The 90's was a defining era for hip hop. It essentially took over the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic, dominated the charts and had its own global superstars. The chief standard bearers for the form during this golden age, bringing its nascent, would-be legends to a wider audience, were Stretch and Bobbito.
Before the Internet changed... well, everything: their radio show, from college station WKCR, spread far beyond their New York base, beyond the East Coast, across the US and around the world.
They were acclaimed for their impeccable taste, their connections garnering them exclusives and upfront access to slates and 12s form big names. Their nose for talent saw them help the likes of the Notorious BIG, Jay-Z and, arguably most notably Nas, get their first big taste of fame and big breaks on their show. The list of stars who appeared on the show, many of which turned up in the studio to rap and freestyle across Stretch’s beats, reads like a veritable Who’s Who of hip hop in the 1990's and beyond.
But like many of the groups and acts who’s careers they helped get off the ground, the duo’s show ended somewhat acrimoniously (albeit not as badly as the rap rumour mill would have you believe) and they went their separate ways…
But now their story, one of how a couple of chancers scored a radio show and ended up writing themselves into the hip hop hall of fame is being told in the excellent documentary film Stretch And Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, out now on DVD.
Jay Z with Stretch & Bobbito, Photograph courtesy of Matt McGinley
So, chatting to the amiable and thoroughly knowledgeable Stretch on a transatlantic phone call, the first question is, obviously, what does he think of the end result?
“I thought it was rubbish,” he laughs.
“I love the film. I had a unique vantage point being the subject; I was also a co-producer of the film. I was involved every step of the way making it.”
It was important that it wasn’t a mere hagiography, he adds: “Anyone who followed the radio show, they know that the personalities of me and Bob, those weren’t staged. We are two pretty humble people, we have no problems making fun of ourselves. We didn’t want the film to be about how great we are, me and Bob. It’s about what we achieved, how it came to be and how we became friends, and how we became unlikely gatekeepers for hip hop.”
There’s more to it than that though, as Stretch notes. “On the surface, it’s about me and Bob, but it’s about much more than that.”
It was a deliberate ploy to let other characters in the film talk rather than merely featuring the two main protagonists recounting the tale (“The only time you hear me and Bob speak us she someone else didn’t take about it.”), while many of the luminaries they gave a first stage to are instead talking about the show and their work. Many of those have praised the film – Stretch recounts a tale of Bobbito’s cousin overhearing Nas praising the film, while more have also weighed in in support.
Where the film succeeds, in many respects, is in its understanding of the history of hip hop and the genre. Like other forms of music, and sports and even WWE wrestling, its fans know the story of the the genre, the form, where things fit into the wider story. “Hip hop means different things to different people,” says Stretch.
“For some it’s just hooks, that’s not what I think of hip hop. I think I think of a certain lyricism, being progressive. Mining old records and so on."
“For many many years, you knew your history, you studied the artists before you. You knew the labels, knew the producers. You knew that Daddy O and Prince Paul were in Stetsasonic, you knew that Prince Paul went to work with De La Soul, you knew the, chronology and everything.”
As well as putting the Stretch and Bobbito Show into context within hip hop’s wider framework, where it also succeeds is in chronicling a simpler time before the Internet.
Rosie Perez, Photograph courtesy of Jon Lopez
“In terms of the amount of music, the amount of producers, it’s just mushroomed,” Stretch says. “You can’t keep track of it. It’s different from Premier and Pete Rock making beats. You still pay attention to history, we know. The community remains pretty small and tight.”
It was a simpler time, which is, we venture, one of the real things that sticks in Radio That Changed Lives. Warming to the theme, Stretch continues...
“To get your music, it was a challenge. You had to stay up late, if you could get a signal. To record it you had to flip the tape halfway through or find someone who had the tape, which takes time. You’d lose tapes, break them, steal them. Listening to our show became a ritual, that imbued it with a certain amount of meaning.”
“We had an appreciation of the music that’s missing now. it’s still enjoyed now, but it’s much more disposable. Much less of [today’s songs] will be considered classics. I’m not trying to shot on their experience today, it’s their time and their music. I’m just comparing it, seeing how things have changed.”
One thing that resonates is the friendship between the pair, much was made of their falling out and Stretch’s disappearance from the show towards the end of the decade, but the warmth they still feel for each other is notable. As Stretch says, “people have this idea we hated each other forever”. They may have not been as close, but he still appeared on Bobbito’s farewell show a few years later and are pals now (the highs and lows are charted throughout the film, suffice to say, it’s a more complex relationship than you might imagine).
The friendship they have with each other, as well as the closeness of the community in those formative years is clear from the footage of them recording the WKCR show. “It was like friends,” he says. “We’d all converge on a weekly basis. In a way the centre of the universe that we knew. The excitement of that, the love of the music the, the unpredictability of what guests were going to show up… Doing that show was a weekly thrill.”
The pair have DJed together and remain friends, with further projects on the way...
Stretch still DJs regularly – he’d started off as a club DJ. “I was a regular club DJ.I was playing gigs. It’s totally different, DJing in a club is all about keeping a dance floor going. You don’t have that connection with people on the radio, you don’t have the pressure, you can play things that aren’t for the club.”
Things changed as people booked him more to hear what he was playing on the radio, and, as the 90s wore on, he believes the more interesting records were not necessarily the, ahem, club bangers. However he does note that, “in the 90s the best hip hop records were club records”.
Nas, Photograph courtesy of Geo Reda
So what then, are his favourite 90s hip hop records?
“Illmatic was the album. Prior to Nas becoming an underground star and a bonafide superstar, he was WKCR royalty. In terms of a single, it’s Time’s Up by The OC. It’s just the music, the feeling. Listening to the lyrics, it’s almost a manifesto, it has real integrity.”
Both feature heavily in the film, which, as Stetch concludes: “is a film that echoes what the show was.
“It’s inspiring, funny, funky, entertaining and educational as well. It’s nostalgic, it makes people laugh. Some people even cried. I’m very proud of the film. I couldn’t be happier.”
• Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives is released as an HMV exclusive now and general release on DVD and digital download on 24 October 2016 from STUDIOCANAL