In 2016, the worlds of food and hip-hop are deeply interwoven. Few would question why Drake is rapping about Cheesecake Factory, or why Beyoncé is singing about Red Lobster, or even why Kanye West is penning heartfelt poems about McDonald’s French fries. Food is a crucial component of the human experience—a way in which we communicate with one another and share our lives—and it makes sense that the idea of a hot meal would work its way into the foundation of rap and R&B.
While food and hip-hop have always shared a common bond, in recent years the culinary arts have evolved from a few, incidental lines in a verse to a central element of certain rappers' identities. Since 2014, Action Bronson has hosted his popular food and travel show, Fuck That's Delicious, on Munchies, and Rick Ross has become as synonymous with investing in Wingstop and Luc Belaire champagne as actually rapping. For better or for worse, the landscape has shifted dramatically.
For the last 30 years, Prince Paul has built a career as a world-renowned DJ and record producer, working with artists like Big Daddy Kane, Stetsasonic, and Run the Jewels. Most famously, he helped craft the sound behind De La Soul's debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, revolutionizing hip-hop production techniques and collaborating with a group that became one of the firsts to playfully weave food references into its rhymes. Over the decades, Paul has seen those plugs shift from tales of poverty, fast-food, and identity, to boasts of wealth, power and fame.
With the release of Paul’s latest album earlier this month—a project called Throwback to the Future with the music collective Brookzill!—First We Feast caught up with the DJ to find out exactly how the food-rap game has shifted since 1989. From his days as a burger-flipper at McDonald's, to some of the most memorable lyrics from hip-hop royalty, here is the gospel of food-rap according to Paul.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was your introduction to food?
The most money I made as a child was working at McDonald’s at 15. That was my introduction to the wide world of fast-food….I’ll tell you one thing, and this is the beauty of being in the industry this long. I worked at McDonald’s and [the guys from De La Soul] worked at Burger King. They would tell me horrible stories. People complained that the food wasn’t hot enough, so they’d put it in the microwave for a billion minutes. It was terrible, you couldn’t even eat it. Just being butt holes. They put various stuff inside of people's food. They ate crappy back then.
Why do you think food and hip-hop have become so intertwined over the years?
Food means wealth. People really don’t understand that. If you lived in the inner-city—or any kid of urbanized area, or if you live a life near or below the poverty line—food is the main thing that you think of. Food is what you steal. It’s the idea that if you’re living good, you’re having lobster. Food is like, “Yeah, we’re having dessert.” Food is, “Man, there’s something to eat tonight!” Any type of opulence is always going to be associated with food. So rappers and food, to me, automatically go hand-in-hand, even before cars and minks and houses, you know what I’m saying? Food, apart from your clothes, is a sign that you’re doing good.
Sure, food can definitely be a sign of wealth, but it also says something about where you’re from and how you were brought up.
Yeah, I agree…And if you want to get more political or religious, Black Muslim cats are like, “Yo, I ain’t eat no pork.” You know, “No pork on my fork strictly fish on my dish.” Who said that? Big Daddy Kane. So then it becomes part of a health and religious thing too. It’s definitely referenced. My earliest recollection of food being in any rap, would have to be the first rap record—and that’s not Rapper's Delight. It’s "King Tim III.” The line was, “‘Cause I'm well known just like Burger King. I don't sell burgers or French fries. I'm only here to make your nature right.” That to me is the first [food] reference, and that’s the first hip-hop-related rap I can think of on wax that ever came out.
It’s interesting the influence a lyrics can have on someone. I remember reading that Common gave up eating pork because KRS-One rapped about it.
There it is! Then you do your due diligence, and you do your research, and you go, “OK, now I see why I shouldn’t eat it.” But yeah, there’s a coolness attached to who said it. I’m sure if Lil Wayne said he didn’t eat pork, it wouldn’t affect people as much as Chuck D saying he didn’t eat pork.
Who’s written some of the best food-raps in your opinion? Do you have some favorite songs or albums?
I have to actually start in my own back yard and that would be De La Soul, Pease Porridge. Even though it doesn’t have a clear reference to any particular food in the verses, you can get more foodie than a hook being “Pease porridge in the pot nine-days-old.” I don’t know who in the world even eats porridge, at all, ever in their lives. That’s definitely an old-time thing, that must be like an early 1900s, 1800s-type thing. Then if I’m still thinking De La Soul, they have the song “Bitties in the BK Lounge." Ah, man! There’s [Raekwon’s] “Ice Cream,” right? Even though it’s a reference to woman. Then I’m thinking of MF Doom's Mm.. Food. Even the album cover itself. Look at Biz Markie? He had the album [The Biz Never Sleeps] where he was eating cereal on the back cover.
There’s tons [of examples]. I think of rappers like Action Bronson and the Fat Boys. Action Bronson makes a billion references. I don’t know if I should put their names back-to-back, but also Ghostface.
What do you think of these new guys like Bronson, have they inherited the food-rap thrown in a way? Even guys like Rick Ross and Kanye West rap about food constantly.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting, you know, especially speaking of Action Bronson. It would only make sense for him since he is a chef, and that’s where his field of expertise is. And I can definitely see like a Rick Ross [rapping about food], because didn’t he lose a lot of weight?
Yeah, he did. He does RossFit now.
I think his food references are really going to have to change at this point. He’s going to have to talk about green shakes, and kelp, and everything else. Wheat grass, because he’s definitely not eating the stuff he’s rapping about.
How have you seen the food references change in rap in general over the years? Does the old-school or the new-school do it better?
Man, I think now the food references go more toward the luxurious side—and the opulent side—than back then. Back then it was just Burger King, and eating chicken, and how the chicken tastes good—real simple stuff. Now it’s the lobster and the champagne. It’s exotic food. And yeah, it changed, man, because the rappers changed. If you think back then it was like, “Man, I’m just glad to be here, glad to be rapping and I’m making a little bit of money.” Now it’s like, “Yo, I make a lot of money. Look at all my food, look how I eat, look how I live.”