“They have a ridiculous dry-aged burger, and they play a ton of Biggie.”
Swap around a few details in that sentence (the burger could be a “killer chicken-liver mousse,” Biggie could be Wu-Tang Clan), and you’ve pretty much got the most common way that people tell me about restaurants I should go to.
I don’t blame them. It’s no secret that I love burgers and chicken-liver mousse. I also love hip-hop and run a website where we spend a disconcerting amount of time tracking Jay Z’s dining habits and Photoshopping rappers into cookbook covers. To think that I’d like some Nas with my Nebbiolo at dinner isn’t such a stretch.
But the truth is, rap at restaurants has become more of an albatross than a source of joy for me. Like other things I enjoy independently—ice cream and skiing, drinking beer and shooting hoops—they just don’t always mix the way you’d like them to.
Part of the problem is purely aural. Restaurants have notoriously poor acoustics, so rumbling basslines and rapid-fire lyrics usually end up sounding like a Drake concert that someone recorded on his iPhone. Loud rap is simply not a good fit for tight, clangy spaces where people are trying to talk over each other. On the flip side, playing rap quietly misses the point.
Jonathan Mannion’s portrait of Slick Rick overlooks the corner booth at Fedora. (Photo courtesy Fedora)
There are exceptions, of course. Hip-hop piped directly into the restroom, with its own separate sound system, is almost always welcome. When you’re alone in the privacy of the WC, there’s nothing better than rapping few bars of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” into the mirror and returning to the table with renewed swagger. And out in the dining room, certain subsets of the hip-hop canon, like jazz rap (Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Madlib’s Shades of Blue) and other left-field albums (Ty’s Upwards, Hieroglyphics’ 3rd Eye Vision), can match the vibe of today’s dressed-down restaurants—smoother, more atmospheric music free of thumping 808s or trunk-rattling bass.
But moving into the sweet spot of popular hip-hop—golden-era boom-bap, West Coast gangsta rap, Def Jam’s greatest hits—the formula for success becomes much more complicated. Assuming the levels are right and the sound system can handle it, the onus is on the restaurant to make rap feel authentic.
Scenemaker Gabe Stulman manages the rare feat of successfully pairing O.D.B. with orecchiette at his Lil Wisco restaurants, particularly Perla and Jeffrey’s Grocery. The rooms can be aggressively loud at times, but it’s the details that make it work—iconic photos of R. Kelly and Goodie Mob tell a more nuanced story than a Tupac “Thug Life” poster slapped onto a bathroom wall, and the music is clearly selected by actual human beings with some connection to the music they’re playing. I’ll never forget walking into Perla on the 10th anniversary of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and realizing they were playing the entire album on repeat throughout the meal—not something that just happens randomly on Spotify. (I appreciate that they also play The Black Album and College Dropout from front to back on occasion.)
That spark is conspicuously missing at Charlie Bird, a West Soho hot spot that serves $24 spaghetti and $200 bottles of Barolo to a soundtrack that New York Times critic Pete Wells described as “carefully aged hip-hop.” On paper, it’s not so different from Perla, and it caters to a similar moneyed, downtown clientele. Yet here, rap feels like a prop to be plastered across the walls (huge photos of boomboxes adorn the dining room) and emblazoned on menus (decorated with images of Wu-Tang and Run DMC) in an attempt to crowbar some cool into a rich-guy hangout. Dr. Dre isn’t only tonally discordant with the dining experience; it’s also oddly forced, at once in-your-face and un-self-aware in all the wrong ways, like someone who captions all of their seafood-tower Instagrams with “LIKE A BOSS!”
Photographer Lyle Owerko’s boomboxes announce Charlie Bird’s penchant for old-school hip-hop. (Photo: Facebook/Charlie Bird)
In his review of Charlie Bird for The Observer, critic Joshua David Stein takes aim at what he sees as the uncomfortable juxtaposition of “affluent white people listening to hip-hop…congratulating themselves on being both tolerant and transgressive”:
I’m not saying any restaurant with entrees over $25 can only play John Mayer. But at least have the decency to not play the anthems of the dispossessed as you dispossess them, to mythologize a myth of New York even as you do your part to destroy it. As Public Enemy sang, “Don’t believe the hype.”
In an age where Jay Z can sell art-gallery rap and hip-hop is firmly cemented in the Top 40, I’m not sure I see it in such stark terms (though I appreciate JDS’s fervor). But the music still has to feel integrated into the experience, and perhaps more so than other genres, hip-hop forces a distinction between who’s “down” and who’s not—between the true fan, and the sorority girl who belts out the chorus to “Gold Digger” with a little too much enthusiasm. At restaurants, like anywhere, context matters when charting the territory between organic cultural cross-pollination and clownish swagger-jacking.
Too often, you get the sense that the chef has scanned the hip-hop back catalogue with about as much rigor as he scanned the food traditions of Japan to create his “riff” on ramen.
Nowhere is this feeling more acute than in the wilds of nouveau Brooklyn, where “Juicy” on the speakers is as much of a given as charred Brussels sprouts and bespoke Manhattans. Sure, there’s something inherently weird about the proximity of the yuppy interloper to the source material going on here, and I wouldn’t deny that using the borough’s public-housing posterboy to shill foie-gras doughnuts and fancy fried chicken is playing the dirty game of gentrification awfully close to the bone. But forget the uncomfortable socio-economic implications for a second—as a music fan, I’m bored by the dull homogeneity of it all. Too often, you get the sense that the chef has scanned the hip-hop back catalogue with about as much rigor as he investigated the food traditions of Japan (i.e., reading Wikipedia) to create his “riff” on ramen. This type of passive cultural cherry-picking is exactly what gave the now-meaningless word hipster a bad name, and it has transformed parts of Brooklyn into a cesspool of dorm-room rap and stoner fusion, rather than a place of true creativity.
Like every other detail at a restaurant, from the flatware to the menu fonts and service, the music should tell a story. It’s obvious and distracting when that narrative is missing.
At Perla, the wood-burning oven matches the flames coming out of the speakers. (Photo courtesy Perla)
Recently, I had dinner at All’onda with my girlfriend and her 87-year-old grandmother. It’s a well-heeled restaurant that specializes in Japanese-inflected Italian food (described as “modern Venetian cuisine” on the website), and the signature dish is bucatini topped with luxurious smoked uni (we got two orders). As we sat there, enjoying the food and wine and having no problem hearing each other, I kept catching strains of songs I recognized: Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me,” The Game’s “Hate It or Love It,” Black Moon’s “I Got You Open.” Notably, they were all instrumentals played at a reasonable volume—a fun game of “guess that tune” for me, and slightly funky background noise for the rest of my table.
Later, I asked the chef, Chris Jaeckle, about the music. He explained that he loves hip-hop, but thought it would be too obtrusive in the context of All’onda. So, he hooked up with his friend J. Period—a producer who has worked with the likes of Nas, Q-Tip, and the Roots—to run through Jaeckle’s album collection and pull instrumental of his favorite songs. J. Period visited the space before All’onda opened to get a feel for it and help Jaeckle finalize the soundtrack, which also includes hip-hop samples from other genres, and custom mixes that combine the sample with the original track.
Producer J. Period hooked up with chef Chris Jaeckle to create a soundtrack for All’onda in Greenwich Village. (Photos: Hip Hop DX, Liz Barclay)
“Hip-hop heads may recognize the ‘Dirty Bossa Nova’ sample from A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Jam,'” says J. Period. “But other folks will just enjoy the original for the same reason it was sampled: because it’s great music.”
It’s the smartest approach to playing hip-hop in restaurants that I’ve seen yet. The selection shows a love for the genre without shouting about it, and the way it’s reengineered demonstrates a thoughtfulness about rap’s drawbacks in a restaurant setting. Worth noting, too, is that it was never part of the marketing materials or PR push; it’s just there for Jaeckle and others who appreciate it.
Nothing in a restaurant should be off-limits, not least the music. But getting it right requires more than firing up the “90s Hip Hop” station on Pandora and pressing play.
Rap Songs That Never Need to Be Played at a Restaurant Again
“Juicy,” Notorious B.I.G.
“Gold Digger,” Kanye West
“Respiration,” Black Star
“Gin and Juice,” Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg
“I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Jay Z
“Put It In Your Mouth,” Akinyele
Rap Albums That More Restaurants Should Play
3rd Eye Vision, Hieroglyphics
Badmeaningood Vol. 1, Skitz
Shades of Blue, Madlib
Jazzmatazz Volume 1, Guru
Ghetto Pop Life, Dangermouse and Jemini
Ask a rapper: What would be your ideal restaurant playlist?
I asked the Ohio-born rapper Stalley what he would want to hear when he’s eating out. He matched one of his favorite restaurants, Indochine, with “a nice balance of songs that fits the ambiance of the restaurant, which is modern, but also laid-back.” (For the record, I agree that “Petrin Hill Peonies” could be a great restaurant track, even if those drums are better suited for a Box Chevy.)
Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue”
Fitz & the Tantrums, “Moneygrabber”
David Bowie, “Five Years”
Bar-Kays, “Holy Ghost”
Kurt Vile, “Was All Talk”
Stalley, “Petrin Hill Peonies”
Rhye, “Shed Blood”
SBTRKT, “Trials of the Past”
Superhumanoids, “Black Widow”
Stalley, “White Minks & Gator Sleeves”