Rewinding back to the 1990s, Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives documents the lives and musical loves of DJs Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia whose Columbia University radio show (WKCR) inspired people across the world to embrace the best beats, the illest freestyles and the dopest emerging rappers who’d go on to change hip-hop history. Beginning October 25, 1990, they broadcast every Thursday night for eight years.
“I loved the show from the get go,” artist André Leroy Davis, who used to draw his The Source magazine caricature feature The Last Word while listening to the show on Thursday nights recalled. “If you wanted to hear hip-hop uncut, then that was the show to play. It was on in the middle of the night and went until five in the morning. I was one of those people who would tape the show and listen to it again.”
Indeed, as Stretch and Bobbito would soon find, there were legions of fans across the globe doing the exact same thing. Although the show ended in 1998, tapes of those shows, as well as countless YouTube uploads, are still turning ice grills into smiles.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of their seminal show this week, Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (which Bobbito directed) has been making the rounds of the film festival circuit and will be available digitally this week. The Internet might’ve killed the radio star, but Stretch and Bobbito are forever.
EBONY: Stretch, we know you were a student at Columbia University where the show broadcast from, but in the film you didn’t really talk much about your life as a student.
Stretch Armstrong: My academic career wasn’t the best. My attention was focused on music, records and clubs. I did well enough to get the credits. The courses I was good at was history and English. I did poorly in French, so I went back to Spanish. I didn’t graduate, because I knew I wanted to be part of the music scene. I felt like Columbia would always be there, but I wanted to be into the music. It felt special and I wanted to be there.
EBONY: Did any of the teachers or advisors ever have anything negative to say about the show?
SA: Naw. The show was on when most people were asleep.
EBONY: The film was not only an excellent document for anyone who wants to know about ’90s hip-hop, but it also serves as a salute to the 25th anniversary.
Bobbito Garcia: We started the show on October 25, 1990. When the producer approached me about doing a doc, that was in February 2014. I told him I didn’t want to do it without Stretch’s blessing and involvement. Stretch was down in an eyeblink. But the task was, we had to finish it in a year and a half, which is an insane schedule for an indie, self-funded doc. But I thought if we could finish it before we celebrated our 25th anniversary, then I was down. You can’t get better marketing than that.
EBONY: A year and half to make a doc is not much time. They were working on the Nas doc Time Is Illmatic for 10 years.
BG: Yeah, we just went hard. A lot of things fell into place, which made me know we were supposed to have made this film. The whole plan was for Stretch and I to go out to different cities, where we would be premiering the film and spin, do after-parties as well as Q&As. Everything that we kind of outlined is exactly happening. We’ve done L.A., San Fran, Oakland, Atlanta, the London Film Festival, Berlin and a bunch of other cities we’re going to be rocking.
EBONY: The whole movie seems to be about taking chances, whether it was Columbia University taking a chance on giving you the show, you all taking chances on unsigned artists…
BG: I don’t think we took chances as far as putting people on the air. We applauded them if they got signed, but as far as being on the show, we didn’t care. We put cats on because they were dope and they needed to be heard. That was the same thing with the records that me and Stretch played. That music wasn’t being heard anywhere else, and that was what became the draw for our show.
EBONY: The two of you grew up in New York City when the hottest rap shows included Red Alert on KISS-FM and Marley Marl on WBLS. Who was your favorite?
SA: I have equal amount of love for both of those guys. I’m closer to Red as a friend, but I also revere Marley as a producer, as anyone who knows hip-hop ought to.
EBONY: I thought it was a brilliant visual joke in the doc when you begin talking about the decline of rap music and you show a Puffy and Mase video. Do feel like that was the decline of rap, or were there other things happening as well?
BG: (laughs) Oh, you gonna put me on the spot? Puff didn’t singlehandedly change the course of rap music, but by ’96 to ’98, there was a shift in the direction of rap. If you look at the rap from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, usually the very best artists sold the most. Anyone who outsold the best, like Vanilla Ice, usually faked people out. He was rhyming, but that wasn’t really a hip-hop record.
By the mid-’90s, the term “hip-hop” got co-opted by people who were compromising the music and making people think, “Oh, hip-hop, it’s fun pop music.” The best hip-hop might’ve been fun pop music, but it was recorded to be cutting-edge with great lyrics that might’ve taken the producer a year to find the right beat. But after that, the music just became less sophisticated. Me and Stretch are just happy to have contributed to the last era of greatness: Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Nas. They were considered the best and they sold the most, and that was a good thing for us.
EBONY: I didn’t realize until after seeing the film how popular the show was outside of New York City. Were you aware that cassettes of the show were making the rounds globally?
BG: In the ’90s, there was no way of us knowing unless we got a letter. But once we started travelling it was different. The first time we went to Tokyo in ’95, we walked into a record store, and behind the counter there was 60 cassettes of our show. That wasn’t from us, but from people who were bootlegging. That was on the high-end, but most of the cassettes were people taping the show for their friends. We didn’t know how many people were listening and how many tapes were being dubbed, but we know now.
SA: I could be walking down the street in Tokyo and these kids would be stopping me on the street. It was nuts. That didn’t really happen here. Bobbito and I had personalities that were very inclusive rather than competitive. The show was very inviting and people liked that. Today, with the film coming out, the amount of feedback we’ve gotten from all over the globe, it’s just incredible.
EBONY: Talk about hip-hop on radio and its evolution. So much has changed since those early days when rap records were only played during designated hours. Do you listen to any of the new hip-hop radio shows?
SA: The deregulation of media has hurt music throughout the world. You have one or two companies controlling 90% of the radio stations. The playlists are generated from corporate offices. Starting in the mid-’90s over time, radio stations across the country just started sounding the same. You got mix-show DJs playing songs that are in the regular rotation. On a mix-show back in the ’80s and ’90s, a DJ could be a DJ, and play music that reflected their personal tastes. Maybe take some chances by playing songs that would never get a shot on radio. That, for the most part, seems to be gone.
BG: I don’t really listen to much rap anymore these days, and I don’t listen to radio at all. I’m an analog dude. I still play vinyl in my [DJ] sets and at the crib, so there is a lot of music that I’m just not aware of. I’m not on the blogs or listening to shows on the Internet. I don’t have the time or the interest. People will be like, “Yo, you gotta listen to this, this dude is nice.” I’ll listen and be like, “I don’t really think he’s as talented as you think he is.”
SA: My thing is, if someone calls themselves a hip-hop DJ and they only play rap records, then they’re not a real hip-hop DJ. Hip-hop is about being knowledgeable about all kinds of music across the spectrum no matter the genre, no matter the country of origin, no matter the label, no matter what. That’s how hip-hop was birthed in the first place. You had open-minded DJs like [Kool] Herc and [Afrika Bambaataa] who were down to play any kind of music as long as it was funky.
EBONY: I think there is so much bad rap that when one person comes along who is merely mediocre, people lose their minds trying to convince you they’re great.
BG: I hear that and I understand that. But there are kids I mentor in Harlem and they’ll be like, “This dude is the nicest ever.” I’m like, first of all, you’re too young to qualify to the word “ever,” because you don’t know enough history to say that. Also, they’re basing it on a standard that is so low to begin with that… The reason me and Stretch were so popular to begin with was because we were gatekeepers. In all forms of education you need mentors. You need leaders, you need teachers, and that’s what we were with our four-hour show every week. The art form was at a very high level because of that.
In the end, the gate was smashed down [with] everybody having access to production. It could’ve been a great thing, but in other ways, it doesn’t always work. The best hip-hop in any facets of the culture was when the most amount of effort was put in to be a part of it. That’s with B-boying, graffiti, scratching, parties, sneakers, rhyming, digging for beats. When people had to put in the effort, that was when the art form was hot.
EBONY: I wanted to give you props for including two of the women that worked with you guys, Mimi Valdés and Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra, in the film. So many times I’ve seen docs where the women are totally erased from the history.
BG: Yeah. Mimi and Zuhirah, both brilliant women, helped us at the station, so we had to have them involved. I wanted to give the viewers a fly-on-the-wall look of what was going on in that small station, what happened in that little room over eight years. Mimi and Zuhirah brought a great perceptive to the film.
There are a lot of narratives woven into the film, from Raekwon talking about listening to the show in the projects to Fat Joe talking about how the show inspired him to stop dealing drugs. So having Zuhirah and Mimi talking about misogyny in hip-hop just happened, but it was also important to discuss.
EBONY: You mentioned not listening to hip-hop anymore. Did that just happen one day?
BG: I’m not being a 49-year-old geezer, but I really feel that rap’s best years have passed. That’s just a fact, no one can argue about that. Anyone still doing it is just meeting the standard that has already been set or coming way below it. No one’s pushed the envelope since the early ’90s. It has not happened. Not taking away from Kanye’s production or Jay Electronica’s lyrics, not to take away from nobody.
EBONY: Can we please take away from Drake?
BG: I have no comment. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but if he had been around in ’91, he wouldn’t have been on the show.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.