Jelly Roll, a 28-year-old white rapper from Antioch, Tennessee, has eaten at Waffle House more times than he can possibly remember. Hundreds of visits, but more likely thousands, to an inestimable percentage of America’s 1,600 Southern franchises. He orders the same meal every time, his particular variation of an All-Star Breakfast: scrambled eggs with cheese and wheat toast; hash browns that are double scattered, smothered, covered, and chunked (splattered with cheese, onions, and ham); a side of sausage; and a chocolate-chip waffle.
“I've been smothering, covering, and chunking shit for 28 years!” Jelly Roll, whose real name is Jason DeFord, told me recently over the phone. “Hell, I had to look at my birth certificate the other day to make sure I wasn't born in a Waffle House!”
Jelly Roll, who jokingly describes himself as "a regular fat piece of white trash," has been so devoted to Waffle House that the restaurant became a muse. Earlier this year, he released Whiskey, Weed & Waffle House, a 21-track free mixtape that also functioned as a hometown nod to the song “Whiskey, Weed, & Women,” a mewling country lament by fellow Tennessean Hank Williams III. He printed up roughly 10,000 copies for a street-team to give away.
WW&WH’s front cover depicted a glowing bottle of Crown Royal, a radiant pot leaf, and Waffle House’s distinct yellow-tiled logo. The back-cover design mimicked the chain’s menu. The title homage, a drawling ode to Jelly’s routine of weekend vices, featured a guest spot from a relative unknown named Grizz, whose involvement reflected the chain’s surprising potential for networking. “Oddly enough, we met that motherfucker at a Waffle House,” recalled Jelly. “This dude cooking with tattoos everywhere—smells like a fresh-lit cigarette mixed with some bad weed—he looks over and goes, ‘Y'all are Jelly Roll's people.’” Jelly Roll ended up signing Grizz to his upstart label, Crash Out Music, teasing, “Waffle House: Where Careers Are Started.”
Or stalled, as would be the case. Within a month of WW&WH’s release, Waffle House’s legal firm Kilpatrick, Townsend, and Stockton sent DeFord a cease and desist for infringing on the corporate trademark, thereby giving him 10 days to eradicate everything using the company’s name and logo. Soon after, he couldn't even access his Facebook and YouTube profiles—Waffle House’s reps concurrently filed trademark claims that shut him out of his accounts for more than a week.
Being a loyal customer, he was initially flattered by the attention. “I was calling everybody, like, ‘We're popular! Waffle House is trying to sue us!’” But then he visited his lawyer. “He was like”—here Jelly adopted a solemn tone—“This is very serious. Waffle House really sues people. I was like, ‘Fuck, you're kidding me!’” If only he’d thought of this approach first. “I'm 450 pounds—I should have sued Waffle House 10 years ago! Do you know how many All-Star Breakfasts I bought in my life? I might’ve stopped at 330!”
Jelly Roll is hardly the first rapper to reference Waffle House. Lil’ Wayne, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, Cam’Ron, Yelawolf, and Jean Grae are among the many lyricists who've acknowledged the always-open makeshift community center. Even lifelong New Yorker Jay-Z used the grub joint as a four-in-the-morning pit-stop before taking the girl from the club home in his 1999 single “Do It Again (Put Ya Hands Up).” The brand's creative influence extends beyond hip-hop: Chisel, the beloved college-rock band of DIY saint Ted Leo, named a 1995 song “Waffle House.”
Jelly Roll is also not the first songwriter to cast Waffle House in an unflattering, or even illegal, context. On iTunes alone, there’s “Sex in the Waffle House” from joke-funk group Mr. Tibbs and “Waffle House Murders” from Floridian stoner-metal band Junior Bruce. Country-rapper Colt Ford cast the restaurant as a cuckolded counseling center in “Waffle House,” a gruff wail in which the narrator finds out his wife's been unfaithful and begs a friend to meet him there with a gun before he kills somebody. Half-Asian Alabaman emcee Jackie Chain pretty much equates the place with the same scurrilous activities as Jelly Roll (trading “hoes,” “smoking bomb dank,” and sipping liquor) in his 2008 track “Waffle House Pimpin."
“There is at least some distinction between an artist referencing ‘Waffle House’ in a song, parody or other work, and someone who infringes on our trademarks without our consent,” clarified a Waffle House spokesperson over email. “Jelly Roll’s use of those trademarks was one of the more flagrant violations we have seen, and actions were taken to protect owner’s rights.”
This also isn't the first time Waffle House's legal representatives have enforced such a distinction. In 2011, the company issued a cease-and-desist to Atlanta emcee J.R. Bricks, for his song "Waffle House," demanding that he stop using their logo and change the track's title—after grousing the gesture was "cultural discrimination," he complied. Fearing similar repercussions, Austin-based hip-hop jokers Dem Waffle House Boyz proactively abridged their name to DWHB, a reasoning they confirmed via email. “Despite our name being spelled differently, it is very clearly a reference to the restaurant (which we love), and a majority of our lyrics could be described as profane, so we figured the chain would probably not want to be associated with us (sadly, haha) and that it'd be best to change it before any unfortunate legal action was taken.”
Jelly Roll, for his part, had never considered such a possibility. “I didn’t even think I was a blip on their radar,” he explained on a recent weeknight, on his cell in a waiting area of the Nashville Criminal Justice Center. He’d gone to visit a friend facing a charge for conspiracy to distribute 2,500 pounds of marijuana—his friend’s second federal offense, one that would likely keep him imprisoned for the next decade or two. Many of Jelly’s friends are incarcerated, a consequence of his having spent almost exactly half his life in the penal system.
“Here goes another sad rapper story,” DeFord groaned. His father left his mother when he was a teenager; he first went to juvenile hall for an armed robbery case at 14. “My mother didn’t have shit, nobody had shit at all. People around me who did have shit got it from drugs.” So he sold drugs to have shit while experimenting with rap, which he’d loved since he nearly wore out the cassingle of Wreckz-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.” In his rhymes, he emphasized the banalities of slinging dope—always driving around the block, always waiting in the car, etc.—for a handful of inconsequential mixtapes. “I rolled around and sold eightballs of cocaine and crack all day and rapped about it. I should have just called it The Stories of the Unsuccessful Drug Dealer.”
The Stories of the Unsuccessful Drug Dealer, had Jelly Roll released it, could have featured rhymes about serving time for marijuana and cocaine possession after dropping out of school, earning his GED at 24, or fathering a daughter, Bailee, now five, with a bartender who came out as a lesbian while still pregnant. It might also talk about the pitfalls of growing up poor in South Nashville, like how everybody in his Antioch neighborhood always wants to borrow money for cigarettes or gas. It might also describe the professional opportunities now available to a heavily tattooed, 400-pound-plus paroled felon with a little girl to support financially, employment options mostly limited to lucrative recidivism (Jelly’s merch line includes a shirt that reads, IF MY P.O. ASKS, I HANG DRYWALL) or low-paying manual labor. “If I go to work in a factory, Bailee ends up in a trailer. You know what I’m saying? This story gets bad quick.”
For now, Jelly Roll has been playing the rap-career longshot, which is why he's so disappointed by the Waffle House setback. He's funneled everything he has into the uncertain prospect of rapping, and because of the cease-and-desist, he's had to scrap a video he paid to shoot and edit at a Nashville Waffle House, rename the digital version of the mixtape Whiskey Weed & Women, and re-make the cover art. Though he'll release a full-length in July with friend and frequent collaborator Lil' Wyte, Jelly Roll's summer tour plans have been screwed by the financial uncertainty, he had to stop circulating what was left of the 10,000 copies he’d had printed up as free promotion, and every time his lawyer communicates with the chain, the transaction costs him $500. He estimates that he lost more than $10,000 in investments. And even though he's done everything they've asked, Waffle House still isn't backing down—someone at the company found a copy of his CD at one of their locations and continue to demand some form of compensation for the trademark dilution.
Jelly Roll now knows he messed up by using their logo. "That was unprofessional," he admitted. But he's particularly annoyed because, after all, this is Waffle House! The place is so sketchy Kid Rock got into a brawl there! A business whose employees make headlines for faking robberies, where people get stabbed or live on the roof, and even the CEO has been accused of sexual harassment! "Have you all ever went into a Waffle House after 8pm? It looks like an old pregnant woman strip club that sells hash browns! Dude, ya hire cooks without teeth! And then, like, me putting a little pot leaf beside their logo—that's the worst you've ever looked? If we piss-tested everybody who went to Waffle House on drugs and wouldn't let them inside, they'd be out of business!”
Perhaps most frustrating of all, Jelly Roll hasn't been able to stay away from the damn place. “I swore I wouldn't tell too many people—I promise you're the only reporter I’ll tell—I just ate at a Waffle House! Even after I vowed I'd never eat at one again, I found myself hungry at an odd hour, under the intoxication of a little whiskey and a little weed, and I wound up in a Waffle House.” He was nervous the whole time. “I'm kind of in there, like, 'Am I allowed in here? Y'all have a picture of me somewhere—like a Waffle House bulletin that says I'm banned?”
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