Paradise Gray recalls the wild nights at the Latin Quarter
February 23, 2017 12:00 AM
KRS-One, Paradise Gray and Grandmaster Flash
Rapper/Activist Claude Paradise Gray.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One of the memorable moments at the Latin Quarter was the night Public Enemy tried to take Manhattan.
That day in March 1987, says Paradise Gray, who managed the talent at the Times Square club, the hip-hop crew members came in with their bags packed with fake Uzis they used in the show.
Where: The Andy Warhol Museum, North Side.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: Free; register at www.warhol.org.
“My first memory of Public Enemy,” he said, “was having to run downstairs and save their lives because my security force had pistols on them, because they search everybody, and when they were going through the bags, they found these plastic Uzis, and the guns came out quick. I was like, ‘No, no, chill, those are stage props.’ ”
That night, he says, “I didn’t really know what to think, for real, for real, because this wasn’t the Public Enemy of ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions,’ this was the ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ Public Enemy.”
It was their New York debut and only their second big outing, after having opened for the Beastie Boys in New Jersey.
The legendary Melle Mel, of Grandmaster Flash, known for throwing his weight around in the Latin Quarter, even snatching the mic at times, knew what to think, and he wasn’t into it.
“The day ended with me having to pull Melle Mel off the floor because he was going ballistic disrespecting Chuck and Public Enemy because he didn’t understand the concept of the S1W’s with the plastic Uzis on stage. He was like, ‘What the [expletive] is going on? This ain’t hip-hop. There are no [expletive] guns in hip-hop! Hip-hop is already too violent!’ That was Public Enemy’s baptism of fire, and it kind of threw Chuck D off a little bit because Melle Mel was his hero. It took a while, but they wound up gaining respect for each other and becoming friends when Melle Mel understood what they stood for.”
It was all in a day’s work and play at the Latin Quarter, hip-hop’s answer to CBGB’s. It’s the subject of “No Half Steppin’ — An Oral and Pictorial History of New York City Club the Latin Quarter and the Birth of Hip-Hop’s Golden Era,” a book that Mr. Gray has compiled with Italian author Giuseppe “u.net” Pipitone. He will do a reading and book-signing with a hip-hop DJ at The Warhol Friday night.
The Latin Quarter, at Broadway and 48th Street in Times Square, opened in 1942 in the former Cotton Club under owner Lou Walters, father of journalist Barbara Walters, and during that era, it played host to performers such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page and Mae West.
It went through a number of changes, becoming a burlesque house in the ’60s and a Broadway theater in the ’70s before the second-generation hip-hoppers moved in in 1986. Till then, hip-hop had been a street thing, or it roamed around looking for a home.
“There were no hip-hop clubs you could go to any Friday or Saturday and just listen to hip-hop,” Mr. Gray says. “Most of the clubs in New York were disco clubs and they would play hip-hop or have certain nights where they would rent it out to a promoter for hip-hop nights. The Latin Quarter was the first 24/7 club rockin’ hip-hop.”
But it wasn’t going to work if people were just standing around with their arms folded, and the boys weren’t mixing with the girls.
“People were dancing to disco and R&B. Rap was all hardcore and you were listening to it, you were watching it. People would go to a rap show and watch Run-DMC or the Fat Boys and just stand around in a b-boy stance. Breakdancing had kind of played out.
“We were looking at it as dance music again, because hip-hop began as dance music with the b-boys beginning at Kool Herc’s parties. People didn’t dance until we created a new sound and new style of hip-hop at the Latin Quarter that was basically pioneered by the likes of Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. and Rakim.”
Public Enemy’s classic “Don’t Believe the Hype” would include the nod “Just a little bit of the taste of the bass for you/As you get up and dance at the LQ.”
“The artists on stage started grabbing the dancers out of the crowd, and it added to the marketability of hip-hop, and it changed the ways shows were done in hip-hop.”
Mr. Gray grew up in the Bronxdale projects, one floor below Disco King Mario, pioneering hip-hop DJ known for his block parties. Mr. Gray went to Brooklyn Technical high school with hopes of becoming an architect but dropped out for hip-hop. Years later, in the hip-hop crew the X-Clan, he would take the name Paradise the Architect.
Latin Quarter co-owner Mike Goldberg pegged him to run the club running the hottest acts.
“Mike was this multimillionaire who was David Copperfield’s manager, so he was this rich older Jewish guy who was totally, totally excited about hip-hop and this young energy, and it was like his train set. You know how these rich guys go out and buy these expensive train sets and relive their midlife crisis? Well, hip-hop was the cure to Mike Goldberg’s midlife crisis.”
So, he wasn’t exploiting these young hip-hop artists?
“Of course, he was!” Mr. Gray says with a laugh. “But to his credit, he gave me an opportunity, and he didn’t know me from a can of paint. He gave me a chance. He was an easy guy to work with and he had vision. He helped me make it happen.”
Along with playing host to the heavies (LL Cool J, Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC, et al.), it was breaking acts like Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Salt N Pepa, Kid N Play, Heavy D and the Boys, Stetsasonic, De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers.
“If your song was on and people went running out on the dance floor, you had a hit record,” Mr. Gray says. “And it went right to radio from the dance floor. If you were an unsigned artist and you rocked the house on Friday, you had a record deal Monday.”
On a given night, you might find KRS-One battling Melle Mel, or LL Cool J battling Kool Moe Dee. Or Will Smith rolling in from Philly as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Or MC Hammer, from Oakland, Calif., badly misplaying the scene.
“MC Hammer came to New York and begged me to get on stage, and he basically got booed off the stage,” Mr. Gray says. “And he was so angry, he came back to New York with ‘Turn This Mutha Out.’ When it goes, ‘Hey, Hammer, you ain’t hittin’ in New York,’ that’s what he’s talkin’ about. He came back right.”
So, aside from the Hammer thing, everyone pretty much got along at the Latin Quarter, right?
“Aw, hell no!” Mr. Gray says. “See, this is the thing: Hip-hop is dangerous! Being a rapper is one of the most difficult jobs to survive in America.”
As one rapper said, “You had every thug in the world was in that club.” And it only got rougher when the Union Square in Brooklyn closed and that crowd came up to Times Square.
“A heavy contingent of guys from Brooklyn would hang out there,” he says. “A particular one was a gangster by the name of 50 Cent — not the rapper, but the gangster he named himself after. Him and his whole crew, they were basically the reason Union Square shut down, because they were snatching chains and beating people up and cutting people’s faces with razor blades. That shut that Union Square down as a nuisance club.
“I was able to grab DJ Red Alert off of the Union Square, but along with Red Alert, that whole crew migrated up to the Latin Quarter, and they started a lot of the same activity. We controlled it for the most part, but it was extremely difficult to control the number of knuckleheads that came in with these guys.
They would have 30 to 40 guys scattered throughout the club, it wasn’t clear who was who until the Cutmaster song “Brooklyn’s in the House” came on, and, then, Mr. Gray says, “They would just go bananas — it was their cue to go around and snatch chains. So, if you were dressed well and had jewelry, you didn’t go alone. You went with your crew, too.”
In August 1987, three kids from Brooklyn were shot outside the club after a Roxanne Shante show. Three weeks later, The New York Times declared: “Violence Plagues New Latin Quarter,” describing the regular fights and robberies that took place there.
Mr. Gray was quoted in that story, saying, “Rarely do we get enough police protection when the kids are leaving. The hoods know that if they come here on the weekend, there will be 400 to 500 kids here with money, jewelry and little police protection.”
The Latin Quarter closed in 1988, and the building was torn down in 1989 for a new hotel with a dance club (in 2003, former Steeler Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg there).
Mr. Gray went on to form the X-Clan in 1989, and he moved to Pittsburgh in 1993 with a cousin who was going to the University of Pittsburgh. Since moving here, he has owned and operated a studio and gallery, produced a show on PCTV Channel 21, and founded 1Hood Media to mentor young people.
Lately, he’s been busy as the chief curator of The Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is being built in the Bronx and will house his extensive archive of memorabilia.
He’s not bananas over a lot of today’s hip-hop, but he has a message for young musicians: “If your music and your style of dress is not offending your elders, then you’re probably not [expletive] rock ’n’ roll, you’re probably not hip-hop. ... I say to any new artist now: ‘Don’t let anybody tell you how to create your art. If you like what you’re doing and you find a fan base for it, who cares what anybody thinks. Just do your thing.’ As a legend and pioneer of hip-hop, I would be a hypocrite if I said, ‘Well, they’re not doing it like we did it.’ ”
He is, however, proud of what Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest pulled off at the Grammys this month with the Agent Orange stunt: “They did that like only a golden-era group could do.”
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.
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