Hip-hop and food have a complicated history. Goodie Mob made a Southern classic called Soul Food; Biggie waxed poetic about his meal of T-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch's grape; and Rick Ross has kicked rhymes about every crustacean dish in the sea. Even so, it's been unlikely to hear rap music played in a restaurant context – at least until now. Lately, a growing number of restaurateurs in hip-hop's birthplace of New York City are making hip-hop part of their dining experiences.
Mikey Likes It, an ice-cream shop located in the center of New York's East Village on Avenue A, is a prime example. Employees in classic white uniforms scoop flavors with names like "Foxy Brown" (mocha) and "Ice Ice Baby" (triple vanilla), not to mention their "2 Live Crew" milkshake. With a golden-era hip-hop soundtrack starring artists like Nas coming out of the speakers and a custom loop of throwback videos on television, the shop serves up nostalgia by the pint. "I use the music in combination with our look to push the history and keep the culture alive,” says founder and owner Michael Cole.
Cole opened his store in May 2014 following the death of a beloved aunt. "I found her cookbook, and what I opened up was a vanilla ice cream recipe,” he says. “I went and tinkered with that recipe, and that became the basis for all the ice creams we create here.” Cole, an East Village native, previously co-owned a food-themed sneaker store, Sole Food, where he began selling his delicious desserts. After leaving that establishment, Cole – who spent time in jail for selling marijuana several years earlier – relied on funding from a contest for entrepreneurial ex-cons, plus constant saving and cash from kind-hearted investors, to open the ice-cream storefront of his dreams. Since then, Mikey Likes It has hosted or catered events with artist-specific flavors for stars including Vince Staples’ lemon poppy, Kehlani's "Tsunami" (cake batter ice cream with birthday cake pieces and blue icing), and a special grape soda ice cream float served with Sprite for Future's DS2.
Uptown in Harlem this summer, Marcus Samuelsson – the Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised celebrity chef behind the super-hip Jazz Age-style eatery Red Rooster – opened Streetbird, a less formal rotisserie chicken spot with a taste for nostalgia and old-school beats. "I wanted to do something equally good, but from a different era," Samuelsson says. "Music-wise hip-hop, and art-wise graffiti."
You can see it as soon as you step into Streetbird's 116th Street location, where old-school basketball shoes dangling from the ceiling, a collage of boom boxes next to the diner counter and historical images by photographer Janette Beckman on the walls all pay homage to hip-hop's early days. Much like at Mikey's, the music is from a time when samples reigned supreme and New York's five boroughs ruled rap, but still finds space for era-appropriate R&B like Karyn White’s “Secret Rendezvous.” “I focus on the era from 1982 to 1994," Samuelsson says. "Illmatic is really the last album I focus on. In order to get there, I look at DJ parties in Brooklyn." Samuelsson also invited A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Jarobi, rap pioneer Fab Five Freddy and other golden-era figures to visit Streetbird when it was still in development to make sure it nailed the right vibe.
But no chef loves hip-hop quite like Eddie Huang, the Taiwanese-American star whose life inspired ABC's hit sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, and whose Taiwanese bun shop Baohaus arguably kicked off the current trend when it opened in the East Village in 2009. “We treated the restaurant like a record shop or sneaker store and just played what the fuck we wanted,” Huang says. "I think we were one of if not the first restaurants to do that.”
When he started Baohaus six years ago, Huang says, “There were a few new-American type restaurants in [New York City] that played hip-hop, but it was always Wu-Tang, Biggie, Tribe Called Quest or the Roots. I love those groups, but it's very commonly accepted hip-hop.” Baohaus, by contrast, has a notable lack of reverence to any established musical canon: Huang immediately turned heads with a soundtrack that's heavy on 2000s artists like Clipse and the Diplomats, plus Polaroids of rappers and hip-hop personalities like Joey Bada$$ and the Kid Mero.
Huang may scoff at nostalgia, but for Cole and Samuelsson, looking backward is a powerful way of supporting hip-hop culture and local communities – something all three chefs are interested in doing. "I’ve always been around food," Cole says. "My thing was to just create something that would tie in with the culture, and to create an experience that heightens whatever you’re doing."