The Legacy of Bobbito Garcia: Diamonds and fossils

by Henrik Buzzi


Meet Bobbito Garcia: Sneakerhead, architect behind the rap-boom in the 90s, street basket player, hip hop radios most important voice and cratedigger of international sounds. This autumn his documentary about the legendary radio show with Stretch Armstrong; “Stretch and Bobbito” is available. Interview by Endre Dalen

The Radio show Bobbito Garcia initiated in 1990 with Stretch Armstrong, which also included Lord Sear and Kurious at different times, was important for Bobbitos direction in hip hop. With humor, passion and energy they created what The Source dubbed the best hip hop radio show of all time. They where backed by the entire hip hop scene in New York. At the Stretch and Bobbito Show you could hear young hungry rappers like Nas, Jay Z, The Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu Tang Clan, before they where signed and went global.

Bobbito worked several years with promo and A&R for the influential record label Def Jam, but he never managed to convince Def Jam founder Russell Simmons to sign the artists he recommended. The music the record companies still wouldn’t touch, Stretch and Bobbito played for an enthusiastic New York audience. Soon Bobbito got the idea to start his own record label, which first took shape as Hoppoh Records and later the independent label Fondle ‘Em. Fondle ‘Em released eccentric quality hip hop by amongst others; Godfather Don and Kool Keith (as The Cenobites), Sia and Yeshua tha PoED, The Juggaknots, Cage, MF Grimm and maybe most importantly for the dawning independent scene: MF Doom.

Bobbito Garcia is one of hip hops most important personalities. Nevertheless it is more likely that you will hear salsa, jazz or afrobeat classics than fashionable rap music when he DJs. At Oslo Sneaker Fest he contributed as the host for the evening and performed a DJ-set. In between I got the chance to have a conversation with him.

«Where’d you get those» are one of my favorite coffee table books, from the cover design by Brent Rollins to the content and all the pictures of sneakers you probably can’t find anywhere else in the world. Why was it so important to you to write a book about sneakers and the culture surrounding it?

My book explored a really special period that is completely unknown to the media unless you lived it. Today the sneaker culture are well documented, you have lots of blogs and magazines. I also had a TV show (“It’s The Shoes”). There’s a lot of information now, but in that era there was no information. I felt it was my duty, since I lived it, to tell the story. For the tenth year’s anniversary in 2013 I added a chapter and we changed the cover, which this time was done by Todd “REAS” James who is a painter and graffiti writer.

In 1991 you published an essay called “Confessions Of A Sneaker Addict» in The Source. How has the game changed since then?

I wrote the very first article in history about sneaker culture. It was for the Source Magazine, which had just started. I called it that because at that point I was fiending for sneakers.
If you go to my era it was extremely important to wear the sneakers that you bought, and wear them well. Now there are young people who just take pictures of sneakers and post them on social media, and maybe they become known outside of their own town, city or country for their sneakers. Actually, that’s kind of cool. In my day you had to wear sneakers and be very strategic about when you are going to wear them.

Another thing that has completely changed is people’s ability to resell sneakers. I mean we never sold them. We bought them. If we bought them we wore them, at the most we might trade with a good friend. But the option to resell sneakers has created a new foundation of people who make money of these great designs, and I think that’s cool as well. It’s not just the sneaker companies and the stores making money. It’s almost become democratized.

The only thing I’m worried about now is that I get a sense that some people are drawn to certain shoe releases only because of the profitability, not because of the great designs and the hype. Before you felt attached to the sneakers emotionally whereas now it’s just commerce.

I’m going to recite a great MC, you know him well:
“I like Nike but wait a minute
The Neighborhood supports, so put some money in it
All corporations owe, they gotta give up the dough
To my town or else we gotta shut ‘em down”

That’s Chuck D, Public Enemy, “Shut ‘Em Down”. I actually promoted that record when I worked at Def Jam from 1989 to 1993. I know Chuck D very well, he’s one of the hardest working people, forget artists, that I ever met. He has always been a voice for hip hop who is critical of what’s been going on and that’s necessary. I think it’s important, when you are a fan of something, to be able to take a step away from it. And it’s good to not always accept everything, but do research and question the authority and the status quo. I think hip hop is best when it uses its voice to attempt to transform knowledge and make social change.

Chuck D said this over twenty years ago, and maybe it still holds true? Even here in Oslo many of the sneaker brands refuse to collaborate with community based events like Sneaker Fest, even though they promote their products. What do you think about that?

I don’t think that’s problematic. Of course it would be a great idea for the brands to advocate what happens in Oslo Sneaker Fest because the passion and energy grows towards sneakers out of events like this. Off course it’s only going to help their sales in the long run. But that said, I mean I don’ think anyone should produce an event with the goal or vision of having a brand sponsoring them. I think events like this should be made for the love. It should just be a community of people who share the love of sneakers. It should just be innocent. Sometimes when the brands come in it takes the innocence out of it.

I read somewhere that you donate sneakers on a bi-monthly basis to Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Brazil. Can you tell something about this?

I was running a sneaker shop in the 90s (Bobbitos Footwork) and after having done collaborations with Nike and all that, a lot of people misinterpret my emotional attachment for sneakers. I always get the question: How many sneakers do you have? I don’t have that many sneakers.

Now I feel that it’s my duty to encourage and advocate people to donate. There’s a lot of people that has a lot of shoes that they never wear, that they are not attached to, just sitting in their closet doing nothing. And so there are a lot of people around the world that would love to have a pair of sneakers, but who can’t afford it. Maybe they play basketball and then having a pair of Nikes or any shoes would help their performance. Eventually I decided to help the non-profit organizations I’m familiar with, such as Soles 4 Souls and Hoops 4 Hope. They do great things. Look them up online and support them.

You are directing a new film about the legendary radio show, the Stretch and Bobbito Show. Is it released now?

“Stretch and Bobbito – Radio That Changed Lives” was released worldwide in October on digital download and will be streamed directly from our website Stretchandbobbito.com. The film was a joy to make, because I experienced all this in the 90s and we had all these artists who came through unsigned and unknown. This is the story behind the explosion of hip hop in the 90s.

The Stretch & Bobbito show broke artists like Biggie, Wu-Tang, Nas, Big Pun, Redman, Mobb Deep, Jay Z and lots of others before they where even signed.

At this point these artists, has sold over 300 million records combined. And you can put the Fugees on that list as well. We sold them all as kids basically, hungry kids. We have a lot of great archive footage and archive audio that is used in the film. Hopefully we will premiere in Norway at the Tromsø International Film Festival in January.

How could you and Stretch prophesy the future like this? Did you have to go to the artists or did they come to you?

 It was an exchange. We had an open platform for artists, we didn’t care if they was signed or unsigned. Some of the artists who came to the show where not even trying to put out records, they just wanted to rhyme. If you loved hip hop and loved to express yourself you had a home. It wasn’t about coming up when you had a record release. If you had a new rhyme and wanted to share it with the listeners, come. That’s what created that whole movement. It was deep.

Ice T famously said: "Rap is really funny, man. But if you don’t see that it’s funny, it will scare the shit out of you". Your approach to radio through the "Stretch and Bobbito show" often had a funny, lets say quirky edge to it. What role does fun and humor have in hip hop?

This certain moment in hip hop was very intense and dangerous. But me personally, I’m a nerd, I’m a goofball and I love to laugh. Stretch and I, we would just go on the air and be exactly who we were. We didn’t try to be anybody else. I think our listeners appreciated that. We had guys that were real criminals coming to our show and they would joke around with us. Its natural, everybody loves to laugh.

Part of what you said leads to the next question: The outstanding underground classic sometimes dubbed the "Clear Blue Skies LP" by the Juggaknots was released on your label Fondle ‘Em. It showed the more grimy sides of life like drugs, paranoia, racism, stillbirth and violence. Why do you think this album still is so acclaimed by connoisseurs?

I got the Juggaknots album maybe in 92-3 as a demo, so I started playing “Clear Blue Skies” (the song tells the story of a young boy and his racist father discussing his black girlfriend) on the radio and it made such an impact. Even Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest called up one night and requested it. He was a “die hard” listener. Breeze, the MC of the group was such a brilliant writer. There was a lot of great writers in that era inspired by the era that preceded it with (Kool) G Rap and Rakim, types who really experienced life and who were able to express that in their lyrics. It was a good time for rap and The Juggaknots were part of that.

Through «The Stretch & Bobbito Show» you got a lot of demos, tracks was even produced strictly for the show and some of these tracks was later released through Fondle ‘Em. The show was of course the more important of the two in the mainstream, but I don’t think anyone can imagine underground hip-hop today without Fondle Em? Can you?

 There was a lot of independent labels in the 90s that meant a lot, like ABB Records, Eastern Conference and Stones Throw. We all started out of our bedrooms basically, out of our trunks if you will. And Stones Throw has done very well, but they started as a home label. If I had not put out those records on Fondle ‘Em, the independent era of hip-hop would still have developed. Me, and Stretch, we defined the spine for it all though, also because we supported the record shop Fatbeats, who became a major distributor for independent releases from the mid to late 90s. A lot of people also sought our approval and a lot of people learned about demos and unsigned artists through our show. We’re happy to have been at the right time and right place.

One of your latest projects was the film "Doin it in the park" soundtracked by Eddie Palmieri. His vintage 70s album Harlem River Drive is an important meeting point between African-American and Latin music. What can people learn from Harlem River Drive today?

People are still learning from it. There’s a great documentary that just came out called “We Like It Like That» about the boogaloo movement of the 60s, which combined the R&B of that era with latin rhythms. Many times you hear about different communities, nationalities, regions mixing music and ideas and concepts together. It is usually a good thing.

Kyoto Jazz Massive out of Japan is a phenomenal band. Jazz was born in New Orleans and now it’s in Japan. Red Astaire is an excellent producer who does Latin music, funk, house you name it. He’s from Sweden. Constantly you encounter these crossroads, these blends of different people creating something special. It just brings people together. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it just does.

Tonight you will hear me playing some hip-hop, some Brazilian music, some African music, some Latin music and some folk music. Always when I DJs I try to open up people’s minds. The foundation of hip-hop is to be open-minded. In the 70s when Afrika Baambaata cultivated what we now know as hip hop, he played calypso, reggae, salsa, he played whatever was funky.

You remember the lyrics from “Play That Beat Mr DJ” by G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid?:

“Punk rock, new wave and soul
Pop music, salsa, rock and roll
Calypso, reggae, rhythm and blues,
Mastermix those number one tunes”

(Beatboxing) Yeah, that makes sense, exactly, that’s the spirit of Baambaata right there!

Thanks to Bobbito Garcia for hosting our event. If you want to know more about the legend, check out koolboblove.com