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.
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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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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.