A soul-searching Los Angeleno finds religion in the rhythm of hip-hop and seeks to spread the faith, one sweet boom-box-shaped bite at a time.
Listening to Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” Marcus Gray unloads hardened chunks of semi-sweet Belgian dark chocolates into a three-gallon double boiler pot, mixing carefully until they dissolve. After twenty minutes at 300 degrees, the chocolate melts into a silky brown liquid. Still mixing, Gray adds almonds, sea salts, and bits of ginger or turmeric.
Then the magic happens.
He pours the velvety concoction into plastic BPA-free molds that he made himself, and lets each creation cool. By now he’s listening to the lectures of the Eastern philosopher Alan Watts. Fifteen minutes later, and bam: His kitchen in Mount Washington, a quiet neighborhood in the hills of northeast Los Angeles, is transformed into a virtual candy store of chocolate ghetto blasters, microphones, hard-shelled sneakers, DJ mixing boards and cassettes. He makes hip-hop morsels in raw cane sugar lollipops too, with flavors like apple, orange and fruit punch.
Five years ago, Gray started The Original Hip Hop Chocolates in his former home in L.A.’s Echo Park, hawking his handmade treats on hip-hop nights at Los Angeles clubs like The Mayan and The Virgil, and at shows featuring Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, Killah Priest and Adrian Younge, and Venice Dawn.
For the thirty-eight-year-old, selling chocolate turntables is not all about making money. He wants people who consume his sweet creations to see it as a kind of “religious experience,” comparing it to the act of communion when Catholics consume a wafer symbolizing the Body of Christ.
Just as Catholics gather to witness a wafer transform into the flesh of Christ, Gray sees his chocolate creations as the embodiment of hip-hop spirituality with the power to bring together lovers of the culture.
He believes hip-hop — its turntableism, b-boyin, graffiti, lyricism and beatboxing — is a belief system, a faith, that has been reflected in the culture’s films, photos, clothing and language. It makes sense to Gray that it should be reflected in chocolate too.
“What I am doing here is creating a sacred food for hip-hop,” he says. “My intention is to create something that people can put in their bodies, and at the same time reflect on what hip-hop means to them and their lives.”
* * *
Gray didn’t grow up craving chocolates, or sweets. But his hunger for hip-hop culture and music blossomed from his unconventional childhood. He grew up in Denver with his mother, Denise, who sported a big red Angela Davis-esque Afro and hung around with The Sons of Darkness, Denver’s oldest black biker club. Gray’s uncle, Alvin Maxie, co-founded the biker club in the summer of 1971, at the height of law enforcement surveillance of black organizations across the country. According to an article from the Denver Westwood News, the Sons of Darkness got kicked out of just about every bar in Denver. The bikers were viewed as “black rednecks.”
Gray, who was about five or six at the time, says he remembers being a part of those wild nights. “For the first six to eight years of my life, I grew up on the back of a motorcycle,” Gray says. He remembers falling asleep at bars or in the gang’s clubhouse in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. Sleep sometimes meant resting his head on the floor of a bar or underneath pool tables, while a steady stream of girls, booze and drugs circulated around him.
“I really thought that was how everyone grew up,” he says.
“Everything was always loud in my childhood, but I always remained a quiet listener.”
Gray remembers the music that always blared from the bar or clubhouse radio — rock ‘n’ roll mixed with soul, funk and disco. He took it all in. “It was really a time when black people were defining themselves,” Gray says. “Back then, black culture was more associated with black revolutionaries, and the Sons of Darkness was their own pocket of culture.”
One night, Denise Gray rode on the back of a bike and noticed a car approaching with its lights off. She pointed it out just in time for them to swerve out of the way, but they still crashed. She never got on a bike again.
She reunited with Gray’s father when their son was eight and the family moved to the small suburb of Englewood, Colo. Denise took on work as a medical transcriptionist while Gray’s father, John, took a job with the U.S. Postal Service. Gray and his younger sister Shaunise were among the few black kids in the neighborhood. He hung out with the punk kids, jocks and stoners, and listened to metal in elementary school. It wasn’t until middle school that Gray was introduced to hip-hop.
Listening to the lyrics and low beats of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” mesmerized the thirteen-year-old Gray. “It totally changed my life,” Gray says. “I remember it was just a cool, soulful feeling and something I could relate to. I adapted to it quickly.”
Embracing the hip-hop scene meant dressing the part — Adidas shoes and track suits made popular by Run-DMC and LL Cool J were “part of the getup.” He grew passionate about breakdance battles and rhyming, even though he admits he wasn’t too skilled at either.
In high school, Gray also became fascinated with religion and mysticism, which continued when he attended the Art Institute of Colorado, studying art and video production. Although he grew up Christian, Gray became more curious about theology, studying cults and mystics. He dated a girl who was living with Korean monks. They invited him to live with them as well. So, at nineteen years old, Gray packed his bags and left Englewood to live with the monks in Somerville, Mass.
It was during this time that he began to see the parallels between hip-hop and religion. “Hip-hop is a movement that was born out of rebellion and a voice of the poor,” Gray says. “I really started to meditate and saw the culture of hip-hop as a means to edify and raise consciousness in humanity.”
In studying various religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, Gnosticism, cults, and even Scientology — Gray says he saw parallels between these religions and the spirit of hip-hop, and Gray began to see hip-hop as a spiritual vessel. He thought MCs who spit rhymes during a battle were charged with an unseen force or power, just as the instances when people begin speaking in tongues, overcome by the Holy Ghost.
To him, breakdancers who harnessed their energy to pop ‘n’ lock and perform head spins and other stunts were reminiscent of the Mevlevi Order, or Whirling Dervishes, who spin in circles as of form of remembrance to God.
“It becomes a meditation, and you are hardly in control of what you are doing when you are in that moment,” Gray says. “That is hip-hop. I don’t know any other religion that is more spiritual than hip-hop. And from that, I wanted to make something that would symbolize that power.”
Gray moved to Los Angeles in 2000, where he worked as an assistant and prop designer on film sets. After the September 11 attacks, Gray was disturbed when he learned terrorists used box cutters to hijack the planes. He decided to take that symbol of violence and turn it into something edible—something he could swallow to take away its threatening properties. Gray had some experience from his work life making molds and created one for a box cutter. He then went online and researched how to melt and make chocolates from the mold.
Gray’s “chocol8 box cutter” was featured at a local art show. It was an edible symbol of terrorism; a deadly weapon redefined. His idea for The Original Hip Hop Chocolates stemmed from this first creation. Fusing his ideas of symbolism and religious ritual, Gray wanted to create something that “hip-hop heads” could consume, while evoking the root and spirituality of the culture.
Gray knows some might call his chocolate communion blasphemy, but he isn’t worried.
“I wanted to make something that people could put in their bodies that would cause them to reflect on how they are serving the culture, and how hip-hop is influencing their lives,” he says. “It’s not just eating a Hershey bar. Yes, you get that sugar rush, but you also get a feeling of satisfaction that you are engaging in the culture and consuming a symbol that represents who you are as a follower of hip-hop. When you are a DJ eating a chocolate turntable, you are involved in that moment and participating in celebrating the culture.”
Gray, who had no experience as a chocolatier or chef, used his knowledge in prop design to create the molds after his day-job on the set ended. His friends ribbed him, sometimes calling him “Nigga Wonka.”
Gray has a license to produce and sell The Original Hip Hop Chocolates and is in the process of forging relationships with manufacturers and distributors. For now, he depends on word of mouth or gigs at clubs and concerts to showcase his sweets. From time to time, Gray and his girlfriend, DJ Shiva, host “candy parties” at L.A.’s Virgil Bar. Gray is also working on a deal with members of the Zulu Nation, a group headed by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, and chocolate company Yes CaCao to distribute organic chocolate bars. He plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to get his own chocolate and lollipop turntables, cassettes, sneakers, and ghetto blasters into stores all over the world. Gray says he wants to use free-trade chocolate and looks for ways to find organic or healthier ingredients for his own brand.
* * *
Wandering around the Sweet! boutique in the famed Hollywood & Highland complex in Los Angeles on a recent Saturday afternoon, Gray smiles with excitement, as if it was his first time in the specialty shop, which has been dubbed “The Greatest Candy Store on Earth.”
The smell of cocoa and cotton candy wafts through the air as Gray goes straight to one of the dozens of display areas that feature what he calls the “Big Families” of the chocolate industry: Nestlé, Hershey’s and Mars. To Gray, spending hours at candy stores is research.
“Now this is where I want to be,” Gray says, picking up a package of Haribo Gummi Bears and surveying the rows of jelly candies. “This is a multibillion dollar industry just waiting for something new, something different.”
When asked if he fears criticism that could come from what some people could view as an exploitation of hip-hop culture through his chocolate, Gray says he sees his sweets as a “positive form of exploitation.”
“I want to inspire the culture and see others embrace it as their own,” he says, “and use it to guide them in a positive light.”
* * *
Marjorie Hernandez is a staff reporter for the Ventura County Star who covers breaking news, courts and entertainment. Follow her on twitter @Mjae13.
Stuart Palley is a Southern California based photographer covering editorial, documentary, travel, news, and environmental subjects. Stuart has photographed for National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and various other publications.