Drawing From Below: Hip Hop & The Never Ending Story Of Ghetto Brother

“Everybody Is Necessarily The Hero Of His Own Life Story”- John Barth The Remobilization Of Jacob Horner

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The universe is cyclical.

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9b184db9d6191b722f14d631503e2371I’ve worried to myself that I’ve overdone it with writing about rap music here on the site and I’m positive readers have felt the same way at times. To be fair, I’m not sure I ever explained how inexplicably the two have been linked for me. When I was around five years old my parents divorced. I had lived in a nice Victorian house in a small suburban subdivision for University professors in the shadow of a city in a shadow of a city. I suppose the plan was for this happy, intellectual, nuclear family to grow up like most of my neighbors had, families that were well traveled, kids that were involved in school activities ect. That’s obviously not what happened, instead my parents split up like so many other families and my father moved into what was, for lack of a better word, a ghetto. This isn’t some chest bumping hard guy pose I’m trying to use to justify my love for an art form that isn’t speaking to me directly and in reality, isn’t mine to have in any way that would be meaningful for anybody besides myself. This is just a fact, we lived in a crappy duplex, most of our neighbors were either black or immigrants from an obscure tribe in Loas that populated the public housing at the end of our block in a city that is 60% white according to the 2010 census (this was in 1992…), there were crack houses across the street, my father bought a large mixed breed dog of German Shepard, Doberman, Rotweiller & Labrador for a small apartment because it had got broken into multiple within the first few months of him living there. When I first moved in, I let a new “friend” borrow my hand me down bike to ride around the block and three hours later he came back with it missing a wheel. He told me a story about how someone hit him with a wrench while he was riding it and took the tire off. Based on the absurdity of the premise and lack of any physical markings, it was more likely that one of his drug addicted family members had taken it for god knows why. I had three things that I loved; hip-hop, spots & comics. It’s what got me through those years and what’s gotten me through a few more tougher ones later on. In spite of the three aesthetic differences they all operate on a very similar personal story, athletes, rap artists and superhero’s all fight against impossible odds to extraordinary achievements because of excellent individual abilities, but moreover, underneath that they are still deeply human. That’s my foundation, it’s my adopted life model that I took on when the one that was made to be an example for me didn’t look like it worked, it’s why I’m writing about comics in the first place and it’s partially what got me to whatever point of success I’ve managed to carve out for myself at this present moment.

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The universe is cyclical

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Sadly, because of consumer behavior and how pop culture has been shaped and defined; sports & hip hop have always had a natural dissonance from comics or “geek culture” (whatever the fuck that is now) I suppose with sports, it comes from the false jock/geek dichotomy, the superhero’s your read are athletes and the best athletes are superhuman but real life social constructs cloud that for a lot of people. Hip hop and comics are natural bedfellows that rarely stick. This is most likely due to racial and class designations more then anything else in addition to the outsider status that comics lives in compared to hip hop that become the dominant force in pop culture for over two decades at this point. But at their core the two are remarkably similar, a solo rap album is plotted out by a “writer” who is navigating the world from their perception much like you’d see in a superhero comic series, while a producer is much like an illustrator in that they give the environment that is being created a life and context. That’s obviously reductive and doesn’t account for the inherent complexity of both mediums but it’s a link that transferred over in my young mind and has never left for an entire lifetime. Both comics and hip hop share similar origin stories as the pioneers of both mediums originated from the ghetto’s of New York city, often the children of immigrants trying to reconfigure their duality through their artwork. Ghetto Brother: Warrior To Peacemaker is an exploration of hip hop’s origin through the medium of comics that highlights the art forms cyclical nature of struggle, transcendence and rebirth.

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The universe is cyclical

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Ghetto Brother is an biographical comic focused the life Benjy Melendez, gang leader turned activist that symbolizes what would become the dominant narrative of hip hop culture by focusing on the mediums inception point. Written by Julian Voloj and illustrated by Claudia Ahlering, Ghetto Brother resists tropes that are common in comics and biographical storytelling for a first person visually guided narrative that gives a personal account of seeing the world change in real time. Benjy is a child of Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx during the 1970’s when the borough became a war zone. In turn, gangs are formed on ethnic and geographical lines for protection with his crew, the Ghetto Brothers, becoming one of the largest and most powerful in the city. His life is ruled by violence until Benjy’s best friend, appropriately called Black Benji, is killed and the protagonist is faced at a cross road; fight or evolve. He chooses the latter and takes his hood with him by facilitating the infamous Hoe Avenue peace meeting and inexplicably, it works. Rival gangs become colleagues in policing their own neighborhoods and in place of fights, kids become creative and it’s here where hip hop is born and the world changes instantaneously.

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The universe is cyclical

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For Benjy, his crew would form a band whose music would be written into the core of hip hops DNA much in the way James Brown, Dancehall or Led Zeppelin are. Ghetto Brothers do a sort of funk/salsa mash up with punk rock energy. Like DJ Kool Herc how would speed up looped and isolated disco breaks or Afrika Bambatta who would retrofit German electronic music over break beats, the Ghetto Brother’s internalized the music of their time and reconstructed it into something that reflected their own unique reality to help form a foundation for one of the most vibrant art forms of the late twentieth and early twenty first century. For his part, Benjy moved away from the streets relatively quickly after that point to become a social worker and raise a family while later discovering his families roots in Judaism. But that’s also the beauty of it, his story, one of poverty, violence, self reflection, change and evolution would pioneer the hip hop blueprint. Criminal becomes a rapper, transforms himself by codifying his past into art, comes back to help his neighborhood and becomes a changed person of the world as a result. Think Jay-Z going from crack dealer to media mogul, RZA coming off a murder trial to being a filmmaker or Snoop Dog being a member of the notorious Los Angeles Crip street gang to a household caricature. Or, think Superman going from a doomed home world to being the hero of a new one, think Batman seeing his parents gunned down in the street and growing up to fight, the X-Men bandng together after being shunned by society to save the world, Peter Parker becoming  Spiderman after his uncles death; see the parellel? In rap, they used music to escape the trappings of their own living conditions, in comics they are given super power, but both ultimately work as forces to change the desperate conditions they faced and ultimately, are afforded the opportunity to become the person they were meant to be all along. That archetype starts with Benjy Melendez & Ghetto Brother does a magnificent job of laying that out.

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The universe is cyclical but in hip hop, it starts with Benjy Melendez. Ghetto Brother is it’s comic origin story, one about a true superhero that continues to replay itself, from the inception point to infinity.

6 thoughts on “Drawing From Below: Hip Hop & The Never Ending Story Of Ghetto Brother”

  1. Interesting article.

    I myself have stopped listening to most heavy metal and a lot of rap because I just want music to bring me peace. I’m basically totally listening to Classical pops and Dub Step right.. ha! Of course it matters who you are listening to but I found with almost all metal and most rap I found myself too amped up after listening to them. i slightly broke my rule last night and listened to “nonpoint” (not even metal but aggressive) and found myself wanting to punch someone in the face today,,ha!

    In regards to Ghetto Brother, if you are in a shitty situation I guess you don’t want music too peaceful (otherwise you’ll just lay down). I’m all about naps and avoiding meatheads though.

    1. I had roomies that loved Nonpoint, like obsessed. I keep thinking I’m gonna grow out of rap but it never happens for some reason. There is quite a few chill hip hop songs but it’s been awhile since I heard an album that was full of them. Maybeeee Grief Pedigree by Ka was the last

      1. Ya, I haven’t listened to Nonpoint in like a decade but I had 7 of their albums and loved that music (but it was all about being pissed off though). The friends I know that still listen to it are still pissed off.

        I will track down the Grief Pedigree Ka album. Thanks!

  2. I grew up with a love for sports, comics, and music myself. Hip hop has always been a part of that, but I admit I haven’t kept up with most of the newer acts. This article was a nice window into both Ghetto Brother and what makes Patrick Hess tick. Interesting comparisons between rap artists, superheroes, and athletes. Warriors/Rockets!

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