Low key, a few building blocks in the ever-evolving culture of hip-hop have returned to the essence. Sadly, it began at the tail end of January, although revealed in February, with the report of the passing of funk legend, Walter “Junie” Morrison.
Bestowed with the title of the “force behind the groove,” the Dayton, Ohio, producer, writer, keyboardist and vocalist was a member of the legendary funk band, Ohio Players, where he was credited for creation of hits the likes of “The Funky Worm” and “Ecstasy.” Later in his career, a stint with Parliament Funkadelic set him on the path that would end with a spot in the 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That relationship bore fruit that became the seminal classics “One Nation (Under a Groove)” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep,” for which he was listed as co-creator, writer and producer.
In February proper, Black History Month, we lost probably the man responsible for the most sampled piece in the history of music. As a member of the James Brown band you had to remain on your toes because spontaneous funk was a requirement. When your number was called, you stand and deliver. Clyde Austin Stubblefield delivered like no other in a moment in time on the cut “Funky Drummer.” About three-quarters into the song, Brown says, “I wanna give the drummer some of this funky soul we got here.” He then advises, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got … Don’t turn it loose, ‘cause it’s a mother.”
On the count of four, it was to go down, so we waited. Then it happened! No one could’ve known the lasting impact and influence that 20-second solo would have, but at the point of creation no one cared. It just had to be funky! By no means was that work a one and done. “Sex Machine,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Ain’t It Funky Now” and “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” proved just as potent.
Their musical talents will forever be given new life, and if it’s not the landscape we know, it was pushed forward by their musical contributions.
For South-Bronx native Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez, the musical contributions may not be remembered or revered in the same light. In fact, his biggest contribution had nothing, yet everything, to do with the arts. That duplicity was real! He was a member of the group Ghetto Brothers. Their album “Power Fuerza” was unavailable for 40 years until it was reissued in 2012. Their style of expression was heavily influenced by The Beatles, coupled with some Latin rhythms and sprinkles of soul incorporated, totally belying the images of the word ghetto that was in their moniker. As a flip side to the band, the Ghetto Brothers were identified as a street gang. Whether true or not, one thing was certain, they were deep in the streets. Not Bronx deep—we talkin’ all five boroughs and even a division in Chicago deep. Their numbers made them a real threat. Their mentality made them a bigger threat. Pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, see ya! We gonna police ourselves. In fact, while we’re at it, we’ll provide some food and clothing for the next generation, Black Panther style.
Those ingredients highlighted that the biggest accomplishment of Benjy and the Ghetto Brothers was the ability to merge their worlds and lay a foundation to a culture that would have global impact. Having helped to broker the largest gang treaty the city has ever seen, all praises are due for being a visionary for the power of music. Music was used as a creative outlet, but it was also a tool by which they can both escape or express their realities. A tool by which they can connect and express emotions that were suppressed and thought to be nonexistent. Their very example with a tangible album in tow planted seeds of music as a conduit to something better.
Benjamin Melendez is no longer with us. The show of support Monday at Ortiz Funeral Home, however, was reminder that his time here was well served. James “Koe” Rodriguez, hip-hop historian and creator of A THOUSAND WORDS Clothing, offered the following: “Remembering my good friend and ATW collaborator, Benjamin ‘Yellow Benjy’ Melendez. An incomparable and totally unique soul, Benjy embodied humility, love and greatness in every sense of the word. He was a man of faith who served his family, friends, loved ones, culture and community with undying passion, fortitude and commitment. A peacemaker, a musician and one helluva guy, who I was honored to know, learn from and collaborate with. To say he will be sorely missed would be a serious understatement. Rest easy, my brother.”
Echoing those sentiments and punching out. Holla next week. Til then, enjoy the nightlife.