And soul food.
There’s frankly no more encompassing category than soul food in hip-hop, and rightly so, for a genre rich with Southern and African-American influence could never escape the cuisine’s intoxicating, permeating power.
The Goodie Mob joint “Soul Food” probably gives the best illustration of the role this cuisine plays, one much deeper than just filling bellies. Throughout its lyrics, along with delicious descriptions of good eats, are metaphors for soul food as a deeper kind of nourishment, like wisdom or growth, open and free for the taking. The hook says “come and get some soul food” the way you’d tell a young’n to go out and live life.
T-Mo starts it off, invoking the tradition of sitting down to a soulful meal. “Didn’t come for no beef cause I don’t eat steak/ I got a plate of soul food chicken, rice, and gravy/ Not covered in too much, drinking a cup of punch/ Tropical, every last Thursday of the month.”
Big Gipp picks it up and compares soul food to soul music, “food for my brain.” He also runs through the nostalgia and experience of eating: “Daddy put the hot grits on my chest in the morning/ When I was sick, Mary had the hot soup boiling/ Didn’t know why, but it felt so good/ Like some waffles in that morning…”; “Hot wings from Mo-Joes, got my forehead sweating/ Celery and blue cheese on my menu next.”
But Cee-Lo (who you may now know as “Gnarles Barkley”) takes the cake. He brings in soul food’s history of making something out of very little and puts it up against the fast food industry and its implications to poor communities:
A heaping helping of the fried chicken, macaroni, and cheese/ And collard greens, too big for my jeans/ Smoke steams from under the lid that’s on the pot/ Ain’t never had a lot but thankful for the little that I got/ Why not be? Fast food got me feeling sick/ Them crackers think they slick by tryin to make this [...] affordable/ I thank the Lord that my voice was recordable….for soul food.
In the iconic “Rappers Delight” from the Sugarhill Gang, Wonder Mike raps about soul food gone bad at someone else’s table: “Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat and the food just ain’t no good? / I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mush, and the chicken tastes like wood.”
To pull some of the star dishes out of the soul food collection, how about a quick look at collard greens:
Snoop Dogg on “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”: “Getting funky on the mic like an old batch of collard greens”
Run DMC, “Christmas in Hollis”: “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens.”
Jill Scott on “Love Rain Down” : “Wide open, wide, loose like bowels after collard greens.” (She’s got crazy food lyrics on that track…”He was fresh like summer peaches”; “I felt like cayenne pepper, red, hot, spicy.”)
NAS also mentions collard greens on his song “Fried Chicken” featuring Busta. This song really deserves its own section. Both MCs kill it, and they do an exceptional job of likening the greasy pleasure of a drumstick to the lustful allure of a temptress. NAS begins: “Mmm, fried chicken, fly vixen / Give me heart disease but need you in my kitchen.”
And then in with a flourish of cultural savvy comes that collards line: “Like Greeks with their falafel, or Italians with their tomato pasta, or roti is to a Rasta, trappin’ me/ You and your friend mac and cheese, candied yams, collard greens/ But you knockin’ me to my knees, It’s killin’ me when I miss, ah/ Nothin’ I need more than a fish fry.”
Life lessons, nostalgia and nutrition, emotional vulnerability, guilty pleasures…soul food spit so many ways to mean so many things. And the list could go on and on…