1Hood Media’s Paradise Gray on the ‘Golden Era’ of hip-hop and what’s holding Pittsburgh’s entertainment industry back.
By Destiny Dixon
Photo: Music industry legend, activist, and Northsider Paradise Gray experienced the ‘Golden Era’ of hip-hop firsthand as a promoter and emcee at New York City’s Latin Quarter club. Now, he’s helping to create the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx. By Emmai Alaquiva
Every great musician gets their start somewhere. Here in Pittsburgh, classical musicians “fostered the birth of American music,” as local website Pittsburgh Music History put it, and Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller booked small gigs around the city before launching their famous careers. It’s to be expected, then, that many talented and passionate entertainers would emerge from the Iron City and catapult to stardom, going on to become household names known worldwide for their charisma, uniqueness, and nerve.
These examples, though, didn’t just come around recently. Pittsburgh has been known as the hometown of greats since the 1950s, when jazz and doo-wop sounds were becoming popular.
Pittsburgh on the map
During the early 1960s, a gifted jazz drummer by the name of Roger Humphries helped put Pittsburgh on the map, musically speaking, with his appearance on Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” He toured Europe with the band twice and later played with Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine, Shirley Scott, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ray Charles.
Humphries eventually went on to lead his own band, RH Factor, during the 1970s and became a teacher at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School (CAPA) and the University of Pittsburgh.
Humphries, who was named the Northside’s 2019 Mardi Gras King, left the City of Bridges to pursue his career, and brought a “New York vibe” back with him. He returned home with an increased understanding of music and the industry and wanted to teach his findings to young and passionate students eager to progress in the music world.
The New York City connection
From a musical standpoint, New York City and Pittsburgh have a connecting chain for inspiration, ideas, and growth for many artists trying to make it big. If you fast forward a few decades from Humphries’ heyday, hip-hop and R&B are now all the rage not only in Pittsburgh and the Northside, but also in many major cities across the country.
The “Golden Era” of hip-hop is deemed to have taken place between the late 1980s and early 1990s, and industry legend, activist, and Northside resident Paradise Gray experienced all of it firsthand.
After spending time in North Carolina, Gray quickly moved around New York from the Bronx to Brooklyn, then finally settled in Pittsburgh in 1992. He got his start in the industry as a promoter and emcee at New York City’s Latin Quarter club during the “Golden Era,” and met and mentored many upcoming artists who went on to become legends. Gray has produced nine albums on major labels including Sony; he has countless amounts of wisdom and insight to give on the industry as a whole.
“Just for Paradise to even know your name was a huge deal,”said MC Lyte in Netflix’s docuseries, “Hip-Hop Evolution.”
Gray explains how it’s different for every person in the industry who possesses a “star quality” that makes them a contender to become one of the greats. He’s seen this a lot in the Pittsburgh music scene.
“It’s different for a DJ, a rapper, a dancer, and graphic artists. There are different paths, but if there’s one thing they all have in common it’s putting the work in, taking it seriously at a young age, making your mind up that this is what you want to do, and you commit to putting the time in to do it the best. You understand the history of what you’re dealing with… Nowadays, you can make something and put it on the internet, have no clue what you’re doing, and pop!”
“I would say that the Pittsburgh area has so much of a concentration of incredible, brilliant artists of all ages… it’s amazing. I wish that the artists here could see themselves as I see them,” Gray stated.
Mentoring Mac Miller
During Gray’s time in Pittsburgh, he has worked immensely with young artists as they came up in the industry, including the late Mac Miller.
“I’ve mentored thousands of artists, but Mac… he was a quiet guy. Always intelligent, humble, a real nice guy. I really appreciated him as a person and a human being, as well as admiring him as an artist. He did what I suggested that older-school artists did: He put the work in.”
The world didn’t know Mac Miller until he was a VIP, but Gray knew him when he was around 15 years old. Gray called Mac a “student of rappers.”
“… He memorized songs dating all the way back to the Golden Era and beyond, and he took it seriously… he was a very talented and unique individual.”
Gray explained his take on how New York City and Pittsburgh compare music-wise: While the Latin Quarter club in New York offered a place for new and upcoming artists to begin shooting their shot at becoming well known among the community, here in Pittsburgh there was the more recent but now defunct Shadow Lounge.
“The Shadow Lounge really gave artists like Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, Jasiri X, Formula412, and many others that opportunity to have a safe space [for] fellowship and to collaborate,” Gray said. However, Gray points out some important notes that he feels have held Pittsburgh back from being a launching pad for new artists to become one with their career and passions. Gray stressed how unfortunate it is that for an artist to make it in the real world, they would have to leave Pittsburgh because of its lack of essentials to make an entertainment industry thrive.
What’s holding Pittsburgh back
Gray said he thinks it’s time for a renaissance in Pittsburgh.
“If you want to know the difference between Pittsburgh and New York, New York is the hub of media and entertainment for the whole entire world. There’s nothing that can compare to that, you know? Not even Chicago or L.A. It used to be a big deal if you could get your song played on WAMO, but it’s extremely difficult to break into the local market here in Pittsburgh because of the [lack of] entertainment industry here.”
Gray commended the Pittsburgh City Paper for their coverage, but said there aren’t enough newspapers that cover hip-hop; radio stations, too, have diminished.
“New York City has the whole entire industry: the news channels, big radio stations, powerful media outlets… all the eyes are on New York. Not only does New York have the big fish, but they got the small fish to feed off of…” Pittsburgh is a different story.
“While you will have breakout artists like Wiz, Mac, Mel-Man, and Sam Snead, what you don’t find is a bunch of successful independent record labels, managers, stylists, and all the other side things that make an industry,” Gray said.
“Also, in New York, there is a clear understanding that today’s intern is tomorrow’s CEO. There are opportunities that actually exist there. Where in Pittsburgh, nobody respects you unless you’re from out-of-town, you have a whole lot of money, and people know about it, which is stupid in today’s atmosphere…We need to be able to develop, market, promote, and support our artists,” Gray explained.
Hip-hop as a safe space
There’s more than just a lack of entertainment industry essentials within a city, though, that can have an impact on hip-hop and its legacy. Historical incidents of racial prejudice and discrimination toward African Americans have motivated a wide array of entertainers and artists to instill messages of social justice reform—specifically associated with the Black experience—within their music. Hip-hop offers a way for musicians to come together as a community in a safe space designed to encourage them to freely express themselves and their political opinions.
Since its development in the early 1970s, hip-hop has long been tied to stoking civil discourse and speaking out against social injustice in the United States. Topics include the war on drugs, police brutality, mass incarceration, misogyny, and poverty. These messages in lyrics are still present in songs today.
Gray is one of the founders of X Clan, a hip-hop group from Brooklyn, New York, known for its Afrocentrism and assertive activism. Part of the Blackwatch Movement, the band aims to promote Black pride and self-awareness.
“We used hip-hop to voice an awareness about racism and violence because in our community we’re faced with a catch-22. We’re, unfortunately, at war with the cops and robbers, and most of the time we can’t tell the difference between who is who.”
“Hip-hop developed as a cultural entity from elements that existed for hundreds of years predating hip-hop: DJing, B-Boy and B-Girling [break dancing], graphic art, and rapping… The sociopolitical, and economic pressures of the South Bronx incubated those ingredients into the culture we call hip-hop,” Gray said.
“In the beginning, we used hip-hop to escape the unfortunate realities of our community. As time went on, record labels and the music and entertainment industry figured out that they could make the most money when they capitalize on the pain and suffering of the artist. They could market and promote that: the good, the bad, and the ugly…”
Gray went on to emphasize how these messages and stories of sex, drugs, and violence sell well in America because, he said, the country knows exactly how to market and promote them: by taking the most negative, raw, and carnal instincts that exist in hip-hop culture.
Today, Gray is continuing the work of guiding the youth and liberating communities through art, education, and social justice with Pittsburgh’s 1Hood Media. Gray’s latest project is the creation of the Universal Hip Hop Museum, based in New York City’s the Bronx.