Paradise Gray of X-Clan visits Black History 101 Mobile Museum
By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
ANN ARBOR — Turning through the pages of an over-sized portfolio, Paradise Gray, the well-known producer and visionary for legendary hip hop group X-Clan, showed Michiganders his collection of original New York hip hop party flyers from early 1980s, a time when hip hop artists were first becoming stars. As a guest of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, Gray visited University of Michigan Ann Arbor Jan. 22 in celebration of Martin Luther King Day to speak about his career as an archivist, artist, photo journalist and media activist.
Paradise Gray’s collection is a living history of the hip hop legends who helped create more than a movement but a culture. As a first-hand witness his stories, photos and artifacts show a golden era for hip hop culture, when the parties were about fun, community and keeping peace in the neighborhoods.
Gray also collects a wide range of memorabilia of Black history, including campaign items from the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, event flyers from important public protests and magazine covers featuring prominent Black social figures.
His story-telling is rich with illustrations from the many lives he’s lived.
He describes his time as a lifelong quest of love, wisdom and knowledge of self.
“I just so happen to be a traveling museum in my own right,” said Paradise Gray, about joining up with the Black History 101 Mobile Museum for the fifth annual installment at U of M for MLK Day.
Paradise The Architect grew up close to Yankee Stadium, collecting comic books and baseball cards with his older brother. At the time, many players on the New York Yankees team were Black, and he would hold onto those cards because they were his hometown heroes. When hip hop took hold of him as a young child, he began collecting the flyers he saw on the block and going to the parties.
“These are superheros, look,” he says turning through the pages of artwork. “Africa Bambaataa and the Mighty Zulu Nation, DJ Jazzy J and the Red Alert, The Cosmic Force MCs, The Cold Crush 4, The Furious 5 with Grandmaster Flash.”
The groups are posed together in photos with full suits, larger than life icons from the very same neighborhoods. These shows began his passion as a photographer, where he has caputured legends of hip hop throughout the decades.
Paradise Gray was never satisfied with being in the audience of the events, he always wanted to be behind the VIP ropes next to the stars, learning the craft and hearing the teachings of masters in action. He is an important hip hop photographer, his photos have captured legends throughout the decades.
He also helped with the movement to stop people coming to hip hop concerts with collection of thick gold chains, which incited theft and violenced and instead wear the style of beaded Africa medallions.
The widely popular XCLAN was known for this look. Their album “To the East Blackwards” is an all time classic, opening popular music audiences to many African-centered concepts of identity and history. The images the group used ranged from head wraps to Pink Cadillacs.
“The Pink Cadillac was Detroit,” says ParadisGray, citing the influence of the many Detroit records XCLAN sampled, including Parliament-Funkadelic. The group used so many classic samples, the songs themselves were a historical record of Black music.
Khalid el Hakim, founder of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, has collected items for the museum for over 20 years, traveling throughout the country to schools, community centers and places of worship.
“It originally started as a result of Black History not being taught in schools,” says el Hakim. “When you look at textbooks in schools, you don’t see Black people represented. So it really came as a result of trying to address that issue.”
The museum collection began while el Hakim was a student at Ferris State University. His professor presented historical artifacts to his class while speaking about race, helping everyone understand.
“I was inspired and I’ve been collecting ever since,” say el Hakim.
That spirit of collecting history brought Paradise Gray with the museum for this exhibit on Martin Luther King Day, and he hopes to continue working together to help share the stories from his years as a scholar of Black history.
“You know we are the sum of our ancestral experience,” said Paradise Gray. “So the elements of hip hop existed long before hip hop did. Our elders and ancestors were rapping before we ever thought about rapping.”