype help shrink the “grocery gap,” where stores with more fresh produce and healthier, affordable options return to underserved communities they once fled? Certainly it might sound like a leap from rap chefs to solving institutional food crises, but it’s at a crucial point where culture predicts the coming wave: these musicians potentially reflect the increasingly savvy desires of young people in disadvantaged urban communities of color, whose pocketbooks might not be able to cop $5 Kombucha, but whose palates yearn for better options.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.