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Real Gangsta Tunes

The recent release of the N.W.A. docudrama, Straight Outta Compton, has many looking back and wondering: where did a bunch of gang members get the idea to make a record? Nevermind that the movie forgets to script the part where Dr. Dre (Andre Young, a dedicated diver on his school's swim team) and DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby) helped create the World Class Wreckin' Cru.

A 1984 live performance by the World Class Wreckin' Cru (featuring Dr. Dre).

Also, the flick doesn't showcase Ice Cube's 1986 rap skills, nor does it document his enrollment at Phoenix Institute of Technology the following year for architectural drafting.

Stereo Crew (featuring Ice Cube), "She's a Skag" (Epic, 1986)

Truth is that these guys weren't really associated with gangs previous to the rise of N.W.A. Before stardom, Eazy-E (Eric Wright) may have sold crack to get by, but even that wouldn't get them close to being the first street toughs to lay it down on wax. That honor is bestowed upon the Ghetto Brothers.

The Ghetto Brothers band.

Starting as a local street club around the late-'60s in New York City's South Bronx, the Ghetto Brothers later became involved in Puerto Rican nationalism, and had formed an association with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.

The gang first consisted of Ray de la Vega, Benjamin "Benjy" Melendez, and Hui Cambrelen (who named the group). They had a rep for being trouble, but were also known for having a deeply philosophical side. The gang treated its women members differently than most crews (calling them Ghetto Sisters), and even became involved in charities.

By 1969, Benjamin began to notice the power he held, and took the position of neighborhood spokesman. In December of 1971, after the death of one of the Ghetto Brothers by a rival posse, he brokered a truce among the gangs of the Bronx and Harlem at the Hoe Avenue peace meeting, which inspired the opening scenes of the 1979 gang flick The Warriors.

The Ghetto Brothers gang.

However, he later claimed his proudest moment would come upon the release of a full LP, Power-Fuerza, with his rock band, also called the Ghetto Brothers.

Ghetto Brothers, Power-Fuerza (Salsa, 1971)

Getting into music early on, Benjy (at only 11) formed The Junior Beatles, a cover band which mixed Latin rhythms and rock. Luck shined down on him when he was offered the opening slot for Tito Puente at the Embassy Club in 1964, so even with these guys, music was in their veins before the gang life.

Still, when listening to the Ghetto Brothers' album, one doesn't get any hint it's a bunch of thugs jamming, but is instead taken by the sense that someone just really loved Santana enough to start a similar-sounding band.

Ghetto Brothers, "Girl From the Mountain," from Power-Fuerza (Salsa, 1971)

The lyrics aren't what you'd come to expect from gang members either, which includes three of the eight tracks being love songs. To me, the most powerful song is the funk-dance tune "Ghetto Brothers Power," which isn't much more than a catchy call-and-response number.

Ghetto Brothers, "Ghetto Brothers Power," from Power-Fuerza (Salsa, 1971)

Produced by Bobby Marin, the record was released on the Ghetto Brothers' own Salsa Records imprint, and only sold locally. Though leaving the gang in 1976, Benjy was approached to re-release Power-Fuerza on CD in 2008 by Brooklyn's Truth & Soul Records.

Benjamin "Benjy" Melendez, early-'70s.

Label co-owner, Leon Michels, said that with eBay sales of the original 12" going into $1,000 territory, and Benjy not even owning a copy himself, they just had to repress it.

Ghetto Brothers, "Mastica Chupa y Jala," from Power-Fuerza (Salsa, 1971)

In the early-'90s, the Ghetto Brothers and the Savage Nomads joined together to form Los Solidos ("The Solid Ones"), currently one of the most powerful Puerto Rican gangs in NY state. Other notable ex-members of the Ghetto Brothers are former Hartford, CT mayor Eddie Perez, and New York Daily News columnist Robert Dominguez.

To get deeper into the story, check out the 2015 documentary, Rubble Kings.

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