In the summer of 1990, a tall, lanky pre-frosh from the Upper East Side walked into the offices of WKCK, on the campus of Columbia University and pitched a DJ driven Hip-hop mix show. Like many iconoclast that were destined to change the world, he was laughed out of the building. Undeterred, this DJ, who had made a name for himself in the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene, was given the graveyard shift along with his partner, a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, who had made a name for himself with the legendary Rock Steady Crew. On October, 25th 1990 this dynamic duo launched what would become the seminal hip-hop radio show for a generation. Called “The Greatest Hip-Hop Radio Show of All Time” by The Source Magazine, The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show would become the go-to destination for any fledgling emcee, claiming skills on the mic. “Who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?” The first time anyone ever heard these three was on the WKCK, 89 Tek 9 on “Stretch and Bob”. For 8 years, Stretch and Bob held down the 1-5am slot, playing B-sides, white labels, remixes, exclusives, un-mastered reels straight from the studio, demos, any and everything that made you move and think. Every rapper worth their rhyme book made the pilgrimage to the Stretch and Bob Show and when they did, they came to spit. No games, politics or label drama, just straight bars, to whatever DJ Stretch Armstrong spun. Whether pre-written, unreleased or straight -off the dome, it didn’t matter. It was “for the culture”.
For years the legends of Stretch and Bob have lived on in the analog cassette tapes diligently recorded and rerecorded and traded by their dedicated fans, until now. Written, directed, and produced by Bobbito Garcia, Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, lovingly tells the story of how two guys from relatively different worlds, came together to forever change the landscape of hip-hop and pop culture. Like with his previous documentary, Doing it in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, New York City, Garcia tells a personal story with humor and style (What styles? ALL STYLES). Stretch and Bob present a definitive document of record for what some call the Golden Era of Hip-hop. Everything is here; from the ridiculously baggy jeans, over-sized polo rugbies, to the Timbs and misogyny. For fans of a certain age, this was their hip-hop, the standard by which all other attempts are measured; the bar to which few others can measure. The film effortlessly displays the best elements of hip-hop culture of this era. From Bob’s connections to the Rock Steady Crew, archival interviews with Case II, exhibitions of DJ technics and of course the rhyming. Interviews with Hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore are a highlight of the film. Watching legends hear their younger, hungrier selves for the first time in decades on a Sony Walkman, with “SUPERBASS” is a joy. Where archival video couldn’t be found, graphic artists were filmed creating their interpretation of these rare verses. A standout piece punctuates the now legendary Big L and Jay-Z session from a 1995 show. While legends like DJ Premier, Clark Kent and Lord Finesse nostalgically mouth the lyrics, an artist, working with a single brush and large blue canvas, paints smooth strokes that undulate then cut back sharply across the space. The juxtaposition of the smooth and the sharp serves as a visual representation of the two emcees not quite peaking, but hungry and ready for the world to know them.
Garcia allows his camera to wander in closer for these intimate moments of reflection and recognition. The slow smile that creeps across the face of an emcee that hadn’t thought about a particular punchline or bar in years, but is presented with it and thinks: “Wow, that’s some good rapping there” is a priceless thing. The film is filled with these precious moments. Moments of joy, sadness, passion, pathos and love permeate the piece and make for a better piece of filmmaking. Besides being emotionally satisfying, the film is visually stunning. Opening credits, interstitial labels identifying written or “off the dome” verse and even name tags are all written in a graphitti stencil style adding to the immersive nature movie. Another, more arresting stylistic choice is the use of fan letters from throughout the run of the show. Since the show was taped by fans and shipped all over the world, fan letters poured in from every corner of the globe and even from behind bars. Stretch and Bob were for some, a grounding force in the world, a reminder of home and sanity. The show was more than a 4 hour DJ mix of rare grooves and dope lyrics. The show was a respite from the world and its host beacons of light for others to follow.
Stretch and Bobbito tells the story of a bygone era. When taste makers and mattered and gate keepers diligently kept watch for imposters or frauds. Stretch and Bob were more than a DJ and host; they were curators of a culture. Their word was the gospel truth for an entire generation of fans. The stamp of approval from a solid Stretch and Bob performance could mean the difference between being respected MC and being another guy (or girl) that just writes rhymes. Taste makers have been replaced with market research and DJs don’t break records, they just play the list. Nostalgia and grousing aside, Stretch and Bobbito at its’ core, tells the story of two guys following their passions. A couple of guys with day jobs, lives and families that were able to present something to the world that utterly changed pop culture forever all because of their passion for music. Ultimately, Garcia presents another brilliant work that keeps the viewer constantly engaged and immersed in the experience. The films’ post script shows that of the 300 artists that appeared on the Stretch and Bob show, over 8 years, more than 300 million album shave been sold. Not bad for a couple of guys that had to compete with a jazz show for space.
After the screening, Stretch and Bob took part in an all too brief, yet jubilant Q&A hosted by “Serious” Cedric Shine (along with his tight thermal shirt), from microphone check, a voice for hip-hop culture knowledge and experience at NPR, which sponsored the event. Stretch and Bob kept things light and positive most of the night, even poking fun at obligatory “What do you think of today’s hip-hop?” questions from the rapt audience. They filled in the blanks on their lives since the end of the show in 1998. Stretch never left music, though the film depicts his falling out of love with hip-hop. He’s moved from consulting to management to almost every job within the music industry, while maintaining a steady touring schedule as an in demand DJ. He’s been drawn to the dance scene, even to the dismay of long-time fans that may come to see him spin their favorite 90s grooves. Like back in the day, he relishes the chance to playing something his fans wouldn’t expect, now even more so. For his part Bobbito has remains as busy as ever, as a freelance writer, street ball player, enthusiast, archivist, coach, sponsor, announcer and DJ. Kool Bob Love had to learn the DJ trade during the latter days of the show, even filling in for Stretch on more than one occasion. A sneaker head, clothing designer and now film-maker, Bob remains a jack of all trades. Stretch gave background on some of the more difficult interviews for the film, including a great story about stalking two of the biggest names in music for almost a year. In the end, it took one phone call from the right person to make it happen; so much for parties and patron. The evening was filled with more than a few laughs and a nostalgic joy for an era gone but not forgotten.
I can’t recommend this movie enough. Go see it wherever you are. Watch it online–you can rent it for $4 bucks or purchase the digital download for $13 bucks. Go see it again when you can–it’s screening in Washington DC again on December 12th at the Kennedy Center.
[Editor’s Note: Micah Young aka Count Niggula serves as co-host of The Brown Liquor Report, a weekly podcast discussing all manner of foolishness and f*ckery, with a taste of brown. Follow at www.facebook.com/brownliquorreport ]