Lil B was hungry. It was a Saturday afternoon in Berkeley and he had been on the move all day long: giving interviews, tying up loose ends for a feature in Frank Ocean’s new magazine, and driving around his hometown taking care of family, friends, and all those who require the attention of the self-managed artist, rapper, and entrepreneur. When I finally got a hold of him on his phone at 3:30pm, he still hadn’t eaten anything. I told him the restaurant we’d agreed to meet at didn’t open until five, and he sounded a little pained. “Maybe I’ll just go to this Whole Foods and get a juice.” Texting dinner plans with Lil B was already hard to comprehend—but I still had no idea if he’d really show up.
That very morning, Lil B (né Brandon McCartney) had tweeted that the Based God was lifting the curse off Rockets shooting guard James Harden. This ended the one-way beef that made such a commotion in the NBA, it almost overshadowed the playoffs themselves. But recanting the curse only made Lil B busier; the sports world had caught Based God fever, and just a day later he’d find himself on national television, decked out in dangly earrings, an embroidered blouse, and a sunhat like some sort of swaggy soothsayer, playing “Cursed or Not Cursed” alongside gawking anchors on ESPN’s SportsNation. It was a bit bizarre to see him outside of his usual realm, projected not across YouTube or Tumblr or Twitter, but on a television screen in mainstream media. I could only assume that meeting the self-professed “Historical Online Figure” for dinner in real life, in the town we both called home, would be even more surreal.
— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) June 16, 2015
So there I was, sitting on the brick patio outside the 44-year-old restaurant Chez Panisse, a Berkeley institution and global icon at the center of America’s farm-to-table movement, feeling a bit tense. Five o’clock came and went, and as the day got foggier and colder, I truly did feel that my fate was in the hands of the Based God. I’d been informed by multiple sources that Lil B—despite his constant communication with his adoring fan base, and the casual texts he might send out to an inquiring reporter—followed his natural instincts to such a degree that it was hard to anticipate his next move. One collaborator told me in awe that, shortly after a raging, sold-out show in San Francisco, he came to find Brandon sitting quietly in his hotel room alone, reading a book.
But after sending off a few tweets (about apartheid and segregation, no less), Lil B got out of his car and made his way down Shattuck Avenue, past tourists taking photos of the Chez Panisse menu posted outside. He shook my hand and we walked upstairs to the café.
[Guy Fieri’s] a legend. He really cooks. He has a polarizing look.
Chez Panisse’s wine director Jonathon Waters (no relation to founder and locavore trailblazer Alice Waters) greeted us warmly. Waters has been walking the restaurant’s floors for decades, tending to figures from Bill Clinton to the Dalai Llama. But he knew that Lil B’s presence made it a truly special day. B introduced himself as Brandon, and we were led to a small, corner two-top, which I’m told is Alice’s preferred table when she’s dining in private.
We sat, and I paused to appreciate the moment: I was bearing witness to the fusion of Berkeley’s two greatest legends, the original organic restaurant and the original organic celebrity. Lil B grew up in this city, albeit a few miles west in the flats of Berkeley known as the Waterfront neighborhood; whereas this little enclave, ironically known as the Gourmet Ghetto (nicknamed so because of its transformation from an ordinary corridor to culinary destination during the ’70s), was a world away, and he’d never been inside.
Despite the improbability of it all, the union felt right. As of late, in lectures held at institutions like MIT, UCLA, NYU, to Carnegie Mellon, Lil B has been championing a new brand of environmentalism, encouraging natural living, activist viewpoints, and an overall push to make sure that everything—going into and out of your body—is as nurturing and healthful as possible. And Chez Panisse, still humming along in its original Berkeley location despite a recent fire that threatened its existence (much like Lil B himself), was the originator of all things local, sustainable, and mindfully grown in California. The two are cosmically connected, and yet not related at all.
Lil B’s influence engulfs the Bay Area, spanning back to The Pack’s “Vans” and all the way up to cult albums like I’m Gay, and memes like “Thank You Based God.” But in Berkeley, he’s a lot more than that—he’s a household name, a mutual friend, an avatar of the Bay Area spirit. At the Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters’ flagship urban garden just around the corner from Chez at King Middle School, the 12-year-olds know him too. Their first instinct when they enter the kitchen for class is to whip their wrists, pick up their spoons, and mime the motions of the Lil B Cooking Dance. Across the world, the Cooking Dance has come to represent Lil B’s entire ethos—one of joy, of prowess, and above all, self-expression.
But Lil B wasn’t thinking about all that on that afternoon. Mostly, he was just taking in Chez Panisse’s calming interior.
“This feels like a ship or something,” he said while looking around the room. Fashioned out of wood and copper accents in an old American Craftsman–style house, the place was bustling with waiters in black vests pouring French wine. “I feel like I’m on a boat. I like it.”
In person, Lil B is unassuming. He’s short in stature, though he’s very visibly athletic, even with a sweatshirt on. He carries himself calmly but moves purposefully. You’ll rarely catch any of the hyper-extroverted mannerisms of his stage show or his more outlandish music videos. He says “thank you” more than almost anybody I’ve ever met. And it’s also apparent that he’s got a lot on his mind: taking care of family, perfecting creative output, and wrestling with self-doubt—yes, the same mundane things that trouble us all. Off-record, he’ll talk quietly and humbly about life like anyone else. In front of the camera, he’s a fine-tuned cultural icon. My hope was to find middle ground. Seeing as he was so caught up in the Warriors’ championship run, it seemed only natural to start talking basketball—and, of course, Warriors super-fan and Bay Area native Guy Fieri, whose ubiquity online is only rivaled to Lil B himself.
How was it being at the Warriors game this week?
It was real fun. I’ve always been an at-home supporter. I definitely go to games if I can. I give it a positive thought, a real positive blessing, from my inside. But the Warriors games be costing that money. You got to have a little something to have it.
How do you reconcile the idea of positivity with the curse and all the beefs you’ve had, especially regarding the Cooking Dance?
For me, I’m never going in to pick on people. I don’t do things for publicity. Kevin Durant, he says something about Lil B—I never talked about Kevin Durant ever. I wasn’t even thinking about him. And James Harden, he was doing his dance from somebody that stole…that was obviously inspired by the Lil B Cooking Dance. But he just didn’t show respect in the right way, of how you should if you’re inspired, you know? If you’re inspired, just reach out.
— Cut4 (@Cut4) July 7, 2015
Did you see Kanye?
I wish I would have seen him at that game. I was so busy, making sure that the Warriors won, which they did.
Is it exhausting making sure the Warriors win?
Only if the Based God has a vested interest. I just watch the game.
Did you see Guy Fieri there?
Oh man, I didn’t see him, but I heard [he was there]. He’s a legend. He really cooks. He has a polarizing look.
In a good way or a bad way?
In a good way. Always good.
What would you say, if he’s out there?
Tell him what’s up man, and keep spreading that positivity. That’s what it’s about.
Would you ever do a cooking show or anything like that?
I just try to do what’s really in my heart, and really what I care about. I just let things flow with me. Right now, it’s just focusing on the art. I do love cooking, but it’s got to be for all the right reasons.
I think people are actually out there cooking, making food, because of you.
Yeah man, it’s the cool thing to do right now. And that was just my thing, just to make sure cooking is respected. I seen this chef—he was like a professional chef—took a picture with me and he was literally doing the Lil B Cooking Dance sports celebration. It made me feel good. People feel good about it.
At this point a small plate of warm olives arrived at the table. He wasn’t that interested, but he dug into Acme Bread’s signature sourdough loaf enthusiastically. He worried about using his hands, noting that his aunt was a stickler for “etiquette.” When asked for still or sparkling water, he chose still.
Despite the occasion, it may be worth pointing out that Lil B was not drinking. The bartender (and full disclosure, my close friend), nearly beside himself with excitement, was ready to go into the cellar and pull out the best bottle of sparkling wine on reserve, but Lil B’s tastes aren’t so obvious. Instead, we had two glasses of grape juice—a Gewurtzstraminer varietal from Navarro vineyards, which is basically the closest thing to wine without the booze. B was quite pleased, and made sure to get the exact name and origin of the beverage.
His abstinence shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Between juggling his musical output, college speaking engagements, and festival appearances, it’s a wonder that he even indulges in sleep. As the meal wore on, he’d take out his phone(s), replying individually to Facebook likes and Twitter mentions, keeping up his digital empire in every single way he could. Later that week, when asked about the authenticity of his Twitter activity, he told Grantland bluntly: “I followed the 1.2 million people with my hand.” Indeed, this seemed like a very thoughtful, self-possessed 25-year-old.
stop sending me pictures of you and your chicken you only have the chicken to take it eggs away use them,You don’t respect the chick – Lil B
— Lil B From The Pack (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) July 6, 2015
It seems like you’ve come a long way in the last several years. Do you feel like your philosophy has evolved at all?
Definitely. Every day I get better, and every day I’m a new person. I just continue to let life give me the answers I’m looking for.
I was watching this old video, from the Pack days, when you were shooting guns in Iraq or something?
Yeah. I’m not really proud of that video. But I had some people who had guns, and I had never shot a gun before, so they took me out to go shooting.
Was that really in Iraq?
No, no. Vegas. In the desert. Reno, somewhere.
That’s a good example, though—you were younger, maybe 18. But things are different now.
For me, I don’t see the use for violent weapons. Unless it’s just for, like—a natural disaster, and if there’s a saber tooth tiger trying to kill you. Make all the mistakes extremely early. That’s the most positive thing—make ‘em early, not intentionally.
There’s a million more questions Lil B could answer, but we were primarily there to talk about food, especially his ties to vegetarianism. Earlier in the year, B announced his first-ever brand partnership with, of all places, Follow Your Heart vegetarian foods. Together, they released an app called vegEMOJI, a set of textable graphics encouraging users to “Eat Ur Veggies” and adopt a responsible, eco-conscious lifestyle; it was a logical move in that it followed his already successful Basedmoji app, but surprising in that it celebrated vegetables. It was difficult to figure out why B was suddenly repping the SoCal-based manufacturers of Vegenaise. As far as anyone knew, he wasn’t following a strict plant-based diet.
To cut to the core of Lil B’s offbeat brand of charisma is a tall task, so I decided to reach out to someone who might have some actual insight into B’s savvy: Matt Dunaj, the person responsible for Lil B’s partnership with Follow Your Heart.
“It’s kind of crazy, having the Director of Accounting pitch the founders of the company to have a rapper named Lil B develop an emoji app,” Dunaj told me over the phone earlier this summer. He’s an ex-Wall Street guy who, after finding the profession didn’t suit his morals, landed at the Canoga Park-based food company, which started as a humble sandwich shop and grew into a 120,000-square-foot solar-powered factory with products in 10,000 stores worldwide. Dunaj is a longtime believer in the #based lifestyle, and to him, pitching the Lil B partnership made perfect sense. “I thought I’d get laughed out of the room,” he said. “But I just approached it with that same conviction and positivity—it’s the based attitude.”
“We don’t strategize,” he says of their collaboration. “The strategy is ‘how to be real.’ We don’t have talking points, we don’t have any lines for him to say; nothing’s rehearsed. It’s all just very much a shared feeling. He’s not vegetarian, but the ideology resonates with him. He doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do, and he doesn’t do things for ulterior motives. He doesn’t put a filter on things, he doesn’t do anything sneaky. It’s just, ‘This is it, this is who I am, this is what I do.’”
In Dunaj’s mind, the partnership has been a great success. “You’ll see people online saying, ‘Lil B working with Follow Your Heart made me think about not eating animals anymore!’ I’m not saying he’s going to go veg or vegan, but the way he talks about compassion, environmentalism, and care for animals—now they’re going to be exposed to that.”
These words rang in my head when it came time to order. B seemed a bit unsure, aware that his choice might be writ and analyzed for all of history. He first asked if they had soup, but the pureé didn’t appeal to him. In the end, he ordered the salmon, and I went with the duck.
It seems like you have a new push toward good eating—do you think that a healthy lifestyle is important?
Definitely. I think healthy eating plays a big part on your mind, how you think. Everybody deserves to eat healthy, just like everybody deserves healthcare.
So many people who live in Berkeley have never had a chance to go to this restaurant; do you think this kind of food should be available to everybody?
Definitely. The highest grade, the best grape fruits. All that. It shouldn’t just [come] down to money. There are a lot of hardworking people, who don’t have enough money to afford to pay $50 for that steak—or not even a steak—just healthy food. Everybody deserves to have a free, good meal; the best meal possible that they can have.
Do you do much cooking yourself?
Not much, but I feel like as my age progresses I will be doing more. I’m excited to, because the cooking that I will do will represent my personality. My personality will come out in that.
Just met a squirrel in la who is not afraid of humans and actually embraces humans… Very inspiring to see let’s continue to help – Lil B
— Lil B From The Pack (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) July 2, 2015
So Chez Panisse has this garden over there, the Edible Schoolyard. I was just talking to someone who’s a cooking teacher over there, and she was telling me that the little kids enrolled in the cooking classes, little 12-year-olds, are all doing your cooking dance when they get in the kitchen.
That’s a blessing. And that’s why I do it. It’s a wide range of people that are paying attention to Lil B and that are influencing different sides, so I definitely just try to be as delicate as I can, just as mindful as I can. But deep down I know why I make music, and that’s to bring people together, to create positivity, and ultimately happiness. And that takes time.
What do you think it is about the cooking dance that people connect with?
I mean, I made it so everybody can do it. I wanted everybody to be able to cook. You don’t have to be an expert dancer to be able to do it.
It was just extremely fun to be able to partner up with Follow Your Heart, for the simple fact that I don’t “partner up”—I have to believe in the company.
Was your mom a cook at home?
Yeah, my mom did her best to cook. She had a very unique style of cooking though. She definitely liked to make a lot of different soups. That’s why I respect the soup. She liked greens and stuff. I really didn’t like it when I was younger, but she liked wheat germ and stuff like that—that shit grosses me out. She may not have been the best to other people cooking-wise, but she owns a special place. I love her. And my dad too.
It seems like your relationship with Follow Your Heart has pushed you in a new direction.
Yeah, definitely man, it was just extremely fun to be able to partner up with Follow Your Heart, for the simple fact that I don’t “partner up”—I have to believe in the company. Believe in the morals. Believe in the mission statement, of what is this company about? And Follow Your Heart, even down to the bags and the plastic—every single detail is just made with love and that’s what I like. I really respect the conservation and the thought that goes behind it. That’s motivation.
Matt told me that you guys wanted to hand out snacks at the UCLA lecture, but they wouldn’t let you.
Yeah, you had to be an approved vendor. But we got the chance to do something cool—shouts out to Matt. We gave out plants, you know what I’m saying—gave out little baby plants to grow. Actually, my mom…I look at my mom crazy sometimes, because she’s just got so many plants around in her house. I’m just like mom, give me a break. All these plants, oh wow—
— April (@imaftermarch) May 29, 2015
The table was cleared and our waitress brought out a glass tea kettle filled with tisane. It’s an old classic at Chez, an infusion of mint and lemon verbena. She asks us if we want dessert but B politely declines. “I’m okay; this is the perfect dessert for me, it’s lasting me. I can’t wait. Thank you so much.”
Do you ever think about becoming vegetarian?
Yeah, definitely. I wish I was born into that, veganism. I feel like I was born into the problem. Not even the problem, just the society of the meat grinder. I was the victim of the meat grinder. Also, it really costs money to be healthy, bro. I was always smart and I wanted to do things, but I wasn’t dedicated in school, because I was doing music. But like, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, I wanted to do cool stuff. And now I respect it more, but I didn’t have patience back then. It’s hard for a kid to have patience. Especially for me, I was just living in that moment, living in the now, when I was younger.
But what food items are you comfortable repping?
I’m really ashamed. Besides things that are natural, that grow from the earth. I just wish I knew something different. Sometimes I wish I’d grown up in the woods [and] wasn’t eating even animals.
Eating plants and berries?
—or wood. I mean, you can’t eat the wood. I don’t know, maybe you can.
Our waitress is suddenly back again with dessert, in spite of our best efforts to eat modestly. It’s a blood-red boysenberry sorbet, studded with peaches and tiny cookies. B laughs and accepts with only a hint of reluctance: “Okay, let’s turn up for it. Do you mind if I take a picture? Thank you, it looks great. My teeth are gonna fall out! But I got to do it.”
So what’d you think of this meal?
Outstanding. The dessert was great. All the green food was great. The potatoes were great.
[My mom] liked to make a lot of different soups. That’s why I respect the soup.
And the salmon?
Yeah. The salmon was… [pauses] I’m not really into promoting the death of animals. But everything here has a real quality to it. You can taste it. But for me, I think the best part was the greens, the potatoes, the fruit right here. Everything that’s natural.
Is that the appeal of Follow Your Heart? Matt Dunaj said you had a pretty awesome meal when you were down there.
Definitely. Follow Your Heart is also a restaurant and store. I think I had a vegan sandwich with, like, the fake meat. And also a soup—like, a bean soup. It was super good. Soup-er good.
It sounds like you’re pretty into soup.
Oh yeah, love it. Soup is an amazing food and definitely one of my favorites. It’s just keep everything natural, and you can get a lot of different feelings and tastes within soup.
Yeah, it’s all about spice and different ingredients, you can mix it up, change it up.
Yup, yup. It’s just inspiring to see a lot of people who got love.
We finished our meal, after more than two hours, and pushed back slowly from the table. As we walked out, B thanked all the cooks on the line; in the open kitchen, they had been stealing furtive glances his way. Jonathon Waters thanked us warmly and we descended down the stairs, back into the cool Berkeley evening. Two worlds, separate and yet the same, had merged. Berkeley was that much closer to being whole. Thank You Based God. Thank You Based Panisse.