Street-Gang-Turned-Band Ghetto Brothers Attract "All Classes, All Races, All Ages" Years After Making Hip Hop History
"I didn't think this would ever happen, but now that it has, it reminds me of what my father always told me: 'It's never too late,'" says Benjy Melendez. The 60-year-old South Bronx native is positively giddy as he holds a copy of the newly reissued Power Fuerza -- the one and only album that Melendez, his brothers Robert and Victor, and five other members of his Puerto Rican/American street gang-turned-band the Ghetto Brothers cut back in 1972. Only released locally, Power Fuerza disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, eventually becoming a near-mythical talisman for record collectors aware of the Ghetto Brothers' significance to New York City's music and cultural history.
The group's larger story also appeared to be lost to the steady march of time. But 40 years after Power Fuerza came and went, Brooklyn label Truth & Soul Records jumped on the case and released the eight-song LP last week, along with 80 pages of liner notes that brings the Ghetto Brothers story back to life for a new generation.
"When I hear the album now -- remember, we were young kids at the time -- we all laugh, like, 'Oh man, did we really sound like that?'" says Melendez. "But I'm just so excited that people will learn what we are about and everyone will hear the message that comes down to just one word: Peace."
That story begins in the gang-ravaged South Bronx of the mid-to-late '60s. Melendez's parents, Puerto Rican immigrants, moved to the neighborhood in the '50s, and by the time he and his brothers entered their mid-teens, gang life became the only option to survive in the increasingly rougher streets. Rather than join an existing gang, Benjy formed the Ghetto Brothers, and by 18 he was leading a powerful street gang that at its height boasted 2,000 members in the Bronx alone, plus divisions in every city borough and outposts in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Puerto Rico.
The Ghetto Brothers weren't averse to violence and rumbling with other gangs in the Bronx, but Melendez was a different kind of gang leader, and his outfit a different kind of gang. "We were all trained in the martial arts, so we didn't have to use guns, and I always taught all the Ghetto Brothers to use violence as a last resort," he says. "I was brought up different from a lot of people in the community. My father always taught me respect and don't get stupid, because if you do, and the cops catch you, I'm gonna give it to you, too. I didn't want any of us to die in the hands of other gangs or police officers. We didn't want to be like the Young Lords. Everything we did was with a good heart."
But the gang's focus shifted dramatically in 1971 following the death of Benjy's close Ghetto Brothers compadre, Cornell "Black Benjy" Benjamin, at the hands of other gangs. Rather than seek bloody revenge and foster an all-out war, Melendez instead brokered the famous peace treaty between numerous South Bronx gangs at the Hoe Avenue Boys Club.
Soon after, taking their cues from the Black Panthers and their focus on community uplift in Oakland, the Ghetto Brothers began sweeping up garbage from the streets, spearheading clothing and food drives, and working to clear drugs and prostitution from their neighborhood, not through violence and intimidation but with the promise of a helping hand and an open door for anyone at the gang's headquarters on E. 162nd St. Slowly, perceptions changed.
"When you wear a denim jacket with colors on the back, to the community you were just a troublemaker," says Melendez. "When you hear names like Savage Nomads, what I didn't like about those names was that you had to live it. If you put on those colors, you had to live that, you were a savage. But Ghetto Brothers, we were all brothers from the ghetto. And eventually all the people in the neighborhood knew what our platform was."
All the while the Melendez brothers were living the gang life, they were also living the music life. Gaga over the Beatles, Benjy, Victor and Robert learned to sing along to Fab Four records--Robert picked up the guitar, Victor the bass, and together they formed a cover band called Los Junior Beatles. "All the girls loved it, and everyone started buying Beatles records because they thought they sounded like us," Melendez laughs.
Later, after the peace treaty, the brothers -- with a handful of other gang members joining in on percussion and guitar -- rechristened themselves the Ghetto Brothers and jammed at home and at Ghetto Brothers HQ, playing popular Friday night block parties that were open to members of all the other gangs in the Bronx. They started writing their own tunes; the Beatles remained the primary inspiration, but they began incorporating funk, soul, r&b, and traditional Puerto Rican textures as well, while writing about life in the streets and offering up a positive message of peace, love, and brother-and-sisterhood.
"My two brothers said, 'Benjy, we know you like rock and roll, but let's add some other stuff into the stew,'" Melendez recalls. "So we put in a little Sly and the Family Stone style, did a little James Brown, a little Latino music over here, so everybody's gonna hear their part and have a great time while we talk about how we can make everyone's lives better and just enjoy."
In the summer of 1972, the Ghetto Brothers' burgeoning sound reached the ears of Mary Lou Records/Salsa Records owner Ismael Maisonave, who invited the group to spend an afternoon cutting an album at Fine Tone Studios on 42nd St. with Latin music producer/engineer Bobby Marin.
"When we got told we were gonna do this record, we were so excited," says Melendez. Entering the studio for the first time, the Ghetto Brothers were overwhelmed. "We were like, 'Oh my Goooood,'" Melendez laughs. "[Marin] explained the whole thing: 'I'm behind the glass over here, these microphones are here, you're gonna sing through here and play through here.' We got set up and we looked at him through the window and he pointed at us and yelled 'GO!' and we just went!"
The eight-piece lineup recorded Power Fuerza in one take, blasting through seven songs. But they needed one more. "My brother Victor said, 'Benjy got "Got This Happy Feeling."' I was like, 'But I got no words, I got no words!' So when you hear that song, I made it up on the spot, I just said anything."
Afterward, the band hugged each other and got the $500 Maisonave had promised them. "That kinda money was huge, to us it was like, 'Oh my goodness!' Only later on do you think, 'Oh my goodness, what did I do?' To be honest, the whole idea at the time wasn't so much the money but that our voices were gonna be recorded. It was cool because the other gangs in the Bronx, they used to say, 'Man, we gotta give it to the Ghetto Brothers, they even got an album out there!' But the sad thing about it, it was only distributed locally, it was never nationwide. Mary Lou never pushed it out there."
Around the same time, Santana was getting huge with a similar Latin rock sound. Melendez -- who says he never heard Santana until after his band had come up with their musical stew "by doing the Beatles with congas and timbales"--won't go as far as to say the Ghetto Brothers should've been Santana, "but you always kinda wonder what might have been," he says.
Still, the Ghetto Brothers' example paid early dividends in the 'hood. Among the gang members at the '71 treaty meeting was a young Afrika Bambaataa, and when he and other early rap pioneers noticed the weekly parties the Ghetto Brothers were throwing, Bambaataa and company decided to do the same in their corner of the South Bronx. "We never really saw ourselves as precursors, but Afrika Bambaataa took what we did to the second level, saying 'If the Ghetto Brothers can do it, we can do it, too,' and that's when hip-hop history started," Melendez says proudly.
Though the Ghetto Brothers band and gang dissolved a few years later, the Melendez brothers continued to perform around the city in the ensuing decades, while still doing work in the community and encouraging schoolkids to get involved in community service efforts. Victor passed away about a decade ago, but Benjy and Robert Melendez still write and play together, and they hope that the recent hoopla around Power Fuerza's reissue will allow them to finally record a follow-up to the LP.
"We're gonna keep rockin' it, because there's something about our voices and our message, there's something magnetic about what we do, and it still attracts people from all classes, all races, all ages," says Melendez. "It still makes people happy, and for me, that's what music is all about."
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