The Mythos of Food in New York Rap
Words by Jesse Bernard; Illustration by Israel Kujore
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The first time I went to New York, I felt like I had already seen it. In truth, this wasn’t so far from the case: New York is the most filmed city in the world, and I’m sure you would be able to stitch together a visual map of most of the island of Manhattan solely from film shots. Unlike London, where you might have shots of major landmarks to set the scene, with New York film you get the texture of the city, right down to street level. In the few months before I went, I recall having dreams set in a bizarro version of New York informed only through films. In my head I had a whole mythology of the city already traced out.
We don’t talk about ‘mythos’ a lot when it comes to food. I mentioned it briefly in a Mr Porter article I wrote last year, on the differences between London, New York and Los Angeles, but to non-Americans who have been imbibing American media like mother’s milk since birth, everyday food ─ pizza slices, Chinese food in elongated takeout boxes, Popeyes ─ become imbued with an almost mythic status. It means when we finally do visit, we search them out and give them a significance that might baffle actual Americans. When I first read Jesse Bernard’s idea for today’s newsletter, I realised that we had very similar reactions to New York food but our mediums were different. Mine was through film, his was through what has been the dominant form of music in New York since at least the late 80s: rap.
Today’s newsletter is about how rap music has given New York a mythos of place, and how that affects how outsiders view its food culture. While film predominantly focuses on Manhattan as New York’s centre, rap sketches out the outer boroughs in vivid Technicolor, recentering it as the locus of New York’s real culture. I often wonder if London’s own music does the same for outsiders, if New Yorker’s hear ‘E3’ and ‘Edmonton’ with the same sense of place when we hear Brooklyn or Staten Island. I doubt it. I myself have only traveled to eat food in London once because of a song ─ if I see American tourists hanging around Canning Town SFC asking for the special mayo, then I’ll know the tables have finally turned.
The Mythos of Food in New York Rap, by Jesse Bernard
Music, like food, has always been a communal experience for me. That music was a thing to be shared and discussed was something I learnt from a young age. All those hours spent in the barbershop as a teenager, debating the best emcees: sometimes it felt as though we were arguing about who belonged on Mount Olympus and who was a mere mortal.
In the mid-90s, the pantheon was dominated by America: Method Man, Jay Z, OutKast, Mos Def, Gang Starr, Redman, 50 Cent, Foxy Brown, Master P, UGK, Cam’ron and Big L. Although these rappers weaved their mythologies around neighbourhoods far removed from north London suburbia, I was most nourished when listening to emcees spit about lives that weren’t too thematically distant from my own. It was the intimate moments they described, amongst all of the bravado and Shakespearean drama, that grabbed me: playing Nintendo, riding bikes until the sun went down – and the chicken shop.
Food, like music, has a collective mythos that can be tied to place. As a teenager, I didn’t believe I’d ever touch, feel or taste foods like dollar slice pizza, Kennedy Fried Chicken or steamed fish, but I experienced them vividly through lyrics. The rappers I listened to were merely alluding to their everyday experiences but, for me, it was like they were mapping out trials. How could I truly understand them, if I hadn’t completed my own? As my favourite emcees waxed on about their favourite street foods in New York City, in Los Angeles, in the South and the Midwest, I could taste the words as distinctly as I heard them. Still, that wasn’t enough. My palate was used to the chicken shop, and the rice and stew, ogbono and efo riro on the menu at home – the foods I heard in songs took me out of my small life into something far bigger.
Growing up, the rap I listened to was still regionalised – Southern rappers would talk about hog maws, succotash, and collard greens – but my entry and jumping-off point for all things rap was New York. As an outsider to Black American culture, rap was the gateway to understanding the nuances in food cultures that have been defined by the Great Migration, capitalism and tradition. My time in the city – a two-week trip that ended up becoming a routine three-month stay – entirely changed my relationship with rap and food; it was one thing to hear rhymes about faraway lands, but in my temporary home in Bed-Stuy, foods that were once mythical became real.
In order to understand how my favourite emcees lived before they rose to fame, I frequented their local haunts as though they were mine: basketball courts, parks, sportswear stores, restaurants. You travel and make effort for the food you love very quickly became my mantra when I realised that I’d have to travel at least thirty minutes to get the meals I really wanted. Sometimes that meant an hour on the train to get lobster mac and cheese with fried chicken wings from Harlem, or walking forty-five minutes to Flatbush Ave for West Indian food. For every pizza spot and soul food restaurant I visited, a song, a bar, maybe even a single line would trigger in my memory. Each lyric served as a breadcrumb on a trail that began from the minute I started listening to New York rap; I soon came to realise I had been mapping out the city in food long before I arrived.
A slice of pizza, and quarter water my juice,
But now I'm Carhartt and bulletproof is under my goose
– Queens, Capone-N-Noreaga
I went into a store, to buy a slice of pizza
And bumped into a girl, her name was Mona, what?
– Mona Lisa, Slick Rick
Pizza in 90s London meant a special treat, fleeting trips to Pizza Hut. In New York, however, pizza feels like a daily sacrament – eaten on the go, as a brief respite from the busyness of the city. For Slick Rick, I imagine it was the same; perhaps the pizza joint was somewhere he might have bumped into a friend (or a girl named Mona).
I was taken to Tony’s Pizza Spot at 431 Dekalb Ave, an infamous pizza joint in Bed-Stuy that’s not too far from where the likes of Jay Z grew up, and roughly a ten-minute walk from Biggie Smalls’ former residence near Fulton Street. It soon became an almost-daily occurrence to go there for my dollar slice (which was actually $2.25), to the point Tony often had one ready for me before I arrived. He’d always remember me, even if I’d been away for a month or two. Like many local spots, there were pictures of youth basketball teams that Tony supported on the walls and, despite the ravaging changes to the neighbourhood, his shop was a cultural landmark. The staple was the cheese pizza with sausage – he’d cook the sausage separately, slice, and then add as a topping – with some marinara sauce to finish. One was never enough but two would almost certainly fill your stomach. No other dollar slice compared.
You dudes is noodles, I got more ziti to bake
– U Don’t Know Remix ft MOP, Jay Z
I pop off like a mobster boss
Angel hair with the lobster sauce
– Inspectah Deck on House of Flying Daggers, Raekwon
Another pizza spot, Ganni’s Pizzeria, a couple of blocks from Tony’s, offered
more options, with classic Italian-American dishes such as ziti and chicken parm. In London, I had little connection to these names; my closest association came by way of The Sopranos. While Ganni’s offering wasn’t Karen’s baked ziti by any means, it did the job.
It may be TV and film that have offered an introduction to Italian-American food for many outsiders. Everyone can recall the scene in Goodfellas where Paulie and his wiseguy cellmates slice garlic with a razor, or Clemenza teaching Michael how to make a ragu. But for me, Italian food had taken on an altogether different existence due to my interest in Cosa Nostra lore which, through its lyrics and metaphors, is intimately bound with New York rap.
Hey yo, this rappin's like ziti, facin’ me real TV
Crash at high speeds, strawberry kiwi
– Apollo Kids, Ghostface Killah
The mafia had a presence in New York long before rap, and the self-made empires the Five Families created spoke to rappers who were trying to create their own empires and new lives for their families. For Ghostface, though, there was no complex metaphor belying the comparison of his skills as a rapper to pasta: in an interview with Entertainment Weekly back in 2006, he explained that when he made Supreme Clientele, ziti was simply his favourite dish.
Gave up on sushi, give me an egg roll
– The Choice Is Yours, Black Sheep
My New York dream would’ve been to go and watch old Kung Fu films on 42nd street with a box of noodles from Chinatown, but this wasn’t 1994 so I had to settle. I’d finally found my reliable local Chinese takeaway after trying out nearly a dozen in a five- to ten-block radius. Finding good fried rice was easy, but half-decent fried chicken wings was a challenge in itself. I found them at New Peking, on Classon Ave, a block up from Tony’s Pizza Spot, where for $5.50 I’d get special fried rice with six fried chicken wings – Peking style.
This is for my fly ice n*ggas,
Kilo breast, chicken wing fried rice n*ggas
– Triple Up, Cam’ron
Cam’ron was one of the most imaginative rappers I listened to growing up. He could effortlessly create new phrases and words, and through them he painted such a vivid picture of Harlem: I could see it in my head as he spoke. Here, Cam’ron is telling us that, no matter how far you made it, even the flyest guy isn’t above chicken wings and fried rice.
Y’all n*ggas is fiends, steamed tilapia
Ving Rhames in the bing, slappin ya
–Pyrex, Sean Price
Sean Price put me on to steamed fish on Fulton Street. My Friday tradition was Ocean King on Thompson Ave and Fulton, where Old Bay seasoning was shaken over whichever fish you decided to buy from the counter – steamed or fried – along with vegetables, fries or potatoes. In London, there aren’t many places I’ve happened upon that would prepare fish bought at the same counter. In New York, however, I played a more active role in the food preparation; I was the selector while the fishmongers played the role of MC, transforming the fish from being just food into a meal. A trip to the fish market would normally take roughly forty-five minutes to an hour because of the queue, but sat there, or outside if it was a hot summer’s evening, folks from all over the neighbourhood would come; apart from when I opened my mouth, I was one of them. I imagine this was a leftover tradition that made its journey from the South during the Great Migration: this was still soul food.
Mom's like ‘Leave them drugs alone boy, you gon’ die.’
That's the pot calling the kettle black I know her ass high
Shit, Kennedy Fried Chicken specials come with free soda
– It’s Nothing Freestyle, Sean Price
Kennedy is the Brooklyn equivalent of South London’s Morley’s, but the first Kennedy restaurant opened way back in the late 60s – before Morley’s was even a thing. Somehow, I never seemed to be more than a couple blocks from one at any given time, and I can see how it became a regular jaunt for most rappers from Brooklyn: it was reliable and affordable.
Sean Price notes the sober reality that, if you were poor growing up, it was much easier to rely on Kennedy Fried Chicken than a home-cooked meal. This is something as true in London as in New York. After Tony’s and New Peking, the closest one was my most visited place, often because it was something I didn’t have to think about, and it was usually open into the early hours of the morning when a deli sandwich just wasn’t cutting it. On the nights when I longed for home comforts, when sleep was avoiding me, it was Kennedy Fried Chicken that made me feel I was back in London.
And then there was DOOM, Viktor Vaughn.
Whenever I'm expecting a lot of company
Haven't had a lot of company in a long time
But if I were expecting some
I'd whip up a really (ugh) substantial meal
You see how strong I am? (heh)
It's from eating all this stuff
– Fillet-O-Rapper, MF DOOM
DOOM was a trickster: to return to the pantheon, he resembled Loki or Hermes, who would have approved of his antics, such as supposedly sending lookalikes to perform at shows and wearing his mask wherever he went. Most of the time when I listened to DOOM as a teenager, I didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but the rhyme schemes would blow my mind. That was enticing enough to seek out their meaning: I was mostly there for the beats but I knew that, at some point, his lyrics would reach out.
Through MF DOOM’s own writing (which wasn’t tied to one city), I learned more, not just about New York, but about the richness and diversity of Black food cultures in America. He was enigmatic, and it was his keen ear for rare samples that drew me to his sound. It’s how I always tried to approach sampling as well as food; looking in those small, often invisible pockets of the world.
MM...FOOD, an album in which DOOM’s off-kilter lyricism is delivered through food metaphors, was the jumping-off point for me. The late villain was deft at stringing seemingly random words together, before showing new and innovative ways in which the English language could be used to create another layer of instrument entirely. DOOM’s rhymes completely changed the way I was able to visualise the foods he was talking about, and there is something cinematic about DOOM describing food: watching the scene in Scarface where Tony cooks meat, the sound of it sizzling, feels much like hearing DOOM talk about kon karne with cheese. ‘Transaction drama, awww come on barney / Clack clack pardon me whack rap Kon Karne’ he raps on Kon Karne. Dominican restaurants in New York always seemed to be clutch when it came to breakfasts and sandwiches – not to mention arroz con pollo.
On tracks like Rhymes Like Dimes, it feels as though DOOM’s collaborator Bobbito Garcia is shouting out an order at a soul food restaurant somewhere in Harlem. ‘Now what are you ’posed to say on the end of records? I don't know! Yeah! Woo! Yeah! Mashed potatoes! Apple sauce! Buttery…biscuits!’ Biscuits from Popeye’s are one thing, but the way Garcia says ‘biscuits’ makes them much more enticing.
If there was an area in New York that made me feel like I was back at home in Tottenham, it was Flatbush and Crown Heights, with their large West Indian communities. Before New York, coco bread with cheese had been one of my staple choices, but a 1–2 knockout combination of Soldier’s on Fulton Street (recommended by Flatbush Zombies) and DOOM’s pronunciation and gruff eloquence changed that for me. ‘When it's on, loco head gon’ lay low / And heat it like beef patty, coco bread kon queso’ he raps on Kon Queso. I like to imagine the Trini in DOOM had more than his fill of beef patties and coco bread in BK.
There’s some poignancy in DOOM being a victim of archaic immigration laws that left him exiled in London, severed from the New York and America of his memories. Somehow, through his writing, he managed to bridge both worlds. Although DOOM has left us physically, he bequeathed us both his lyrics and his underrated beats. His Special Herbs series of beat tapes, which he released periodically during his career, now hold a special purpose. With each track named after unique botanicals, roots and herbs, DOOM left us a list of ingredients, a recipe for us to create our own connection to his craft: Sarsaparilla, Mandrake, Cedar, Fenugreek, Lovage and Devil’s Shoestring.
You travel and make an effort for the food you love still resonates strongly. We may not be able to get on a plane, but sometimes all you need is a pair of speakers.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits and proofreading.