Hip-hop began, as everyone knows, with block parties in the Bronx in the late 1970s, but it hit its creative and commercial peak in New York in the 1990s. White DJ Stretch Armstrong and Latino announcer Bobbito Garcia were lucky enough, at that time, to host an underground radio show through which practically every single name who mattered in hip-hop passed.
Now, twenty-five years on, Bobbito Garcia has taken a look back at his own life and times – and a much more detailed look back at the life and times of his friend and collaborator Stretch – in a documentary researched, written and directed by him. That research, by the way, must have been considerable, as we are treated to an astonishing volume of archival footage, especially from Stretch and Bobbito’s early days, as well as a treasure trove of rare tapes featuring early freestyles from the likes of Jay-Z, Eminem, The Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, NaS, Lauryn Hill, Big L, Fat Joe, Big Pun…listen, I’m going to stop listing names. If they’re a rapper and they matter, then they’re here. Even some rappers who don’t matter are here, but never mind about that. We see far more of certain names (Fat Joe, NaS) than we do certain others (Eminem, Jay-Z), in a way that doesn’t seem to have been determined by the familiarity of their names, and is probably only a reflection of who proved the best interviewees. Fans might quibble – M.F. Doom, for instance, merits no more than a single mention before the credits – but it’s hard to argue against the inclusion of anything that’s here. A great, enduring love of hip-hop informs the whole film, which takes its greatest joy in the sequences in which older rappers are invited to listen to old tapes of their young, hungry MC selves. The sound quality of these recordings is sometimes, understandably, poor, and subtitles would have been appreciated. What we do sometimes get is graffiti-styled partial subtitles for, I suppose, lines Bobbito particularly enjoyed, or highlights on a page. Particularly useful is the information that pops up onscreen to identify which verses are freestyles and which were written beforehand, and which are seen being performed before their official release (most of them). What is lacking slightly, for all that Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is a moving celebration of hip-hop, and an absolute blast of a movie for fans, is much of a sense of history. Chuck D famously called hip-hop “the black CNN” but no social dimension is explored here at all; what we get is simply that it’s joyful music performed by phenomenally talented people. And that’s probably true to the spirit of its key figures, but we don’t know much more about them once the film has ended than we did before.
Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives is now available on DVD and Digital (24th October 2016), will you be checking it out?