I’d like to kick off a funky lil’ mini-series on food in hip-hop, exploring culinary rhymes and head-boppin’ food references. This list could never be all-inclusive, so please, no boos if I leave out your favorite rapper. I admit that I am totally and completely biased toward the old-school and away from today’s radio mainstream. That said, let’s begin. Today, sardines and grits. Mmmm.
Too many people recoil at the mention of sardines. I, for one, find them to be delicious. And since you can get a few cans for a buck and keep them in the cupboard for a rainy day, they’re often the broke man’s best friend.
The Junk Yard Band cemented sardines’ place in lyrical lore with their hit song “Sardines,” released by Def Jam in 1986. The simple, anthem-like chorus also pays homage to another cheap, canned favorite: “Sardines, hey! And pork and beans.”
While The Junk Yard Band themselves might not be considered hip-hop (theirs was the funky sub-genre go-go), Timbaland and Magoo borrowed the chorus in their remix of “Clock Strikes”, and the Beastie Boys worked the song into their live version of “The Maestro.” The Beasties also packed themselves sardine-style on the “Hello Nasty” album cover, illustrated by this line from “Body Movin’”: “MCA, where have ya been/ Packed like sardines in a tin.”
Nary a hip-hop head can’t recite this stand-out line from Biggie’s hit classic “Juicy,” perhaps one of the best hip-hop tracks ever (and one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, 2010) that is often described as his quintessential “rags to riches” tale. Indeed, here sardines are the symbol of the struggle:
Now I’m in the limelight ‘cause I rhyme tight/ Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade/ Born sinner, the opposite of a winner/ Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner
And if you don’t know, now you know.
If y’aint know about the ground corn porridge that completes the Southern breakfast, get familiar. You don’t have to go too far to find them—Waffle House and IHOP serve ‘em, and many a rapper rhyme about ‘em. Apologies in advance that “grits” just happens to rhyme best with… Well, never mind.
RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan has a solo track simply entitled, “Grits,” a nostalgic stroll through childhood with a bluesy hook that laments, “When I was small, we had nothing at all/ We used to eat grits for dinner/ It was pain, almost drive a man insane.” On his verse, RZA elaborates:
One pound box of sugar and a stick of margarine/ A hot pot of grits kept my family from starvin’/ Loose with the welfare cheese, thick wit’ the gravy/ Used to suck it, straight out the bottle as a baby/ Steamy hot meal served less than five minutes/ Big, silver pot, boiling water, salt in it
And then there’s that BANGER “Oh My God” from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders,” wherein Phife Dawg declares, “I like my beats hard like two-day-old […]/Steady eatin’ booty MCs like cheese grits.”
This next example kinda sorta brings these first two favorite hip-hop foods together. The title track of Outkast’s “ATLiens” has one of those hooks that every person in the whole dang place will recite word for word: “Now throw yo hands in the ai-yer, and wave ‘em like you just don’t ca-yer/ And if you like fish and grits and all that pimp […], everybody let me hear you say oh yay-yer.”
Last but never least is Z-Ro the Mo City Don, a well-known underground artist dahn’ here, member of the legendary Screwed Up Click, and cousin to the better-known Trae. In this extended freestyle version of his track “Look Good,” grits symbolize bitter memories. He celebrates newfound freedom with this line: “Feels so good to be free, finally came home from the penitentiary/ Apple sauce ‘n yellow grits, that ain’t breakfast/ T-bone steak and eggs, back in screwed-up Texas.”
Speaking of steak… Well, we’ll save that for next time.