Rubble Kings: How an End to Gang Violence Birthed Hip Hop
A new doc tells how the outlaw gangs of the South Bronx set the stage for the future of hip hop culture.
Rubble Kings is a postcard from the frontlines of fury that peace is possible. Shan Nicholson’s documentary shares the story of how the outlaw gangs that once ruled the streets of the South Bronx during the late 1960s and mid 1970s helped to birth hip hop culture.
In 1971, when Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin—the peace ambassador of the Ghetto Brothers, a take-no-shit-but-socially-minded gang—was murdered, an all out gang war inevitably loomed.
Instead, in deviance of all odds, the head of the Ghetto Brothers, “Yellow Benjy” Melendez, brokered an unlikely peace between all the crews in the borough.
The seeds of hip hop were sewn at the block parties that sprung up once all turf borders were opened. The Ghetto Brothers band, fronted by Benjy, would bring their message of nonviolence consciousness to the now integrated crowds that gathered weekly at 163rd Street and Prospect Avenue.
Ahead of Rubble Kings theatrical debut on Friday, June 19, we caught up with Shan Nicholson and “Yellow Benjy” to discuss the film in further detail. What follows are blended excerpts from separate conversations with each of the men.
Mass Appeal: Why do you think the stories of this period have remained largely untold?
Shan Nicholson: You know I don’t know. I just saw this as a human story. What really drew me in was Benjy and Charlie [“Karate Charlie’ Suarez, Ghetto Brothers president]. The ying and yang of their relationship. I could see these kids in myself. I mean I knew a Charlie. I knew a Benjy. I hung with these kids. I know their language. As a New Yorker, I mean, I went through my own war stories during the ’80s and ’90s. I’m an old graffiti artist. My best friend was murdered. There was a lot of things that I could relate to and we could talk to and they understood that it wasn’t just some kid trying to exploit the culture.
There are so many shows about gangs, and it’s like ‘The Latin Kings! Killers!’ You know and all that. Just reinforcing all these fucking stereotypes about minorities and black people, Puerto Ricans, whatever. You never hear a balanced human story when it comes to gang culture. That’s something that I wanted to put across the board. These kids weren’t inherently violent. They had a raw deal. The city was falling apart. The neighborhoods were falling apart. The police didn’t police their neighborhoods. They were basically the law of the land. That’s why these gangs came about. Empowerment. They are human. They have human stories. They had incredible power within themselves to change their community.
How did you know that Shan was the right person to amplify your story?
Benjy Melendez: What’s interesting about him was there was a vibe. There was something about him where I said, “This is a man who sees a dream.” Not just anybody had that potential and not everybody has dreams. They just do a story and “have a nice day,” you never see that person again. But, this guy believes. And look what’s happening: doors are opening. Isn’t that incredible?
How did you come to learn about the culture?
SN: I ran across the Ghetto Brothers a couple of different ways. I’m a DJ and producer. That’s kinda how I got my start in the creative world in general. As a record digger, you would always see and hear [Power Fuerza] the Ghetto Brothers’ only album. It was this Holy Grail, Willy Wonka golden ticket. If you ever found it, it was one of those incredible records that was super rare. So, I knew about the Ghetto Brothers’ music, and then while I was doing research for another film, I was reading Jeff Chang’s book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and that’s when I ran across the story of the Ghetto Brothers and was like, “Wow.”
Was it a slow evolution in harnessing the power and using the respect of the crew to become community activists and leaders and to galvanize the community instead of break it apart?
BM: You have to believe in what you’re doing. They’d say, “Yo Benjy. This isn’t gonna work out.” Listen to me, my brothers: it’s called consistency. If you believe in something it’s going to happen. I would tell them, “The softest element is water. The hard element is rock. When water keeps dripping on that same spot for a long period of time, it’s going to make a hole right through there. Brothers, if we believe in this peace thing, then we have to set an example as the Ghetto Brothers. You have to be different from everybody else.” When people were coming into our community and they saw me clad in denim, leather and boots, but when they talked to me, they said, “Man, this guy is a nice guy.” Because this is what I believe. Because when you project it and let it out, it is what it is. It’s action. You get what I mean? Because love rubs off on a person.
Can you talk about your own personal awakening? When did your eyes open to peace as an alternative?
BM: To me, that goes back to when I was a child. These are the things that my parents taught us. If you want to live, learn to love other people. Learn to be kind to other people. I’d say, “Why?” Because it’s going to come right back to you. My father always used farming as an example. He’d say, “If I plant apple seeds, I am going to get apples.” If we plant hate, then that’s what you are going to get. If you plant love, that’s what you are going to get. So, which one would you choose? What was that thing that I said years ago at the peace treaty? I said, “You see brothers? When there is peace, there is quietness. There is rest. If you think about it, you don’t have to turn your back anymore to see if somebody is going to stab you and everything.” So, when I dropped those things in their mind, later on they told me, “Benjy, this makes a lot of sense. If it wasn’t because of that peace treaty, a lot of us would’t be alive today.”
After the murder of “Black Benjie,” all eyes were on you—including the focus of the media. The media was also waiting for a bloodbath. They wanted you to call for revenge. It reminded me of the days that followed the riots for Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It was rating sweeps and peace doesn’t seem to sell as well as bloodshed. Did you feel similar connections?
BM: I was told that there were some gangs [in Baltimore] that were telling people to chill out, but it should have never had happened. My children were looking at me. “Pop, does that remind you?” Yes. It reminds me of back in the day. I remember the riots in the ’60s in the Bronx. But they never approached our community. Here’s the good thing we did as a group: we were the policemen of the area. They didn’t approach our turf because we were there. We had over 2,000 guys. Just in the Bronx.
SN: Unfortunately, everything that is happening with Baltimore and the rest of the country right now connects in so many different ways. Not just police brutality, but you look at Detroit with the housing and mass arson that’s happening out there. It parallels the South Bronx in so many different ways. Also culturally, too. You think about the state of hip hop and where that is now. It went through such a cultural growth and now it has kind of hit this plateau of being really commercial.
What were your initial thoughts on the early sounds of hip hop?
BM: Technically, we were more rock and roll. My brother Victor pointed out that if people don’t listen to us talking to them, put the same message in a song and watch ‘em. He was right. When I saw hip hop for the first time, I thought that the religious community started to go to the streets. In those days, the Pentecostals when they were in church would jump all over the place. And then I said, “Look at that. They are doing all their flipping over here in the streets.” My brother, Victor said, “No, Benjy. That’s the latest thing.” I said, “Are you serious? This is just a fad.” Nobody told me! He said, “Benjy, this is going to be a billion-dollar industry.” So, my brother was right. He predicated that this was going to be big-time. [People] still say though you’ve got to give it to Benjy. He still loves rock and roll.
Do you think that type of ingenuity is still possible in marginalized communities today?
SN: I mean, I don’t know. That’s a really weighted question. Culture in general and New York culture particularly, pre-Internet, there was time for it to stew. It was such a small community that you weren’t trying to impress the whole world automatically. You were trying to impress two hundred people around you. I’m not sure if culture in general has that grace period anymore. Now, people will do something and it’s about getting it out there as fast as possible, getting as many likes and getting eyeballs on it. There is not that sort of nurturing period where you could actually grow something organically.
When I interviewed [Afrika] Bambaataa, Kool Herc, a lot of the hip hop pioneers, the one question I asked was why did hip hop start in New York? Why New York? Michael Holman, who I’ve partnered up with, an incredible scriptwriter and an old-school pioneer, said this incredible thing. He said that hip hop is a reflection of New York because New Yorkers are forced to live next to each other. He’s like I see a B-boy in a picture and he’s posing with his hat to the side and I see a Jewish kid in the 1930s with an apple boy hat posed like this (miming the same pose). It’s the style and reflection of this vibration that is happening from generation to generation trying to make their identity, trying to make their name in New York. It’s vibrating from generation to generation to generation to generation—buzzing, bouncing off of each other and then all at once—boom. Hip hop. It was like when that thing went straight into focus and boom—the culture came out of it. It took the city in the worst state, in a crisis for that culture to explode. When the cats are away, the mice come out and play. And that’s essentially it. Nobody stopped those block parties because nobody gave a shit.
Do you wonder about kids tangled up in gangs today seeing the film?
SN: Absolutely. Obviously, we want as many eyeballs on it as possible, but the bigger goal is to give back to these communities. Because [the film] is not a sledgehammer. It’s a gentle nudge in a different direction. Some of these kids, it’s like they have blinders on. All they know is violence. You just have to kind of open up one of the blinders a little bit and it’s like, “Oh shit. There’s a whole other world outside of this?” Essentially, that’s what the Ghetto Brothers did. They stepped out of the norm. They stepped out of the path that was created for them. All odds were against them. It shouldn’t have happened. You know what I mean? But it had to happen.
Rubble Kings is in theaters and available On Demand on Friday, June 19, 2015.