Podcast_Can You Dig It?

How Puerto Rican Gangs Gave Birth to Hip-Hop – This Podcast Tells the Story

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

Aug. 11, 1973, is the date we can pinpoint as the start of hip-hop. That’s when DJ Kool Herc threw a Back To School party at a rec room in the Bronx, NY, and changed history forever. However, an earlier event can be considered the real catalyst for the genre coming into existence.

On December 8, 1971—amid urban warfare that dominated the Bronx back then—a truce was called upon all the gangs in New York by Cornell “Black Benjy” Benjamin, an influential peacekeeper among the gangs and member of the prominent Latine group with ties to the Puerto Rican Socialist party, the Ghetto Brothers. Sadly, Black Benjy was murdered, and his death prompted something unheard of. Instead of instigating an all-out war, it prompted the Hoe Avenue peace meeting that made everyone involved reconsider their priorities and put in the effort to do something positive. Black Benjy was a peace proponent, and fellow Ghetto Brothers members “Yellow” Benjy Melendez and “Karate” Charlie Suarez took it upon themselves to have everyone lay down their weapons. 

The youth of the Bronx then took all their limited means to make music with turntables and rhyme on top of it. They also took spray paint cans and flattened cardboard boxes to elevate street art and dance to unknown levels. Thus, hip-hop was born.

Fifty years later comes Can You Dig It?, a five-part podcast that takes the listener to the prehistory of a movement that has come to influence modern art and culture. Combining testimonials from the people who were alive and involved in those events with scripted dramatization based on these true events, the podcast takes us through major aspects of the story: the murder of Black Benjy, the peace talks, and the birth of hip-hop. Tied together with an amazing score and narration by Chuck D of Public Enemy, Can You Dig It? is a cinematic experience for everyone who wants to time travel to a time before DJs and emcees ruled the Earth.

Originally conceived as a TV show, the pandemic forced the creators to rethink their whole approach. “In the pandemic, there was a deficit of hope. People would ask if New York would ever come back or what would happen to the world, but they have forgotten that humans have gone through worse,” says Pete Chelala, one of the creators, writers, and cultural historians who worked on the podcast. “This story is about a bunch of kids who did everything in their power to give others hope. It took a village, but they did it.”

“This story is about a bunch of kids who did everything in their power to give others hope. It took a village, but they did it.”

For the makers of Can You Dig It?, the biggest challenge was holding the listener’s attention. “We’re cinephiles and storytellers,” says Chelala. “We wanted to bring the audience to the Bronx in December 1971, to place them in the middle of the action. We wanted to take listeners on a journey. We don’t want to just entertain. We want to inform.”

The connection for telling the story came from a personal place. Another creator, writer, and cultural historian of the podcast, Julian Voloj, met with Ghetto Brothers members like Yellow Benjy and Karate Charlie to write a graphic novel about their story before conceiving the podcast. “In the pandemic, his niece reached out to me to thank me and told me that nobody had told that story like that before. I became close to [Yellow] Benjy, even my kids called him ‘uncle,’” Voloj shares. 

“They still lived in the same block, close to the same community of their youth,” he explains. “We developed trust to tell the story accurately. They gave us unique stories and a whole different perspective about the history. We elevated Black Benjy to more than a footnote.” Sadly, Yellow Benjy and Karate Charlie passed away before Can You Dig It? began recording, but their relatives contributed testimonials.

It became something personal for Voloj. “My parents are Colombian, and I’m always trying to reconnect with my roots, exploring them in my own way. Considering that this is a story centered in big part on Puerto Ricans, that made it special for me,” he notes.

Another important aspect of Can You Dig It? is bringing light to all the aspects of the culture beyond rap.  But rappers and DJs weren’t the only protagonists of the story—there were also b-boys, graffiti artists, and more. “All arts are included in hip-hop, and we see them in everyday things around the world,” Chelala explains. “It’s exciting to connect the dots to all these other elements. It’s amazing how, at the next Olympics, there will be a breakdance category, and that was started by Puerto Rican kids in the Bronx. They created something from nothing. Literally, they changed the world, and none of that would have happened if they didn’t pursue others to lay down their weapons. It was the largest youth movement of all time.”

The podcast connected to the community in other ways. They found their casting director at The Door, a Bronx youth center where he was teaching improv. “He also teaches at Rikers,” says Chelela. “We found others from our cast there and at another center in the Bronx, and then we had some professionals. It’s a mixture of new talent and consolidated talent, as well as hidden gems.”

With an innovative hybrid format podcast, Can You Dig It? immerses the listener in one of the most pivotal moments in cultural history.

All five Can You Dig It? episodes are now available via Audible on all streaming platforms.