There’s a scene in Radio That Changed Lives, the new documentary about Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s seminal 90′s radio show, where the pair play a Big Pun freestyle for Fat Joe that he hadn’t heard since the night Pun laid it live on air. As he listens, a look of absolute delight creeps across his face which is soon replaced by that telltale look of disgust every Rap fan displays upon hearing a particularly ridiculous verse. That moment encapsulates everything that was great about the iconic show, because that’s how we all felt every week as we listened in.
Joe explains that people ask him all the time if he has any unreleased Pun verses, and until then, he thought he knew every one that existed by heart. Moments like that, where the nicest MCs of the era laid some of their most amazing verses, were common during the show’s nearly decade long run. But if you weren’t listening at the time, with your finger on that record button, there was a good chance you were going to miss out. Additionally, you had to be within range of the antenna that sat atop the World Trade Center or you were shit out of luck.
Long before mixtapes became the default distribution method for the streets, recordings of this show were traded across the United States and eventually the world. That exclusivity, coupled with the mind bogglingly on-point curation of up and coming talent, is precisely what made listening to WKCR every week such a religious experience for 90′s Rap fans.
This point is further driven home in a scene where DJ 50 Grand plays a Biggie freestyle for Stretch and Bob that they themselves hadn’t heard in years. It’s widely known that not even those guys have copies of every show they ever recorded. At the time they may not have fully appreciated the historic significance of what they were doing, even if they knew it was something that had never been done before. And so those sessions happened every week and if you were able to tape them or get a dub from a friend you had a record, otherwise they simply disappeared into the ether.
Throughout the doc, archival footage gives us a sense of the incredible energy that was circulating in that rundown, 60′s era Columbia University studio whenever the mic was opened up on a given Thursday night. Busta Rhymes, widely regarded as a fearless lyrical hitman, tells Stretch and Bob that the experience of freestyling live on the show was a uniquely nerve-wracking right of passage. You weren’t shit on the NY Rap scene until you bodied that mic and once you had, you had arrived.
In a later scene, Pharoahe Monch explains that it was such a special experience because there you were, on the spot, with the whole city and all of your peers listening. It was the culmination of everything that had happened before that coming to fruition. Hip-Hop as a culture was coming into its own and the MCs who had grown up on the Rap of the 80′s were now ready to blaze their own trails. Before 1990, there was no central outlet for them to do so, until all of a sudden there was.
At the end of the film, there’s a montage that rattles off all of the artists who made their debut on The Stretch Armstrong Show (with your host Bobbito). If you were lucky enough to have been a listener back them, you already know how many careers they are personally responsible for igniting. Still, it is absolutely staggering to see it all laid out like that, with the note that the show’s alumni have combined to move over 300 million units since. It’s no exaggeration to say that this show by two kids from Manhattan was pivotal in the rise of Rap’s Golden-Era.
With technology and the regionally fractured nature of the Rap game these days, it’s unlikely there will ever be another radio show, or platform of any kind, that plays such a crucial role in the discovery of so many important new talents. And that’s cool. Some things are special because they will never be recreated. But that’s what makes this film required viewing for any fan of the culture. Stretch and Bob’s dedication to the game was pure and to hear the story now, with this new context, is as inspiring as the show was during its original run.
Radio That Changed Lives is now being screened in select cities and will be premiering in new markets throughout October, go here for more information.
Got the drop on NahRight . . .