An Ode to the Brown Paper Bag, Hip-Hop’s Favorite Status Symbol
The hustler is the unconventional anti-hero of hip-hop. He is the symbol of prosperity from poor circumstances, a personification of the street corners, blocks, housing projects and hoods worldwide. The riches that comes after the rags, and the spirit of acquiring all you never had. Hustlers come in many incarnations, but the most notorious in hip-hop are drug dealers―they are synonymous with hustlers and hustling.
The explosion of hip-hop and the crack epidemic would overlap in the mid-'80s and early ‘90s. Stories from that era are reflective of the times, hip-hop had a narrative that was more focused on dealing cocaine than using it. Some of the most famous rappers' humble beginnings started by living a life that was more Avon Barksdale than Mr. Rogers, more Heisenberg than Walter White.
There are plenty of rappers who never touched a dime bag or had to scrape the pot but admired fictional hustlers like Tony Montana and real life crime bosses like Big Meech, choosing to represent them in their music. We live in a trap era where the drug dealing lifestyle has created a genre—we went from hustlers telling stories from the trap to an entire genre described as trap music.
Rap is filled with symbolism that’s directly connected to drug dealing and the hustler lifestyle. It seems natural for a genre that started in the streets to be closely tied to those who made a living on those very same corners. When Migos talk of bandos, it isn’t because of an interest in real estate. The yams that Jeezy left at his aunty house weren't being stored there for Thanksgiving supper.
There are countless suggestive allegories that carry context directly connected to hustling. One of the many ways that rappers can describe an abundance of wealth is depicting their cash as brown paper bag money. The brown paper bag is a step up from the wallet—a tier higher than a rubber band, in the same class as shoeboxes and duffle bags. When the money isn’t legal, you can’t make a daily deposit at the bank what most won’t even make in a year.
When the block is truly booming and money is pouring in, the brown paper bags are filled to the brim. When you have to travel with a large sum of money and there's no briefcase like in mafia movies, the brown paper bag is an alternative. The expression has been used countless times in hip-hop lyrics, from the most well-known hustlers to those who just want to brag about how much they made at their last show.
DJ Khaled’s early album compilations were themed around being the best and putting on for the hood. On We The Best, his perfectly titled sophomore album, there’s an entire anthem dedicated to the "Brown Paper Bag." Fat Joe, Rick Ross, Juelz Santana, Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne honor the symbol of wealth. The hook sung by Dre is incredibly soulful, he has so much passion about something so plain. Listeners can only imagine being a hustler who makes enough money to have a money counter and a living room filled with brown bags of money. This song is for anyone who has ever experienced that feeling and for all the people who will never get close.
Wayne closes his second verse with, “My brown paper bag here to represent the hustle,” further highlighting how a simple brown bag has real meaning. When Lil Wayne started Tha Carter series in ‘04, the title was based on The Carter crack house empire made famous by the 1991 crime film New Jack City. His album being titled after a fictional drug cartel is just one example of how Wayne cemented his early branding as cut from the hustler's cloth. The second single and one of the best songs from Tha Carter II,“Hustler Muzik,” further emphasizes the kind of artist Wayne had become before making the rockstar transition. Wayne released his own ode to the "Brown Paper Bag" on his Like Father, Like Son collaboration project with Birdman. Knowing the shadiness surrounding Cash Money, Birdman and Slim, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wayne really did see 50 grand in a brown paper bag.
Wayne’s birth father spilt from his mother when he was rather young, and he's rarely mentioned in his music. However, he is mentioned on “Cry Out,” when Wayne raps, “All I know of my real Pops is that he had money, no bank account, that brown paper bag money.” The son of a hustler—an interesting juxtaposition to the many brown paper bag references in his music. Wayne idolized Jay Z, a man who just like his father made his share of brown paper bag money before rap. Jay is the hustler personified as a man. There's no one hip-hop artist who defines the word like Hov. The underworld life he lived prior to rap success is well-documented. Jay doesn’t run from his past, songs like “Seen It All” and “Drug Dealers Anonymous” show corporate Hov isn’t worried about being haunted by the man he once was.
One of the best post-retirement Jay moments is the album American Gangster―a concept loosely based off the Frank Lucas movie with the same title. He may have spent years away from the block, but he could still passionately rhyme about the life of a hustler as if he never left. On "Roc Boys" he famously said, “Thanks to the duffle bag, the brown paper bag, the Nike shoe box for holding all this cash,” a way of paying homage. I’m sure Jay has several bank accounts for personal and business funds, but I’m also pretty sure there’s a brown paper bag or two hidden in his gigantic estate.
At the end of "Alone In Vegas," Pusha boasts about "$14,000 dollars worth in $20s / Brown paper bag money, I call that a good weekend." Coming from a man who calls himself Blowbama, that line was far from surprising. Bobby Capri and Troy Ave came together in 2013 to let the world know that green paper was in their "Brown Paper Bags" and they had a million ways to spend it. A$AP Ferg bragged in 2015 that he keeps about 20 grand in his BPB, while Chinx Drugz, the sadly slain Coke Boy member that was coming up under French Montana, didn’t give an amount, instead dedicating a whole song to the “Brown Paper Bag.”
The most recent “Brown Paper Bag” acknowledgment comes from Migos. Quavo warns all young hustlers out there to count their racks once the bag is received.
These are all recent examples, but you can go back to DJ Clue’s 1998 The Professional album to hear Raekwon spit,” Brown paper bag gat rap” on “Brown Paper Bag Thoughts.” This is by far the most grimy song with "brown paper bag" in the title, The Chef sounds as if he was on a spree of taking bags. Jay illustrated his wealth on “Imaginary Player” by citing how he has, “That brown paper bag under your mattress drug money.” Jay may be a humble bragger today, but back in '97, that wasn't the case.
Throughout hip-hop, the brown paper bag reappears as an emblem of riches, a treasure chest without a lock. The kind of money that can’t be stuffed into pockets or enclosed in a wallet, but so many dead presidents they must be stacked in the most mundane of bags. Rap and hip-hop will always love the hustler, for all his bad and for all his good. The hustler is to rap what Robin Hood was to medieval Europe, what Walter White is to Breaking Bad. As long as the hustler is glorified, there will always be a rapper to champion the brown paper bag.
Kids these days say "secure the bag"—the lingo may change, but the acquiring of large sums of money is still at the heart of rap's hustlers. Nothing is more important than the mula, but you can’t forget about what is needed to carry all that money.
Here's a toast to such an ordinary item being so deeply embedded in the culture.
By Yoh, aka Plastic Bag Yoh, aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Jeff Feltham