If you walk down the Venice Beach boardwalk in L.A., you'll find Todd Ray in his element: A 21st century P.T. Barnum standing on the pavement, chirping into a bullhorn and offering passerbys a glimpse at his two-headed turtle. It's just one of the pets making up his collection of two-headed animals — the world's largest. A crowd forms around him as he invites the curious behind a question mark–adorned door to check out sword swallowers, bearded ladies, a five-legged dog, chupacabra remains and more. Welcome to the Venice Beach Freakshow, of which Ray is ringmaster and founder. He's also a newly minted TV star, the focal point of the AMC reality series Freakshow, which follows him, his family and his merry band of sideshow performers as they pursue their most unusual calling.
It's all the more unusual for Ray since he gave up a successful career to walk his current leftfield path. In another life, he was a Grammy award-winning music producer and an influential player in the history of rock and hip-hop, working with everyone from Cypress Hill and Nas to Santana and Ozomatli. At one point, Ray even had his own subsidiary label under Warner Brothers — until corporate politics disillusioned him on the music business so much that he decided to get out. "I went home and told my wife, 'Honey. I don't think I'm gonna renew my contract," he recalls. After she asked what was in store for a Plan B, Ray looked around his home, which was overflowing with his personal lifelong collection of macabre oddities and circus memorabilia, and told her, "We're going to open a freakshow." "She turned to me and said, 'You are out of your fucking mind,'" he exclaims.
If Ray was already out of his mind as a young teen growing up in rural South Carolina, it was over hip-hop. His love of the music style began when a friend brought him a 12" of "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force. "As soon as he dropped the needle on that record and that beat hit, that was it. I was completely hooked," he explains. Ray's backwoods surroundings left him with limited access to music, so he saved up his cash, flew to New York and purchased every hit record he could get his hands on. He slowly began to build up his collection.
In the mid-Eighties Ray started renting warehouses near his hometown of Lancaster, throwing parties and battling other DJs. He eventually put together his own mix of beats and sold 50,000 12"s on his own. This led him to pursue a career in music production. In his early days on the job, Ray worked with Artifacts and helmed Cypress Hill's "Ain't Going Out Like That" on their Black Sunday LP, a track that garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Single. Ray contributed to Nas's breakthrough by bringing in the then-unknown artist to perform on MC Serch's "Back to the Grill," which he was producing. The song took off and Nas went on to earn his first record deal. Making a name for himself under the moniker T-Ray, the young producer also worked with KRS-One, Kool G Rap, Big L, and became known among friends as "The King of the Beats." "I was obsessed with beat collecting. I would go to old record stores and search for any interesting beats that I could sample. I am a crate-digging icon. Nobody can touch me to this day!" he says proudly.
Yet for all his success as a beat maker, by the late Nineties Ray began to sour on the hip-hop scene as he saw it taken over by Puff Daddy clones, and he moved to Los Angeles to give the rock scene a shot. "I decided I was going to focus on music that has the spirit of what I love rather that continue with the robot music that had started to become rap," he explains. He produced Snot's 1997 debut album, Get Some, before discovering Ozomatli at a local venue called The Dragonfly. Tapping into his love of breakbeats, Ray helped infuse Ozomatli's self-titled debut with the band's signature fusion of hip-hop, rock and reggae. Years later, he reunited with the group to produce its 2004 release, Street Signs, which earned him two Grammy awards. He was called by Clive Davis to help produce Santana's Grammy award-winning Supernatural and was given his own Warner Brothers subsidiary label, to which he signed Cut Chemist. He also worked with Mick Jagger, 311, Helmet, Korn, House of Pain and the Beastie Boys.
But when Ray brought Jack Johnson in on a session with G. Love & the Special Sauce, things began to take a turn for the worse. "We were looking for a radio hit," says Ray, and G. Love had a few possible songs, which his "photographer/surfing buddy" Johnson had written in his spare time. After deciding to use one of these, "Rodeo Clowns," for the album, Ray recruited Johnson to sing on the track. Realizing he had something special in the young artist and wanting to sign him to his label, Ray brought Johnson to his boss, who was unimpressed. Two years later, he sought out a meeting with the company's new CEO to discuss his frustration over having his plans to sign acts like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and Johnson shot down – only to find out, according to Ray, that his new boss was attempting to sign Johnson without his involvement. It was then that the producer decided it was time to pursue his other passion.
As a young child, Ray had become fascinated by the sideshow world. He began practicing magic and collected every oddity that he could get his hands on. When he was 12, his stepfather took him to a fair in Charlotte, North Carolina, where an encounter with a sideshow magician changed his life. "They brought out this guy, Otis Jordan, who has ossified limbs that curled into his body. He used his shoulder to pop open a tin of tobacco, rolled a cigarette with his tongue, sucked it in, and produced a perfectly rolled cigarette. And at the end of his act he said, 'Folks, now you know why they call me the Human Cigarette Factory," he recalls. Backstage, Ray told Jordan that he'd been practicing magic for years and could never pull off such a trick. Jordan replied, "Son, if I can do what you saw me do in my condition, a young man like you can do anything you ever dream of." "That notion of following your soul stuck with me throughout my entire life," says Ray. "It helped me take the leap to leave my 7,500 square foot house on the beach and seven-figure paycheck to follow my true passion."
The day he left the music business, Ray wrangled his family and went searching for the perfect spot to open his freakshow. It started in 2006 with a small room, which he filled with vintage sideshow posters, taxidermied animals and a bed of nails on which his daughter, Asia, would lie to impress visitors. The show has since grown six times in size, brings in thousands of visitors a year and includes an array of attractions. These include Jessa the bearded lady, who holds the Guinness World Record for the longest beard on a woman in history; Larry the Wolf Boy, the "Hairiest Man Alive"; Asia Ray, who sits in an electric chair, swallows swords, blows fire and contorts her body as "The Rubber Girl"; and Morgue, the resident shock artist who entertains crowds by hammering a nail up his nose, among other gruesome stunts. Freakshow visitors also come face to face with over 60 strange creatures such as living two-headed snakes and turtles, a five-legged frog, two-tailed Iguana and Ray's two-nosed dog, as well as preserved creatures like "One-Eyed-Jack," the Cyclops Chihuahua. Ray's freakshow has become so popular that, in 2013, AMC turned it into a reality series, which has since run for two seasons and is being considered for a third. (Both seasons are currently available for streaming on Netflix.) "It's made us millions of fans," Ray says of the TV show, "and really allowed us to reach people around the globe that don't have the means of coming here to see us first hand."
Just as he hustled to push forward his own music career and those of musicians he believed in, Ray is on a mission to preserve the sideshow culture. "Our goal of expanding the freakshow and its contact with people is constantly pushing forward," he explains. "We feel like we played a big role in raising a cultural moment where American Horror Story could rock [the FX horror anthology series' fourth season] Freakshow. We helped shape a lot of the culture and we're really thankful for that." He adds that his goal with the Venice Beach Freakshow is not just to have a business but also to create a home where those who cannot normally express themselves can become stars by doing so. "There's no such thing as normal," says Ray. "Normal is dead. We are now in a culture of self-expression."
Though his focus has shifted to dazzling people with the strange and unexpected, Ray will always have a love for hip-hop. "The freakshow is as hip-hop as it gets," he claims. "Self-expression is what hip-hop is all about." And he's not completely done with music. Ray admits that the urge has hit and he's begun to quietly work on music again in his spare time with his production company Living Wonders Entertainment. This time, however, things will be on his terms. "There are a couple of secret projects that I can't speak of right now but they are hip-hop," he teases. "They are unique and creative. They will definitely not be commercial and they will not fit inside of anyone's box, that's for sure."