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Ghetto Brothers: Guitars Over Guns

Benjy Melendez (right) founded and led The Ghetto Brothers in the early 1970s. (Courtesy of the artist)

The Ghetto Brothers functioned as one of many youth gangs that formed in the 1960s as economic woes and governmental neglect began to transform New York City's South Bronx for the worse. Led by Benjamin "Benjy" Melendez, the gang was originally, literally, just him and his brothers. As kids, they had called themselves Los Junior Beatles, and that Fab Four influence never left.

In 1971, Melendez and The Ghetto Brothers were pivotal in helping to broker a truce between various Bronx gangs. The Brothers channeled their formerly felonious energies into music instead. For their one and only album, Power Fuerza, they drew on everything from Frankie Lymon's street-lamp doo-wop to Santana's fuzzed-out Latin rock.

Power Fuerza documents a unique musical moment in early 1970s New York history. You can hear the lingering influence of rock 'n' roll, the height of funk's impact and the burgeoning salsa era. The album also captures the political shifts of the time, especially with the rise of a Puerto Rican independence movement that swept through New York City's uptown.

The peace treaty that The Ghetto Brothers helped negotiate was pivotal in the eventual emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx, but the group's musical career faded too quickly for it to have joined in. Power Fuerza dwelled in obscurity for decades. However, by the time some deep-pocketed Latin record collectors rediscovered it a generation later — drawn to its remarkable back story and mix of sounds — it had become a collector's item worth up to $1,000.

With its reissue, Power Fuerza returns to us as a time capsule of sorts, but its message hasn't dulled with the intervening years: Choose guitars over guns, and let music be your mayhem.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally, this hour, a story that sounds like a Hollywood script. A Puerto Rican street gang in the South Bronx escapes the cycle of violence and finds salvation in music. It's a true story, the story of a group called The Ghetto Brothers. Their conversion to music only produced a single album in 1971. It went nowhere at the time. But later, it became a collector's item, costing as much as $1,000.

Now, as we hear from reviewer Oliver Wang, the album has been officially re-released.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: The Ghetto Brothers were one of many youth gangs that formed in the 1960s as economic woes and governmental neglect transformed the South Bronx for the worse. Led by Benjamin "Benjy" Melendez, the gang was originally, literally, him and his brothers. As kids, they had called themselves Los Junior Beatles, and that Fab Four influence never left.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

THE GHETTO BROTHERS: (Singing) There is nothing in my heart that I have to say to you. I hope that we'll never part. What I have to say is true.

WANG: In 1971, Melendez and The Ghetto Brothers were pivotal in helping to broker a truce between various Bronx gangs. Following this new peace, the Brothers channeled their formerly felonious energies into music for their one and only album, called "Power Fuerza." The brothers drew on everything from Frankie Lymon's street-lamp doo-wop...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROTHERS: (Singing) You always thought I was a fool, but listen baby, you know the rules. Once you let go of this guy, you're going to be...

SIEGEL: ...to Santana's fuzzed-out Latin rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: "Power Fuerza" documents a unique musical moment in early 1970s New York history. You can hear the lingering influence of rock 'n' roll, the hammering funk of the time and the coming salsa wave. The album also captures the era's political shift, especially with the rise of a Puerto Rican independence movement that swept through New York City's uptown.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROTHERS: (Singing in foreign language)

WANG: The peace treaty The Ghetto Brothers helped negotiate paved the way for the eventual emergence of hip-hop in the South Bronx, but the group's career faded too quickly for the musicians to join in. Their sole album was all but forgotten until deep-pocketed record collectors rediscovered it a generation later, drawn to its remarkable back story and mix of sounds.

With its reissue, "Power Fuerza" returns to us as a time capsule of sorts, but its message hasn't dulled with the intervening years. Choose guitars over guns and let music be your mayhem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: "Power Fuerza" is the only album by The Ghetto Brothers. Our reviewer, Oliver Wang, is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach. He also writes the audio blog, SoulSides.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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