Friday, October 2, 2015


At last. A hip-hop film that truly speaks to me (although not to discredit the Tribe Called Quest documentary as Phife Dawg’s battle with diabetes & kidney disease literally mirrored my own struggles with the same exact diseases a few years back). Just about every prominent hip-hop-based film to come out in the last few years is based around an artist with a fanbase that branches out beyond hip-hop culture to the casual fan (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, etc). But Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives speaks to a specific cult-ish hip-hop fanbase (a cult that I’m very much a part of) whose knowledge of hip-hop goes beyond a redundant Rolling Stone analysis of a Public Enemy album or a Michael Eric Dyson essay about a Tupac verse (that wasnt a diss to Public Enemy or Tupac).
This is a documentary for folks who stayed up late to tape a rare non-album version of a Mobb Deep song or capture a Pharoahe Monch freestyle that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. This is a documentary for people who were too busy nerding out to rap cadence and the intricacies of gritty beat production to be bothered with the half-knowledgeable pseudo-intellectualism that’s become just as much of a poison within hip-hop/rap as the ignorant/irresponsible music that gets played on the radio today.

This film couldn't have come at a better time given the current state of New York City ("urban") radio. The playlist that makes up the majority of rap music that gets played on popular stations like Hot 97 & Power 105 is hardly an accurate representation of the wide variety of talent that's out there in the world of hip-hop today (strangely enough, if you want to hear good old school hip-hop on the radio, you have to tune in to WBLS which was once a place that frowned at rap music). Tell me - how is it that hip-hop artists like Run The Jewels, Big KRIT, Action Bronson, Jean Grae, Roc Marciano & Danny Brown manage to sell records (in the MP3 era), maintain a steady fan base and sell out festivals all over the world, yet they still can't manage to get some kind of decent rotation on mainstream New York City radio? Clearly they have fans. So why can't their music get played at a decent time slot on a station that claims to be the home of hip-hop (technically the tagline for hot 97 is "where hip-hop lives" but it hasn't lived there for a while so it really doesn't matter if I got it wrong because it's an inaccurate statement either way). 
Even veterans/legends like Cormega, Pharoahe Monch, Ghostface Killah & Sean Price (RIP) continue to put out quality music but can't manage to get any rotation on the major radio stations that operate out of their own city (part of this has to do with the fact that rap music is quite possibly the only genre where veterans & legends are encouraged to fall back over time while older musicians in other music genres are encouraged to make new music and tour). New York has become one of the only major rap/hip-hop radio markets that doesn't promote its own talent. I went to Philadelphia earlier this year with my fiancé and when we turned on the radio we heard The Roots, Beenie Segel & Eve. Last year we spent some time in North Carolina and heard J. Cole on the local radio on more than one occasion. And with the success of Kendrick Lamar I can only imagine how much his music gets played out in California. So why don't major urban stations in New York City follow suit? I'm sure (former?) Hot 97 music programmer Ebro Darden will spin some well-spoken yet nonsensical explanation as to why that is but at the end of the day it's all bullshit. There is no legitimate explanation for the lack of variety on urban NYC radio.

For a more in-depth analysis on the current state of urban radio, listen to the Chuck-D episode of The Combat Jack Show after reading this...

I seriously feel old when I tell younger folks that Hot 97 was once a place where the likes of De La Soul, Wu-Tang, Sean Price, Masta Ace & Mos Def all got good radio play. Hot 97 was even a brief home for Stretch & Bobbito in the late 90's.
What set Stretch & Bob apart from so many other radio DJ's (past, present & future) is that they dared to play non-traditional (mostly New York City) rap music that you couldn't hear on other radio stations...

I know Stretch & Bob's radio show didn't reach the same amount of folks as Howard Stern or Tom Joyner but they still managed to make history with a shitty tri-state signal based out of a dingy college radio station.

I don't often like to compare hip-hop to other musical genres. It’s like seeking validation from sources that don't show the same amount of respect (rappers sometime attain a certain status and start drawing comparisons to legendary rock & roll artists when they should be compared to the legendary rappers that came before them). But there is a strong parallel between Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Garcia and John Peel (legendary UK radio disc jockey known for pushing eclecticism during his run on BBC radio). Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives is currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music - which is great - but I worry some folks might not recognize their status in hip-hop. So in this case it helps to compare them to a possibly more recognizable figure like Jon Peel (I don’t mean to discredit anyone, but I don’t see the regular Brooklyn Academy Of Music attendee being too familiar with the brand of underground hip-hop that Stretch & Bob helped to cultivate).

Stretch & Bobitto's run at WKCR represented a time when (underground) radio was a kind place for a wide variety of aspiring rap artists. It used to be a badge of honor to be featured on their show. Before finding any kind of substantial success (or a cult following in certain cases) everyone from Jay-Z & Nas to Artifacts & Company Flow got some of their first major radio play on their show.

Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives chronicles the legendary radio show that brought shine to not only the artists mentioned in this write-up so far, but other folks like DMX, Big Pun, Wu-Tang, Mase, Cam'ron and many more. I didn't really learn anything new, but as someone who grew up taping & acquiring episodes of their show whenever I could, it was nice to revisit memories of the golden-era rap music that played a part in making me the person I am today (I grew up in Massachusetts but spent lots of time visiting family in New York City in my teens which is when I got familiar with the show)
The artists featured in the film are mostly from NYC or New Jersey, but west coast veterans like Cypress Hill, Sway, Souls Of Mischief & Del get plenty of love as well. There's a whole 'nother sub-genre of artists loosely associated with the show that arent really mentioned in the film (Pumpkinhead, Necro, Juggaknots, Arsonists, Non Phixion and more) but I have to learn that's ok and this film wasnt made for just me. Interviewees include everyone from Rosie Perez & Redman to Jay-Z & Fat Joe (I was pleasantly surprised to see folks like O.C., Large Professor, Dante Ross, Lord Finesse and other underrated/under-appreciated artists get some decent screen time). And of course there's plenty of archive footage featuring everyone under the sun who had anything to do with rap music in the 90's (Brand Nubian, Method Man, Kurious Jorge, Das Efx, Showbiz & AG, etc). For something that's just over 90 minutes, we get a lot of history. There isn't much structure, but, and sorry in advance for sounding pretentious, isn't that how it should be? Their show didn't have too much structure nor did a lot of the music & artists they featured on the show. This is probably the most fun I had watching a movie this year (after Mad Max: Fury Road). I only hope other folks who manage to see this film get as much out of it as I did.

No matter what nerdy artifact or piece of history that was omitted from this film (and there are plenty as the Stretch & Bobbito radio show is layered with years of historical moments & hip-hop trivia) it's still an important piece of hip-hip cinema (I'd like it to be noted that no other film critic or film site is documenting hip-hop on the big screen like PINNLAND EMPIRE).

This reminds me - with broader topics being covered within hip-hop cinema, maybe in the near future we can get a documentary to explore why slightly misinformed intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson, Dream Hampton & Cornell West get the platform they do to discuss hip-hop while various members of Rock Steady Crew & Zulu Nation (you know - the articulate, knowledgeable veterans who've been part of the fabric of hip-hop since day one) do not. But that's a whole 'nother can of worms... 


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