Gangs of New York: Scenes from the Birth of Hip-Hop
Documentary ‘Rubble Kings’ explores the South Bronx chaos that sparked a cultural revolution
There’s a moment in Shan Nicholson’s riveting Rubble Kings documentary, where all seems lost for our heroes, a late 1970s New York City gang called the Ghetto Brothers. Growing up in what looks like a post-apocalyptic, teenage wasteland, the setting is bleak, as these young South Bronx warriors are constantly clashing in an endless battle to be kings of the hill. But the hill that they tirelessly fight to rule is one made of broken concrete and distorted steel—the result of hundreds of destroyed buildings and decaying spaces that covered the area. Without spoiling anything, just when it seems like the future is hopeless, the lives of these youths are preserved by the most unlikely of saviors: the birth of hip-hop culture. While rap music today has often been accused of promoting violence, in the early 1970s of The Bronx, it stopped it.
Cuepoint spoke with director Shan Nicholson about the 1970s New York gang culture that is the film’s focus, examining a series of striking images from that era by photographers Joe Conzo, Alejandro Olivera, Perry Kretz, and Stephen Salmieri.
Cuepoint: What made you take an interest in the subject of early New York City gang culture, to make the Rubble Kings documentary?
Shan Nicholson: I’m originally from New York City, I grew up here. I come from a generation that was right after the gang culture, so we were hearing the echos of the older brothers and cousins in the neighborhood, talking about the old gangs. It also came out of doing research for another project that I was working on about New York City club culture in the late 70s / early 80s. I ran across this book called Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang and they cover the Ghetto Brothers’ story in the book. I thought immediately it would be a great script, so I started thinking about it more as a script and started doing research about it. Then I found footage of the Ghetto Brothers and footage of the peace treaty. I was like ‘Wow, this definitely has legs for a documentary,’ so I started pursuing the documentary and I got with Karate Charlie and Benji. One thing led to another and we were on the road, knocking down interviews and getting the story clearer. That’s kind of how it started. But I’m not a filmmaker, I never went to film school. I got into film out of curiosity really.
Let’s first talk about how the South Bronx came to be in the state that it was in, in the late 60s/early 70s. The film explains how the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway essentially cut a line going straight through New York. And then there was a series of fires, in which a lot of cases found the owners of the buildings burning them to collect the insurance on them.
It was kind of a perfect storm of destruction that went through the Bronx, and not only the Bronx, but other parts of the New York as well. This was a time when they were building factories and jobs were moving out of the cities and into the suburbs. That pulls a lot of the tax base out of the city and into the suburbs and therefore these highways had to be built. It was one of many different blows that the city took.
On top of that, there was a lot of bad urban planning. You mentioned the Cross Bronx Expressway, that was just one of many projects that was referred to as “redlining,” where they’d literally take a pen and run a line across a map and say ‘We’re going to just cut through this.’ It was without any kind of rhyme or reason about who lives there, they would just dictate where a highway would be built. That really just destroyed the fluidity and the connective tissue of the Bronx community that was there before that.
It was just the perfect storm. Urban blight, “white flight” was just at epic proportions. Groups just left, all of the store owners, the merchants. Landlords weren’t getting money from their tenants, so would often torch the buildings for insurance money. It was an epidemic. They said it was two or three fires per day for ten years. Imagine it, it was unbelievable.
They did a survey in the 1980s, because the insurance companies were catching wind of this. So they started to investigate if these fires were arson or not and these burning building situations dropped about 90%. So you had 30,000 buildings burnt over ten years, down to 300 buildings in the following years in the 80s.
And the rise of these gangs was almost out of a wild West-like lawlessness that was happening. As it is stated in the film, even the police were trying to get in and out of there as quickly as possible.
A lot of times these gangs were the law of the land. They protected their own, they protected their streets. They were outlaws, but they were a community as well. They all listened to each others’ mothers and they all respected their elders. It was like the moms were in the gangs, the sisters were in the gangs. It was a community kind of experience, it wasn’t just these kids roaming the streets on their own. There were cousins involved, uncles involved. It wasn’t just the “rotten apples of the block,” so to speak.
And what was the age range of the gangs? How young were they being recruited? Did they eventually age out, or was it a “for life” kind of thing.
I think they did kind of age out after a while. You have to remember this was a brief period. This wasn’t like the Bloods and the Crips that went from generation to generation to generation. This was maybe two generations and then it kind of fizzled out. We’re talking about a period from around ‘68 to ‘76. These gangs were pretty much gone by then.
But back to your question, yes they even had divisions for the younger kids. For the Black Spades, they had the Baby Spades. For the Savage Skulls, they had the Baby Skulls or the Young Skulls. So there definitely were divisions for the younger kids. They also had female divisions for the girls in the neighborhood as well, that were just as important. For the Ghetto Brothers, they had the Ghetto Sisters. Then you had divisions that would reach different corners of the Bronx. There’s that famous quote from Afrika Bambaataa, “The Black Spades had divisions in every single precinct in New York City.” Manhattan, Queens, whatever. That’s a massive gang, that’s thousands of kids right there.
Let’s briefly touch upon the soundtrack, which is incredible, produced by Run The Jewels collaborator Little Shalimar.
Yeah, Little Shalimar and I are old friends, we’ve been friends for about 20 years now. One of the big issues with the film was music clearance. That’s always the most expensive part to clear for a film. I had about 23 songs that needed to be cleared and it was just an impossible task; there was not going to be a budget for that kind of thing. So I’d known Little Shalimar for many, many years and I’d known he was a very talented producer, musician, composer. The guy does it all, he plays drums, he plays keys, he plays bass. So I talked to him about the project. He’s a big fan of the era and a big fan of the film, and we spent about three or four months together in the studio. He just knocked it out, he was incredible.
The idea for the soundtrack was kind of an organic one. We thought at first that maybe we should just give away the music, like on a mixtape, blending the music with songs of the period. So you’d have music that we’d created mixed in with Baby Huey or “Apache” or something like that (which we had also done—we did a mixtape before the soundtrack that we ended up giving away on the website.) But then we were like, we have this music, we own it, we’re friends with different artists that are incredible in their own right and so let’s try and reinterpret it somehow. Maybe let’s remix the tracks, give it to different producers, just flip it in a way to connect it to kids that Rubble Kings might have missed otherwise.
We started putting the feelers out there and we landed Run The Jewels, Tunde from TV on the Radio, Ghostface Killah, Killer Mike, Bun B; it’s a really incredible line-up that we have and it’s all themed in Rubble Kings. So when you listen to the soundtrack, you’re going to get a bit of the movie, with sound bites that kind of guide you through this world. There’s definitely a narrative thread in the album.
Shan Nicholson: That was shot at the show called The 51st State. The Ghetto Brothers and the Roman Kings had an interesting relationship. Basically, the Roman Kings were like the little brothers and the little cousins of the Ghetto Brothers. From what Karate Charlie tells me, every time you see a Ghetto Brother, you see a little Roman King next to him. They’re all in the same area of the South Bronx, they all kind of came up together.
That’s Yellow Benji, the vice president and founder of the Ghetto Brothers, at a park jam. That was a portrait done by Alejandro Olivera. Alejandro is actually an interesting guy. He was there, he wasn’t like an older guy that was hanging with the kids and photographing them. He was a peer of the same range. He wasn’t necessarily a Ghetto Brother, but he was running with them, hanging out at these studio gigs and park jams.
The thing about the Ghetto Brothers that made them stand out and made them get all that press, is that they were a gang, but they were also a community activism group. They worked really hard to bring unity to these gangs. They did a lot of work for the community, the did food drives, clothing drives. They were much more modelled after the Young Lords and the Black Panthers than a lot of these outlaw gangs, who were anti-establishment in every single way. The Ghetto Brothers were more nationalistic and had more of a community-centric platform that they followed.
They were one of the biggest gangs in the city. Like the Black Spades, they had divisions all over the city. Like Benji says in the film, ‘2500 strong in the Bronx alone.’ They were massive. For some reason, the media tended to go them because they were a little more friendly and a little more eloquent. They just had an easier disposition to deal with than some of the other gangs.
The guy smiling is named Blackie, and he was the first president of the Savage Skulls. All of these guys were good friends with one another. Savage Skulls, Ghetto Brothers, Savage Nomads, these were all groups that lived in close proximity to one another, and all went to school together. The guy with his back to the camera next to Blackie is Karate Charlie.
There’s an interesting story, you see the skull with the flames on the back of the Ghetto Brothers jacket? That was the same colors as the Hell’s Angels. Benji told me that they got stopped for the red lettering on white banners and the skull on fire, which led to a problem with the Hell’s Angels. They had to change them after that.
That’s the Ghetto Brothers’ band at one of their park jams. That’s Benji and his brother on lead vocals and guitar. You can see Karate Charlie playing the cowbell on the opposite end of the stage. They had an album out. It was one of the rare, rare records. It was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; if you found that record it was the golden ticket. I don’t think it was that popular. I think they only pressed a couple thousand, if that. It was like a ‘mom and pop’ thing. The legend and lore behind the record is more recognized than the music on the record, if you know what I mean.
The great Joe Conzo, what can I say about the guy. He was there from the very beginning. It’s really interesting how all of these things are connected. Joe Conzo and his family play a big part in all of it. Not only is he quoted as ‘taking hip-hop’s baby pictures,’ but he was also around during the gang era. Benji and Karate Charlie and all these guys lived in the same neighborhood. Joe Conzo’s mother and grandmother were the ones that galvanized Benji and Charlie into social activism. His grandmother was a huge figure in the South Bronx. She started the Bronx’s Planned Parenthood, she was responsible for cleaning up the communities. Famously, as they say, she went up to Benji and pulled him by his ear out of the clubhouse and into her office and said ‘Listen, you guys gotta get together and clean up the neighborhood!’ She was an incredible person in the South Bronx.
That’s Grandmaster Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers. You can see that they are in the gymnasium, at one of the very first hip-hop jams. Wow, that fashion is on point. In the background you can see Charlie Chase on the turntables.
What really interests me about this whole phenomenon, especially the gang part of it, was that it seemed like at that time that New York was going through a style transformation every six years. From before the outlaw gang era, you had in the early 60s/late 50s the greaser gangs and the doo-wop gangs. These guys would dress in silk jackets, Playboy shoes, pressed pants and their hair was all slick. It was like West Side Story style. Their appearance was impeccable, they wanted to be neat and clean. You fast forward six years and you have all of these political assassinations and the city is falling apart, and this new outlaw look comes out in the street. That era dies down and you’re back to looking slick. These guys look like they are ready to go out to a nightclub or something like that. So it’s just a cool cycle of fashion and style that used to happen every couple of years in New York City, which was the mecca of it all. It all started and ended here. But I don’t really see that happening anymore, with such an obvious style change from one to the next. We’ve been kind of stuck on one style for the last 20 years.
This was shot by Perry Kretz, who was a German photographer. The Bachelors were one of the bigger ones as well. They had divisions all over the Bronx. These are the Midnight Bachelors. Some of the others you would see would be the Soul Bachelors, the Cypress Bachelors, etc. For every division of Bachelors, they had their own name. So if you were on Cypress Avenue, you belonged to the Cypress Bachelors, or if you down by 183rd Street, you were an Imperial Bachelor. There was a Bachelor nation that made up all of them.
That dude is obviously not playing around with that shotgun. But what is interesting if you look at the guys with the fur collars represent leadership. So if you were a warlord or a leader, you wore a fur collar to signify that. Also interesting, this guy leaning on the chair has these disco platform shoes on. That was a big thing in the 70s because disco was popular. So this guy was half-outlaw, half-disco.
The “peace” poster in the background, I think it was one of those blacklight posters that were big in the 70s. You’ve got to remember all of these guys came out of the hippie era. They were all sons and daughters — if not directly a part of — the hippie generation. The music they were listening to reflected that, the attitude in the airwaves on television was still kind of like ‘Hey, it’s groovy man! Peace!’ So a lot of documentaries don’t really cover how that affected hip-hop generation. Most of the early graffiti artists, they were all listening to Led Zeppelin. They were all rock and roll heads, black, white, Puerto-Rican and in-between. The idea that everyone was divided wasn’t really the case. It wasn’t one kind of vibe, it was definitely a mixed bag. Bambaataa will be the first to tell you that he listened to Beatles and the Monkees records all the time and mixed that into his parties. That was part of his repertoire.
I love this photograph because there is this weird oddball redheaded dude in the corner. You see the guy in the middle has his jacket inside out. Sometimes you’re in foreign territory, so to speak. Let’s say your buddy who is a Bachelor from school says ‘Let’s go hang out and drink some beers,’ and you’re a Javelin, you would have to turn your colors inside out when you’re on their territory. Or take your colors off, out of respect for the turf.
This is the Seven Immortals, these guys were masters. They had divisions all over New York City. Look at the diversity of this crew, they’re definitely Black, Puerto Rican, one dude might even be Italian.
This is so cool, the guy at the end is actually hand-painting his colors. He’s got ink and a brush. Which was often the case. These guys would get a piece of felt and just cut it out and they would hand paint it. Everything was very tactile, hand-crafted. Even the guns were hand-crafted. It wasn’t until later that guns came and wreaked havoc in the streets. But often these guys created zip guns, which was made out of a pipe, a nail and a firing pin. You’d shoot it once and that would be it. Sometimes they would blow up in your hand. But that was definitely part of that sort of do-it-yourself mentality.
This is what most of inner-city New York looked like, block for block. There would be rubble everywhere. As a kid, the funny part about it, was you look back like ‘Wow, how dangerous that was, we could have stepped on jagged metal or falling through a dilapidated floor into some other abyss.’ This was in the 70s, but New York still looked like this in the 80s when I was a kid. We just had fun with it. We didn’t realize the situation we were in. We’d just look at it like ‘Wow, look at this discarded couch, that would be fun to jump on, or pretend it’s a spaceship.’ There was an inventiveness that went along with this era and I think that’s part of the real reason why hip-hop came out of New York. It was a melting pot too, so all of these cultures came together at a very special time. There was a sense of lawlessness, but also a sense of possibility.
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Rubble Kings is streaming now on Netflix, Amazon, and other digital services. The soundtrack album is available 1/15/16 on Mass Appeal Records on physical and digital formats.