Last year, I took the opportunity to gripe about hip-hop at restaurants, arguing that a combination of bad acoustics and unclear motivations often conspire to make rap an unwelcome guest in dining rooms. I’ve come to terms with the fact that two things you hold dear don’t always have to work well together. But maybe that’s because I’m inundated every day with Biggie blasting in restaurants, whereas I’m starved for opportunities to combine hip-hop with my other great love: beer.
Rap music loves a good turn-up, but more often than not, stouts and pilsners are cast aside in favor of flashier beverages like champagne, Hennessy, and Patrón. Still, brews have a storied history in hip-hop, not to mention a bright future. If emcees like Kanye and Drake are coming around to the joys of Riesling and Muscato, it’s only a matter of time before saisons and IPAs get immortalized in verse, right?
Let’s not get ahead of yourself. To take stock of where we’re at, here’s your essential primer on beer in hip-hop—from 40s to frat rap, and the Alkaholiks to Asher Roth.
The Cult of the 40
The high-ABV, lagerlike beverage known as malt liquor occupies a special place in the hip-hop canon. This relationship is nicely summarized in the Punch essay “40 Ounces to Freedom,” in which Besha Rodell delves into the rise of brands like Olde English and Colt-45, as well as their heavy association with rap. One expert surmises that the first beer to be sold in the super-sized format was A-1 in the early ’60s, but it wasn’t until the ’80s and ’90s that rappers like MC Eiht and NWA’s Eazy E turned it into a full-fledged rap-game trope.
While countless artists name-checked malt liquor in their rhymes, it was a series of St. Ides commercials featuring artists like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac that established the undeniable link between 40s and hip-hop. The St. Ides spots—which featured malt liquor-oriented remixes or original songs—became a genre unto themselves, with the look and feel of mini music videos. Before controversy hit—many people were uncomfortable with the link between youth, violence, and cheap beer—they were also wildly successful, boosting St. Ides sales by 25%.
The visuals sold the story (St. Ides is hip-hop), but the actual message about the beer itself was all over the place in the ads. Rakim linked the beverage to creativity: “One quart and my thought’s hip-hop related / Write a rhyme and my pen’s intoxicated.” Notorious B.I.G. shouted out its easygoing character, calling himself a “funny two-brew guzzler” and rapping, “Forget the great taste, it’s less filling / I’d rather have some Ides and some dimes in the crib chillin’.” And Ice Cube blessed us with the most unforgettable line of all: “Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker with St. Ides malt liquor.” Anyone who still has the St. Ides mixtapes on cassette is in possession of some excellent hip-hop ephemera.
For those who tracked the culture closely, there’s endless lore around hip-hop’s infatuation with the 40. The Long Beach rapper Crooked I took his name from the popular slang term for St. Ides, and on a 2004 DVD documenting the West Coast crew Strong Arm Steady, Krondon revealed his hilarious nickname for MGD: “Mad Gangster Dancing.” But in terms of public awareness, it was really the appearance of 40s in music videos—especially those of the ’90s gangster-rap boom—that solidified the status of malt-liquor bottles as an essential lifestyle prop. Who can forget the entire fridge full of 40s in Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” video?
If you’re a late-’70s or early-’80s baby, you remember when hip-hop became the official soundtrack of college partying, with campus favorites like Jurassic 5 and The Roots clogging up file-sharing networks across the country. But then something strange happened: The same (mostly white) kids who were ripping beer bongs while belting out the chorus to “Gin & Juice” suddenly decided that they should grab the mic, giving rise to the bizarre sub-genre known as “frat rap.”
As Max Goldberg explains on Complex, the stars of this world—G-Eazy, Mike Stud, and Hoodie Allen—do millions of YouTube views and can “sell out the same venues at J. Cole,” even if their fan base remains remarkably niche. Not surprisingly, their songs are often on-the-nose college drinking anthems, rife with references to Beirut and “Thirsty Thursdays,” and their videos depict all the trappings of the Greek lifestyle: keggers, 30-racks, and sticky ping-pong tables.
The biggest success story of the frat-rap movement is Asher Roth, who has spent years trying to distance himself from his breakout party hit, “I Love College.” Still, there’s little doubt that it continues to inspire sloppy sing-a-longs at Sigma Chi chapters nationwide.
While weed-rap has spawned international superstars like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, emcees who celebrate drinking have traditionally flown south of the mainstream. In rap, booze is a usually a status symbol, a conduit to meeting girls, or a form of escapism. But being inebriated in a non-posturing, socially uncouth way? That never quite caught on, though there are some amusing underground artists who embraced it, like Boston’s Mighty Casey. On “Liquorland,” a likeably silly drinking ditty, he raps, “I got a pet King Cobra and a pet Mad Dog / Budweiser taste like water so I killed them three frogs.”
And then, of course, there are the patron saints of hip-hop boozing, The Alkaholiks, whose 21 & Over album cover featured a fridgeful of beer and whose song “Only When I’m Drunk” was basically an ode to 40s. The best battle-rap line of all time? Probably J-Ro when he says, “I divide square MCs like math / Bend you in half and drink a Genuine Draft” on the ODB-assisted “Hip Hop Drunkies.”
Finally, while their general vibe wasn’t drunkenness, let’s go ahead and lump Young Black Teenagers into this category for their malt liquor and Red Stripe-fueled hit “Tap the Bottle.” It’s worth noting that none of them were black (the name was an homage!), so maybe we can just chalk this one up to an early example of #caucasity.
A Brief History of Shilling
Perhaps as a direct result of hip-hop’s general disinterest in beer, there haven’t been many major endorsement deals beyond the aforementioned St. Ides campaign. One notable example involved the crown prince of hip-hop capitalism: In 2006, Jay Z tore down the divide between beer and rap—at least in a business sense—by starring in a Bud Select ad set to his song “Show Me What You Got” and featuring auto-racing stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick. He followed that with a Super Bowl ad in which he plays a game of futuristic football with NFL coach Don Shula. His relationship with Budweiser has survived through the years, though whether it’s had much influence outside of his bank account is unclear.
UK Hip-Hop and Pub Life
To paint in broad strokes, British emcees are much better at drinking than their American counterparts. Rather than popping bottles in the club, they can often be found down at the local having a Carling with the lads. Pub culture is more deeply embedded in English life, and the relative lack of commercial success for British rappers has preserved a vibrant indie scene, where emcees are more likely to rhyme about hard knocks and humble pleasures than flamboyant escapades.
Memorably, Roots Manuva exploded into the public consciousness with his indelible opening bars on “Witness (1 Hope)”: “Taskmaster burst the bionic zit-splitter / Breakneck speeds we drown ten pints of bitter,” referencing the traditional, low-ABV English ale found at pubs. On “New Bohemia,” Jehst summed up the UK university experience, which is notably removed from the Coors-soaked frat rap vision of college: “Livin’ in student digs on tins of tuna / Who spent the rent down the boozer? / We sip beers and split hairs over current affairs / Any unwelcome guests get chucked down the stairs.” And Professor Green even has his own signature brew.
But the the honors for best British beer-drinking rap surely go to The Streets, whose song “Irony of It All” brilliantly depicts a debate between an aggressive lager lout and a mild-mannered weed enthusiast.
Breweries Pay Homage
Given the white middle-aged man sensibilities of the beer world, rap music doesn’t come into play much in marketing efforts (probably for the best). But there are two examples I can think of where craft breweries channeled hip-hop without completely embarrassing themselves. In 2007, Brooklyn’s Sixpoint teamed up with Korean-American rapper Cool Calm Pete for a promo video introducing a strong ale called Grandad’s Nerve Tonic. When it launched at Brooklyn’s Bierkraft, each growler came with a free Junk Science CD.
Meanwhile, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and Bryan Selders took matters into their own hands, creating a tongue-in-cheek rap crew called the Pain Relievaz and dropping a video for “Penny Pinchin.” Whether or not they have bars is besides the point—what’s great about the the song is that it actually has a message about the economic difficulties of growing a small brewery. Also, there’s a solid Darius Rucker reference. Respect.
While the entire frat-rap brigade might be considered parody, there’s also a brief history of more on-the-nose humorists in the beer-rap game. Perhaps not surprisingly, we can thank some Canadians for making the most insidery craft-beer jam to date: Cee’s “BrewHeads,” which references mash tuns, Fuggles hops, and Westvleteren 12.
“Started Sipping Cider,” by Infinite Skillz, basically achieves what it sets out to do, remixing the Drake hit with shoutouts to Left Hand Milk Stout and Cigar City Vienna lager.
And then there’s Afroman’s 40-inspired Colt 45 Christmas album, which speaks for itself.
Even if they haven’t made beer a central motif in their music, plenty of rappers have dropped memorable one-liners about brews, primarily name-checking mass-market brands like Heineken and Becks. Here are some of the best:
50 Cent, “High All the Time”
The lyric: “Sit in the crib sipping Guinness watching Menace, then oh lord / Have a young ni**a bucking shit like he O-Dog”
Redman, “Pick It Up”
The lyric: While I crack a cold Becks and keep the hoes in check / The double-S vest ni**a wreck the discotheque”
Notorious B.I.G., “Dreams”
The lyric: “As I sit back relax / Steam a blunt, sip a Becks / Think about the sexy singers that I wanna sex”
Jay Z, “Young Black and Gifted Freestyle”
The lyric: “Y’all was in the pub, having a light beer / I was in the club, having a fight there”
The lyric: “Now I’m into fat chains, sex and Tecs / Fly new chicks and new kicks, Heines and Becks”
MF Doom, “One Beer”
The lyric: “There’s only one beer left / Rappers screaming all in our ear like we’re deaf”
Atmosphere, “Guns and Cigarettes”
The lyric: “This beer’s flat and she kisses like a stripper / I’m coming to terms with my status as a drifter”
And let’s not forget a few classic beer-inspired rap album covers:
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