With August marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, outlets across the world have taken a look back at the early days of the culture. In one new audio series co-created by a Fordham alumnus, though, the focus is on the events that led to the birth of hip-hop—ones that took place not far from the Rose Hill campus.
Can You Dig It? was released on August 10 by Audible, as part of a slate of original series celebrating this milestone year. The series, co-created and executive produced by Bryan Master, FCRH ’99, and narrated and co-produced by legendary Public Enemy rapper Chuck D, chronicles the 1971 gang peace treaty in the Bronx that paved the way for hip-hop.
Through both scripted scenes and unscripted interviews, Can You Dig It? tells the story of the murder of Ghetto Brothers member Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin. Benjamin had been working toward a truce among rivals when he was killed, and his death resulted in an escalation of violence. That moment of chaos was followed by the Hoe Avenue peace meeting, organized by the Ghetto Brothers’ Benjamin “Yellow Benjy” Melendez, which ushered in an era of relative calm among gangs in the South Bronx. Two years later, on August 11, 1973, with young people in the area safer to socialize across neighborhood boundaries, Cindy Campbell threw a “Back to School Jam” in a recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Her brother, Kool Herc, DJ’d the party, which came to be considered the origin of hip-hop music.
The series features documentary-style interviews with photographers Henry Chalfant and Joe Conzo, pioneering MC Coke La Rock, and a number of former members and associates of the Ghetto Brothers. These are interspersed with Chuck D’s narration, as well as dramatized portions, for which the series tapped into local voice talent from the Bronx’s community arts programs.
“It’s a love letter to the Bronx,” said Master, a composer who is also the founder and owner of Sound + Fission, a music and audio production company.
In a recent interview with Fordham student Jay Doherty, a co-host of WFUV’s What’s What podcast, Master described the story of the truce at the heart of Can You Dig It? as a manifestation of the Jesuit ideal of being people for others. “We applied that mantra by being a vehicle for a story that inspires people, that gives hope to others. That’s what this is all about. Black Benjie, Yellow Benjy, the Ghetto Brothers—they were men for others.”
The series comes at a moment when hip-hop is being celebrated not only as a revolutionary musical force but also as a vital part of New York City history. In June, the Bronx intersection of East 165th Street and Rogers Place was renamed Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin Way, making the site of the murder a landmark—and a reminder of the positive action that came out of the tragedy. In recent decades, Fordham has also been preserving hip-hop’s Bronx legacy, though efforts to recognize 1520 Sedgwick as the genre’s birthplace and through oral-history interviews with seminal figures such as Yellow Benjy and Kurtis Blow as part of the Bronx African American History Project.
“During this 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we hold the attention of the planet,” Chuck D told SPIN in June. “Now is the time to bring out the stories of people who paved the way for hip-hop and shaped its earliest days.”