Ever since Wiley steamed into view in the early 2000s, with a new sound named grime, food references have been a part of the genre’s lyrical DNA.
Whether it’s Kano effortlessly de-romanticising British culture from a seat in an east London cafe on “This Is England”, or the calorific references to fast-food joints, local boozers and chicken and chips, greasy-handed references are as much a part of grime as its head-tilting 140BPM beat.
Of course, food and drink references aren’t fundamental to grime’s success, but they do act as sticky-fingered vehicles for self expression, cultural identity and colloquial pride. On “Dollar Sign” – a song that is widely regarded as one of the first grime songs ever – MC Stush spat: “suck out / like when you yam bone marrow”. More recently, AJ Tracey released the song “Pasta” – about – among other things – “cooking up a jawn like pasta”.
From Jme’s praise of the vegan diet on "Pulse 8" to Slowthai lamenting the rising cost of 99 flake ice creams on "Grow Up", here’s how grime’s relationship with food has changed over the years, featuring some – but not all – of the most-stand-out historical references.
GRIME’S EARLY YEARS - 2000-07
Back in the early 2000s, when garage MCs were rapping about popping bottles and “bubblin’ around with the champagne crew”, early grime pioneers shed unfiltered lights on their reality.
On top of swooping synths, unfurnished brass and neon-lit instrumentals, this say-what-you-see approach often brought in references to UK based food: from greasy spoons and chicken shops, to Guinness and cheap booze. See: Dizzee Rascal boasting a fluorescent glass of “Alizé, right to the brim” on 2002 track "Creeper", or Skepta sending his lyrical opponents a boozy warning on the Mixing Records DVD, rapping “lick off your head like Guinness and Fosters”.
One track however, from Red Hot Entertainment, would become deep fried into grime fans’ minds forever. “Junior Spesh”, which features the iconic line “one pound and fifty pence / fifty pence, fifty pence”, is a homage to the £1.50 kids meal served at Canning Town’s Southern Fried Chicken. From the smirk on lead MC Jaxor’s face, he seemed to know grime history was being made.
Grime’s Expansion Into New Sounds – 2007-11
Flash forward to 2010 and Giggs dished out road-rap ready British references on the UK’s unofficial national anthem: "Talkin’ Da Hardest". If the lyric “covered in red like a portion of chips” isn’t immortalised in AQA textbooks for future generations, the British education system can do one.
The following year would also play host to the unfortunate “Nando’s Skank” – an off-the-cuff, uni halls-esque collaboration between now global superstar Ed Sheeran and clubby rapper Example, dedicated to the cheeky-chicken spot (and presumably their desire to get free chicken for life).
More – better – tributes to other UK dine-out faves also landed throughout this period. Like Skepta’s “English Breakfast” – a track featuring the lyric “I want an English breakfast / Pass me a knife and a fork / One tea, one hash brown, baked beans and eggs / But I don't wanna see no pork”.
GRIME’S MAINSTREAM REVIVAL - 2013-16
As grime became accused of “going pop” and pandering to mainstream eardrums, the references also started to veer back toward the razzmatazz the genre had initially aimed to avoid. Take in two UK number one singles from the genre’s most commercially successful period as proof: Wiley’s “Wearing My Rolex” (“too much champs don’t know where my phone is”) and Dizzee Rascal’s “Holiday” (“white wine, that’s fine, just give me a lager”).
Shortly after however, emerging artists outside of London who were yet to enjoy the glitz and glamour of mainstream success would continue with greasy-tabled, day-in-the-life anecdotes.
Nottingham artist A9 delivered graphic imagery on his JDZ Media Spitfire in 2013, with the bar “shank man up with a samurai sword, see bbq sauce, he needs a spare rib”. From that same series, in the same year, Derby rapper Eyez delivered the blunt bar: “my man’s sweet like midget gems.”
In 2016, Novelist’s grime crew The Square released their clash-ready track “Lewisham McDeez”: a reference to a McDonalds in south east London. Meanwhile, in 2018, Birmingham rapper Mayhem Nodb spat “just me and a junkie / can’t eat cause the chip shop’s funky / Walkers crisps and a Bueno / ten toes, me and my Ramsey fellow” on "House Invasion".
MODERN DAY GRIME - 2019-PRESENT
Today, grime artists are tapping into places far beyond the UK, with many looking back toward their family’s heritage in countries like Nigeria and Jamaica. These lyric nods have always been there. Now, however, the regional references lead from the centre stage.
Take Skepta’s "Pure Water" – a reference to drinking water sold in clear bags in Nigeria. Or Birmingham rapper M1llionz clutching a cup of Wray and Nephew rum while shooting "Y PREE" on location in Jamaica. Both of these artists are helping to bridge the gap between UK rap and other continents.
That’s not to say that hyper-British references and cultural links aren’t still commonplace. Dave confesses his partiality for “pot noodles and Indomie” on 2019 track “18Hunna” and pub enthusiast Window Kid expresses his love of “Punk IPA and a medium Maccies” in his Reprezent Radio set from 2020.
Regarding guilty pleasures: grime’s latter era success has led to some full-throttle, off-the-wall partnerships, like Big Zuu’s collaboration with kebab spot GDK and Skepta’s partnership with Havana Club. See also: the Cafe East namedrop that spawned overnight queues, after Young Adz spat “I’m in Cafe East, talkin’ bricks with the Turks” on "Cartier Rings" in 2020.
In the beginning, food references lent themselves to previously unseen perspectives of inner city living. Nowadays, they represent how far the genre has come. Morrision, who has been knee deep in the genre since his SBTV freestyle in 2008, backs this up with the lyric “Nowadays it's lobster and steak / but I grew up on beans and toast,” on 2019 track “Shots” – a direct parallel to Devlin’s "Days and Nights" lyric, almost a decade earlier.
As grime continues to eb and flow, remaining a constant, lingering presence on the UK music scene, it’s safe to say the genre will always be eating good.