American hamburgers changed Raph Rashid's life. Back in 2005, the Australian hip-hop junkie had put together a book titled Behind The Beat that was based on candid photographs of the home studios of hip-hop producers like DJ Premier, Madlib, and J Dilla. While touring the book in the USA, Raph's friends took him to a series of American comfort food spots. "I fell in love with the people and the food at the same time," he says, looking back on days fueled by burgers, fried chicken, and tacos. "It was just the honesty that went into something that was seemingly so simple and with so few ingredients that resonated with me."
When he arrived back home in Australia, Raph found himself affronted by the trend and taste of native burgers: "They were like a meatloaf, like we were putting all these weird ingredients like onions and garlic into the patty and it was just ridiculous. Australia was really off track at that point." Raph's American experience had convinced him that the essence of a burger is about "good meat with a really good fat content cooked properly and with really good condiments."
Raph set about formulating his own burger recipe, inspired by culinary epiphanies like scarfing down the Minetta Tavern's dry-aged burger and the pioneering sliders served up at the White Manna diner in Hackensack, New Jersey. Offered an opportunity to test out his American-influenced burger at a music festival in 2009, Raph found himself assembling together a food truck at a cost of around $75,000. Tapping into his love of hip-hop music and the boomboxes and studio equipment of the '80s, he named the vessel Beatbox Kitchen. It turned out Beatbox Kitchen was the first ever food truck to open in Australia—and Raph's since graduated to running a small fleet of trucks and opening a couple of brick and mortar restaurants.
When not spreading the gospel of American comfort food across Australian shores, Raph's also managed to complete a second book about home studios (Back To The Lab) which showcases sneak peeks inside the creative set-ups of El-P, Flying Lotus and Alchemist. As he prepares to start promoting the new project, I spoke to Raph about the historical links between kitchens and hip-hop, the rappers he'd happily trust manning his food truck, and the messiest home studios he came across.
Noisey: What sort of reaction did you get when you opened the Beatbox Kitchen?
Raph Rashid: People were like, "What the hell is this?" They had no idea. But Melbourne is a town where people really love a new experience so it started a whole new movement in Melbourne. It was really encouraging to feel confident of what we were doing.
What sort of music do you play inside the truck?
We've got a little boombox inside the truck and when I'm in the truck I like to play hip-hop and soul, but I'll let the other guys play what they want. I won't curate it for them—it's hard work in the truck so I want them to enjoy their music.
Are there any food-based hip-hop songs that stay in rotation?
I really enjoy Action Bronson, all of his stuff, 'cause he's got that connection with food. When I was with Alchemist for the book, it's cool watching their connection with food and music. And there's that old Eric B and Rakim track ["Paid In Full"] which has that mad line, "Fish, which is my favorite dish…"
Would you ever consider employing any rappers in the truck?
Bronson would smash it! He'd be good. I've seen him do a few little pop-up things. And I reckon he would be respectful in the kitchen and not make a total mess. He understands how much hard work goes into running a kitchen.
Have many artists ordered from the truck?
Yeah, DJ Shadow always comes by when he's in town and gets the burger. There's a lot of artists from the UK like the Nextmen, and DJ House Shoes from Detroit comes by.
Do you make the artists line up like everyone else?
Yeah, there's no cutting the line—they have to wait.
Can you see any links between the idea of running a kitchen out of a food truck and musicians working in a small home studio?
Yeah, I think it's the sense of it being immediate. A food truck is probably reminiscent of an intimate show: It's not like a stadium show, it's like an intimate club show and you're right there and everyone can see what's happening. You're performing and trying to do the best you can for your customers. It's more tangible. The home is where [musicians] feel real comfortable so the creativity is going to flow more than if they were to book a studio. This is why I really love the home studios—this is their canvas, you know?
Did you come across any home studios that involved the kitchen as part of the recording set-up?
Yeah, there's quite a few. Flying Lotus, in his studio, behind him is a refrigerator and a kitchen—it's like a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and everything's just around him. Sa-Ra, they were making beats in their kitchen; their bench [counter] is basically just covered with samplers. There's also Oddisee right next to his pantry. I mean, there's that old footage of Grandmaster Flash in his mum's kitchen [in the movie Wild Style] and that's incredible—and in a lot of ways we haven't progressed too much past that because it's about making music wherever you are even if there's not a lot of space. Georgia Anne Muldrow is featured in the book and her mixing board is on her kitchen bench. She's a really good cook and we've had conversations and I believe she's vegan and does a lot of vegan cookery with her partner Dudley Perkins.
Could you say the kitchen is the secret fifth element of hip-hop?
I don't know! In my house, the kitchen is where all the action takes place, it's where everyone congregates, and it's a really important place. Even in the book, there's a guy called Harry Love and his mum's just made him a bowl of pasta and he's standing next to the door. So, yeah, I think potentially it is!
What percentage of home studios use the same Ikea bookcase to store vinyl records?
Ha ha, a lot! I reckon it's got to be more than 50 percent, maybe even 80 percent. Kenny Dope had his own system happening but I think that's because he needed to go so high, but a lot of people have that shelf. That's a fantastic shelf, isn't it?
And which home studios are most in need of a good cleaning?
Maybe Flying Lotus could do with a little clean up, you know, but I wouldn't want to see what the reaction to the clean studio would be. Maybe it would mean that they were uncomfortable. El-P's studio also had a couple of trainers on the floor and a couple of socks kicking around.
Which home studio showed the most evidence of drugs being part of the music making process?
Ah, that's probably Flying Lotus as well! He had all those little medicinal marijuana containers everywhere, that's pretty evident. Alchemist also had a nice big jar in his studio as well.
You got to witness J Dilla making music before he passed away. What was that experience like?
That was incredible and really humbling. I had read some interviews before that said he'd asked people to leave the room to give him space to program 'cause he liked to do things by himself. But I was there and he was super nice and was like, "I'm just gonna keep working if that's cool?" Watching him sample and make the beat and do all that stuff was really surreal at the time. He was really, really fast and he just knew exactly what he wanted to do and it was just coming out amazing.
Knowing that you run a food truck, did any of the artists offer to cook for you?
Yeah, Jazzy Jeff. As soon as we got there he's like, "I'm fixing you fried chicken." He put on this big spread for us and his cooking was fantastic. He made chicken and waffles and it was so good.
Is there any chance of adding Jazzy Jeff's fried chicken to the Beatbox Kitchen menu?
Yeah, how good would that be? Get him to come down and do some fried chicken. He had a little deep fryer in his kitchen and he was really into it.
Phillip Mlynar is a writer in NYC. He considers himself the world's foremost expert on rappers' cats. His work has appeared in Deadspin, NYLON, RBMA and Catster. You can find him on Twitter.