Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The chief curator of the upcoming Bronx museum shares his vision for the site—and photos from his collection of early hip hop memorabilia.
Writing in the February 1986 edition of the New York City-based magazine “City Limits,” Claude “Paradise” Gray had this to say about urban crime and the state of black and Latino youth:
I asked a few guys I know who rob people when they don’t have to why they did it and the answer was almost always the same: “’Cause I had nothing better to do.” When you add a high concentration of unemployed, bored youths together with little or no recreational facilities, easy access to any kind of drugs they want, and very few community centers that offer interesting programs, it’s no real puzzle as to why we have so many dropouts, dopeheads, teenage pregnancies, and a high crime rate. A method has to be found to inform people of the many different volunteer and job training programs that do exist. … Inform these youths about existing job and health programs in a way that grabs and holds them.
Gray believed the best way to grab these youth was through hip hop. Later in his piece, he points to the Bronx Youth Day held in 1985 as one event that captivated the city’s young and restless. It was attended by hip hop luminaries such as DJ Red Alert and DJ Chuck Chillout, along with over 50 local organizations offering educational and health services on site.
“Who else but these pioneers of the city’s hip hop culture recognizes the vital need for such informational events?” wrote Gray. “For ten years hip hop DJs and rappers have spoken to the problems and hardships of the street in their music in the hopes that someone would recognize them and work for a solution. Major media are finally acknowledging that DJs and rap artists have been giving us ‘the message’ for years and it’s time for someone to respond.”
Thirty years later, Gray is still gathering responses, working today with the Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) to immortalize events like the Bronx Youth Day. UHHM president Rocky Bucano roped in Gray, who he worked with in the 1980s when Bucano was running the Bronx-based hip hop label Strong City Records. Since the ‘80s, Gray has worked under various titles helping develop hip hop culture: journalist (one of hip hop’s first), rapper, dancer, photographer, and even music-video casting director. He calls himself “hip hop’s Forrest Gump.”
Gray grew up in the Bronxdale projects, a floor below Disco King Mario, one of hip hop’s earliest pioneering DJs. He attended junior high school just blocks away from the old Bronx courthouse that the hip hop museum will hopefully one day call home. Since he was a teen, Gray has been collecting fliers from park jams and DJ battles hosted by hip hop greats including Mario, Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc. Gray says the emcees, B-Boy dancers, and DJs featured on these fliers were his “superheroes,” much like those in the comic books his older brother collected.
These fliers, along with volumes of photos Gray took over the decades, now make up what he calls “The Paradise Collection”— an archive that will serve as a foundation for the UHHM’s own collection of artwork and ephemera. (The museum is expected to open to the public by 2017.) It’s what led the UHHM leadership to hire Gray as the museum’s chief curator, recognizing his reputation as the “Grand Arkitech” of the inimitable early ‘90s rap group X Clan. Today he lives in Pittsburgh, where he works with the social justice organization 1Hood, which he co-founded with rapper Jasiri X.
Gray discussed his vision for the UHHM—and what future visitors can expect from it—with Citylab at his Pittsburgh home.
Describe your role as the chief curator of the Universal Hip Hop Museum.
I find the artists, connect with them, share their work and get them to collaborate with us. That’s the only way to share the whole hip hop story. It’s supposed to be the universal hip hop museum, and I take that word “universal” seriously. Meaning it’s not just about New York. It’s not just one certain time period. Our job is to document the history of every culture that ever contributed to hip hop.
It’s to answer the questions of, “What was Pittsburgh doing when this was happening [in New York]? What were they doing in Oakland, California, when that was going on?” Same for Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Miami, England, Australia, Africa, France, Italy, and so forth—to break things down like that. We’re going to run the hip hop timeline up against the timeline of the black community, and really the culture of the entire African diaspora.
Hip hop was influenced by many things and people, such as Muhammad Ali, The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, The Jubalaires—a rap group from the 1940s. And guess where they’re from? The South. They were a Christian gospel group that sang and rapped with almost the same cadence as the Sugar Hill Gang. Hip Hop was influenced by all of these forces.
What does it mean to be “The Grand Arkitech” of hip hop culture?
I went to Brooklyn Technical high school to become an architect. I wound up dropping out of school to do hip hop, and later came to be known as “Paradise the Arkitech,” because I was the architect of the Blackwatch Movement. With X Clan, we didn’t like to use the traditional words of the industry, or spell words as they were traditionally spelled. So, we didn’t call X Clan a rap group; we called ourselves “Messengers of the Blackwatch Movement.” I wasn’t a “producer”; what better word to use than “arkitech” for one who constructs beats? I wasn’t the only producer of X Clan, but I was the chief architect of the X Clan albums To the East Blackwards and Xodus.
CityLab spoke with the UHHM’s literal lead architect, Mike Ford, last month. How will you be working with him to make the UHHM a reality?
We have a very good team of architects designing the hip hop museum, but The Paradise Collection is the foundation of the Universal Hip Hop Museum. There are many people who claim to have a museum, but most of them don’t have a collection. They may have a building and can get people to give them stuff and loan them things, but they don’t actually have their own artifacts. I’ve been putting my collection together for almost 40 years. My collection is not just hip hop, but things that influenced hip hop—people like Bob Marley and Malcolm X.
Popular culture has been inspired by hip hop, but it also inspired hip hop. I’m interested not just in the works of people like Warhol—who was extremely blown away by what we brought to him from hip hop, when we hung out at places like Studio 54—but also artists like Keith Haring, who was himself inspired by hip hop and ended up influencing hip hop back.
That’s what I’m about: creating a symbiotic relationship between hip hop and the larger art world, using media ranging from photography to digital graphics to sculpture. To me as a fan of art and culture, this is to me just amazing stuff. I spend all my days seeking these things out and sharing them with the people.