Benjy Melendez aka Yellow Benjy is one of the most massive figures in the story of Hip-Hop and we were extremely lucky to interview him recently, and to hear from the man himself about life, love, and music.
Yellow Benjy is known to many people for many reasons, with lots of films, books, and stories about him and his organization, including a just-released graphic novel with Julian Voloj, called “Warrior/Peacemaker.” We originally planned to speak to him about the music of his band, The Ghetto Brothers, and what inspired them to create the timeless tracks on their sole album “Power: Fuerza.” However, in the course of talking to Benjy, we took away many more stories and bits of knowledge that we’re very glad to bring to you.
We asked the question “Who is Yellow Benjy?” We learned a lot about the man and the context in which the Ghetto Brothers lived and eventually laid down their music, in addition to the history behind the infamous peace treaty brokered by Yellow Benjy between the gangs of the Bronx in late 1971.
We learned about the background of burnt-out buildings, piles of bricks, and broken streets lit only by the moon, and how a flower growing out of rubble inspired Benjy and others to change their surroundings for the better.
You’ll hear throughout the interview about the choices faced by a young man running an inner city “club” and how his own family, religion, and culture would shape his decisions.
In terms of Hip-Hop history, the Ghetto Brothers’ Friday night street jams, to which all the gangs were invited, shaped similar efforts by a young Afrika Bambaataa, ultimately coming to define early Hip-Hop. We learned how and why Yellow Benjy came to throw those jams, and that, upon seeing Bboys Breaking for the first time, Yellow Benjy thought it was some kind of religious experience, akin to “catching the holy spirit.”
As to the timeless Ghetto Brothers tracks… Despite releasing only one album (which was rereleased via Truth and Soul Records in 2013), the GBs left quite a mark on music, becoming one of the most in-demand bands in New York City, playing private parties for the likes of Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. They were also known as one of the top cover bands for The Beatles, a band that inspired the GBs themselves.
Check out this sampler mix of the iconic Ghetto Brothers album “Power-Fuerza”:
Despite an immeasurable impact on Hip-Hop culture and the conditions that birthed the movement, Yellow Benjy wasn’t too impressed with early “Rap” music, though his brother Victor would predict that this was the “music of the future.” Another thing predicted by Victor Melendez was that the Ghetto Brothers’ music would one day be reborn, and on both premonitions, Victor was on the money (and may he rest in peace).
With just one sentence, Yellow Benjy explains why his actions might have had such an impact:
“A calm mind is a creative mind.”
Benjy relates that once the conflicts between gangs and turfs died down, people no longer had to look over their shoulder and the energy that went to destruction before could now be channeled into building a better future for all, a lesson that could be useful all around our present world.
And for his part, Yellow Benjy continues to preach the universal message of “Love thy neighbor” and we hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.
For further learning, we recommend the films “Flyin’ Cut Sleeves,” “Rubble Kings,” “80 Blocks from Tiffany’s,” “The Education of Sonny Carson,” and the book “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” by Jeff Chang.
Updated May 29, 2017
We’re very sad to learn of Yellow Benjy’s death. We hope that his story continues to serve as a light to future generations.