For far too long, they’ve been outer borough legends, the kind of shadowy figures that appear on the outskirts of official histories; lauded as precursors, but rarely (if ever) actually heard. For the Ghetto Brothers, who have long held a place of honor in New York’s subterranean musical history, that might be about to change. For the first time since its original release, Power Fuerza, the group’s debut (and sole) album is being reissued, allowing several generations who have only heard of the band to finally get their hands on some actual grooves.
The Ghetto Brothers emerged out of the deepening chaos of the South Bronx during the early seventies, a period when the area was being torn apart by increasing violence between rapidly proliferating youth gangs. While not yet connected to the drug money that would provide so much of the impetus for the national organizations of the 80’s and 90’s, the gangs of the seventies were more then violent enough on their own, carving up the borough into patchwork of territories and then fighting to hold them against all comers. (To read an excellent and in-depth history of this period, look no further then Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, the book that first brought word of the Ghetto Brothers Band beyond the insular world of rare-record dealers.)
In the face of this, the story of the Ghetto Brothers Band is one of a principled and idealistic stand against encroaching violence. Although the group started out as a (quite successful) gang, it began to develop a richer purpose, attempting to create a productive consciousness among the youths who made up its membership. This positive focus was made clear by the group’s successful effort to broker a truce among the some of the area’s warring gangs; the effort was witnessed by (and greatly impressed) the 14 year old Afrika Bambaataa, and later served as source of inspiration for the equally conciliatory Zulu Nation.
Another positive outlet was found in the music of the Ghetto Brother’s band. Starting off by jamming at house and block parties, the group quickly developed its own sound, fusing the grooves of Latin-tinged rock and funk with a sweet, almost folky undertone, all capped by the singers distinctively high-pitched vocals. The combination is clearly of its time- there are obvious echoes of Santana and CSNY floating next to Hendrix guitar and percussion breakdowns swiped from the Boogaloo fever that had only just finished sweeping through the city. It’s not the most esoteric mix, and it would be false to claim the musicians were examples of overwhelming virtuosity. But the overall sound is highly effective, and more importantly, the group plays it with contagious determination, rocking these tracks with the kind of nonchalant confidence better associated with punk.
Apart from their sample-ready sound, the group is also distinguished by the sheer worldliness of the lyrics- many of the musicians were still basically kids, but they were kids who had seen too much. In song after song, the romantic innocence of the chord progressions and vocal delivery is tempered by the real world- the songs are about girls, but these girls are pregnant with someone else’s child. Yet time after time, this sadness is overtaken by a positive rush of affirmation. Things are hard, but- as can be seen on songs like the super-affirmative Ghetto Brother Power- the tunes suffice to carry the band through.
Power Fuerza never received the kind of support that it required from its label, and the band gradually dissolved afterwords. Yet the music that exists remains important for a number of reasons. Its mixture of latin, African-American, and rock sounds is a perfect reflection of a vital cultural moment, one that would (with the addition of a little Kraftwerk and a drum machine) form the backbone of hip-hop. Seen in that light, the album can be seen as a warning shot from the boogie down Bronx, an early indication of the multi-cultural renaissance that would soon blossom amid the city’s burnt out lots. Given that the entire world is still reeling from the full effects of that creative explosion, the existence of a seminal early document like Power Fuerza is absolutely fascinating, and- a bonus that definitely isn’t always true in cases like this- the band’s musical reputation is more than deserved. Legendary status? Confirmed.