Rappers have sipped on gin and juice, St. Ides, Courvoisier, Alizé, Hpnotiq, Cristal, and, of course, sizzurp, but have seemingly never had much time for wine. Recent attempts to incorporate it into song have ranged from bumbling (Fabolous notes that his lady has “enough class for wine/still handle Patrón”) to pshaw-worthy, such as that time Kanye was “beasting off the Riesling.”
Vino has long been thought the domain of uptight white folks, but a couple of years back, Sadat X learned that it does the trick for him, too. In the midst of a marathon recording session, he and his producer Will Tell ran out of their preferred elixir, Hennessey, and broke into a blended Chilean red called Gato Negro that Tell had lying around. “Sometimes with Hennessey, I start fast and flame out, but the wine was able to kind of mellow me out,” notes Sadat. Tell had just procured a new Flip video camera, and he asked his collaborator to evaluate his drink for the folks at home. Twisting off the cap, Sadat took a gulp straight from the bottle and announced it “super-genius.”
Thus was born True Wine Connoisseurs, easily the most entertaining wine-themed rap programming on YouTube. Featuring the New Rochelle–bred Brand Nubian rapper discoursing on reds, whites, and life—in an oft-inebriated, always-manic state—the show films on locations ranging from wineries around the East Coast to Tell’s pitbull-inhabited Brooklyn basement. This particular evening, at Ilili, a Flatiron Lebanese restaurant, the guys are joined by production group Da Beatminerz, all of them holding court in a swanky private lounge stuffed with purple pillows, couches, and plush drapes. “I feel like a sheik right now!” Sadat announces, and that’s before they even bring out the baba ghanoush, steak tartare, bone marrow, and beef balls skewered by tubes of yogurt sauce, which you squeeze into your mouth after the meat goes down. Sadat, once under fire for homophobic lyrics, reiterates how secure he is in his masculinity.
As always, the wine comes courtesy of local liquor distributor Winebow. On pour today, appropriately, is an inexpensive blended Lebanese red called Massaya (which means “twilight”). “It tastes really woody,” says Sadat’s girlfriend, Kim, sitting in the back. “I like it.” Before long, the panelists break into a hip-hop trivia game. The rules: Drink if you get the answer wrong, and drink if you get the answer right.
If you can’t tell, grape complexities aren’t True Wine Connoisseurs‘ main focus. Sadat is the first to admit he’s no expert, and in fact he and Tell call bullshit on hardcore oenophilia. Tell recalls an encounter with a man at a tasting who claimed he detected blueberry, but later admitted that the wine had simply reminded him of an experience picking blueberries as a kid.
“Watermelon Jolly Ranchers,” Sadat once swore he tasted hints of.
Instead, the guys focus on their wines’ “fucked-up factor,” and the ratings are often high, fueling the hosts’ charisma. In fact, Sadat’s jokes and goofs more than make up for his lack of technical expertise. Having moved to Brooklyn a few years back, he speaks of one day fashioning a “Bed-Stuy/Cobble Hill blend of grape,” and of the vine-picking solidarity he forged at a winery in Pennsylvania. “We were out there with some Mexican brothers. I had to check on their welfare and their status ’cause we all down together, you know what I’m saying?”
A Five Percenter now in his early 40s who was born Derek Murphy and chose his rap name from assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Sadat X has been an NYC underground rap hero for two decades now. He’s best known for his tuneful polemics with Brand Nubian, with whom he says a new album is on the way. (Then again, he’s been saying that for years.) His distinctive, high-pitched flow can also be heard on numerous solo works and countless guest spots, everything from America Is Dying Slowly to Big L’s posthumous The Big Picture. The gold album for the latter was hanging in his tiny, Redman Cribs–like Washington Heights apartment the last time I had checked in with him, in 2007, shortly after he was released from a year on Rikers Island on a gun charge. It was an unsettling stint, but he did come out of it with a new skill: how to make hooch in a toilet.
“Starting in October, every time we went to chow we would stash our apples,” he recalls. His dorm-mates procured an industrial-size plastic bag, and they mixed their bounty with sugar and water and stashed the receptacle in the dorm’s coldest place—a toilet stall, decommissioned for the purpose. It fermented for months before they brought it out for a Yuletide celebration. “That was basically the only thing we had to look forward to that Christmas, and it was the greatest thing in the world,” says Sadat. “The hangover the next day felt like a brain hemorrhage, but we did make wine—though I don’t know if it was red or white wine.”
The experience was part of the inspiration for True Wine Connoisseurs, which has filmed dozens of episodes since debuting in 2009. The budget is minimal, and the guys don’t expect to make money off it. Indeed, it hasn’t yet caught fire on the Internet and now has to deal with some competition, in the form of Beastie Boy Mike D’s new, much-more-staid wine blog on critic James Suckling’s site. (Sample assessment: “The camphor and wet marble floor of a Hindu temple seamlessly blended with stone fruits wrapped up with still-tight acidity.”)
Nonetheless, Tell says their program has been influential on hip-hop club owners, who have begun including wine in their open bars. “The crowd doesn’t get so rowdy,” he notes. As for Sadat, he insists wine culture has taught him much about both grapes and folks. “I thought it was a real stuffy thing, but I’ve seen business dudes at the end of it all with their ties [undone] and their collars opened up, wine spilled on their shirts. Before you know it, we’re the greatest of buddies.”