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Forbidden Fromage: Cheese Rap

Welcome to Forbidden Fromage, a series exploring cheesy taboos and prohibitions. Intern Johnisha Levi will look at everything from navigating kosher restrictions and hip hop MCs’ use of cheese and dairy as metaphors for illicit profit and sex to the paleo diet’s dairy prohibition. You’ll get a little history, religion, pop culture, science, and medicine along the way, as we cover thousands of years in the blink of some blog posts.

One thing’s for sure: interning at a cheese magazine has newly sensitized me to all things cheese, and that includes song lyrics. During the first weeks of my internship, I was hiking back to the train listening to Pandora. “Aquemni,” from the album of the selfsame name, was playing. This was a song I’ve listened to countless times, and all of a sudden it was as if all instrumentation was stripped away, the cars on the road and the people on the street were frozen, and all I could hear was the word “cheese”:

Live from home of the brave with dirty dollars
And beauty parlors and baby bottles and bowling ball Impalas
And street scholars that’s majoring in culinary arts
You know how to work bread cheese and dough
From scratch but see the catch is you can get caught
Know what ya sellin’ what ya bought so cut that big talk

It got me thinking… I’d already committed to doing a blog series on Forbidden Fromage. Wouldn’t an exploration of explicit hip-hop lyrics fit neatly into this wide-ranging topic?

Once I got the green light from our web editorial head cheese, I starting digging for more lyrical content. I unearthed a treasure trove cave of cheese references. For this blog post, rather than mention artists such as Sugarhill Gang that reference cheese in a straightforward culinary sense (remember that soggy macaroni and cheese in “Rappers Delight”?), I’ve chosen to focus on cheese as metaphor.

Turning back to Outkast for a minute, it looks like I’m not the only one who has queried the import of cheese in the world of hip hop. Even a lingual technologist from Oxford University Press has contemplated this as a worthy subject (and because of the same song!). First and foremost, if you have given even a cursory listen to any rap, whether of the socially conscious, hardcore, Dirty South, or gangsta subgenres, cheese is most prominent as a stand-in for cash. Aquemeni mentions bread and dough in the same line (among other money metaphors), and by invoking the culinary arts, we know we are talking about “cooking” (but not the kind that will feed your belly). The “street scholars” are hustlers, and what they are cooking up in exchange for cash is, well, not exactly legal. (Crack, anyone?)

Moving up the coast line from Atlanta, “Kool On,” by Philadelphia’s The Roots, is an evocative portrayal of a life lived on the edge—a luxurious house of cards that is poised for collapse any time. It’s part of the concept album undun,which chronicles the rise and fall of Redford Stevens, a fictional drug dealer modeled in part on The Wire‘s Avon Barksdale. In the final verse by Truck On, well-dressed characters—even as they’re partying and living “in the shade” (a reference to easy living but also to making a living from “shady” activities)—arm themselves knowing that the end is near and that everything they have is under attack. “Say cheese,” a play on the photographic expression, refers to a life philosophy here: living for the paper, or money, even as you know that it will kill you in the end:

Yeah outside where the killers and the dealers swarm
And inside they dressed up like it’s a telethon
Black tie affair but they holding heavy arms
Straight cash with a stash in the cummerbund
More Bacardi and the Bastards of the Party, huh?
Riots erupting around and still we party on
Made the quantum leap to a king from a pawn
But it was destined the conclusion was foregone
Serenade of the former slave promenade
’Cause them long days in the sun
Have now become shade
So we doing high speeds in a narrow lane
Say cheese
Free falling from the aeroplane
Another feather in the cap for all the years
That we spent in luxury’s lap
Without looking back
’Cause memories could sting like a hornet
Damn it felt good to see people up on it

While generic cheese-as-cash references abound—and the origins of this metaphor is a bit murky—one thing that is clear is that when MCs invoke a specific cheese, it is most often cheddar. Take Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement,” for instance:

I check cheddar like a food inspector
My homie Strick told me, “Dude finish your breakfast”
So that’s what I’ma do, take you back to the dude
With the Lexus, fast-forward the jewels and the necklace
Let me tell you dudes what I do to protect this
I shoot at you actors like movie directors [laughing]
This ain’t a movie dog (oh sh–)

In the song, Jay-Z draws parallels between his former life as a cocaine dealer (CEO of “the rock”) and his current position as CEO of Roc-a-Fella Records. Both require extreme defense against would-be successors and pretenders.

While cheddar may be the kingpin (or better yet, “Big Cheese”) of hip hop lyrics, it better watch its back. Other fromages are gunning for that status. Switching coasts for a minute, let’s consider Dr. Dre’s “Been There, Done That,” which embraces alternative cheeses while glorifying money as the enviable source of supreme power:

Young black Rockefeller, hella swiss and mozzarella
Pockets sweller, gettin’ money like a bank teller
’Cause a fool and his dough soon split
So when you come across a fool get all that you can get
Ladies, get your paper too
Don’t expect for no man to support you, keep it true

Likewise, in “Knuckleheadz,” Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon opts for Parmesan as his cheese of choice (“The rap scar is on, rap Parmesan, put it on, seal it on / We’re silicone, spark it on your talkathon”) and Lil Wayne gives provolone a shout (“All about my cheese: cheddar, mozzarella, provolone”).

However, if I had to make a prediction about cheddar’s heir apparent, I would go with a Dutch cheese. E-40’s “Gouda” is an unapologetic homage to cash by the Nike shoebox-full:

Ten racks in a rubber band (gouda)
Got three or fo’ mo’ in my other hand (gouda)
It sound like 5, 10, 15, 20 (gouda)
(25, 30, 35, 40—chalupa)
Gettin’ money I’m a stunna man (gouda)
In the Nike shoebox like a hundred grand (gouda)
It sound like (45, 55, 65, 75, gouda)
It sound like (85, 95, wait what am I doin?—chalupa)

E-40 depicts a Californian world of “Thugs ‘R Us,” where hustlers are so brazen they don’t need to wear ski masks when they rob you—a world of “contraband,” “big guns,” and “big clips.” And just in case you aren’t getting it, E-40 ends the song with a helpful thesaurus:

Oooooh—the definition of gouda
What’s the definition?
Chalupa, scrilla, scratch, paper, yaper, capital
The definition:
Gouda means cheese and cheese means yaper, you squares
Square butts

Now, lest you think cheese is always a stand-in for cash in the rap world, in his 1998 song “Triple Threat,” Nas likens the holes in Swiss to those made by TEC-9 semi-automatics:

Sex and money go together like techs and nine shells
Swiss cheese you and cover it up like Roswell
Cartel, you ain’t seen no iller regime

Now that’s a killer note to end on!

Next week, Forbidden Fromage will be looking at the rise, fall, and rebirth of The Green Fairy, a.k.a. absinthe, and its application in the cheese and dairy world.

Photo Credit: “OutKast” by Daniel Patlán | CC

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.

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