It had already been a long day by the time I arrived at the Chicken Shop inside Chicago’s Soho House.
Entering the restaurant housed in the city’s swanky social club I found a table with familiar faces, dropped my backpack on the floor and settled into a ceramic chair. I was here to meet legendary New York radio DJs Stretch and Bobbito and I wasn’t fully aware of what lay ahead of me.
An hour or so later the pair turned the corner fresh off a delayed flight from Washington D.C., the site of the previous premiere of their film, Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changes Liveshosted by Red Bull Music Academy, and they looked worn from the trip. Rocking grey sweats and a winter jacket Bobbito greeted everyone at the table and settled next to me while Stretch, more formal in a sweater and pressed jeans, said hello and ran to the washroom.
All of a sudden I was half a chicken sandwich deep with one of the early voices of hip-hop. Talking to Bobbito I began to realize that these two were the predecessors for pretty much everything I do. Running a couple of hours behind and in town for a press junket of sorts along with the premiere, we had the unique opportunity to catch the duo in a more laid-back setting devoid of crowds or curious onlookers. The air filled with the brothy scent of Bob’s chicken pot pie as we talked about the violence in Chicago, Derrick Rose’s new haircut and the city in general.
Growing up Stretch had existed only as a name in hip-hop magazines I bought at the White Hen and was sort of this shadowy figure in rap history as I came of age in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Bobbito was seemingly all around me without my truly knowing it: writing for SLAM Magazine, voicing over my favorite video games and generally existing enough in the background, enough to have name recognition from my ten-year-old self. It’s interesting, then, that I didn’t really think about the importance of their story until I was sitting an arm’s reach from each of them on an overcast November afternoon in 2015.
We music-minded journalists often talk about the idea of the music industry’s perceived fall from grace over the last couple of decades as the Internet has become increasingly more prevalent. More and more a sort of disconnect is pointed to, those that existed during over-inflated record sales and “bling” and those that came during the mixtape and blog era. What’s lost in that conversation is often how those evolutions affected hip-hop.
Talking to Stretch and Bob it became increasingly apparent that they didn’t care much for the genre anymore. Not out of hate, misunderstanding or old-headedness; rather simply because the music they enjoyed wasn’t being made anymore. As music and hip-hop specifically rocketed toward life on the ‘net, old world radio DJs morphed into bloggers like myself. I’ve never thought of myself as a tastemaker or major influencer, but listening to how these guys sifted through cassettes, CDs and everything in between for the best music each week to play for the people, it was hard not to make the connection. Similar to them, most of those who have stuck out writing about hip-hop make little doing it, have a deep love for the music and generally exist to, as they put it: “Decide. Dope or not dope, that’s it.”
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We weren’t groomed for radio, we weren’t apprentices, we didn’t come up under anyone else, we weren’t working under any radio stations so in that sense we were outsiders and I think that’s one of the reasons why our show was great, because we had a very independent frame of mind, we weren’t beholden to anybody and it was really just a reflection of our personalities, proclivities and tastes and that’s that. So essentially how now you can get on the internet and be totally independent, well we were doing that on the radio and we were really fortunate that the stars aligned in such a way that we could be in the center of the hip-hop universe, New York City, which you can argue isn’t the center anymore but in the 90s it certainly was and we were smack dab in the middle of it guiding the conversation with a completely independent voice. - Stretch
One thing I picked up on immediately is that Stretch & Bobbito aren’t the easiest interview. It should be expected from a pair that came up in New York City questioning rappers in the ‘90s. More than anything they hate being asked about what they think of the current hip-hop world, they dislike being begged to draw comparisons to then and now. But as I got on the elevator to leave the restaurant and head up to their rooms, Bobbito said something interesting when asked about what’s missing today. “Moments. There’s nothing exciting anymore, the music is just always available-there’s nothing to get really excited about.”
We parted ways soon after, me leaving them in a dimly lit theater with plush red chairs to finish their interviews while I ran across the city to make it to the premiere in time. Sitting at the Chop Shop last Saturday, watching the story of the Stretch & Bobbito show and all that went into it, it was damn near impossible to ignore the similarities between the time they were flooding the airwaves and that idea of creating a moment came back around.
I mean probably no different than what it feels like for you because you know we really didn’t care if people got signed or not, we didn’t care if they got huge or not, we just cared about putting forth the best four hours that we could you know? So whatever it took to do that and if there was an unsigned artist in our studio we were just simple hip-hop heads that were like blown away by someone’s performance or someone’s posture or someone’s presence and it wasn’t just a freestyles, Stretch was playing phenomenal music, majority of which you couldn’t hear on other stations until later so it was like this envelope of a whole brush, four hours worth of new experiences and it was weekly moment capsulated in our show and that moment lasted for eight years. - Bobbito
I've come up these last four years or so covering local names that were on the ground floor, more or less, when I arrived. Names that today are beginning to pace music. Names like Chance, Vic, Saba and Wiley that pop up today with increasing frequency. Having forged some sort of friendship with those guys and bearing witness to their meteoric rise in the time since has added a bit of brevity and deeper understanding to my role in the larger scheme of things. Watching the home videos of the guys interviewing Jay Z at a young age or sitting across the table from Eminem, it was obvious that there is a real value in creating open spaces for art to find people, something that I believe often gets lost in the profit-driven world of professional blogging and commercially-driven music. Immediately a lot of what I’ve done for the last four years was put into perspective.
I think that there’s something to be said about convenience and accessibility in the fact that just because people know who we are is because of the internet and that’s tremendous. This movie arguably would not be able to be perceived as well as it is being without the internet, we couldn’t promote it the way we’re promoting it without the internet. But with that being said, I think we're very cognizant of what we’ve giving up in exchange for that convenience and I think for those of us that are old enough to remember, that’s not something we need to tell you about. You can compare what things were like back then to what they are now and everyone can come up to their own conclusion.
But for younger people I don’t think they...it’s hard for them to compare anything because they weren’t around at a time when they had to listen to this radio show in the middle of the night or they had to get a tape of it and what that whole experience of the effort that it took to stay up or to get it from somebody that ritual which was imbued with such effort and meaning what the payoff was on that which I think is missing today. The convenience I think has emptied the ritual of getting to artists and getting to know new music and it’s meaning. - Stretch
Two days after my sit down I was broadcasting my own radio show with friends and colleagues from back home. While it was only on the Internet, it was live and possessed all the aesthetics of the early Stretch & Bob programs: freestyles, a party-like atmosphere, unreleased music; the sense of a moment. Broadcast from 8-10 PM last Sunday the show was far from perfect, but exciting nonetheless. It existed for those two hours and was gone forever, save for a short time streaming here with password. The moment felt real and I couldn’t help but recognize the sort of gift that was passed on from one generation to the next. This week, we’re going to return to Classick Studios on the west side of Chicago for our second live episode and continue to put on for whatever fits the pallet: dope or not dope. It’s one thing to follow in another’s footsteps, but it’s another to feel like you’re shoes are made from the same leather.
I’m not claiming to be anything more or less than myself, but by recognizing the things that made hip-hop great early in its lifetime, I really believe that the blueprint for the future lies in what has already been done, a blueprint laid down by two New York City kids decades ago with nothing more like a mic, a studio, and an unceasing love for hip-hop.