Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?"
This week he hears from Marcus Gray, CEO and Cultural Engineer of The Original Hip-Hop Chocolates:
"I grew up in Englewood, Colorado -- that's in the suburbs of Denver.
Before that we spent a lot of time in the Five Points area of downtown Denver, struggling, living in I guess what you would call the projects.
My mother was a single mother. I have a sister who is two years younger than me. My mother was actually in a biker gang in Colorado. She was the only woman in this black biker gang.
That was a normal life for us, roaming around on motorcycles, hanging out in bars. When you're growing up that way, you think that's all that life is. I wouldn't trade it for the world, though. That's what inspired me to search and to study philosophy. I knew there had to be something more. My father returning to my life was a big influence on my world view. He was an artist at heart, photographer and musician, and introduced me to esoteric ideas like big foot and UFOs.
That's what led me to art school, because I wanted to write about my evolving understanding of the nature of reality and possibly direct films. I got my associates degree from the Art Institute of Colorado and I wrote a couple of short movies.
I thought I'd try my hand living in New York. But I fell in love with a girl, which diverted my attention and took me to Boston. I lived in Boston for four years. Not that the relationship didn't work, but it definitely forced me to evolve as we grew apart.
I grew up a lot in Boston. I was able to dive deep into the study of religion. Attending ever cult meeting in Boston. Learning about diverse perspectives and interpretations of religious ideas. There was a time when I really wanted to be a priest. But after a series of epiphanies I grew tired of the painfully cold winters and the conservative spirit of Boston. I became really inspired to follow my dream of becoming a writer, recording my observations. So I came to L.A.
I drove across country. It took me six days from Boston. I definitely didn't take the shortest route. It was an amazing trip. I passed through South Dakota. Visited my family in Colorado. Went to Chicago and to Michigan, down to Arizona to visit a high school friend, then to L.A.
If I remember correctly, the car I drove was a white, musty, broke-down Chrysler LeBaron. It was old and rusted out from the east coast humidity. I bought it for $500 from my roommate. It actually ended up being one of the best-running cars I ever had. It just had to get me here and it did.
As soon as I got here, I parked it for a day. Neglecting to check street signs. I got a parking ticket and next thing I know it's getting towed away. That was part of my introduction to this city: You can't just park wherever you want in L.A.
When I got here, I had a couch waiting for me.
My friend who put me up is doing pretty well now as a cartoon writer, but back then he was struggling like everyone else.
We used to go to the local grocery store on Western and steal lunchmeat and bread so we'd have something to eat. We would walk around making sandwiches in the store. Then we'd go back and work on his films. These were amazing shorts back when digital was newly available.
It took me about three years to get acclimated to L.A. I like to say that, in reflection, it was really spiritually sanitized. I took me years to find my clarity in LA.
In Boston, I wrote a paper called "The Physics of Hip-hop." The paper was all about comparing the culture of hip-hop to other belief systems. I compared it to rave culture, sports culture, and also to Hinduism, Christianity, Gnosticism and different mystical traditions.
It was obvious that even people participating in the culture didn't really see its potential. And I wasn't sure I saw it either but was determined to uncover hip hop's true wisdom. I left Boston and left that path behind of becoming a holy man of sorts.
But once I got involved in the underground community here in L.A., I found myself jumping onstage doing poetry with Mike The Poet, who I met at the Poetry Lounge. I met him and Phil Harmonic and the whole Poets of the Round Table. We became fast friends. They inspired me during late night freestyle sessions on the curb outside of the many events they held.
I started writing political poetry that I never had any interest in before. I entered the underground nightlife. Sketchbook, which was a night that DJs like Kutmah started, was a huge influence on my artistic development. It was a night of instrumental hip-hop, and free hand drawing. But i usually just danced all night. Something I'd never been introduced to before. The fact that there were club nights that were so personal and free inspired me to dive deeper and contribute.
That underground culture has been a really big influence on me. It allowed this climate of knowing that hip-hop was more than just a culture filled with products that could be turned into money, it was more than music and dancing and more like a spiritual movement.
All the amazing artists in L.A. -- like my roommate Andrew Lojero from Art Don't Sleep -- really inspired me to consider iterations of that spiritual movement as a living idea. I made a determination to turn the physics of hip-hop into a workbook and or a website that introduces this idea of hip-hop being a belief system. I think a lot of philosophers like KRS-One, also professor Cornell West, have approached this in books. But I want to take it a little bit further.
I want to show how there are links between calligraphy and graffiti and how a letter can be so personal that it becomes hardly even legible to someone outside of the artists experience of that letter. And I draw parallels between breakdancing and the Sufi whirling dervish. When they spin they expel their ego in a lot of ways and bring in the ecstasy of the source Creation. I just see so many parallels between hip-hop and ancient belief systems.
The underground just kept inspiring me and I wanted to make a contribution. I wasn't interested in becoming a rapper. The idea of making chocolate kind of popped up.
It actually came about because after September 11 -- that was a solemn week and I was just trying to understand what had just happened.
Seeing people's responses -- and their own ignorance in pointing fingers -- I started to see symbols of terrorism pop-up in my own mind.
I heard that the "terrorists" used box cutters to hijack the planes; this always seemed really incredible and absurd to me. But it also became a symbol of terrorism, a symbol of that moment, of September 11.
Part of my dealing with that was to create a chocolate box cutter. I wanted to make a symbol of terrorism but make it edible, so it wouldn't be that terrorizing. And that was the first chocolate I ever made. I made a mold of a box cutter and then made the chocolate.
I showed it to a lot of friends in the community and they loved it. I took it to a friend John, who owned the Anti Market in Echo Park. He sold it to a comedian who used it in a play where he pretended to be a terrorist and he pretended to hijack a plane. And in the middle of the plane he eats the box cutter.
This comedian used it exactly in the same kind of context that I imagined it being used. Kind of in a comedic way, taking that symbol of terrorism but, just because he was hungry, he ate it, kind of neutralizing his whole hijack scenario.
That was all the beginning of what is now The Original Hip-Hop Chocolates. The real core of the concept was to take familiar symbols that are associated with the culture, like the turntables and the ghetto blaster, and reintroduce those symbols to the culture in a more mature and intimate fashion.
This way, people could actually hold a symbol of their affinity in their hands -- their love of being a deejay or collecting records or dancing -- and consume it as if were like Catholic communion.
I always joke about providing the opportunity to deliver a deliberate spiritual experience. Any time when you take a symbol or something that you have a connection with and you are able to ingest it, to put it into your body, it's an opportunity for warmth, connection and gratitude.
And that's the main, underlying principle of Hip-Hop Chocolates. That's not something I share with a lot of people. I don't want to be obscure or obtuse. I think people find what they are looking for. And I'm finding more and more that people are connecting with that idea.
This a reflection of the whole hip-hop culture maturing and evolving. I want to be part of the Fair Trade industry and paradigm that's way overdue and is emerging now due to a new self educated consumer.
So I only use Fair Trade chocolate. And in my lollipops, I don't use any artificial flavoring or artificial colors. No corn syrup. No refined or bone char sugar. I keep it as organic as possible. That's hip-hop culture to me. Not the hip-hop that's presented in the commercial world. But to me it's a spiritual idea and that idea is based on power, grace, sincerity and a purity that I would like to nurture in the culture.
I really want to continue in that light. I want to make holistic candy. That's my goal, to introduce organic, holistic candy that can actually be healing. Our candy lollipops, we use turmeric and cardamom. I joke that they are good for B-boys because they can reduce inflammation, but it actually does reduce inflammation! I also make energy lollipops for brain function. And of course, I also make aphrodisiacs.
This is my new path, my contribution to the hip-hop and candy culture. In my heart I'm an artist. That's what artists do, they engineer culture. As a contributor to hip-hop I think we can take more responsibility and control over what ideas are guiding our perception, as well as the potential of the culture. Chocolate is my way of doing that."
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Hip-Hop Chocolates and #ARTDONTSLEEP Events will be accompanying Adrian Younges Venice Dawn on the 12 Reasons to Die tour across the country this spring. The L.A. show takes place tonight, Thursday March 28, at the Mayan Theater.
Top Photo: Marcus Gray, self-portrait. Photo courtesy Marcus Gray
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.