Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives (and five other essential films about hip-hop culture)
If you lived in New York at any point during most of the 90s and were into hip-hop, then you probably already know who Stretch and Bobbito are. If you don't, then you probably should. For eight years between 1990 and 1998, the pair ran The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show on WKCR, one of the city's many local radio stations, owned and operated by Columbia University. But even though their broadcasts on college radio only transmitted in and around New York, it's hard to think of anybody who did more to promote and develop the growth of hip-hop, at that time or any other.
During those eight years, Stretch and Bobbito - otherwise known as Adrian Bartos and Robert Garcia - became two of the most important voices in hip-hop, hosting performances or freestyles and playing demo tapes by a laundry list of then-unsigned artists that included names like Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Fugees and Busta Rhymes, to name just a handful. In short, hip-hop simply wouldn't be what it is today without them.
For any rapper, DJ or producer on the East coast, 89.9 FM became more than just a place to listen to their favourite music; it was their gateway to the big time. Getting your demo played on Stretch & Bobbito's show meant a chance to showcase your talents and the opportunity to grow an audience for your music that just wasn't available by any other means.
It wasn't always plain sailing; the pair were taken off air numerous times thanks to the show's raucous atmosphere and the often unpredictable behaviour of some of their guests, but they always managed to come back and always enjoyed the support of their listeners, no matter how many times they fell foul broadcasting regulations.
Now their story is being told in a new documentary, directed by Bobbito Garcia himself. Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives is due for general release on October 24th, but those who can't wait that long are in luck; the documentary will be available exclusively from hmv from this Friday (October 14th) on DVD.
The documentary tells the story of how the pair created the show, their ethos and their influence on later stations like Hot 97 and broadcasters such as Angie Martinez. But most of all, the documentary includes archive footage and recordings featuring some of hip-hop's biggest names, most of them recorded before anybody knew who they were. Then there are the stories, of which Stretch and Bobbito have plenty, plus tons of interviews with the city's most famous producers, DJs and MCs, all of whom are only too happy to repay the two hosts for giving them a platform.
You can find a trailer for the new documentary below, beneath that we've picked out five other essential films that every hip-hop fan should make the time to see...
The original and probably still the definitive documentary about hip-hop culture, Style Wars may focus more specifically on graffiti than on rappers or breakdancing, but this film by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant was the first to offer a picture of a culture that was still largely misunderstood and feared by the mainstream, at a time when all graffiti was dismissed as vandalism regardless of its artistic merit. The film centres on two different artists trying to stamp their impression on the city of New York, allowing them a channel to express their differing philosophies about the artform, but it also includes interviews with many other artists and characters from the emerging hip-hop scene, including breakdancer Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew, as well as footage of then-Mayor Ed Koch and his view on the culture. For any fan of hip-hop and especially for those with a love of street art, this is essential viewing.
This 2003 documentary from Peter Spirer examines one of the more competitive aspects of hip-hop culture: the rap battle. Whether a friendly, on-stage competition or the more bitter feuds that have emerged between MCs over the years, the rap 'beef' has come to characterise a part of the culture and Spiel's documentary charts its origins from the toasts and ciphers that originated in places like Jamaica and the first recorded rap battle between Kool Moe D and Busy Bee. The film features interviews with many MCs from the East and West coasts and beyond, discussing the competitive nature of the music and various high-profile spats between MCs, including KRS-One vs. MC Shan, Jay-Z vs. Nas and, of course, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.
Usually described as the first ever hop-hop film, Wild Style isn't a documentary like the others on this list, but it does star several of the early pioneers of the scene, including Fab Five Freddy and graffiti artist Lee Quinones, who plays the lead part of Zoro. In truth, the film's plot is pretty thin and mostly concerns tensions in the relationship between Zoro and his girlfriend Rose (played by another graffiti artist Lady Pink), but the soundtrack is superb and it was the first time most people had seen hip-hop culture depicted on screen. Sure, it feels dated in some ways, but that's why it's still great – the film is like a time capsule and a landmark moment for hip-hop finding mainstream attention.
This 2001 documentary from director Doug Pray focusses specifically on the role of the DJ in hip-hop culture, charting the story of the artform's beginnings with pioneers like Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore, the cultural importance of organisations like the Universal Zulu Nation, founded by Afrika Bambaataa, and the evolution of techniques like beat-juggling and scratching. Along the way there are interviews with everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Dj Qbert and Beastie Boys' DJ Mixmaster Mike, each adding their own personal experiences and stories into the narrative. If you have ambitions of becoming a DJ then this doc is a code-red, drop-what-you're-doing essential piece of filmmaking.
Nas: Time is Illmatic
Our final pick feels like completing the circle that started with Stretch & Bobbito's radio show and was released in 2014 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the debut album of one of the show's biggest breakout stars, the New York rapper Nas. His first full-length offering Illmatic, released in 1994, was a game-changing statement of intent that is still referred to by many as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. This film by One9, Erik Parker and Anthony Saleh explores the background and making of the rapper's debut, including extensive interviews with its producer Gang Starr's DJ Premier, as well as Nas himself and many other figures from the East coast's hip-hop scene. This is mainly of interest to fans of Nas and his work, but any fan of hip-hop will find this an interesting and illuminating watch.