As hip-hop culture has ascended from the streets to the stores to worldwide domination, the role of radio can never be underestimated. Recently the folks at Red Bull Academy produced the documentary Revolutions on Air: The Golden Era of New York Radio 1980 – 1988, which offered a glimpse of the early days of Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, Kool DJ Red Alert and others who broke through to the mainstream airwaves with underground sounds. Contrary to the myopic expectations of older-generation Black radio and music executives, rap music was able to progress way beyond pure novelty status. However, as the music became more popular, the radio shows soon became less cutting-edge and more commercial.
By 1990, the year Stretch & Bobbito launched their radio show, “real” rap fans in New York City were fed up with the hair grease sheen of the music being promoted through mainstream radio, and were ready for a change. Broadcasting from the campus of Columbia University on WKCR every Thursday night until 5am, the show started off as a local sensation that became ever more influential with the dawning of the boom-bap era that brought forth gritty emcees like the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Biggie Smalls, Mobb Deep and Fat Joe, among others.
In addition, after a few years lost in Cali gangsta boogie and MC Hammer hell, this was also the last era when New York City was once again a dominant force in hip-hop, and these dudes were takin’ no shorts. With their liberating radio show, DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia gave artists the space to be themselves, allowing them to freestyle, snap, curse, drop fresh verses, preview exclusives and be as dirty as they want to be.
In the slammin’ documentary Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, which premieres this evening at the 19th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival, director Garcia gives us an exclusive look into the unpredictable program that helped launch so many successful rap careers both on the mic and behind the scenes. “We were the last of the underground that could be commercial,” says Jay-Z, who once battled the late Big L on the show. Listening to the show, which aired from 1990 to 1998, was the equivalent of puffing blunts in a housing project staircase where some nobody kid with a funky ‘fro was freestyling with the power of Black Jesus.
During that period when I was writing features for The Source and Vibe, there were many insomnia-fueled Thursdays when I’d pull all-nighters listening to the show. As Kool Keith reminds us, the station was so far down the dial that sometimes there was mad static, but that was never enough to make me turn it off. One night in 1995, I was beer and blunt buzzed, and I dialed up the station to profess how much I enjoyed a Fat Joe freestyle I’d just heard. Slurred words, giddy excitement and all, they simply let me talk my shit like I was the intellectual Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Although the film serves as his autobiography, Garcia frames the tale of the station through the various wild boy personalities that joined him and Stretch in the studio. From industry big boys DJ Premier and Eminem to leading pioneering hip-hop writers Bonz Malone and Da Ghetto Commentator, if you too loved hip-hop, then you too could be down.
While the station could have the weed cloud slash spilled beer feel of a hip-hop animal house, women such as former Vibe editor Mimi Valdez and publicist Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra also worked at the station. In one of the funniest sequences in the film, they show a video of Method Man apologizing to Valdez for cussing her out earlier. By the end of the decade as the music begins to shift, Garcia was bored and the two friends began to grow apart. In telling fashion, when Garcia discusses his aversion to the new sound of rap, they show a clip of a Puffy and Mase video. Thankfully, years later, Stretch and Bobbito are friends once again and have been working together on various projects.
Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives is a love letter to a gritty yet magical era when life might have been illmatic, son, but every Thursday night we always had something to look forward to. Stretch and Bobbito serves as a brilliant magic carpet ride to the now-bygone era of hip-hop. Deeper than entertainment, this is the boom for real.