Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives
Directed by Bobbito Garcia
October 1-8 at BAM
Autobiographical documentaries by the Publicly Prominent tend to be, at best, a dicey proposition: pitfalls can include erroneous self-censorship, echo-chamber interviews with the subject’s celebrity friends, the whitewashing of entire decades, and/or no small amount of product placement. And while nostalgia exacts an ever-higher price, the current moment of fandom for classic East Coast hip-hop more and more resembling a prior generation’s collection of resin-stained Zeppelin posters and Floyd t-shirts, it’s a real pleasure to report that the new Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives—about filmmaker Bobbito Garcia’s legendary late-night hip-hop radio show, DJed (and eventually co-hosted) by Stretch Armstrong (alias Adrian Bartos)—is as audience-minded as it is awash in its makers’ memories. Which is to say, the film indulges a wealth of fantastic archival material—including VHS footage from the show’s midnight-oil recording sessions, when it was broadcast from Columbia’s WKCR station—without feeling the least bit self-indulgent. In fact, at a too-short 99 minutes, it feels practically airtight.
Radio That Changed Lives features reunions with heavyweights including (but not excluded to) Nas, Jay-Z, Raekwon, Q-Tip, DJ Premier, Common, Fat Joe, and Busta Rhymes—who confesses, on-camera, that he sold bootlegged Stretch & Bobbito tapes for money in the early 90s. As we discuss the project via conference call, Bobbito is quick to dice up and delegate responsibilities: “Even though I’m the director, it’s our story; there wasn’t a single thing that went in the film without being run by Stretch for his thumbs-up. It was laborious at times, but we have a lot of love for each other and love for what we did, so the final product is a representation of both of us. I’m sure if Stretch was directing, some things woulda been different.” And if somebody else were? “No knock on any other filmmaker, but it wouldn’t have been as good as what this is. It’s not an outsider’s look, reinterpreting us—it’s the source.” With a whinny, Stretch adds: “From the horse’s mouth.”
Radio doesn’t gloss over the two men’s different class backgrounds—Bobbito grew up in the projects, Stretch in the Upper East Side—nor the misogyny of golden-era hip-hop, nor their eventual drift from one another (both personal and musical) after the show got picked up by Hot 97. “There were some awkward moments between me and Stretch,” Bobbito offers, “because we were talking about stuff on-camera that we had never discussed, ever—between us or even separately. It was awkward the first time I invited him to the edit room, to be like, ‘Hey—check out this scene where we’re telling each other “fuck you!”‘” (At this, both men burst into laughter.) “I was like… How’s Stretch gonna react to this? He reacted well, we gave each other a hug, and aight, cool, let’s move on.”
All that said: how fun can it be, really, making a movie about one’s own life? According to Stretch, “On the one hand, I’m intimately familiar with the subject matter, but I’m looking at it a little differently than I had ever considered before—one of the joys of not being director.” I ask if the duo have grown tired of talking about their 90s heyday, which gets a big laugh from Stretch: “Jesus. If we were tired of talking about it, we should not have made this movie.”
Stretch explains that he was sitting on an invaluable cache of footage—the magnitude of which he hadn’t fully realized: “When we initially started on the endeavor of making this film, so many things started falling into place, like a divine signal that we were working on something that should happen.” “But,” Bobbito counters, “I didn’t know you had any footage from Hot 97, ever. You probably didn’t show it to me. In fact, he gave me the Hot 97 footage, like, the last two weeks of the edit! I’m like, where was this!? What the fuck?” At this, too, both men began cackling.
This is no complaint, but Radio That Changed Lives also dedicates a not-insubstantial portion of its runtime to material that shows the guys riffing on one another, spectators’ (and presumably listeners’) jaws agape, into what appears to be infinity—an almost Scorsesian sketch of on-air raconteurism. I ask Bobbito: Did anyone ever tell you to dial down the movie’s shenanigans? He deadpans: “You didn’t laugh? I’m gonna hang up on you.” (More laughing. Stretch asks me, “Have you not laughed, man?”)
The moment turns serious again, and Bobbito clarifies: “We had two editors, right? One of them, Emir Lewis, he’s a straight comedian. He cut the Dave Chapelle skit with Rick James. That’s his pedigree. So there’s this moment where Stretch is trying to get Method Man on the phone, and he improvises a jingle—M-E-T-H-O-D, Maaan’—and it’s really funny. But it takes from the seriousness of the moment.” (Context: a brief passage of Radio features Method Man hassling rap journalist Mimi Valdes, at the time one of Stretch & Bobbito’s interns, outside the studio—only to apologize minutes later on the air.) “Emir didn’t have it in him. So Mariah, our second editor, comes along, and I’m like: Let’s keep it. I wanna laugh. It won’t kill the scene. Mimi won’t be upset… So we put it back in, and it worked. I want people to laugh as much as they can. I watch a lot of documentaries, I watch a lot of foreign films, yo, I love all of them but it gets a little bit too serious sometimes. And we don’t take ourselves that serious either, that’s not how the show was.”
Radio zeroes in on the show as a launchpad for heretofore-unsigned MCs, but also as a mainstay for incarcerated listeners and burgeoning hip-hop fanatics. “I think the takeaway is different for different people,” Stretch says. “Based on how old you are, what your experience was, or what you used the tapes for. I think for a young person it’s interesting history, but really sort of catching up and learning about it, it’d probably resonate less with them. You’re talking to a DJ who’ll only play vinyl, so there you go. As a DJ, it’s just very hard to keep up with new music, because technology has allowed so many people to make so much music and disseminate it so very quickly. The pace with which records were released in the 90s, you had to go to the studio, record the record, get it mixed, approve the test pressing, wait and get the records—it was a process that’s like a lot more time and a lot more thought and consideration. I think, while there were plenty of horrible records being made, the end result on the most part was something that involved a lot more blood, sweat, and tears.”
Bobbito couldn’t be happier with his end product. “It’s consistent with what people would expect if they used to listen to us. And if they’re younger, I think it’ll be a welcome surprise, like, damn: a documentary that’s actually funny! Even before we started the interviews, my ideal was always to make a film that felt like a radio show. Not just a radio show—our radio show! So… our editor tells me I’m breaking a lot of rules, documentaries are supposed to have a certain pacing, a down-point, so that the high points smack even harder. But we were just like, Fuck it; let’s go full throttle. A legendary Cuban radio show host saw it, and he told me the movie was like 30 climaxes in a row; a constant orgasm for him. ‘I climaxed a whole hour and a half!’ I dunno if you wanna put that description in your magazine, but…”
A number of Radio’s interviewees are filmed relistening—in some instances, for the first time in twenty-plus years—to tapes from their original appearances on Stretch & Bobbito. “When I was thinking about how to approach this film,” Bobbito continues, “I wanted to bring the audience back to feeling like they was a part of the show in the 90s. But I also wanted to bring the artists and the interviewees—all of them, even if they’re regular listeners we put on the same platform as a multi-platinum artist—back to listening to the show, on analog cassette, just as they would’ve in the 90s. Stretch has been digitizing a lot of our archives, but it sounds different when you listen to it online. Listening on a Walkman, as you had to in the 90s, it softens the emotion and the tone…”
Stretch appends this thought: “The first time Nas was on our show, he was nobody. Fast-forward to when he’s preparing to drop Illmatic, his whole career takes off like a rocket from that point. He probably never listened to that earlier episode, actually probably never had it, just because his lifestyle got so hectic at that point. So when you put the headphones on, and then listen to that episode, it’s almost like hearing it for the first time. To me, I thought that seeing guys take that time machine back was really kinda powerful—touching, even, at times.” In one of the film’s few bittersweet moments, Nas tells Stretch and Bobbito: “I wish I could go back just for one day, just to fuckin’ see it again.” For the time being, listening again will have to suffice—and if Radio That Changed Lives is to be believed, it continues to.