From the two-turntables-and-a-mic era until the trap of today, hip hop artists have garnished their flow with references to Chinese food. The overlap of these two worlds exerts an undeniable influence on pop culture. Don’t believe us? Google “beef and broccoli Timbs.”
Combo-platter quotables dished out by rappers run the topical gamut, from the conspiratorial (C-Rayz Walz: Chinese foods induce asthma) to straight-up extortion (Nas: If I want Chinese, you buy me a wok). Truth be told, some lyrical references are as unpalatable as the munch at the grimiest food-court Chinese spot. Certain criticisms of hip hop – that it celebrates rampant consumerism, trumpets misogyny, glamorizes crime and defies political correctness – often do hold true, and we’re going to fast-forward past hot-button rhymes. We won’t delve into Devin the Dude’s sexualized moo goo gai pan, Yeezy’s sweet-and-sour sauce fetish, or the racial tensions in the Fugees Chinese restaurant skit.
Instead we’ll survey the culinary cameos of the hip hop catalog in search of the natural laws of Chinese food in rap music. We concede the words atop hip hop beats may not be the best place to learn about Chinese eats – you’ve got a website for that – but whenever one of the world’s greatest cultural exports takes notice of another, it’s worth a closer look.
So sit back, relax and strap on your seat belt ...
1. “Stakeout” rhymes with “takeout” and there ain’t no takeout like Chinese takeout.
You can’t argue with the logic of a good rhyme. If you’re scoping a joint, eventually you’ll get hungry. We’re pretty sure if Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfus started freestyling in Stakeout, we’d have learned their favorite Chinese takeout orders within the first few bars.
I wear baseball caps over my eyes so you can’t make out
Me at night when I’m standing on the corner eatin’ Chinese takeout
Organized Konfusion, “Roosevelt Franklin”
Word that’s her number no doubt, yo I’ma break out
First I get some Chinese takeout, then scope Jake out
Non-Phixion, "The Full Monty"
I be out front your raggedy-ass crib on a stakeout
With a pound, two clips, and Chinese takeout
G-Unit, “No Days Off”
2. Eating Chinese indicates wealth and status.
Just as mainland Chinese frown on brown rice and sweet potatoes as famine foods, rappers tend to scorn Chinese food – either as a benchmark for where they don’t want to be or as the basis to diss those they have beef with. There’s fear and loathing for the days when pockets were flat, not fat.
But then there’s Danny Brown, for whom Chinese food brings back fond memories of his moms. And from his lofty seat in the hip hop pantheon, Jay-Z marks high-end Chinese food as its own status symbol, dropping names, fat checks – and a little more than we bargained for.
How many times can I go to Mr. Chow’s, Tao’s, Nobu?
Hold up, let me move my bowels.
Jay Z, "Success"
Iverson zigzags, good night fast food
If you’re really balling, mommy cop Chinese food
Danny Brown, "25 Bucks"
When I was at the steakhouse, pullin’ cake out
You was at some cheap Chinese shit gettin’ takeout
Big L, "Size 'Em Up"
Ever since my old crib, splittin’ ounces, goin’ half on Chinese food
To flights Hawaiian, a two-week cruise excursion
Wiz Khalifa & Curren$y, “Revenge and Cake”
3. Cats eat cats.
A cursory listen to hip hop (or an always-rewarding search of Rap Genius) suggests that rappers in the ’80s and ’90s were borderline obsessed with the idea that Chinese eat cats. This isn’t a total falsehood, although Chinese who dine on felines tend to be older, nowhere near downtown and only in southeastern China. If you’re chilling with village elders in deepest, darkest Guangxi, it’s possible you make a meal of a moggy. Anywhere else, not so much.
Why harp on this taboo meat when the culture at large tends to tar Chinese as dog eaters? Might just be because “cat” has more rhymes, dog.
Now-now-now, I’ma place an order for a Scooby snack
Not at the Chinese restaurant because I don’t eat cats.
Big Daddy Kane, “On the Bugged Tip”
But 69in’, I ain’t with that.
I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant, bitch, if I wanna eat cats.
Kool G Rap, “Fuck You Man”
4. Chinese food = date night.
China’s post-’90s generation learned about American-style courtship from Friends and The Big Bang Theory. That may explain how Western fast food outlets like KFC and Pizza Hut became popular dating destinations – or why McDonald’s in Hong Kong actually offers wedding packages. If American fast food lubricates the gears of budding romance in urban China, lyricists like Statik Selektah and 3rd Bass’ MC Serch suggest Chinese takeout can serve a similar role, especially when paired with jazz, French fries or bootleg videos.
A great night’s a new bootleg and Chinese chicken (come on)
Statik Selektah, “Talking ‘Bout You Ladies”
John Coltrane and Chinese food is my date for the night
With that woman, with that girl, with that woman
The Roots, “Writer’s Block”
She says she’s pure from legs to her thighs
And we should talk over some Chinese and fries
3rd Bass, “Brooklyn Queens”
5. Chopsticks are a pairing of the ubiquitous with the impractical.
On De La Soul’s “Fanatic of the B Word,” guest rapper Dres whinges about having Chinese food but no spoon. Yo Dres, get a hold of them choppas! Meanwhile, Asher Roth tips the scale in the opposite direction with a humblebrag that highlights his kuaizi skillz. Foreigners in China tend to be either insufferably proud of their chopstick skills or acutely embarrassed whenever a Chinese dining companion praises their pincer movement. You decide what kind of expat Asher Roth would be.
Had some Chinese food but I didn’t have a spoon [...]
Man oh man oh man I hope I find my spoon soon
De La Soul, “Fanatic of the B Word”
Sipping on a cold one, sitting on the porch
Only chopsticks, I don’t ever use a fork
Asher Roth, “Dude”
6. You can’t help but rob Chinese delivery men.
Before he was signed with Ruff Ryders, MC Jin worked at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. In his Chinese food-tinged debut album, he penned a whole song about getting robbed while delivering spare ribs and fried rice. On the other hand, Kool G Rap, who once worked as a delivery boy in Queens, went on the record to refute a common stereotype: “The Chinese cats that had the Chinese restaurants in the ’hood … they would embrace the young black kids. It was different from what they show in the movies.”
Too bad Mr. G Rap never told Joe Budden or Cam’ron. Note that Killa Cam and MC Jin’s assailants aren’t about the cheddar. They’re after the grub. Times are hard on the boulevard when you have to jack a man for jiaozi.
The only thing that's on their minds is the rice and ribs
See the funny thing is they don't want my cash at all
They just said, “Give up the food!” and that was all
MC Jin, “A Little Hungry”
From a tiny dude, developed grimey dude
Stuck delivery, took all his Chinese food
Cam’ron, “Get It Get It”
Me and the gang would get so blunted we’d order takeout from the Chinese stores
Say, “Make sure you bring change for a hundred,” rob him, safety on, the metal’s off
Figured if we beat the brakes off him then how the fuck was he gonna pedal off?
Joe Budden, “Sober Up”
7. No need for MSG.
MSG amplifies flavor, but evidently Tech N9ne isn’t lacking in that department. Likewise, Redman needs no added seasonings to burn MCs. He clearly knows his onions and celery. And Method Man? Salty like the Dead Sea.
Screamin’ up to the tip-top, a lot of you rappin’, it be Ziploc
All I’m sayin’ is I never wanna have no MSG in my hip hop
Tech N9ne, “Rockabye”
I’m sauteing MCs with fried rice up in the wok
Without the MSG and chopped celery
Redman “Da Ill Out”
If I can’t get it off, see, my attitude is MSG
Fuck it, I’m salty
Method Man, “Konichiwa Bitches”
8. Chinese food keeps it real(ly local).
They say to write what you know. Chinese food means something different everywhere it takes root, so it’s no surprise that rappers around the world put local adaptations on wax as a sign of authenticity. Like when UK grime star Skepta keeps it London on his “Twitter Freestyle” (I don’t care what you say / I’ll miss my food on Chinese Tuesday), referring to the day Chinese takeaways in Britain traditionally shut.
The most referenced Chinese restaurant in rap may be the Houston chain Timmy Chan’s, which owes its reputation in part to local rappers like Paul Wall, Bun B and Lil Flip, and has been shouted out since 1993 when K-Rino said he had a lady friend hotter than the barbecue sauce at Timmy Chan’s.
Other restaurant recommendations from hip hop luminaries include food fiend and former chef (and one of the only people to reference Peking duck on wax) Action Bronson ranking Tai Pan in Flushing among his top five New York restaurants, and putting his weight behind the Wu-Tang Clams at Bon Rappetite in Atlanta. On that subject, Ludacris was a co-owner of Straits, a Singaporean restaurant in Hotlanta famed for its Kung Pao Chicken Lollipops, although Luda may be more famous as the inspiration for the Ludacrispy Duck in Rapper’s Delight: The Hip-Hop Cookbook.
But New York, the home of hip hop, sets the agenda when it comes to Chinese food in rhyme. Take Big Daddy Kane’s rare early reference to the color scheme of the must-have footwear of late-’90s New York: chicken-and-broccoli Timbs. Kane’s go-to would evolve into a slang term for the Timberland field boot known the world over. It’s a reference that has since been riffed on by the likes of A$AP Ferg, Dej Loaf, and Nicki Minaj, who use the more au courant beef and broccoli flavor of Timbs.
Oh, and don't forget Juelz Santana’s Hot 97 freestyle tour de force, in which for four bars running, he lands on back-to-back beef and broccoli metaphors that refer to, respectively, the field boot, a cannabis-tobacco spliff, the Chinese menu item, and the lawn sod over your grave.
Come in the ‘hood flippin’ the chicken-and-broccoli Timbs.
Big L feat. Big Daddy Kane, “Platinum Plus”
I’m a quarter of the Slaughter, four-fourths of a New Yorker
You know the aura: Yank fitted, jeans, Timbs and Chinese food orders
Slaughterhouse, “House Gang”
Stay rocking my Timbs (beef it up) beef and broccoli
Mix my weed, 'cause I like it beef and broccoli
Get hungry, go order me some beef and broccoli
And this heat will leave you underneath the beef and broccoli
For those who don't know that's the grass and dirt
Letting you know your ass is dirt, straight casket hearse
Juelz Santana & Cam'ron, Hot 97 freestyle
Baby, you should spread your love, it’s the Brooklyn way
Ordered Chinese food ‘cause mama didn’t cook today
Dyme-A-Duzin, “New Brooklyn”
9. Some lyricists demonstrate deeper knowledge of Chinese cuisine.
On the Money Making Jam Boys track “500 Horses,” Dice Raw threatens to
kick you in your face, then put it up your ass
Then throw you in the trash like Chinese takeout
Weak sauce, Dice. Takeout makes for prime leftovers. Some artists actually know the ledge when it comes to Chinese chow, mayne. We’re talking metaphors that hook on bean curd and stir-fry technique. And is it just us, or is Master-Boyz TRN (aka Carlo Koosh) being hip to the fact that rabbits are a popular protein source in Chongqing and wider Sichuan even more impressive when he is rapping out of Libreville, capital of French-speaking Gabon?
My raps are hot and sour, they choke you
You make no moves like a vegetable, you’re fake like tofu.
MC Necro, “Food for Thought”
Not a snake though it sounds like I might be hissin’
That’s just my tongue sizzlin’ like Chinese kitchens
Joell Ortiz, “I Go Off”
Envyin’ me for no reason, my life you can’t have it
I can act like Chinese in the kitchen cookin’ rabbits
Master-Boyz TRN, “Cut Yo Tongue”
10. Fried rice is a staple food.
Trust rappers prefixed “Big” to know about food. Aside from the aforementioned Big Daddy Kane and Big L (RIP), no less an authority than Big Pun (also RIP) once listed fried rice as a pillar of thug life. And there are plenty more heavyweight rappers dropping chaofan in their quotables.
Plug out in Chinatown
Hit my cell and said he got that shrimp fried rice
The gun’s like fried rice
Who want they brain stirred?
Jadakiss, feat. Styles P, “One More Step”
All things Sean Price
Four wings, fried rice
Sean Price, “Fake Neptune”
This is for my twenty-five to life bidders, pork fried rice eaters
Big Pun, “New York Giants”
EXTRA CREDIT. Lil Wayne is a law unto himself.
It stands to reason that a man who releases more mixtapes than most of us have had hot dinners would have Chinese cuisine coming out his you know what. Among other things, Weezy has obviously been googling the annual Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, Guangxi province. Further Guangxi-related reading would explain the cat reference too.
Don’t be playing with me, I advise
I make them Chinese food, another cat fried
Juelz Santana feat. Lil Wayne, “Bad Side”
I see you little dogs just shaking out fleas
I kill dogs like I’m making Chinese
Lil Wayne, “My Birthday”
I got two choppas that’s chopsticks
Eat you block up like shrimp fried rice
Lil Wayne feat. T.I., “Fuk Wit Me You Know I Got It”
I will take control of your soldiers
You won’t miss ‘em ‘til I toss ‘em in the wok like chicken
General Tso (so uh-oh!)
Lil Wayne feat. DJ Drama, “Cannon”
With that, class is over. And we didn’t even mention egg rolls, sweet and sour or fortune cookies. Them’s the breaks. We guess you’ll just have to stay tuned for the next episode.
Banner image from Migos’ “Chinatown” music video.
Phillip Mlynar, the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats,” quotes rappers, foodies and historians in his First We Feast breakdown of “How ’Hood Chinese Food Became An NYC Staple.” Believe it or not, classic ’hood Chinese menu items like chicken wings, french fries, and beef-and-broccoli trace their pedigree back a hundred-plus years to The Great Migration, when African-Americans from the rural south relocated to urban centers north of the Mason-Dixon. There they encountered, perhaps for the first time, Chinese cooking. The result was a crossbreed of soul food with the wok specials of the Chinese-American diaspora.
’Hood Chinese dives, the unhappy inheritors of that cultural exchange, served as a gateway to Chinese cuisine for several of the artists quoted above. Kevin Heldman’s scathing 2011 expose for Politico, “Takeout Story,” follows a family of Fujianese immigrants who operate a restaurant in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the Bronx. Heldman’s man-on-the-ground reporting gives a rare and urgent voice to the victims of the deliveryman muggings described by Cam’ron and Joe Budden, among others.