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.