Indie artist. Indie label. Indie album.
“Independent” feels like a very new concept. Thanks to the internet it’s easier than ever to gravitate towards artists who we know are making their art with their own two hands, with their own money. There’s something organic, something pure about the feeling of supporting someone who is doing what they love because they love it. Shit, even labels have caught on to the phenomenon (mindies). It feels very new, a product of the internet, but the truth is that we experiencing more of an indie renaissance because of the pioneers of hip-hop, the ones from the '70s, '80s and early '90s, the ones who did it first and before there was any institution, they did it because the loved hip-hop.
Tuesday night, I had the distinguished honor of helping to recognize two of those pioneers when NPR screened the self-produced documentary 'Stretch And Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives' with both in attendance, ready and willing to answer questions, tell stories, and in true Stretch and Bobbito fashion, talk shit.
If you're unfamiliar with Stretch & Bobbito, you should really watch this documentary, but for the sake of the article, here’s a breakdown. DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito García were hosts of their own radio show on Columbia University’s WKCR, which started in the early '90s and lasted until 1998. Well, it started as a radio show, but turned into much more. In their eight years on the air, Stretch and Bob became the gatekeepers of hip-hop in the city where hip-hop was born. With interviews, freestyles and demo battles, they helped break some of hip-hop’s most renowned, respected but at the time unsigned emcees. Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Big L, Big Pun, Busta Rhymes, you name it. If you were hot in New York in the '90s you were a guest on The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, and if you were hot in New York in the 90’s it was because you appeared on The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show. The documentary traces the story of the show and not only has interviews with legends, but unreleased, exclusive freestyles; the Biggie freestyle gave me goosebumps. The documentary is a must see for hip-hop fans.
I see their influence everywhere - from morning show freestyles, the constant proliferation of their work, to people getting roasted on Twitter - but as someone who works for a platform that breaks new artists I understand their struggle. When I write an article about a new artist and that artist blows up, I get no credit, no reward, no nothing. The reality is I don't deserve anything - it’s lost in a sea of other posts and worth nothing more than the rare album sale or a Twitter follower or two - but dammit, sometimes I want credit for being early and being right. I thought about that feeling, the desire for my own fame and glory, and I left NPR’s headquarters feeling small, feeling humbled and even feeling guilty.
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The pair spent years putting together a great show, providing New York with incredible hip-hop music that they had never heard before, and they never made a single dollar. That is absolutely insane.
In the documentary Busta Rhymes talks about recording Stretch & Bob's show, making cassette copies, and then selling them for a profit the next day. On a much larger scale, real, life changing money was changing hands, but seemed to miss Stretch and Bob directly. Artists would freestyle on the show and then blow up. This wasn’t a blog post lost in a sea of blog posts. Stretch and Bob had a direct influence on who got signed. Shit, ODB freestyled on the show and was signed the very next day. The documentary features countless artists and A&Rs telling the duo, to their face, how their show made them millions of dollars. The total record sales for all the artists that appeared on their show is over 300 million and they never asked for a cent, never demanded praise or acclaim, they did it for the love.
Still, love doesn’t pay the rent. As a “tastemaker” I can understand their pain but I can’t even begin to imagine it on that level. We all owe them for their incredible contribution to hip-hop culture, but at the same time, is it really right to make Jay, Nas, and Busta pay them back? Do they owe them rapper-ations? I’m hesitant to go that far. Nobody owes them anything, but at the same time we as a community are forever in their debt.
So what can we do?
We can treat Stretch and Bob like the new, unsung and independent rapper making incredible music. We can shower them with praise and admiration and talk about how they influenced the landscape of how music is distributed and discussed. We also need to let our dollars do the talking. We have the ability now to pay them back for what they did 25 years ago, by purchasing, renting and sharing this documentary. It isn't enough, there's no way to fully pay them back, but it’s a start. It’s a way to show them that though so much has changed, though rap is drastically different, we still know where we came from. What they did, those freestyles, the artists the put on? That’s priceless.