For all its gritty landscapes, Shan Nicholson’s new documentary, “Rubble Kings,” is a smooth and sleek Bronx tale of how the gangs that overwhelmed that borough in the early 1970s would eventually sow the seeds of hip-hop culture.
The film gives a guided tour of life during this anarchic era, when dozens of gangs violently ruled the streets of New York. “It wasn’t like you had a choice,” one member recalls. “You were either part of it, or you were a victim.”
“Rubble Kings” then recounts how a single death — the 1971 killing of Cornell Benjamin, a widely respected “peace counselor” from the Ghetto Brothers — led to a boroughwide gang truce. When it held, gang life shifted from turf wars to more constructive activities, including the block and house parties that incubated the wild style of hip-hop break dancing, M.C.ing and D.J.ing.
One crossover was the Ghetto Brothers gang itself, whose members played street concerts that diffused tensions and erased borders. (Their one album, “Power-Fuerza,” is an infectious mix of pop, soul and Latin rock.) Mr. Nicholson interviews the Ghetto Brothers leaders Benji Melendez and Carlos Suarez, as well as numerous other gang members and early hip-hop stars like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. At slightly more than an hour, the film may not be definitive, and its chronology is a little fuzzy. Even so, “Rubble Kings” is a fascinating, valuable work of social, music and New York history, a celebration of a peaceful revolution by those who helped birth it.