When Adrian “Stretch” Bartos first met Robert “Bobbito” Garcia at Def Jam Records in 1990, Stretch was a local DJ, and Bobbito was an A&R representative and alternative promotion manager for the label. After getting to know each other for a year and becoming roommates, the strangers-turned-friends decided to start a radio show dedicated to hip-hop.
The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show ran for eight years, from 1990 to 1998, becoming a cavern gathering the undiscovered diamonds of underground hip-hop in New York City. Living legends Nas and JAY-Z, late legends Big L and The Notorious B.I.G., and countless other New York emcees of myth and folklore made their way to Columbia University’s WKCR, where Stretch and Bobbito made weekly history—a history Bobbito documented in his 2015 documentary, Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives.
Thirty years ago, Stretch and Bobbito didn’t know they would change lives. They were just two New York natives in their twenties, no longer boys, not quite men, winging it for the love of the culture.
Ian Edelman, the creator of the former HBO series How To Make It in America, considers the mid-twenties to be when “coming-of-age” is a “universal” experience. “It’s a weird, ‘Who will I become?’ point in your life,” he told Interview Magazine in 2011.
Ian is correct—there is nothing more universal than the desire to come up and the anxiety of never knowing if you’ll reach the top. Some of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time are coming-of-age debuts. What isn’t as universally recognized in art nor media is what happens after you storm out the gates. After you make history, after you change lives, after you become legends, what do you do?
If you’re Stretch and Bobbito, you make an album and release it on Uprising Records. “[The plan was to] create an environment; you encourage [the artists], you direct them,” Bobbito, now 53, explains over the phone from a park in New York City days before the release of No Request, the debut album by Stretch, Bobbito, and their handpicked musicians, the M-19 Band. “You curate, [and] that’s what we did with our radio show. This is not as big as a transition that people might think who see us as former DJs who are now producers.”
“Although we didn’t produce the beats emcees were rhyming on, with the radio show, we were able to create an environment that promoted the best performance that an artist could have on a consistent basis. When you’re in the studio recording an album with elite musicians, it’s very similar.” —Bobbito
Stretch, 50, echoes the sentiments of his long-time running mate: “We’ve been around the block many times. We know how to market ourselves; we know how to promote ourselves. We know how to do all this because we’ve done it with countless projects. Even though this is a debut album, it’s by two veterans.”
No Request began as a “little kind of fantasy” that Stretch imagined while the two were on tour promoting Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives. “Think of all the phenomenal musicians and singers we keep meeting who are coming out to our screenings because our history means something to them,” Stretch would say to Bob while they traveled from one location to the next on their 60-city tour. “Think of the cultural and musical exchange that could go down if, while we’re in Berlin or Mexico City, or San Juan, we go to the studio and collaborate on some music.”
The passion was always present to craft an album, but, logistically, the timing wasn’t right—not until the making of Bobbito’s 2018 documentary, Rock Rubber 45s. His first film, Doin’ It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC, had a score with original compositions by nine-time GRAMMY award-winning, National Endowment of the arts jazz master and Latin music legend Eddie Palmieri.
While working with the master pianist on the title track of Rock Rubber 45s’ score, Palmieri’s Uprising Music, a record label and artist management imprint underneath the Ropeadope umbrella, approached the veteran DJ-turned-filmmaker about recording an album.
“Since Stretch and I had already talked about it, I said: Why don’t we do it together? They did a backflip. We signed and were recording a couple of days later. The rest is history.” —Bobbito
Nas is the first voice you hear on “Anna From Woohside (Beat Suite),” the opening of No Request. “Your show was the most important show in the world. I wrote a lot of my first album listening to your show,” the Queensbridge rapper says. The spoken quote originally appeared in Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives. The remark is a fitting beginning for what follows: A gorgeous jazz reimagining of Nas’ “New York State of Mind,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Unbelievable,” Crooklyn Dodgers’ “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers,” O.C.’s “Time’s Up,” and Souls Of Mischief’s “93 ‘Til Infinity,” all blended with artistic eloquence and creative grace.
Bobbito called “Anna From Woohside (Beat Suite)” a nod to their 90s audience. A song that says, “We’re doing something different here, but we ain’t forget you.” The remaining eight records, all reimagined compositions, expand beyond the breakbeats of 90s hip-hop into a variety of Latin, Afro-beat, Samba, jazz, reggae, and soul music soundscapes of universal classics—masterpieces that artists and producers have touched and retouched countless times. However, No Request brings them into modernity with new life. This isn’t a hip-hop album. It’s more comprehensive, more ambiguous—jazz-fusion with a global bent. The kind of album that only a producer or DJ would dream of making—and execute.
Stretch remembers a time where “something different” wasn’t what the audience wanted from him as a DJ. As Stretch of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, hip-hop was his world, on and off the air. He credits Bobbito for incorporating a breadth of Latin music knowledge organically into his DJing early on. For Stretch, their audience saw him as the quintessential hip-hop DJ. “I’ve had a lot of challenging nights where I didn’t want to play hip-hop, and that’s what they expected,” he recalls, a struggle he’s outgrown with time.
The story of Stretch and Bobbito is a story that began with a DJ meeting an A&R, and together, deciding to host a radio show. Three decades later, the pair is still together like they were in their 20s, always dreaming of projects unrealized. That’s what hip-hop should take from Stretch and Bobbito 30 years later: It’s never too late to do what you never did before. Start that radio show, create a podcast, make an album, don’t let age tell you that it’s too late to make history.
By Yoh, aka The Stretch Armstrong and Yohbito Show, aka @Yoh31