How Rappers Became Restaurateurs and Why It Makes a Lot of Sense
Culinary projects from Bun B, Ghostface Killah, and others ‘are strengthening the foundation of hip-hop culture.’
“A T-Bone steak, cheese eggs, and Welch’s grape,” goes the Notorious B.I.G.'s now-legendary line in “Big Poppa.” Those lyrics were my introduction to food in hip hop, and made an impression on a lot of people: Fans eat this exact meal in memory of the late rapper every year on March 9, the anniversary of his death.
Biggie’s lyrics aren’t the only way that rap and food intersect. Hip-hop artists have embraced culinary culture beyond their bars in the last five years, creating and investing in food brands and restaurants. 2 Chainz owns an Atlanta-based restaurant, Esco, Bun B has Trill Burgers, and Nas owns a fleet of New York City restaurants called Sweet Chick. Ghostface Killah recently launched a line of coffee, Mia X has a New Orleans–based food brand called Mama Mia Foods, Jadakiss and Styles P have Juices for Life, and E-40 has a gourmet meat brand, Goon With The Spoon.
For many of these artists, their culinary endeavors are a way to combine the business chops they’ve learned in the music industry with their ongoing love affair with all things food and drink.
Houston rap icon Bun B cites his willingness to adapt as a key factor in creating and sustaining Trill Burgers. “I am naturally a creature of habit. I could eat the same meal two times a day, every day of the week. But eventually, you have to be open to change, or otherwise, you get left behind while the world moves forward. Every time I left myself open to change, it created different opportunities, different relationships, and sometimes different revenue streams,” Bun says.
His culinary passion was piqued about 12 years ago after attending a concert at Houston-based music venue Fitzgerald’s. He saw lobster risotto feature on the menu of the Airstream-style food truck, The Modular. “I had a very limited view of what a food truck was. I had only seen taco trucks in subdivisions with homes or construction sites... I had no idea these were actual chefs that had gone to culinary school. So, I had a whole new view of food and cooking,” says Bun.
Those businesses inspired Bun to partner with Andy Nguyen and Nick Scurfield to debut their burger truck. “I’m so glad that I'm one of a brilliant group of recording artists transitioning into other passions in their life… When passion finally meets purpose, it’s at that intersection where, for me, Trill Burgers as we know it now was born,” Bun adds.
For some rappers and their fans, these aren’t simply business ventures or brand extensions. Food is a powerful way to connect people to each other and to different times and places. That’s part of the reason why those Biggie lyrics resonate with so many of his fans.
“From a lyrical standpoint, when artists talk about struggle, they’ll often revert to something they ate back when the struggle was real,” says Kathy Iandoli, an author and hip hop expert. “For example, Ghostface Killah says, ‘Sugar water was our thing. Every meal was no frill.’ At that point, you’re talking about the earlier days when an artist struggled.” In 2016, Iandoli co-authored a book with Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, Commissary Kitchen, that explored his recipes and memories from a three-year prison term in the early aughts.
Authenticity has long been the foundation of hip hop, from bars about the realness of living in the projects to the swaggering come up of achieving success.
“There are so many lyrics where artists use food to discuss poverty to prove a point. This is a clear way of connecting with people, saying, “I’m still that person! Don’t let the money fool you,” says Nia-Raquelle Smith, a cultural anthropologist who studies the intersection of food, culture, policy, and media in Black and Latin American diasporas. “On the flip side, food is a class marker—it always has been and always will be. What better way to emphasize your wealth than to rap about expensive food in a genre that thrives on braggadocio culture?”
Smith believes that writing lyrics and creating an ambiance when performing are skills easily transferred to the kitchen. “Having to create a dish from scratch is very much like rapping. If you’ve ever been in a studio with an artist and had to watch them from start to finish, or even just during the recording process, you can see how similar rapping is to cooking. You have an idea, and you build off it, just like lyrics.”
Iandoli agrees. “Hip-hop artists are scientists by design in how they so intricately approach their music, production, or lyrics,” she says. In Commissary Kitchen, for instance, “P wanted to make sure that he approached it with a very specific plan in mind, to highlight how his diet and what he was offered in prison made him have to adapt for survival.”
Bun sees synergies and similarities between good food and music, too. “When a plate of good food comes in front of you, don’t you dance a little?” he asks me. Well, of course. And, as much as I love to think back on the best meals I’ve ever had, I similarly recall my all-time favorite concerts. For Bun, that’s part of the beauty of this crossover.
“The pleasure that I’ve been able to bring to people for 30 years through my music, I can bring in that same pleasure and satisfaction with food now. I’ve spent decades bringing flavor to your ear, and now I’m bringing flavor to your mouth.”
There are other, ephemeral connections between food and hip hop. Like music festivals and concerts, food and drinks have always been a point of communion for people. “Music and food are tied together... No matter if we are eating or drinking, we are usually listening to music, particularly when it comes to a social setting. It sets the mood and can make all the difference in the energy of an event,” says Smith.
As hip hop evolves, it makes sense for it to invigorate other aspects of culture, like fashion or food. “When rappers tap into the culinary world, they are strengthening the foundation of hip-hop culture,” says Smith. “It’s only natural that food is part of the hip-hop culture equation as it, too, is an art form and feeds a thriving community just as hip-hop does metaphorically and literally.”