“I’d rather roll something up / ’cause if I’m sober, dog/I just might flip, grab my guns and hold something up,” raps Styles P on “Good Times,” his biggest solo hit, which also happens to be the most depressing song ever written about the benefits of smoking weed. Later on, he continues to subvert the song’s title with gruff, affectless bars like, “If you see things like I see things, I’mma die in the hood” and, “I get high when bullets hit faces after words exchange.” Shortly after the release of “Good Times” and the subsequent, gold-selling A Gangster and a Gentleman, the rapper born David Styles served an eight-month bid that year for stabbing a man in the ass.
As both a solo artist and a member of The LOX alongside his Yonkers compatriots Jadakiss and Sheek Louch, Styles P excelled at airing out his frustrations in his lyrics. He exposed the misdeeds of cops and rival rappers, discussed the entrenched hopelessness of poverty, and for a long time, warned listeners about the two-timing ways of Puff Daddy (er, Love), who signed The LOX to Bad Boy back in 1995 to a presumably less-than-ideal contract. But now at 43, Styles recognizes that a different set of larger-than-life living characters like Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders were just as much to blame for his foul attitude as much as Puff’s legendary mendacity. “When I was out on the road and living fast, I wasn't eating good at all,” Styles explains over the phone. “I was just running around with pizza slices, chicken, burgers, candy, cupcakes, nahmean? I needed more natural things in my life.”
Styles was one of the grimiest rappers to go platinum during hip-hop’s Shiny Suit Era, a time of seemingly endless economic abundance. And yet, he found he was eating as if he were still struggling in Yonkers, “in a three room apartment and we all on the floor,” to quote a particularly reflective verse on the LOX’s “U Told Me.” At the recommendation of his wife Adjua, Styles switched to a plant-based lifestyle around 2003: “I lost a lot of weight and my temperament got cooler by the day. I was more relaxed, felt better about myself after workouts, before workouts, days I didn't work out.”
Though he’s a few weeks shy of releasing a new solo album, Styles is perfectly content to spend an hour spreading the gospel of Juices For Life, his New York juice bar franchise, without mentioning his music at all. Along with business partners Leo Galvez and Nyger Rollocks, Styles opened the first two Juices For Life in the Bronx and Yonkers in 2011; in 2015, the ownership group, which now includes Styles’s LOX compatriot Jadakiss, opened another location in Bed-Stuy. In a Juices for Life promo video, Jadakiss explains in his signature rasp, “our juice bars are opened in the hood on purpose to educate our people on health awareness.”
Before Juices for Life, Rollocks was operating a juice bar called Fruits For Life in Harlem. “Me and my other [business] partner Leo [Galvez], we used to frequent there a lot, and it was a very small clientele but we believed in it,” says Styles, who saw the juice bar concept as a way to invest in his people while circumventing the uncomfortable specter of gentrification. “You go into a neighborhood that has money, you see a Whole Foods, you see a Mrs. Green’s, you see a Trader Joe’s,” Styles explains. “Even in poor neighborhoods where there’s white kids in the schools, what are you feeding them? You and I aren't the only people who notice that where poor people are, there’s none of these things and there's nothing changing. Why is there nothing changing? Because people don't care enough.”
The challenge of getting people to care about physical well-being has rarely been addressed in any kind of music, and the type of “self-care” espoused in popular culture is either in the interest of stress management or mental health. The most outspoken musician who advocates for the vegan lifestyle is probably Morrissey, who’s so crazy and misanthropic that Cure frontman Robert Smith once said, “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, I’m going to eat meat, that’s how much I hate Morrissey.” (And, lest we forget, Morrissey’s veganism also resulted in the worst Smiths song ever written.)
But around the same time that the LOX put out their second LP We Are the Streets — an album that has improved my personal health enormously because “Wild Out,” “Breathe Easy,” and “Fuck You” make me want to bench press an Escalade — Styles’ friends in dead prez unleashed Let’s Get Free, the most politically radical rap album released on a major label in the 21st century. Though it was less heralded than the Molotov rap of “Hip Hop” or “They Schools,” the relatively lighthearted “Be Healthy” found M-1 and stic.man espousing a plant-based, pan-African diet rich in “vitamins and mine-rules,” regular exercise, and plenty of fluids (just not tap water). Then Prodigy from Mobb Deep shows up at the end and yells at us for smoking cigarettes and not being conscious of what we’re putting into our bodies.
At the time, “Be Healthy” was probably the second-most clowned song on Let’s Get Free, behind the one that rhymed “futon” with “croutons” (“Mind Sex”), it’s clear in hindsight how inextricable personal health is from uplifting poor, brown communities as well as the overall message of “let’s get free.” According to data from the U.S. Department of Human Health Services Office of Minority Health, African-Americans were 1.4 times as likely to be obese as non-Hispanic whites. This prevalence has been linked to “food swamps,” a more nuanced term for “food deserts” that accounts for the less-than-ideal food options that replace traditional supermarkets in low-income areas.
“Fast food has been [in poor neighborhoods] for such a long time,” Styles says. “We need not just juice bars but healthy supermarkets, yoga centers, community centers, meditation places, and spots with a bunch of laptops where kids can do their history on themselves. Until we get that poppin’ up in the neighborhoods, especially the poor ones, we're not gonna advance as mankind as much as we should.”
Improving eating habits in food deserts is often framed as a question of access vs. education, which Styles sees as a false binary. “With food, people automatically think it's supposed to be super easy and accessible — no looking into anything, no looking up anything, but that's not the case,” Styles says. “Sometimes you gotta take that extra time out to say, ‘I’m not gonna go to McDonald’s.’ Bodegas have [produce] too, but when people go to the bodega, they're not used to looking for fruits and vegetables.” He’s a vocal proponent of the HappyCow app, an online service that points users to plant-based food sources. “If I see something in the area, I’ll go to the market and buy some seaweed, some fruits, some avocados, beans, mixed nuts, couple of juices, shakes. Just things to hold me over.” It’s a long way from the three-course meals of spaghetti, fettuccine and veal that Puff Daddy rapped about on the Styles-featuring “All About the Benjamins” — a diet which, while admittedly rich in protein and selenium, would nonetheless put Puff at serious risk for gout.
Styles is aware that it’s easy to be skeptical of him saying, “the coolest shit you can possibly do is take care of your family” — especially when the typical family “juice bar” brings to mind parents picking up their kids from lacrosse practice in a crossover SUV. Because of that, he stresses that his juice bar is an actual bar. “We're ‘Cheers’ for the healthy folks — you want to go where people know you and care about you, where people are interested in what you’re going through,” he says, stressing that Juices For Life is as much a community center as it is a business. “You see black, white, Asian, Latin, short, tall, old young, Catholic school [students], public school [students], couples, first dates, teens, people out the church, you see all of that. People come in there to talk about issues.” Styles says this can range from organizing political actions to offering over-the-counter remedies for flu season — “everyone should buy a bottle of oil of oregano, a bottle of super lysine, ginger tea and colloidal silver and just use those things.”
At this point in his career, Styles P sees rap as a platform for the sustainable community movement that he hopes Juices For Life can play a role in. He says, “The political component of eating healthy is this: The government doesn’t give a fuck about poor white people, but it really doesn’t care about poor brown people. Look at where we live, look at our food choices. The easiest way to kill the masses is through food, water, and miseducation. [Food] is political because it's survival.”