Stretch & Bobbito Recall Expectations Around Nas’ Illmatic Release (Audio)
Last night (June 13), Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito The Barber returned to radio, in a new way. The legendary New York City duo conducted two hours of live radio via Samsung 837 approximately 26 years after the pair began with a historic eight-year run at Columbia University’s WKCR 89.9FM radio station.
In conjunction with the announcement, The Combat Jack Show has released its latest interview with the pair—their first time appearing on the podcast together. In the nearly two-hour segment, the DJs who helped break the careers of The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Eminem, and others spoke about the intensity which these then-unsigned artists brought to the archaic Upper Manhattan studios.
At the 57:00 mark, Bobbito contextualized a show that is remembered for its on-air pranks and laughter as much as its lethal lyricism. For MC guests, everything was at stake. “A lot of MCs that came up to our show, it’s hard to remember much about them because we were that premium platform for unsigned [talent],” explains Kool Bob Love, describing elements of Biggie’s appearance. “If you were an unsigned dude or woman, you knew that this could make or break of [your] career. ‘If I bomb on here, I’m gonna get egged. If I flip it, people are gonna be talkin’ about me on the streets; I might get a record deal.'” The Stretch & Bobbito Show worked closely with Matty C of The Source magazine, who would often put artists like The Notorious B.I.G. (who appeared on the show in 1991) and Mobb Deep in his “Unsigned Hype” column. Additionally, Def Jam, Bad Boy, Columbia, and Wild Pitch Records, among others, paid attention to the show, signing a crop of the guest talent. Bob continues, “So dudes were like super, uber-focused. Biggie was one of them. Big L was another dude too, who was stupid-cool when I bumped into him in Harlem. But when he was on our show, he wasn’t joking [and making pleasantries]. It was like [Michael] Jordan in the hallway, coming out to play in [Madison Square Garden]. ‘I’m about to score 55.’ That’s how a lot of MCs that came up to our show, were like before they’d go on the air.”
Combat Jack focused some questions on Nas, who would begin an early 1990s string of appearances at Stretch & Bobbito that would showcase some of his legendary rhymes, years before 1994’s Illmatic released. Combat asks the pair if they anticipated Nas’ impact upon Rap music. “I think with certain MCs, we knew that they’d have impact. But whether they’d sell records or not, I don’t think we could ever really [forecast] that,” answers Bobbito. “You look at [Kool] G Rap—I don’t think G Rap ever went gold. He has two of the most important lyrical albums in the history of the genre. He is top of the food-chain; there’s a lot of MCs that follow him [and] took cues from him—including Nas. Nas was a student of G Rap. [Big] Pun was a student of G Rap; it’s clear! So if G Rap didn’t go gold, and we’re feeling this way about Nas, there’s potential that maybe Nas isn’t gonna sell records either.” Stretch Armstrong echoes this sentiment, but believes that Illmatic was a game-changer. “Once we heard [Illmatic], c’mon. Now, in terms of before we heard [the album, we didn’t know]. Nas, to us was a huge deal to our show. To me, he was the second coming of Rakim; ‘Oh, this is Rakim’s son.’ In terms of the merits of the talent and what that meant to us in the context of our show, he was the ultimate. So we weren’t even thinking about if he’d blow up or not. ‘Cause in our world, he already had. Without even a single out, he was as good as you could be.” Notably, Rakim and Kool G Rap were both early mentors to Nas, in addition to Large Professor, who produced Nas’ demo and earliest records—including much of Illmatic.
While Nas, Biggie Smalls, and Jay Z would take their talents from the radio show to multi-platinum success, other artists remained largely in purist Hip-Hop obscurity. Combat Jack asks Stretch and Bob’ about artists they believed in, who may not have found commercial success equating to their talent. “You gotta remember our context: We were up there to have fun, to have the best MCs up that we knew, or that we didn’t know,” begins Bobbito. Stretch adds, “When it came to the artists that we were emotionally invested in, the more we knew what was going on in the daytime, business aspect of their career, the less I wanted to know. You’re talking about a guy like O.C. He is a pillar of ’90s Hip-Hop.” O.C., as an affiliate of Pharoahe Monch and Prince Po in Organized Konfusion would appear on the show in the early ’90s. “He did not make the cheesy records to get on radio. He wanted to make O.C. records; those albums are beautiful.” O.C. released 1994’s Word…Life debut under the same MC Serch management team as Nas. After reported interest from Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, he followed up with 1997’s Jewelz, at Payday Records. “[Those albums] may not have gone gold, [but it is beautiful music].” They discuss the year-plus period of time that the D.I.T.C. MC would put into writing his biggest hit, the Buckwild-produced “Times Up.”
Stretch also points that after a Top 20 debut with Illmatic, Nas’ follow-up, It Was Written changed aesthetics to debut at #1 in 1996. “Nas eventually went a different route with his second album. I was tight,” says Stretch, revealing that he was initially upset at the artistic shift on Nas’ commercial improvement two years following his debut.
Both Nas and O.C. appear in the recent feature documentary, Stretch & Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives.
Elsewhere in the interview, the pair discuss learning (from DJ Premier) that Tupac Shakur was a fan of the show (and listened at Showbiz’s house). They also speak about the challenges of securing music rights to the documentary, and why Ultramagnetic MC’s’ “Ego Trippin'” was the first record Stretch Armstrong played on WKCR in 1990. The radio revolutionaries also reveal that one of Biggie Smalls’ earliest mentors, DJ 50 Grand, keeps one of the only dubs of the 1991 freestyle appearance in a locked safe.
In the film, he removes the cassette to play it for the hosts who did not record that particular episode.