"I need Kendrick to give me a call": How "The Office" star got involved in rap's greatest beef

Brian Baumgartner talks backyard barbecues, "The Office" longevity & being at the center of the Drake-Kendrick feud

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published May 30, 2024 2:30PM (EDT)

Brian Baumgartner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Brian Baumgartner (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Who would think that fun-loving actor Brian Baumgartner, known for playing Kevin for nine seasons on the legendary, Emmy Award-winning series, "The Office" would be caught up in the feud between Drake and Kendrick Lamar — which turned out to be the biggest rap beef in modern hip-hop history? Well, I wouldn't, but it is, in fact, true.

When Drake and J. Cole dropped the hit song and video, “First Person Shooter,” a few months back the first thing I noticed was Baumgartner because he's in the first frame of the video, playing a resurrected Kevin-type role. He is sitting at a desk and playing video games as his entire staff runs amok. The song's connection to "The Office" is a double entendre of sorts with J. Cole's opening bar going: “First-person shooter mode, we turnin' your song to a funeral/ To them ni**** that say they wan' off us, you better be talkin' 'bout workin' in cubicles.” 

Kendrick heard this song, saw this video, took some of the lyrics spat by J. Cole and Drake personally, and a war was ignited. When I talked to Baumgartner for "Salon Talks," I couldn't help but ask him if he anticipated playing a role in this battle. He said, “I need Kendrick to give me a call. We’ll do a sit-down, I'll take care of everything.” 

“Yeah, I did not know, obviously, at that time, what it was going to start,” Baumgartner continued. “I went back and looked at that video recently, and I saw it hopped millions and millions again. I was like, ‘Why is everybody . . .? Oh, that's why everybody's going back to it and looking at it again.’"

TV fans around the globe know Baumgartner for playing Kevin, one of the funniest, original, and memorable characters in sitcom history, but they may not know that the Georgia native is also a grillmaster. “Barbecue and grilling outside, that's something that I started when I was a kid," he said. "When I'm home, I'm at the grill, four or five nights a week, cooking something."

Baumgartner’s career in producing cookbooks began after Kevin had an incident with a huge pot of chili on an episode of "The Office." First, there was his "Seriously Good Chili Cookbook," and now there's a follow-up, "Seriously Good Barbecue Cookbook," available June 11. Baumgartner and I talked about his journey into barbecue, his favorite cuts and why he simply loves being behind the grill.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about BBQ, "The Office" and of course, the Drake and Kendrick feud.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

For fans of “The Office” that have not been following your passion for cooking, can you bring us into that side of you and why you started putting cookbooks out?

Well, there was let's just call it an incident that happened during "The Office," where there might have been some chili that got spilled.

Kevin's famous chili.

Yeah, that's right. That was the first cookbook I put that together. I met a lot of people in the chili world. But this book is much more personal for me. Barbecue, I'm from the South, I'm from Georgia originally, I’ve been doing it, been around it my whole life. It's something I really am passionate about. I'm on the road a lot, but when I'm home, I'm at the grill, four or five nights a week, cooking something. Barbecue and grilling outside, that's something that I started when I was a kid.

As you explain in the book, barbecuing and grilling are not the same thing.

That's right. Technically barbecue means slow-cooked — smoking it, putting it on indirect heat. Whereas grilling is fire, hot—cooking steaks or whatever — over a direct heat. That's the difference. For me, the word barbecue really is about that communal outdoor thing, cooking together with family and friends, getting tips from different family members or friends, or chefs —that’s what I tried to do with this book. [There are] recipes that people can try and get outside their comfort zone a little bit, but I wanted to do it in a way where everybody should feel comfortable.

In terms of getting together, I never heard it called a barbecue until I started having some white friends. We always call it a cookout where I'm from.

I think we can have an alternative book [title], which is just Seriously Good Cookout Cookbook.

All barbecue is not created equally. You traveled to different regions for this book. You even locked in with Rodney Scott in South Carolina. What are some of your favorite barbecue styles?

When I was growing up in Georgia, there's nothing necessarily distinctly Georgia. I feel like we're an amalgamation of some Memphis and Texas, Kansas City and Carolinas right next door. But I feel like when I was a kid, it was about the sauce. It was like OK, let's put a really good sauce on. With chain restaurants now, it's about the sauce.

If you get really good meat, whatever the cut is, whatever you're making, it makes such a difference in the flavor. I talk a lot about using rubs, as opposed to sauce. And for people to not just drown the meat and the stuff that you're cooking in a sauce, but really, buy something high quality and cook it well, and it'll be delicious.

Do you have a favorite type of meat to cook?

Not really. I do a lot of tri-tip, actually. I like that it’s a communal thing. There's a shop really near my home that I can get amazing tri-tip. I can cook it, we can all be there together, then I can slice it up and everybody can have a little bit. It's sort of the anti-steak. When you have a steak, you eat that steak yourself. This is much more about let's make a bunch of sides.

Ribs come into the same category. Ribs take a lot longer to cook. You're looking at five, six hours — that’s a commitment. But if you're having a cookout, like you said, everybody's over. You're chatting, you're talking, maybe having a beverage or two while it's cooking. It becomes a whole day thing.

Then you celebrate it: "The ribs are ready!"

Absolutely. Everybody picks up one or two and has some, then you could have some more later. That's how I grew up.

You mentioned the slow process of it all. Have you learned about yourself while you are barbecuing?

When I am cooking, my mind is just focused on that. I might have a game on in the background, might be watching something on my phone, but work goes away, complications of life go away and I'm just focusing on this task. For me, it's almost, I don't know, it sounds weird, but meditative in a way. Everything else clears and goes away, and I'm just trying to make some good food as best I can.

Let's get into some “Office” business. I'm sure people probably tackle you in the airport and all that. But I feel like the show was special because so many Americans could just relate to going to work and showing up every day.


Now everyone works from home. Do you think the show is a relic of another time? Or could it exist today?

Wow. I think that's a really good question. I'll answer that in two ways. One is, is that there are still large groups of people that assemble together and in some ways, it's become the fans of the show that we never anticipated. I'll explain what I mean. When we were doing the show, it was like 200 million people work in an office. If we could just get a fraction of those people who can relate to the characters and the work environment, then we'll have a show. 

"There's almost some nostalgia there of being together."

But we didn't anticipate, which I now know is true, is that the school environment is very similar to “The Office.” We have an unreasonable boss that makes his employees do unreasonable things. We're stuck together next to people we don't choose to be next to year after year. It's just like school. You have an unreasonable teacher who's making you do dumb things while you're sitting next to people that you don't choose to sit next to. So, junior high, high school and college kids relate to the show. I think that's the audience that has made the show continue to feed on itself and still be talked about today.

I think you bring up a really good point about people now being so isolated. But see, I think that's another reason that people still talk about the show, still watch the show. There's almost some nostalgia there of being together. And ultimately, people may say mean things every once in a while, specifically Michael Scott or whatever, but ultimately the message is love and celebrating ordinary people who are doing ordinary things. I still think that resonates, even if people aren't necessarily in an office every day.

And the ability to poke fun at a person who's not self-aware.

Right, yes.

The last episode aired in 2013. Can you speak to the impact streaming had on the show?

We rode this wave of technology. You bring up streaming and it got there. It's one of the reasons the show stayed on the air because it wasn't initially getting a ton of audience. Remember the iPod?

I remember the iPod.

And the video iPod? They put us on there.

Suddenly, they looked at the numbers and they were like, "Wait, more people are watching 'The Office' than any other show. Who's watching this?" Again, this was the younger people at the time. So we hit that. Then we hit the streaming and people could watch it.

"It's the greatest gift the show gave me is the connection that I'm able to have with people and them coming up and talking about Kevin."

What someone said later is, "It was a show that was built for streaming not on purpose." Because there's a lot of sections of that show where there's three, four episodes of a story. Idris Elba comes in and does the boss, and he's there for three or four episodes, then he goes away. People can consume it. You think it's 20, 30 minutes, "I'm going to watch this tonight, I'm going to watch three or four episodes." You watch this little story that's self-contained.

Then the next day, you can pick up with something else. It's built for that. "I'll just watch one more, I'll just watch one more, I'll just watch one more. OK, I'll come back the next day." Then there's another story that pulls it forward. So I think it was built for streaming. And then obviously, I don't know if you heard, there was a pandemic that happened here.

I was around.

People being stuck at home and streaming. People were talking about it. That's obviously is a huge reason we're still talking about it.

When people talk about the best television shows of all time, you know you’re a part of that conversation. I was wondering, what is your top three?

Wow, that's a great question. I'll exclude "The Office." Well, that has to be one.

You could be biased.

I could be biased, so I'll take myself out of that. I'm a big "Sopranos" guy. I'm watching "The Sopranos" right now, again. “The Wire,” I think that's an incredible show. “Breaking Bad,” an incredible show.

These are great shows, but they're different from “The Office.”

Very different from "The Office." But see, I think "The Office" does something . . . I feel like it is unique in a way, because I think it does, at times, tackle serious issues in a different way than most traditional half-hour comedies do. That's one thing I'm real proud about.

Some people assume that you just rode into Hollywood one day and the role of Kevin was just waiting for you. But you paid your dues in theater. Are there early gigs that you're really proud of?

I was a theater actor. I thought that was the only thing I was ever going to do. I loved it, I love live performance. But it's a lot. Eight shows a week, I was traveling city to city. Very difficult on family, on relationships. That was what I thought I was going to do. I would say that probably my proudest moments prior to “The Office” were performances that maybe a couple thousand people saw.

That's a good number.

I'm talking about a couple thousand over three months or something.

OK, OK. What gave you the courage to move to LA?

I was working regionally and I met someone in New York, someone I admired very much who I happened to hear backstage, talking about her calendar. Talking about theater, she said, "I could do this show, but it doesn't start for seven weeks. I could do this one, but I'd really rather do that one, but I got to pay rent." I was like, "Oh my God, she is . . ." This is someone who was performing on Broadway. I was like, "Oh, she's still doing that, and that's what I'm doing right now." I decided to go out there and give it a try. Yeah, my whole life changed.

It's funny, a lot of times, when you look at shows from 10 years ago, 20 years ago, whatever, like when I was a kid “Diff'rent Strokes” was the s**t. Then when I'm older, they're like, "Yo, Mr. Drummond is just riding around in a limo and picking up Black kids off the basketball court. What's happening?" Kevin from “The Office” stood the test of time. 


Why do you think he's so memorable?

Well, I can tell you from my personal experience, for whatever reason, he hit a nerve in people, and people want to hang out with him and have a drink with him. Because they come up to me, when I'm out, and they want to have a drink with me and talk to me.

You haven't paid for a drink in a long time?

I have, but probably by choice. I think he was lovable. I think he was just a normal, everyday guy and embraced that. I think that people who saw that and had a connection to that, they have a connection to me. Look, it's the greatest gift the show gave me is the connection that I'm able to have with people and them coming up and talking about Kevin, talking about the show, how the show gives them comfort and makes them feel better. It's a gift for me.

Your mark on culture is legendary. Today, You are at the center of the Drake and Kendrick Lamar beef.

OK, all right.

You starred in a “First Person Shooter” video. You're the first person we see in that video. That's when the “Big Three” line came out. My question for you is: You were part of fracturing hip-hop. What are you going to do to repair it?

I need Kendrick to give me a call. We’ll do a sit-down, I'll take care of everything.

Yeah, I did not know, obviously, at that time, what it was going to start. I went back and looked at that video recently, and I saw it hopped millions and millions again. I was like, "Why is everybody . . . ? Oh, that's why everybody's going back to it and looking at it again." I don't know, it's a crazy thing.

Only you can fix it.

I'll help in any way I can. If they want me there . . . I don't think they do, but if they do, yeah I'll fix it. I apologize to everybody for that. It was not known to me.

Acting-wise and beyond rap videos, what's the dream gig for you?

Dream gig for me? I think honestly, I would love to do some dark drama. I'd love to do some dark drama. I more came from the dramatic side when I was doing theater. I wasn't a comedy guy. Now people just assume I did stand-up growing up and improv, and stuff. That really wasn't me. For me, it was about creating characters, and whatever the tone was, was whatever the tone was.

You want to make some people cry.

Yeah, I want to rip people's hearts out. that’s what I want to do. Yeah.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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