HIP HOP HISTORY: PART 3
Out of the ashes of a burnt down Bronx came the widespread presence of youth street gangs.
Those Projects and areas that did survive the fires would become the breeding grounds for gang recruitment.
And the destroyed abandoned buildings would become the Clubhouses where these gangs would set up their headquarters.
One of the principle figures that influenced the spread of gangs and how they functioned in the Bronx was Benjamin Melendez. Benjamins family was living in the slums of Manhattan when in 1961, Robert Moses began implementing his Urban Renewal plan to clear out the poor families to make room for offices and high-rise apartments. The Melendez family ended up in the Bronx.
Benjamin joined a small gang called the Cofon Cats but soon got tired of hanging out with them. When his family moved to the Crotona Park area, which is close to the Bronx River Projects, he decided to form his own clique. After coming up with several names Seven Immortals, Savage Nomads, Savage Skulls he finally settled on Ghetto Brothers.
Later, other members of the Ghetto Brothers would go on to use those other names to form their own gangs in other areas: Seven Immortals, Savage Nomads, The Renegades, Roman Kings, Taino Brothers, Boricua Brothers and the Savage Skulls, who would later become the second largest gang in the Bronx the largest being the Black Spades. Even the Black Spades can be traced back to Benjamin as before they became the Black Spades, they were known as the Savage Seven.
Other gangs that sprung up in the area were the Mongols, Dirty Dozen, Peacemakers, Turbans and the Chingalings. Those few remaining poor Whites formed the Authur Avenue Boys, Golden Guineas, War Pigs and the Grateful Dead. Most of the Blacks were in the Black Spades and the other gangs were mostly Hispanics.
Although gangs in those days were still violent and territorial, they functioned differently than those of today. The Ghetto Brothers emerged in a time when the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords were in the slums fighting for the implementation of their Ten-Point Programs. In fact, the Ghetto Brothers supported the Young Lords in their efforts to provide services to the community and to try and clean it up. So much so that they began to dress up militantly, wearing Black Berets and growing their hair long.
When smack was creating big problems in the neighborhoods because of the junkies who would rob, steal and maim to get high, the gangs stepped in and started wiping them out. The Ghetto Brothers protested the quality of health care at the local hospital, which they called the Butcher Shop. They questioned why there were no jobs or recreation facilities for the youth and spoke out against corrupt politicians. They even forced slumlords to allow them to enter the flats so that they could clean them up. Melendez had a different vision for the future of gangs.
But what makes Benjamin unique to Hip Hop Culture is that he had a passion for music. In fact, "Ghetto Brothers" was originally more than just a gang name, it was also the name of their Latin-Rock band, consisting of himself and his real brothers: Ulpiano, Victor and Robert Melendez. They released their only album Ghetto Brothers Power Fuerza around 1972.
Even more important to his influence on Hip Hop Culture were the unprecedented moves that he made which led up to the release of that eight-song album. Having been influenced by those movements that surrounded him, Benjamin decided it was time to unite the rivaling gangs.
In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover began to lay out his objectives for the FBI COINTELPRO. He wanted to wipe out the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, the Young Lords Party and many others. Around the country, members of these movements were rounded up and placed in prison. In New York, 21 members of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party were arrested and sent to jail for two years before the charges were dropped and they were released. One of those members was Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac Amaru Shakur.
With these groups gone, the gangs began to turn more on themselves rather than on the powers-that-be. Benjamin decided to make a move. He removed the Warlord position from the Ghetto Brothers and replaced it with Peace Counselor. A half-Black, half-Puerto Rican ex-junkie known as Black Benjie would be the first to take on this responsibility.
Black Benjie would go around to other gangs and invite them to block parties in the Ghetto Brothers' territory. The Ghetto Brothers opened up their borders in the name of peace. They played their music and no one got hurt. People just came to have fun.
But this wasnt enough. Gang violence was increasing and three Ghetto Brothers got shot. Benjamins brother Victor, who was now President of the Savage Nomads, was stabbed. Black Benjie was sent out to try and calm things down. He met up with the Mongols, Seven Immortals and the Black Spades, who together were on their way to a rumble against the Savage Skulls. Black Benjie tried to convince them to talk about a truce but one of the Seven Immortals pulled out a pipe and another pulled out a machete. The Ghetto Brothers had no weapons, so Black Benjie ordered them to run, but he was not able to get away. He was bashed in the head with the pipe and fell to the ground, where they continued to beat him. He later died in the hospital.
Melendez was left with no choice but to retaliate. All the gangs were preparing for an all out war. Yet Melendez said, No, Black Benjie died to bring us peace. Everyone was ready to override his decision. Even ally gangs leaders were ready to make moves if the Ghetto Brothers didn’t. So Benjamin called for a meeting of all the leaders to organize a gang truce. There was a massive turn-out and everyone got a chance to air their differences and grievances. One of the most prominent and powerful speakers was Bam Bam, the leader of the Black Spades, who was being guarded by his Warlord, Afrika Bambaataa.
After all of the anger was vented and ideas expressed, a truce was agreed upon. All the gang leaders signed it and borders were opened up. Afrika Bambaataa was inspired by what took place that evening and held on to the spirit of the truce. Soon after, Bam Bam went to fight in the Vietnam war and Bambaataa would become the President of the Black Spades.
After the truce, the Ghetto Brothers continued to have their block parties, inviting other gang members to join in peace. Although they may not have had turntables upon which they cut and mixed vinyl, we must recognize, whenever possible, the pioneers of ideas. The Ghetto Brothers would plug the amps for their instruments and speakers into the lampposts in the parks, long before DJ Kool Herc did it with his sound system. And even Afrika Bambaataa would later use the idea of uniting rival gangs through block parties with music, dance, and graffiti art.
The Ghetto Brothers may have never rapped, beatboxed, spun a record, did a head-spin or tagged their name on a train, but they set the stage for DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa.