“The playlist came through the door.”
This is how Stretch and Bobbito’s radio show on community station KCRW back in the day became the place where New York hip hop found its feet, and beat, in the early 90s. It’s the stuff of legends for those of us who didn’t grow up in the city (especially for those of us from across the seas!) for the part it played in bringing the best emcees to the fore, names that are now well etched into the history of hip hop. Instead of just playing pre-recorded and already-mixed tracks, Stretch and Bobbito became known for featuring the best upcoming talent – artists who’d walk into their studio on the Columbia campus, in the middle of the night, to drop verses on the spot, technical difficulties and bad jokes only adding to the energy of the sessions.
The doc Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives is a love-letter to all of that. I watched it last night at the Samsung Pop-up in the Meatpacking District, thanks to Giant Step. Directed by Bobbito aka Bobbito Garcia, aka DJ Cucumber Slice, with music supervision by Stretch Armstrong, it’s an unabashed tribute to the role the radio show played, giving a behind-the-scenes look at how it came together, who it featured and what its legacy is today. Bobbito’s directing style is wholehearted – his enthusiasm evident in the “Proud Mom!” and “Proud Dad!” monikers attached to interviews with the pair’s parents, and in his noting when verses were dropped “off-the-head” and “not yet recorded.” It also captures part of the reason the duo achieved what they did. Their singular passion for the scene and the art form came together to be greater as a whole, and it was contagious. It still is. And while some may have heard it on their radio or on tape recordings, this doc gives us look at where that energy came from.
Of course, there are the big names who found a footing in the show… There’s Method Man and Nas and a so-young Busta Rhymes and Biggie and Jay Z and Fat Joe and El-P and Pharoahe Monch and, and, and – the list is a long one of those who came to string words together in the early hours of the morning, and have them carried out on airwaves across New York City. If you could fiddle the radio dial to just the right spot to find the “island”, that is.
That’s one of the things I really liked about this doccie – it relays the spirit of radio, a spirit that is all but lost today. Seeing tape decks and hearing kids talk about how they’d record the show (by pressing play and record at the same time – remember those days!) and hope the sound of tape reaching the end and stopping would be enough to wake them up to change sides in the early hours of the morning, when the show would air, is a delight. And Busta, talking about the great lengths he would go to to care for his tapes and then sell them like a boss, an even bigger one.
While the show was dominated by males, the doc does speak to women who were part of the scene at the time and touches on the misogyny experienced by them, and how they wouldn’t stand for it. Even if your name was ODB. Or especially if, I should say.
There are many great anecdotes shared but I liked hearing Pharoahe describe the feeling he got from being on the show, knowing the city was listening in, and how different that was to being on stage or in a recording studio. This doc captures not just a vital part of hip hop history but a vital part of how we used to communicate. Long live radio!
Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives played at a variety of film festivals last year, and is available on Vimeo.