It’s easy, when watching “Rubble Kings,” the new documentary from director Shan Nicholson and narrated by John Leguizamo, to ask yourself, “what does this have to do with hip-hop?”
The answer is “everything.”
Nicholson tells the story of the social and political climate that created the horrendous conditions in the Bronx that would eventually lead to hip-hop’s creation, and he takes a winding, scenic route to get there.
It’s not until the film’s denouement that Nicholson begins to delve into DJ battles, but it’s worth the wait. Those who appreciated the definitive history laid out by Jeff Chang in “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” will recognize some of the same elements in “Rubble Kings.”
Before the Bronx began to look like a burned-out war zone in the early 1970s, it had been home to many thriving economically and ethnically diverse communities. But it was hit with one catastrophe after another, including the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which displaced businesses and thousands of people and split the borough in two.
“It was a perfect storm of events that happened to the Bronx at the same time,” Nicholson told The Post. “It wasn’t just the Cross Bronx Expressway. It was the economic collapse of New York in general. It was Brooklyn, parts of Queens, Manhattan, obviously Harlem. It was just this perfect storm of things going wrong for the city — bad urban planning, white flight, cutting fire department, police department, social services — across the board all these things were happening at the same time. Landlords burning their buildings for insurance.”
The city nearly went bankrupt. It wasn’t all that dissimilar from what we’ve witnessed happen to Detroit in recent years. “It looked like Germany after the war,” Benjamin “Yello Benjy” Melendez, one of the founders of the Ghetto Brothers said in an interview with The Post.
Amid the violence and chaos that began to rise, Melendez formed the Ghetto Brothers with his actual brothers. He didn’t want to be a part of a gang, but eventually the name extended to Melendez’s friends, including Carlos Suarez, who was known in the South Bronx as Karate Charlie. Eventually, Ghetto Brothers membership swelled to 2,500 people in the Bronx alone.
As the Ghetto Brothers grew and gang violence began to proliferate, the Ghetto Brothers followed a different path: they could and would fight, but they weren’t known for carrying weapons and they were more focused on effecting social and political change. The Ghetto Brothers took stands against capitalism and imperialism and distributed food and clothing to the neighborhood.
“They were very much community-based,” Nicholson said. “Even though some of them terrorized communities, they stuck up for their own neighborhoods. The Black Panthers and the Young Lords understood this energy, and they went and talked to the gangs about getting politically active and doing [work] for the communities, and they were all sort of like, ‘yeah whatever’ except for the Ghetto Brothers.”
The Ghetto Brothers were the gang of Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin, their “ambassador of peace” who was murdered in the street in December 1971 after he tried to stop a fight between several warring gangs.
Following Benjamin’s death, there were two major turning points that quelled the violence: the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting at the Madison Square Boys Club, where rival gangs, including Benjamin’s killers, met and signed a peace treaty. Then there were the block parties. It was the peace that came with both that made way for DJ battles that marked hip-hop’s creation.
The Ghetto Brothers were one of the few organizations with the clout to invite rival gangs to block parties and have people set aside their weapons. Melendez was the front man for a band, also called the Ghetto Brothers, which would host jam sessions.
Perhaps most significantly, the gang wars had simply taken their toll.
“People just had enough,” Nicholson said. “It was just too much death, too much killing. The music seemed to be like when you let air out of a balloon that’s about to pop. It was a pressure cooker that was building and it defused things to a point where people were relaxed and normal and [ready to] start this culture. Think about the competitive nature of hip-hop, whether it’s graffiti, or breakdancing, or DJing or MCing. It’s all about competition. Who’s the better crew? Who’s the better MC? Who’s the better DJ? It’s born out of that gang mentality, like my group against your group, but instead of fighting, it’s about who does the best backspin or who says the best rhyme, you know what I mean?”
“I think people are coming back to the roots of it all because hip-hop culture has gotten so commercial and so materialistic,” Nicholson adds. “I think people want to get back to where it all started and more of the meat potatoes of the story than the glitz and the glamour.”
“Rubble Kings” is available on iTunes and BitTorrent.