After watching the recently released documentary, Rubble Kings, so much of my love started to make a hell of a lot more sense. This documentary chronicles visually the wreckage of the Bronx, and just how low and destitute the residents became by the middle of the 1960’s. It’s a perfect connective tissue to the many books, films, and documentaries made about Hip Hop. The gang life of New York City, especially in the Bronx, is an important root cause of Hip Hop culture. What makes the story even more profound is that it was the gangs themselves, not police, not politicians, nor anyone else, who stopped the violence. It was this peace treaty, which has been written about by Jeff Chang in his seminal work on Hip Hop’s history, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
The film, and history, show that the gang life began because of the plight of the city in the mid-1960’s. New York City was dealing with massive cut backs, a crippling debt, roll back on police and fire fighters, social services, and all around optimism was waning. This was the de-industrialization of the city, where blocks and buildings were left to rot, just as the master builder Robert Moses erected his finishing touches on the city, and especially the borough of the Bronx. This led to white flight, and a rise of de-investment in these neighborhoods and communities that were thriving not to long ago. Out of the decay, depression, and anguish came the gangs. With the cuts there also came cuts to schools such as music and art programs and after school activities. Many members of the Nation of Islam and Black Panther Party, who gave these children some outlets were all arrested by Federal agents in the COINTELPRO initiative. So, what was a kid to do? Can’t get a job, nothing to do, living amidst rubble and ruins, and you are menaced every day by the local thugs? You join a gang, and unlike other sources this documentary shows how the gangs lived, as well as how vicious they were. However, they also point out that they had a substantial number of members, and they were in full control of their turfs.
There are many new aspects of history that make this film extremely important. One member of the Young Lords, and current activist and speaker said that history is shaped by individuals, and he is correct that all these individuals shaped what would become a dominant force in American popular culture, Hip Hop. One example is the fact that peace prevailed over violence. Conservatives constantly prod the notion that black on black crime is the worst offender in black mortality rates. However, this also shows that they can also come to terms without any help from the real enemy, the establishment. Another facet is the fact that they constantly echo the film The Warriors and how they convened a meeting like in the film years before the film’s release. The irony is that the film, along with other urban dystopia films released at the time such as Escape From New York, Fort Apache: The Bronx, and Death Wish, gave a negative stereotype of something that was slowly vanishing in New York City.
Another interesting aspect that can be lost is the fact that there were white gangs in the North Bronx. Popular culture, either through film or news, presents gang activities and gangs in general as black or Latino. The film shows that that is not the case as there were many Irish and Italian gangs, as well as Jews who belonged to these gangs as well, and they were pretty vicious as well. Another important aspect of the film, which is another aspect that naysayers and conservatives embrace, is that certain gangs were politically inclined and not just run-of-the-mill hoodlums. The Ghetto Brothers pushed for Puerto Rican recognition and unity amongst the gangs, which was in tune with the older Young Lords. The Black Spades also took certain elements from the Black Panthers. This is what led to the Hoe Avenue Peace Treaty, which should be marked as a crucial moment in Hip Hop history. It was after this treaty where gangs were able to step into rival gang turf without fear of repercussions. Now the focus was on getting to the party, enjoying yourself and hooking up with a nice lady without repercussions. Lo and behold this led to the spread of the music and the culture.
In the last part of the documentary you hear from the pioneers and how they were directly affected by the gangs and the peace treaty. If you just look at the early rappers they were mostly part of a gang, or group like the Furious Five, The Cold Crush Brothers, Fantastic Five, and many more. Also, just listen to the music leading up to today and how they represent or rep their gang affiliations. Ice Cube said it best when he rhymed that he’s from the dope gang called Niggaz Wit Attitudes. He didn’t say group he said gang, cause that was reality. The film is a must see for avid fans as well as historians who will be able to contextualize the story of Hip Hop in a better fashion.
An interesting side note is that one of the main leaders of the Ghetto Brothers who pushed for peace over war, by the name of “Yellow” Benjy Melendez found out that he was Jewish. He writes in his book Ghetto Brother: How I Found Peace in the South Bronx Street Gang Wars, about his experiences in the Ghetto Brothers and coming to terms with squashing the violence. However, you get a better grasp on his journey in tracing his Jewish roots in the great graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker. coincidentally, or not, the leader who decided to keep the peace over violence was a crypto-Jew.
So kick back and relax, and get ready for some history and a great story.