Putting together the perfect menu is like crafting a music album: It requires the ability to play the long game, to step back and look at the whole. Chef McKenzie is one of the few people on the planet who understands the connection personally. The Valley rapper and producer, who goes by LJ McKenzie when he isn’t behind the mic, spent more than a decade writing and co-producing his debut disc, Nice Days. The record caught the ears of Fervor Records CEO David Hilker, and the Sunnyslope label released it last August to critical acclaim. But McKenzie’s culinary title doesn’t just apply to what he is cooking up in the studio. The Arizona State University student, who was born in Queens, New York, knows cooking from working at his parents’ Scottsdale restaurant, Caribbean Palm. He plans to put his own food truck, Nitewings, back on the street after he graduates in May. McKenzie (@chefdapot on Instagram) spoke with us about building the city’s rap scene and what music and food have in common.
You’ve put a lot of time into building your music career. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
I’ve seen how music has grown from the analog to the digital world, especially in hip-hop. One thing I’ve learned in life is that you’ll lose track of how much time has passed. I started making music when I was 16, when Arizona didn’t have much of a hip-hop scene. There were really no opportunities for our type of music.
Where would you like to see rap go in Phoenix?
We don’t have anyone before us who knew how to do it here. There was no one we could go to. We’ve had to build everything. There have been a lot of venues that come and go so quickly. We just have to keep going. I’ve heard from people in the industry that Arizona is one of the next big markets for hip-hop. I want to build something here, so anyone who wants to get involved should reach out.
I read that you’re opening a food truck.
I put together Nitewings [in 2019]. I was making chicken wings with a Caribbean flavor. It was just me working it, and it took off for a bit. It got a little over my head, and I didn’t have a way to reel it in because of the hours and finding people to help. I still have all my recipes and my setup ready, so I’m planning to bring it back after I graduate.
Pun intended, but you do have a lot on your plate.
That’s the Jamaican way. We have to find a way to get it. That’s something that my parents really taught me. They both came from Jamaica with nothing, and they found a way. I want to build and continue to see my people grow.
Are there ways that rap and food intersect?
They really do. Everybody likes good food. You want to give people something that they will remember, whether it’s food or music. They’ll love you forever. People hit me up all the time to tell me they met my dad at the restaurant. And everybody has their own flavor. My dad and I can make the same thing, but mine is going to taste a little different because it has my own little touch on it. Same thing happens when mixing a record, and people are going to see you for that. My music paints a picture and represents me lyrically and creatively. Both food and rap can express who you are.