Benjy Melendez and his brother Robert still get together every Friday in their Bronx studio, practicing songs they wrote together more than 40 years ago. These days, it's a low-key affair. Back then, however, it felt like life and death.
Their band, the Ghetto Brothers, were also the leaders of a Bronx street gang of the same name. When Benjy Melendez helped broker a historic gang truce, he asked neighboring warlords to bring their members onto the Ghetto Brothers' turf every Friday, where the group would use music to break down barriers.
"'There'll be no restrictions,'" Melendez, 60, remembers telling his onetime rivals. "'We want you to have a good time.' And from that day on, forget it – it was like a carnival."
The Ghetto Brothers came to be known for their role in creating the Bronx street-party scene that would give rise to hip-hop. However, their own band was something else entirely – a boyish, bilingual, Beatles-crazed vocal group that created their own style of Latin rock before they ever heard about Santana. Around the time of the peace treaty, the band jumped at a local label owner's invitation to record an album. Long out of print and highly prized by record collectors, Power Fuerza has just been reissued by the Brooklyn label Truth and Soul.
Before they'd even hit their teen years, the Melendez brothers (a third, Victor, died over a decade ago) were singing from the balcony of their project apartment. As Los Junior Beatles, they once opened for salsa legend Tito Puente at the Embassy Ballroom in the South Bronx. When the Melendez boys were invited to attend the Third Street Music School in the Sixties – having added electric guitars, congas and timbales to their sound – they quickly became faculty favorites. "We were charming," Benjy Melendez tells Rolling Stone. "In spite of the fact that we had leather jackets, our pants were torn and we had chains and knives sticking out, we were really good guys."
As a street gang, the Ghetto Brothers grew to include divisions across all five boroughs and as far afield as Chicago. After the murder of an associate known as "Black Benjie" (Melendez was called "Yellow Benjy"), the brothers convinced their fellow leaders to lay down their arms.
"We lived in a very dangerous time," recalls Melendez. "The buildings were burning – it was like Germany after the war. We were the police in the area... I didn't want to do what the other gangs were doing. We had all these members – why not do something constructive?"
Modeling themselves in part on the Black Panthers' community efforts in Oakland and elsewhere – without the guns, Melendez says – the Ghetto Brothers took it upon themselves to drive out the pimps and drug dealers, distribute food and clothes to those who needed them and help local kids with their schoolwork. As detailed in Jeff Chang's definitive hip-hop history, Can't Stop, Won't Stop, the group's goodwill efforts and rowdy street parties inspired young DJs, including Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc, as well as the breakdancers who helped create hip-hop culture.
"I saw guys spinning in circles," says Melendez, "and I told my brother, 'Look, the church is in the street!'" It felt like a passing of the torch; he eventually stepped aside as the leader of the Ghetto Brothers and became a social worker. Over the years, he often spoke to student groups. One kid would inevitably ask whether Melendez had ever killed anyone, he says. "And I'd say you don't have to kill someone physically to kill them with words... I always told them a peaceful mind is a creative mind."
When Power Fuerza first came out in 1972, Melendez was so excited he gave away all his copies of the album. "I regret it big time, man," he says now. A few years ago, he found a copy of the record on an eight-track tape in a thrift shop. "I sold it to a guy named Johan," he says, for $200.
Now, after 40 years, he'll have his own copy of the record. It's a small token of the much broader fuerza he helped unleash.