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Berkeley Rap Icon Lyrics Born Now Has His Own Cooking Show

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A person sits at a booth in a restaurant.
Tsutomu Shimura, better known as Lyrics Born, enjoys a meal at Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen in Berkeley. He grew up eating at Jewish delis similar to Saul's with his grandmother in Los Angeles. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.

Saul’s Deli, a bustling Jewish delicatessen serving North Berkeley since 1986, isn’t where you’d expect to kick it with a rap legend. But it’s where Tsutomu Shimura — better known as Lyrics Born, the pioneering Japanese and Jewish American rapper — chose to meet me for lunch on a calm, sunny Wednesday.

Shimura is a certified hip-hop veteran. As a founding member of the Bay Area rap group Latryx, he was one of the first Asian American emcees to gain national fame in the early ’90s. His career stretches across decades with an impressive longevity that only E-40 and Too $hort could scoff at. Shimura was the first Asian American rapper to release more than 10 studio albums. He’s so prolific that on the day of our hangout, he also released a song, “Heaven and Armageddon.”

And still, Shimura makes room for his latest creative appetite: food.

A bagel with pastrami and a green sauce.
The author’s’s salami egg bagel with added pastrami. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“I like to try new things when I’m cooking, just like I would in a song,” he tells me while enjoying an order of trout, eggs and onions with extra pastrami. “It’s creative, there’s no rules. And you’ll probably like what I make, even if you’ve never heard of it before.”

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Having appeared on KQED’s Check, Please! Bay Area, he’s no stranger to the culinary game. The saucy wordsmith has never been afraid of being front and center, either. So it makes sense that the deep-voiced lyricist and diehard foodie — who grew up in Berkeley with an appreciation for the Bay’s culturally diverse cuisines — now has his own online food series, Dinner In Place.

 

The show was born in the pandemic when Shimura was unable to tour internationally as frequently as he was accustomed to. A simple Instagram post of him making pasta with clams blew up, and requests from friends, family and fans flooded his inbox: When’s the next one?

Shimura admits he was simply sharing his cooking out of boredom. But he quickly discovered that while on a path to dieting and home cooking in his spare time, he could share his journey with others.

Now, Dinner In Place is entering its fourth season. The show focuses on multiculturalism and culinary innovation with a range of guests — including Señor Sisig chef Gil Payumo and Sobre Mesa chef Nelson German — tied together by Shimura’s trademark baritone narration.

Over a plate of open-faced salami egg bagels (with extra pastrami, following Shimura’s lead), I tuned in to the hip-hop icon as he reflected on his love of food, music and wellness as a nourishing therapy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alan Chazaro: Many of us know you for your music career. But now you’re doing Dinner In Place. How did your journey into making food videos begin?

Lyrics Born: During the pandemic, I had nothing but time on my hands. Prior to that, to be honest, I was feeling pretty burnt out artistically. Up to 2019, I was doing at least 100 [tour] dates a year. I was exhausted, bro. Putting out albums every 18 months for 20 years straight. I didn’t realize how tired I truly was. When everything shut down I was like wait a minute. No flight? No studio sessions? No gig? I’m sleeping in my own bed for more than a week? I love this. My lifestyle was such that six months prior to lockdown I was having health issues. Soreness, coughing. Shit like that. But then I started having anxiety.

The facade of a restaurant painted bright red.
Saul’s has been a Berkeley institution since 1986. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

So a few months before lockdown, I started to change my diet and exercise. I was up to 225 pounds, and I couldn’t do what I used to on stage, and that was upsetting. I literally couldn’t perform like I used to. So one of the best things I could’ve done was just drop some weight. I started to eat differently and exercise more, and so sliding into quarantine I had some momentum and control over my life. I was at home and started cooking more, since I had been eating out and on the go for years. Because of my health journey, I started to do plant-based stuff. I like to use social media, so I just shot the shit. No editing, just narrating as I went in real time. Everyone was at home also, and it was just a hit. I wasn’t writing anything else, and I didn’t want to do anything with music, so it gave me a new creative outlet instantly.

As time went on I started throwing in things from my childhood and travels, and it became weekly. It was cultural, and it was also conceptual like music. Like, wouldn’t it be cool if we took some vegan ground beef and turned it into a kung pao and then made that into a sloppy joe in between two Taiwanese pancakes and just called that a Kung Pao Sloppy Joe? You know what I mean?

A plate with homefries and other food on it.
Lyrics Born’s plate of trout, eggs and onion. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

That’s definitely a rapper’s creative mind at work, just remixing hella ingredients.

That’s all it was. I had time and headspace, and there was nothing else competing with my creativity. It was fun.

Bay Area hip-hop has so many anthems — “I Got 5 On It,” “Tell Me When to Go,” “Thizzle Dance.” You put those songs on and Bay Area people will flock to the dance floor and know exactly what to do. What’s the equivalent of that for our region’s food?

There are a few restaurants in Berkeley. That’s what I know, so I’ll speak to that. Everett and Jones is one of them. They’ve been around since I was a kid in multiple locations. The one in Berkeley is the best, truth be told. People will have varying opinions on it all, but I also think Le Cheval — a longtime Vietnamese restaurant in Berkeley that unfortunately closed, where many people would go. Chez Panisse, of course.

And in Oakland, you have guys like Chef Nelson from Sobre Mesa. He just reopened alaMar with a new Dominican menu. The Bay needs that. Oakland is special because it has that diversity. There’s room, space and audience for it.

I noticed you’ve invited local chefs — like Chef Nelson — onto your show this season. What have been some favorite dishes you’ve learned how to make?

We actually released one today that I really love. A “Locrio Japonese.” Japanese curry, stir-fried rice, grilled pork. Dominican and Japanese fusion.

A person cuts a pickle with a fork and knife.
Pickled beets and cucumbers. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Are these all your original food ideas? Are they just for your private consumption?

We talk about it, bro. With every guest chef — I’ve even had my wife on for an episode — we talk about it, and if we have time, we demo it. I was able to demo the recipes at Señor Sisig and alaMar. Really generous, brilliant chefs. We’re actually doing a pop-up in alaMar, and we’ll be serving the actual dish. It was fun and cute during the pandemic, but I wanted to do more with it.

Now that you’re three decades into your career, having broken barriers like becoming the first Asian American rapper to perform at events like Coachella and Lollapalooza, what stands out to you — and how does food play into it all?

The first couple decades of my career I never reflected. I never looked back, I was thinking about what’s next. It wasn’t until I made my greatest hits album that I was forced to reflect. Doing Dinner in Place and cooking has really led me down a path that I just totally took for granted. I didn’t realize how special it was to make sushi with my father who I saw maybe once a year. And when I saw him, I was young at the time, and we’d make sushi together, or maybe go out for Korean barbecue in Japan. He spent some time in New York City, but he had health issues and went back to Japan. The last 15 years of his life were in Japan, and I’d go back when I could. Even though he was immobile, we still cooked. It was something I did with him.

But when I got back, my son asked if I could roll sushi, and I was like fuck yeah, I can. Because I did it with my father. Let me start there. It opened up chapters in my life I could revisit. I didn’t consider that to be significant until later. Same with my grandma. She would take me to Jewish delis in L.A. with that side of the family. I grew up in places like Saul’s. Let’s deli. That’s a Jewish thing.

And you did it all while staying true to yourself and highlighting your heritage.

Thank you. Rappers? Entertainers? There weren’t many who looked like me who were visible. We had a few here and there. And there were people before me, for sure. But it was mostly DJs and breakdancers. We were mostly in the background. But there was nobody — since hip-hop was so young — who I could look to in the way someone can look at me now and say, So that’s how you do it. To have a 30-year career as an Asian American rapper in hip-hop and to see that path as possible.

Those lessons exist now, but they didn’t really exist for me. I mean, hip-hop is turning 50 years old. I’ve been around for 30 of those. I took a lot of my cues from studying my peers, but also the previous generation of artists outside of hip-hop. Sammy Davis Jr. James Brown. Those were long careers. There’s a multitude of mountains you have to simultaneously climb. It’s hard for anyone.

The other layer is doing it as a person of color in a system that isn’t built for you to succeed. You’re fighting parallel battles. Then being Asian American, there was even less context as a performer. When I first started touring, I swear to god there were places where I was the only Asian American in the city. But it still sold out. It was about the music. And that’s why food is also so liberating. In my experience, being mixed is normal. Everything else is different.

That’s part of the beauty of growing up in the Bay Area, right?

I don’t think my career could have been possible anywhere outside of the Bay Area. My reality has always been multicultural. And that’s even more so now. Everyone I grew up with in Berkeley is mixed.

Two people laugh together at a booth in a restaurant.
Lyrics Born sharing a meal — and reflections on his 30-year career in hip-hop — with KQED food writer Alan Chazaro. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

And you can just hustle your way into different situations and make it work.

Bro, I never went to any culinary school. But I’m creative. And the food tastes good. I don’t give a shit about technique. About what is the way you’re supposed to do it. Just taste it. You’ll love it. You don’t need a chef’s coat. Whatever you wear isn’t gonna change the way you cook. I didn’t come from that. Yes, some of these guys can cook circles around me. But I’m a self-taught rapper. I didn’t take piano lessons or guitar lessons. I had a pen and paper and started writing down some words and hoped they rhymed to their own beat.

And real chefs understand that. They get the raw creativity, and that’s what it all is for me. The sinigang ramen. Nobody’s doing that or presenting it in the way we do. And I say that with pride, not to brag. We’re injecting something new into this. You’ll walk away feeling better, having learned something. And that’s important to me about the show. We wanna make great food, but what’s greater than expanding your horizons on different levels?

Is that part of growing up with immigrant parents?

Totally. And the best part is that our experience [as children of immigrants] is mathematically going to be the dominant experience in this country. We’ll see more people like us — literally and figuratively. That’s not an opinion. That’s facts. It’s trending in a certain direction, and nothing can stop that. And we’ll be enjoying those flavors for a long time.

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‘Dinner In Place’ is available to watch on YouTube on Lyrics Born’s channel. Season 4 is now streaming. Lyrics Born will team up with chef Nelson German at alaMar Dominican Kitchen (100 Grand Ave. #111, Oakland) for a live “Dinner In Place” pop-up on Thurs. Sep. 14 from 5 p.m. to closing.

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