At the luxury May Fair hotel in London, I joke with DJs Bobbito Garcia and Stretch Armstrong that they have finally made it big. They assure me that their room in the hotel was provided by the London Film Festival, where the two of them just premiered Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives, a documentary about the influential hip hop radio show that the two created in New York the 1990s.
Nas said it took him back to when he didn't have to put on the rapper uniform and punch the clock
The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show started on WKCR-FM (Columbia University’s student radio) in 1990 and ran for eight years, racking up an impressive roster of contributors. It featured Nas before he released his debut album Illmatic; a 16-year-old Christopher Wallace, later named the Notorious B.I.G.; and a freestyle between a young Jay-Z and Big L, which now has more than eight million views on Youtube.
The show also featured the likes of Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan and Fat Joe – all before they were signed – and it quickly became a rite of passage for any hip hop artist looking to make a name for themselves in New York during the 1990s.
Yet after the show secured a spot on commercial station Hot 97-FM in 1996, Armstrong and Garcia experienced creative differences and they parted ways in 1998. It was only after making their new documentary, nearly 20 years later, that Armstrong and Garcia became aware of the lasting impact that their show had on hip hop artists and listeners alike.
Garcia tells me how, while making the film, they came across a new revelation about the show.
“300 million-plus records have been sold by the unsigned artists that came to our show,” he says. “The first time I added it up, I was like, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I was like, is your calculator broken?” says Armstrong.
“I never knew how many people loved it,” says Garcia. “This film is helping us realise how many people are still feeling our show.”
Was that something you were unaware of at the time you were doing the show?
Stretch Armstrong Yeah because we were so focused on what was happening within the studio. Now we live in a world where we're hype-aware of what's going on out there because we're on Twitter and Instagram and there's this constant give-and-take.
Back in our day, it was very insular. Sure, we knew we were on the radio. And when you're on the radio, you're doing something for your listeners. With our show, the listeners really came into our world – that's a quote from the film.
Putting the headphones on and listening to the show took all these people back to a special time
When we made the documentary, we wanted to interview listeners and try to interview them in the environments in which they were listening to the show – so like at their mom's house. We were going in reverse.
Before, the listeners were trying to come into our world. Now we've been trying to go into their world and actually learn what that was like. We've done that with this film. There's a lot that we learned from making this picture.
The film has an educative quality. There were loads of people in it who are huge now, but there were also people who I didn’t know, like Grand Ghetto Communicator [a writer and rapper].
SA He didn't want to make records. He just wanted to come up and do some rhymes.
Bobbito Garcia He was homeless at the time.
Who was your favourite person to reminisce with? One section in the film has Busta Rhymes selling tapes of your show, which was great. That was a side of him I've never seen before. Even Jay-Z was getting excited, like he was a youth again.
SA You could see Nas in the film making all those facial expressions [pretends to look surprised] when he was listening to the recordings of himself on the show. Nas said it took him back to when he didn't have to put on the rapper uniform and punch the clock.
When you’re a recording artist, you can find yourself at a point where it becomes your job to be that artist. Putting the headphones on and listening to the show took all these people back to a special time. It reminded them of what hip hop was like for them before money played a part.
They were all at that stage when they came on your show. You'd never see those guys acting like that now.
SA You never will because their output is so controlled. I think we really surprised these guys. We really pulled the rug out from underneath them.
BG It put their guard down.
SA Also, because of what we mean to them, that gave us an authentic sense of self.
BG What I realised was that Nas and Busta not only listened to our show, but were fans of us. It’s hard for me and Stretch to realise that Nas and Busta were fans of our show. We were like their heroes when they were kids.
My vision from day one was to make
the film feel like the radio show
Putting the headphones on them and playing the analogue cassette, the whole process of listening came back.
It must have been hard to control your egos when people like Nas and Q-Tip are telling you they wrote their records to your show.
BG You see my reaction. I was like, oh shit!
BG I think I bust 72 nuts.
Another thing that was captured well in the film was the constant laughter shared on the show.
BG I get to say this as the director – with the support of Stretch and Omar the producer, the editors Mariah Rehmet and Emir Lewis – my vision from day one was to make the film feel like the radio show.
There were a lot of editorial moments where we could have kept the laughter out for the sake of the rhythm and the seriousness of the film – the educational component. I was always like, nah, leave that shit in. That's what our show was like. Constantly laughing.
No matter what happened on the show, there was laughter. The fact that you guys were still joking around in the film shows it still lives on. Was there ever anyone who came on the show who wasn't feeling the laughter?
SA I think we were intimidated by Dre. That was one of the interviews that came off like an interview. We also knew that he wasn't going to rhyme. So it was like, why are you here?
BG It's funny because Stretch mentioned that we had Dre on the show. I was like, really? I couldn't remember at first. It wasn't a memorable interview because he didn't freestyle or play any exclusives. He just came up.
SA It was boring.
BG Not that Dre is boring – because we're still intimidated by him.
SA A lot of the humour on those Dre albums is hilarious, so I know he's a funny guy. I think it was odd for someone of his stature to come to a radio show at 2am. I felt like he was in uncharted territory. He was a little bit guarded and was like, I don't know what's appropriate here.
Quincy Jones came by at 4am. He was loose and had been drinking. It was a stark contrast to Dre. We took live phone calls with Quincy Jones. I was shook, I wasn't even talking much. I didn't know how to talk to Quincy Jones.
At the end of the film, you deal with how the show ended. Was it hard to return to those days?
BG I think it was hard.
SA Yeah, and after it was hard it was awkward. But now it’s great.
BG We never really spoke about the manner in which we parted ways.
SA Even up to making the film, we hadn't spoken about it.
BG We brushed it under the carpet. We were still boys and still did events together, but when it came time to try to explain it, it took a couple of attempts. We did an interview together and not everything was answered.
Emir, the editor, was like, I'm going to interview you guys separately. Stretch and I felt uncomfortable saying certain things about each other. I was glad that we did it both ways.
SA The first time that we did it, you had thought the film through so much more because you knew the script. That day, I hadn't even looked at the questions. I thought that because it was my story, I could just talk about it. But I really couldn't.
One, because I was face-to-face with you and felt put on the spot. Two, because I hadn't really thought about this for such a long time.
It took a few days of really thinking about this to put into words the feelings I was experiencing at the time. It hadn't really sorted itself back then.