Starting from humble beginnings as a club DJ and radio promotions rep respectively, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia would go on to create the self-titled underground hip-hop radio show that defined the ‘90s. Instrumental in the careers of everyone from Nas to Eminem and the Wu-Tang Clan, this is widely considered the pivotal program that others in a similar vein are measured by. They had fun doing what they loved Thursday nights into the wee hours of morning on New York’s 89.9 FM (WKCR), and that simple idea that still defines their careers 30 years later.
While the duo’s importance was felt throughout the five boroughs and surrounding areas (with cassettes of their show reaching rap enthusiasts outside the US), Netflix picked up the 2015 documentary Radio That Changed Lives and turned them from a niche act into worldwide phenomenons. Their latest creative venture is the debut album No Requests – a jazz-centered project that combines Stretch Armstrong’s wealth of knowledge as a sound selector with the music tied to Bobbito’s Latino heritage. Despite straying from what long time followers might expect, the release makes perfect sense as the personally curated band the M19s replays classic hip-hop beats and puts a new spin on soul hits and dance floor classics from the past.
Further cementing Stretch and Bobbito as creative visionaries and renaissance men, their love for legends including Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan brings new life to well known songs in a manner that’s sure to grab listeners with an appreciation for original composition. Gracious as always, the duo hopped on a call with VIBE to reflect on their past, celebrate the release of No Requests, and go in depth on how they’ve made a living off of their passion for music while navigating the fight between business and art.
VIBE: Your album No Requests starts with a medley where the M19s band plays classics like Nas’ “N.Y. State Of Mind,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Unbelievable,” “Return Of The Crooklyn Dodgers” and Souls Of Mischief’s “93 ‘Til Infinity,” and the single is a cover of “The Mexican,” a popular ‘70s breakbeat. While this isn’t a hip-hop album, it seems like there was a focus on celebrating your roots.
Stretch Armstrong: It’s two-tiered, the intro is a reminder of where a lot of people might know us from but by the time you get to the “93 ‘Til Infinity” part of the song it’s clear this is going some place other than a hip-hop tribute. The rest of the album is a nod to our roots, every song that’s covered is a part of our foundation. These are songs that have touched us in a meaningful way over the last 40+ years.
Bobbito: “The Mexican” in particular is a pillar in the foundation of hip-hop, whether it’s for b-boys and b-girls dancing or for breakbeats that DJs and producers would collect. What we did with the record was transcend what it means beyond hip-hop, with the video we advocated for immigration rights and opened up a curtain for the experiences of asylum seekers.
VIBE: What was the process of selecting the band and how did you pick the songs that you wanted to cover?
Stretch: This album has a lot of Latin influences in it and some people might think it’s clearly a Bobbito record because he has seamlessly incorporated global music into his DJ sets over the last 20+ years. As a hip-hop head, I’ve always had an open mind to any music that was funky regardless of genre, but having toured the world DJ’ing with Bob, I got exposed to a lot of music. The sensation of hearing music that was unfamiliar to me but resonated in a way where it didn’t require multiple listens or justification or explanation, that came from Latin music.
I’m by no means an expert in this and I don’t need to be. At the end of the day loving music is supposed to be an emotional fun experience. I’m a 50-year-old white guy on stage with a diverse crowd playing music that’s partially not my pocket, but that makes it a more meaningful experience for me.
Bobbito: We like challenges. We could have easily enlisted ‘90s producers like Pete Rock, Premier and Q-Tip and we could have gotten some emcees, but we wanted to be challenged. We come from that era, but we’re not stuck there and the album is called No Requests because we’re not gonna let people tell us what to do.
I’ve had the great fortune of working with 10-time Grammy winner Eddie Palmieri, he’s a jazz master and Latin music legend. It was just a matter of us curating our own relationships and matching that with Eddie’s contacts to create an Avengers on stage. The flute player, bassist, drummer, percussionist and vocalist are all A-list talents and most of them are hip-hop heads who have never been able to flex that muscle. Our debut was at the Kennedy Center in DC and people asked how many years we’ve been playing together, that’s the caliber of musicians that we have.
VIBE: You’ve both written books and transcended hip-hop with Bobbito having a foot in the basketball world and your NPR show where you interviewed luminaries from a number of fields. How have you been able to successfully avoid being placed into one creative box?
Bobbito: What’s comfortable for us is always 100% being ourselves. We broke the mold for hip-hop radio in the ‘90s where a lot of college radio shows were grooming themselves to be on commercial radio; that wasn’t our disposition at all. We’re two nerdy guys who approach hip-hop in a very loving manner and people advocated for us to be ourselves. All of these years later, as freelancers we find ways to create new challenges and figure out how to earn money in a manner where we’re not compromising ourselves creatively while having fun.
VIBE: Having both started in music since the ‘80s, you’ve witnessed how technology has changed how consumers and DJs receive music. What would you say the biggest differences have been from your point of view?
Stretch: The positive is the convenience of being able to play your own edits, play something that doesn’t exist on vinyl and there’s a flexibility that we couldn’t imagine before. But I wrestle with the cost of that convenience all the time. The accessibility of music production tools is incredible, young people can create music and send it to people, but the flipside is too much music that’s disposable and forgettable. There’s incredible music happening and there always will be, but it’s more challenging to sift through the noise and find the gems.
Bobbito: I’m a vinyl dude. We’re releasing our album as a 7-inch box set and as a 12-inch LP, on cassette and CD. For digital listeners we encourage them to purchase and download because that’s helpful to our independent movement, artists get millions of streams and make little in return.
VIBE: I own “No Sleep” (Stretch’s book of club party fliers), but being from New York I was too young to be at legendary places like The Palladium before it closed. What was nightlife like back then and what was it like to see the city change over time?
Stretch: We’re all superficially connected through social media. You can feel like you’re hanging out with someone through watching their stories and that’s not a real connection or maintaining a relationship. Before cell phones and the internet, you might only be home two or three hours in the summer but you could go to Nell’s on a Tuesday night or Mars on a Friday and see all of your friends, clubs were like people’s homes. If there was a strict door policy, we had juice and you knew what night of the week you could see your crew. I miss that, New York City’s nightlife was special, it was a real community.
VIBE: One name that always comes up in discussing that era is DJ Clark Kent, and I know you still DJ together with The Originals collective. Do you have any untold stories about him?
Stretch: There was a party called Soul Kitchen at Wetlands where I.C.U. from Boogie Down Productions threatened to beat me up. Clark and Dante Ross stopped that from happening, but I’ve told that story before. I met Clark at Mars and he was the first DJ I ever met. I was throwing parties at Columbia University and we got popular enough to take our parties to clubs downtown. When I started at Mars in 1989, Clark was a resident DJ and I already idolized him as Dana Dane’s DJ destroying clubs and he was just a really cool and charismatic guy.
At Mars he introduced himself and complimented me as a DJ, within months I went to his crib in Crown Heights and that was the start of a friendship that’s really stood the test of time. He’s a legend, a personal mentor and he’s just got an incredible generous spirit.
Bobbito: There are untold stories and we interviewed him for our new podcast “The Actual Stretch And Bobbito Show” which will be powered by Atlantic Records. Once that platform launches, the interview with him and a bunch of other phenomenal guests will be out.
VIBE: I get the sense that your documentary “Radio That Changed Lives” introduced you to a younger audience that never heard of you.
Stretch: Absolutely. Particularly because it was on Netflix, that allowed us to reach fans globally in places like China, Bolivia and Serbia. That was an eye opener because people would reach us on social media and say our tapes traveled all over the world. A lot of younger people have great tastes in music due to their parents exposing them to good stuff, but Netflix really helped us open that window in a glorious way.
Bobbito: We just had our album release concert at the Kennedy Center in DC. I’ve been a pen pal via email with this guy from Mali in West Africa for almost 15 years now, he walked up and said he saw the documentary on Netflix but he only knew me from basketball. He knew nothing about my contributions to hip-hop. We went to Mumbai in India and we were greeted by people in their early 20s, before that I’ve never been recognized by anybody who lives in India until the Netflix licensing. That opened up so many ridiculous doors for us.
VIBE: When, if ever did you start to realize that you were making history?
Stretch: As the ‘90s progressed, we understood what we meant to the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) and how we were influencing other radio DJs and hosts across the country. We knew what we meant to A&R people who were looking for new talent and aspiring emcees who were eager listeners and looking to get on the show. A store like Fat Beats could sell a lot of records based on the music we were playing, a whole underground industry sprouted in New York City based around our show as a hub.
But I don’t think it really dawned on us until the documentary came out. The whole quality of light that was shined on that aspect of our legacy was way brighter than anything we experienced back in the day.
VIBE: What does the Stretch & Bobbito brand represent in 2020?
Bobbito: It represents a lot of different things and we’re grateful for that. It’s a podcast, there’s a hip-hop legacy, you can think of us as club DJs. There are no rules or boundaries, we’re free. Our album deals with music that was created decades ago, but it’s cutting edge. We’re trying to be progressive while being ourselves, that’s constantly being defined and redefined.
Stretch: We’ve always done what we wanted to do, even if the public that’s checking for us might be surprised by it, initially disappointed or skeptical thinking we’re not giving them what they want. We’re two middle aged dudes putting out our debut album, that’s not typical and I love that.