Interview 4080: Stretch Armstrong
words by Alexander "DJ RTC" Fruchter
I can't pinpoint the exact moment I became aware of the Stretch and Bobbito show, or really even how. I grew up in Chicago, IL a very long way from the airways of WKCR in New York City, where every Thursday night and into the wee hours of the morning, Stretch and Bob would host a bevy of emerging NYC (and national) emcees. Anybody who was anybody, and anybody who hoped to be anybody, was on their show. A quick scan through youtube will show you just how much of a proving ground it was as artists such as Jay Z, Nas, Black Thought, Biggie, Big Pun, Big L, Wu-Tang Clan, and countless others showed up to show and prove themselves with what have now become legendary freestyles and interviews. And those that weren't at the station were glued to the radio listening, and more than likely, dubbing the show on what became treasured cassette tapes. In their documentary, Radio That Changed Lives, none other than Busta Rhymes admits to religiously recording their episodes, then selling the tapes at school the next day for sneaker money.
While I discovered Hip Hop at a very early age, it was the mainstream kind, what was readily available on MTV and the Box. And while I loved Warren G - for some reason he was my favorite rapper as a kid (shouts to Andra Wiley) - I wanted something else. As I got older and approached my Bar Mitzvah, I began routine visits to my local record store, Dr. Wax. It was there that I got put onto local underground artists like Pugs Atomz, Thaione Davis (he was working at the record store), The Nacrobats, All Natural, Typical Cats etc... Around this same time I went on a deep dive into the Native Tongues Movement, sparked by Q-Tip's appearance on Ill Communication, as well as the West Coast underground. My mind was blown, and I craved a better understanding of not just Hip Hop music, but Hip Hop culture. The elements, the ideas, the daily practice, and being DOPE! That's probably when I found the Stretch and Bobbito show. And even though the show was over by the time I turned 16, they remained a constant presence. Throughout my digging, I would find them referenced by my favorite emcees and DJ's, in magazines and on record . They were just there. And that time that Jay Z freestyled with Big L on their show has become one of the most memorable moments in Hip Hop history.
Last November, coming back from a short tour with Kweku and BoatHouse, I watched their documentary "Radio That Changed Lives". That was when it really hit me how special these guys were. And I felt an instant connection with them and what they were doing in NYC during the 90's, and what I was doing in Chicago with rubyhornet in the mid 00's. Since that plane ride, I've seen the movie countless times and I never cease to discover something new. It was my way to kind of experience their show, the one I missed the first time around as a young kid growing up in Chicago.
And then, something happened. I got an email blast from Audible Treats announcing the return of Stretch and Bob. This time the duo had taken their talents to NPR and expanded their range beyond underground Hip Hop and into the worlds of music, art, culture, and film. Their new show What's Good might be broader in scope, but to Stretch, it still carries the same mission. "Back then, we were digging for records, discovering unknown talent, and similarly, now we’re trying to unearth stories and perspectives from our guests. It’s the same seeking out something unknown and meaningful to share with the world."
I was able to interview Stretch via email about the new show, some of those classic moments on WKCR, finding gems, and much more for the latest edition of Interview 4080. Peep it below. And tune into What's Good With Stretch and Bobbito every Tuesday on NPR.
RTC: Congratulations on the new show. Do you feel any weight or pressure from The Stretch and Bobbito show that you needed to shake off or in anyway work through together? Were there any like, “we used to do it this way” type of things or growing pains on doing this version?
Stretch: For the past two years or so, Bob and I have had an on-going discussion about returning to broadcasting but understanding that neither of us wanted to do a Hip-Hop show. We did that, and did it really well. As DJs we would love to do something with music on a high-profile platform but we’re just as excited - perhaps even more excited - about doing an interview-based show on what we feel is the most respected and prestigious outlet period, NPR.
RTC: Bobbito posted on FaceBook that you went from 10 million potential listeners on the radio to 200 million potential listeners via NPR. Is that on your mind while creating the content? Did it matter to you guys back then as college-aged kids?
Stretch: For the record, when we started our show in the 90's, Bob had already graduated college. I was the student. Numbers never mattered to us back then because we didn’t even have a way of knowing how many people were listening - there were no metrics to know how many listeners we had or how many people were listening via dubbing tapes. But I’d be lying if I said the palpable excitement that got communicated through the “word on the street” didn’t affect us. It was the fuel that kept us up all night on Thursdays. Now, we see the potential listenership as just a hugely exciting opportunity.
RTC: The purpose of the radio show before was discovery of these new artists & really championing Hip Hop music and culture. What do you see as the purpose of “What’s Good”? Did you and Bob discuss the purpose and goals for the NPR show?
Stretch: I like to think that in a way what we’re doing with What’s Good echoes what we did the 90’s. Back then, we were digging for records, discovering unknown talent, and similarly, now we’re trying to unearth stories and perspectives from our guests. It’s the same seeking out something unknown and meaningful to share with the world.
RTC: What is the relationship like with you & Bob now as really grown men? Did you need to re-learn each other at all?
Stretch: We’re great friends, brothers really. Nothing has changed. The first time since we lived with each other in the very early 90’s that we spent every day together was in 2014 and 2015 when we made our film and then toured it. In fact, we actually spent more time with one another with the film than we ever did before, and it was honestly one of the best times of my life. I think Bob would agree: non-stop laughter, but also the joy of getting to know an old friend even more deeply.
RTC: I found the documentary, “Radio That Changed Lives” to be incredible. And I’ve seen it many times. There is a part where Fat Joe says something about how you helped a lot of cats get rich, and then you guys talk about having to pay in a sense to do the show. I think a lot of people can relate. I certainly did as a DJ and writer in Chicago’s Hip Hop scene. Was there ever any resentment around that, or did that contribute in anyway to the burn out from the radio show in the 90’s?
Stretch: We didn’t pay to do the show. But because we didn’t get paid (directly) to be on the air on WKCR, everything that went into the show was out of our own pockets or sweat. But what we got in return can’t be measured in money. The role we got to play as cultural influencers in New York, and beyond, has meant so much to both of us, and provided us with countless other opportunities. Also, I guarantee you that we had twice as much fun on a weekly basis than 90% of the artists in our film. We operated as this independent voice that didn’t answer to anyone, and we were doing this show in NEW YORK CITY at a time when the music was incredible. We didn’t have to worry about getting signed, label drama, acceptance from fans, radio play, rapper beef, etc!
RTC: Did you learn anything new about yourself or the show from watching the documentary that you did not know prior? I’m guessing it was a little trippy kind of watching the show from someone else’s perspective.
Stretch Armstrong: The movie was from our perspective - we made the film. But it was a trip to see the story of our show on the big screen. Everything about our show was raw. It was scratchy vinyl, hissy tapes, bad reception on your boom box. So to see our story produced into a beautiful, professionally produced piece of visual art was amazing. I told Bob once the film was wrapped that the film was the only well-produced thing we ever did together. Of course, now we have NPR’s What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito to add to that! Even though the film was co-produced by me, the main narratives that the film focused on were from Bobbito’s perspective. I think the the film would have been different if I had directed it, or if we co-directed it. But I didn’t want to end up with a film that was a compromise, because that wouldn’t have necessarily made a better film, and by giving Bob that leeway, I, in fact, did end up learning a lot about our shared story. Bob learned things about me as well, some that aren’t in the film. Because we spent so much time together, there was a lot of information that we shared, much of it being things we once knew and forgot, but some being things we never knew about each other from the time after we had grown apart and our lives had gotten much busier.
RTC: I interviewed Bobbito a few years ago & he said that a lot of moments from the radio show became MOMENTS only after they happened, and you didn’t necessarily set out for them. And that’s what makes everything so special. With the new show on NPR, are things more planned? Do you go into it with any preconceptions of what the impact might be?
Stretch Armstrong: During our 90’s show’s run, it was required listening for the people that it spoke to. If you missed it, you had to find someone that recorded it, and then get a cassette dub. The ritual of listening, getting blank tapes, staying up, recording, flipping tapes, etc. informed the experience with meaning. When things are too easy, they lack value. When they are difficult, when you have to work for it, the experience ends up having more intrinsic meaning. So I would say that the moments on our show were moments the week they happened because there was a conversation among listeners in which the latest performances were evaluated and then amplified by word of mouth. These moments became MOMENTS once the internet became a place for many of these performances to be spread around and immortalized. But what made people listen every week was that they weren’t sure what was going to happen the following week. There was a real fear of missing out. But Bob and I didn’t know either because even if we knew what artist might be coming up, we didn’t know what they were going to do. It was unscripted, unproduced and free. On NPR, we aren’t live, so we have the benefit of editing, but even before that, we work with our production team on a foundational script to work from. So yes, things are much more planned, and there is also less room for us to get completely goofy and ridiculous. It is, after all, NPR.
RTC: I read an interview with you in which you were talking about doing your homework in the basement of places like Nell's, and watching these older DJ’s just kill it. As a DJ that continues to play around the world, do you think that type of thing is still happening? Are younger DJ’s learning the same way? Note: Stretch put out a book about NYC Night Life flyers.
Stretch: I followed DJs I respected out of obsession, but also necessity. It was the only way to learn how to DJ, to watch what a good DJ did over the course of a night, and to see DJs make mistakes, which was just as valuable. With YouTube, the internet , and DJ schools, it’s a hell of a lot easier to learn the fundamentals. But the work it took to become a DJ in the 80's and 90's was substantial, and I would argue that most of the people that decide to be DJs now would be too discouraged to be DJs if it wasn’t so easy now.
RTC: Is there anyone from the new crop of subjects you’ve talked to that has been your favorite, or gave you any “aha” moments during the interview?
Stretch: It’s been surreally gratifying to hear someone like Mahershala Ali thank us for being such an important part of the culture and being an influence on who he is. Also, hearing from several of our guests how their experiences coming up intertwined with ours, like when Regina King was telling us about different clubs and parties she would go to in 90’s New York, where we would have been. Maybe we didn’t see her ‘cause she was in the VIP section, on the low. Ha.
RTC: As someone that is a DJ, radio show host, author, what is the underlying concept or themes that connects your work? It seems like in everything you do, there’s an aspect of documentation and celebration of Hip Hop. How do you see it?
Stretch: I think more than a celebration of Hip Hop, which isn’t really my intent, my work is merely an expression of my point of view. Hip Hop is a huge part of that, obviously. New York City is also a part of that, as is my evolving community. When you’re young, it seems like staying current and ahead of the times is important. But when you get older, that changes, and now that I am, I’m more interested in things that are classic, that have longevity, and that resonate now and hopefully, for a long time to come.