This Man Saved NYC From an Epic Gang War & Helped Plant the Seeds for Hip-Hop (Audio)

It’s often said that nostalgia for a particular era comes around every 20 years or so, and today’s obsession with all things ’90s adds a ring of truth to that idiom. However, there are particular eras that for whatever reason remain palpable and attractive decades and decades later. In recent weeks, it seems like late-’60s and early-’70s New York has become the focal point for films, books, music, and thought. In the first half of 2015 alone, several projects have been put forth which examine the years before Hip-Hop culture became an identifiable sociological phenomenon, and one of the names most present in those examinations has been that of Benjy Melendez. A focal character in both the documentary Rubble Kings and the graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker, Melendez’s presence during the formative days of New York City’s contemporary youth culture has now been recorded for posterity, but the conversation is far from over.

Shawn Setaro, host of the Cipher Show, featured Melendez as his guest on Episode 114 of his podcast as well as Amir Said, an author with whom Melendez has written¬†Ghetto Brother: How I Found Peace in the South Bronx Street Gang Wars, which Setaro describes as “the first place Benjy shares his entire life story.” The three men discuss Melendez’s experience in the endemic gang culture that engulfed the Bronx in the ’60s and ’70s, which led him to founding his very own crew, the Ghetto Brothers. The Ghetto Brothers evolved from a knife-wielding street gang to a proponent of community peace, a trajectory Melendez speaks about at great length during this nearly 90-minute conversation.

Melendez also speaks in detail about his forced migration to the Bronx, imposed upon him by landlords in his native Greenwich Village, who allegedly paid his Puerto Rican family to move so the Village could become gentrified. That move to the Bronx is what set his legacy into motion; without the displacement, it’s difficult to say that he would have ever been involved with the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, considered by many to be the earliest incubator of the marinating Hip-Hop culture in the Bronx. The meeting arose out of a climate in which Melendez lost his fellow gang brother, Cornell “Black Benjy” Benjamin, who was killed when he attempted to interfere with a schism between two rival gangs. After Black Benjy’s death, Melendez was re-born with purpose, this time one of peace and prosperity. So, he called a meeting at the Boys & Girls Club on Hoe Avenue in 1971 and invited all of the street gangs of the South Bronx.

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Around the 31:00 mark, a clip from Rubble Kings describing the details about the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting is shared. However, the statements made by Melendez during the segment are the most illuminating. “If I did not shoot for peace, think of the consequences,” he says. “The war that would have been declared it woulda been written as the bloodiest bloodbath in the history of the Bronx.” Surely, a borough-wide war between street gangs in 1971 New York would have undeniably grave side effects for the entire city; inter-community strife would have made it much more difficult for later crews like the Universal Zulu Nation to wage a campaign of unity. In fact, as is revealed in the segment, a young teenaged member of the Black Spades was in attendance during that meeting…”He was called Bam Bam then,” Setaro shares. “I knew about him. He knew about me,” Melendez says.

As Setaro pointedly mentions, the media coverage of the Treaty meeting seemed to be stained with an air of disappointment, as if they were gunning for Melendez to declare war, not peace. “They wanted to tell America that a bunch of savages live here [South Bronx]. I turned it around,” Melendez responds. While it’s certainly true that a whole host of contributing factors led to the Bronx being the fertile crescent for Hip-Hop, it is quite moving to realize that Melendez saw an opportunity to flip the script with such foresight.

In addition to the in-person contributions from Melendez and Said, the interview includes wonderfully complementary audio clips from speeches, news reels, the 1979 film Warriors (which is loosely based on the gang warfare of the era), and even tracks from the Ghetto Brothers’ Rock album, all as featured in Rubble Kings. Check out this incredible history lesson in full, below.

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