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When Did Hip-Hop Get So Healthy?

A new documentary focuses on the movement to get fit or die trying.

by Austin Williams
Apr 25 2017, 2:00pm

Hip-hop is in a much healthier place than it was ten, and definitely twenty years ago. Today, fans are encouraging rappers like Kid Cudi and Kanye West to monitor their anxiety and depression. Vince Staples and Lil Yachty are openly urging fans to say no to drugs. In their new documentary, Feel Rich: Health Is The New Wealth, producers Shawn Ullman and Quincy "QD3" Jones III try to answer the big question: When—and why—did rappers decide to start eating their vegetables?

The film, which premiers May 23rd on Netflix, highlights their lack of access to fresh produce and even basic dietary information in urban communities. There are many reasons why people of color run a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and childhood obesity, as countless studies have shown. One of those reasons is that many of us grow up in neighborhoods that enable poor nutritional habits.

The first fact you're made aware of when you watch Feel Rich is that agriculture has always been one of America's greatest industries. But after almost three hundred years of free labor (and decades more of very, very cheap labor), the documentary argues, black folks were understandably not very interested in continuing their role in the growth of that industry. 

Feel Rich - Health is the new Wealth Trailer from Feel Rich on Vimeo.

That's one reason why many of us now live in big cities, caged in by concrete and projects, thirty minutes by train from the nearest urban garden. And it helps explain why hip-hop and Whole Foods haven't historically gone together: For decades, hearty eating and weight gain were the real signs of success—along with bottles, blunts, and other indulgences. Even before Diddy was merely Puff Daddy, he rapped "three course meal, spaghetti, fettuccine and veal / but still everything's real in the field." As for clean eating and exercise? Jones says they were "almost something that they'd tuck away."

But as we come to learn, the new ambassadors of these inner-cities—rappers like Styles P, Common, and The Game—now lead double lives. They've outrun their bad habits and are exercising better ones; they just haven't flossed them nearly as much as their cars, their clothes, and their women. Here, Ullman and Jones explain what changed. 

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Q's docuseries, BEEF. I think those documentaries changed the way rappers and their fans approach conflict within hip-hop. Do you think Feel Rich will have a similar impact on the culture in terms of holistic living?

Jones: Yeah, I think that not only will people inside the culture see a different version of themselves, but also, people looking in from the outside will see hip-hop artists a different way. We believe that this could potentially help accelerate a huge health movement in the urban community and the hip-hop community. [Rappers] really don't get asked about this topic a lot. So this will be the first time that people will see all of them in one place, all singing the same chorus—that health is one of the most important things in their lives.

Q3 Talking with Common / Image: Feel Good, Inc.

In your own lives, who or what inspired you to walk this path?

Ullman: I grew up the typical white Jewish kid obsessed with hip-hop, listening to QD3's music, and it was only when I started working with him that I saw these hip-hop artists were actually living a healthy lifestyle, but there wasn't a brand or a platform that allowed them to talk about it. So we came up with this idea to give them a platform and a voice to show the community that health is the new wealth.

J: The crazy thing is I was inspired to do better by rappers, believe it or not. LL Cool J, Tupac, and Ice Cube were huge inspirations for me.

This film traces the eating habits of black folks back to slavery, sharecropping, the Great Migration, and the subsequent rejection of the social implications of growing our own food. Those are heavy concepts to wrap one's mind around—what are some baby steps a person can take within their individual diet?
J: When getting to a healthier state, most people are really intimidated. They watch people that look good on TV and they're like 'damn, I'm going to have to change my whole life around to do this.' But really at the end of the day it's not that big of a deal. You can just replace starch with vegetables and walk a little bit more. Like Fat Joe said in the movie, he lost a hundred pounds with that method. It doesn't necessarily have to be a huge thing—it's just making small adjustments that have a huge impact on your life.

Personally, I was raised in a vegetarian household and my dad did yoga. So I was introduced it very early, but it wasn't until we made this film and traveled all over the country that we tried everything in unison. We spent whole days with people like stic.man [of Dead Prez], who took us to an urban garden. We picked vegetables, we came home, we cooked them, we meditated, and then from there we went and did a yoga class. When you approach holistic health in combination, you're taken to a whole other level.

What advice would you give to people who didn't grow up that way? Food is cultural, so a lot of black and brown folks might be afraid of losing that connection to their family at the dinner table.
J: I think it's a slow process, but the people who have the ability to change the most are the people closest to you. The best chance you have is from inside the family. A lot of the times, the kids will start, and slowly but surely the parents join.

U: My girlfriend is Latina. Her parents came over from Mexico. She's went to college, learned about healthy eating, and now she's bringing that information back to her family. She's helping to not get rid of the tradition, but to make healthier changes within the tradition.

Same with Crystal Wall, who's the wife of Paul Wall. She saw a lot of diabetes and heart disease in her family. She wanted to get the family healthy and break the cycle of generational bad habits, so she started cooking healthier soul food options and introducing her kids to things that'll still keep them together.

J: Yeah, like replacing certain ingredients. Not putting ham hocks in the greens. That sort of thing.

Paul Wall / Image: Feel Good, Inc.

Q, in the film, Jermaine Dupri touched on the idea of "eating good." The idea that with success comes certain indulgences—decadent meals, champagne, things like that. As you found success as a musician, were you tempted to indulge in those?

J: What's interesting is, for twenty years, when I was making music in the studio, I never drank or smoked. I wanted to be sharp. I never really felt that temptation, to be honest with you. I grew up as break dancer and a martial artist. Part of my identity was a healthy body. That lifestyle was just never attractive to me. I grew up in an entertainment family, so I'm no stranger to it, but it never really attracted me.

Of the rappers you've met, whose transformation was the most impressive?
U: I would say Slim Thug. When we first started, he was just helping his trainer, Milton Harris, get his business off. But now he himself is in the gym every single day, he's eating clean, he stopped smoking weed, he stopped drinking—he's made a whole transformation and documented it every day. He even encourages people around Houston to come train with him. From the beginning to the end, he's made the biggest transformation.

As a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg's brief presence in Feel Rich stuck out. He's since passed away from complications with diabetes, as he had a well documented addiction to sugar. What would you say to people who do the knowledge and know the risks of their bad habits but just can't fight their urges?

J: Most people have never been introduced to this lifestyle in a way that makes sense. It's really just that first step—any addiction you have, once the poison is out of your body, the addiction starts to go away. Sugar is very similar. It's just like cigarettes—you quit for two weeks, and during those first two weeks it's hell. The same is true for sugar. You actually feel withdrawals in the beginning. But once it's out of your system, you almost don't want anymore of it because you feel the crash right after. It's all about showing your body a different way. Once you try that different way, you really don't miss going down again.

Read This Next: How Bad Is It if I Never Eat Any Vegetables?