The Story of How a Puerto Rican Jew Jump-started Hip-Hop

"One day I saw a film with some friends of mine called Hells Angels on Wheels. When I saw the Hell's Angels [rockers gang on the movie] and I saw their colors, I said I can do that!" said Meléndez. "I went to the fabric store and bought some felt. I cut out rockers. I went to Harry's on Southern Boulevard, bought the letters, ironed them on to the rockers and then painted a logo on the felt and then everything was sewed onto the jacket. From then on, a lot of groups started to do the same thing."

The iconic Ghetto Brothers 'flying cut sleeves' vest.

A lot of the old guys had leather jackets. They had the colors but they were on leather. So since I wasn't riding motorcycles, I said let's put them on Lee jacket." The phrase "Flying Cut Sleeves" Meléndez attributes to Black Benjy, who was referring to the act of wearing denim jackets with the sleeves cut off, sporting the colors of your gang.

But Meléndez's affection for the Hells Angels dissipated when he went to their headquarters in New York's East Village to try to join. "I found out later that they don't accept black members. When they told me that I was shocked and I just left."

Soon after the gang peace summit, Meléndez was visited by a Black Panther organizer named Joseph Mpa. "He told me, why don't you take all this energy and do something constructive in the community—brothers can't be killing brothers," said Meléndez. "I had a meeting with the presidents, vice-presidents, warlords of all my divisions and I said 'I'm going to change the platform, brothers.' We're going to take off our colors, we're going to start wearing berets, and we're going to start cleaning our community, taking out the drug pushers, start giving out free food…"

Meléndez then began a long association with United Bronx Parents, a social service organization run by local hero Evelyn Anotinetty, and also made a commitment with activists for Puerto Rican independence. If you listen to "Viva Puerto Rico Libre," from the re-release, you can hear that Meléndez, unlike prototypical Nuyoricans, has a strong command of Spanish, giving this impromptu anthem a feel of authenticity that anticipated the political edge of much of '70s salsa.

But although Meléndez was a central force in creating the street collectivity and party atmosphere that inspired hip-hop, he did not have a strong connection or understanding of the phenomenon. "The Ghetto Brothers used to play every Friday night after the peace treaty, after the death of Black Benjy," said Meléndez. "Afrika Bambaata saw this and took it to the next level. When I saw it for the first time, guys dancing, I looked at my brother, and said, 'they look like the Pentecostals because I saw them turning in circles, that's the way I saw them in church.' So my brother said, 'no Benjy, that's called hip-hop!' They looked at me and said 'what is wrong with you?'!"

Benjy Meléndez in the 1970s.

The rock legacy of hip-hop is carefully hidden, but in some ways obvious. You can hear it in one of hip-hop's first classics, Bambaata's "Planet Rock," which samples the visionary German band Kraftwerk, The Treacherous Three's "Body Rock," or The Strikers' lesser-known "Body Music," which urges you to "rock, rock to the punk rock." But that little snippet, as well as Nuyoricans' crucial role in contributing to graffiti-writing, break dancing, and DJing, have become an afterthought.

In the early '80s, as hip-hop began to hit its stride, the Ghetto Brothers had reinvented themselves as the short-lived Beatles imitators Street the Beat. "We once opened up for Tito Puente as the Junior Beatles," said Meléndez, who started singing with the band at age 11, and has played consistently with them since. Street the Beat played Beatles covers on Greenwich Village street corners and according to Meléndez, played private parties for the Rolling Stones, the Police, and Hollywood celebrities. "Diana Ross walked up to me when I was playing and put $100 in my pocket!" he recalled.

Since then, it's been a struggle for Benjy, who, at 60, suffers from kidney failure and has been on dialysis. Though he worked as a counselor at United Bronx Parents for 30 years, he had to stop working last year due to this health. Around the time he started working as a counselor, he met and married his second wife, Wanda, with whom he has six kids - and two more from his first marriage.

Despite his health concerns, Meléndez is very enthused about the sudden rebirth in interest in the Ghetto Brothers - the result of an accumulation of things. Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop book, an appearance by the Ghetto Brothers at the Experience Music Project conference in Seattle in 2004, and Meléndez appearing with Afrika Bambaataa at various speaking engagements throughout the last decade. But the band - currently comprised of Benjy on vocals, Benjy's brother Robert on rhythm guitar, Benjy's son Joshua on lead guitar and bass, and Robert's son Hiram on drums - is about more than just nostalgia these days. "We have a totally different sound now, we practice in the studio constantly," said Meléndez. "We're hoping we can go on tour soon and record a new album."

He's just happy for that day in 1971, when he decided to take off his colors for peace. "I dropped the Savage Nomads and somebody else took over, and I dropped the Savage Skulls, because if I wore the jacket that said Savage I had to back it up. So I was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As soon as I put on those denims I had to act out that name," said Yellow Benjy. "So I just stayed with the Ghetto Brothers."

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