Stretch Armstrong on the Demise of FM Radio and the Inanity of Celebrity DJs
One half of the Stretch and Bobbito Show on New York's WKCR through the '90s, DJ/producer Stretch Armstrong has played an essential part in the integration of hip-hop into mainstream radio. A fixture in the '90s hip-hop scene, he used media outlets such as mixtapes and radio programs to launch the careers of artists like Nas and Notorious B.I.G. Beyond radio, Armstrong gained notoriety for his album production, including his releases with underground acts MF Grimm and Powerule. In the early '00s, Armstrong began to branch out from radio into other music ventures, touring around the world as a DJ and becoming co-owner of New York's Plant Music label, which boasts artists such as Eli Escobar and Tittsworth. Armstrong recently spoke with All Shook Down about his favorite era of hip-hop, how he helped launch the careers of hip-hop's most prominent artists, and his Plant Music label. He plays alongside Bobbito this Thursday as part of the Red Bull Music Academy series at Mighty, and Blow Up at DNA Lounge on Friday.
Why do you think hip-hop branched out and became so diverse and popular during the '90s?
I'd actually make the argument that hip-hop was more diverse in the '80s. Certainly in the '90s it spread regionally, which meant that a lot of new styles developed, but these styles in many instances became blueprints for subsequent artists to follow. With the commercialization of hip-hop, imitating a style was more prevalent than being original. In the '80s, the measure of success was much different -- for some groups, just being on the radio was a big deal. I'm not saying there weren't trends in '80s hip-hop -- in 1987 just about every record sampled James Brown -- but the desire to be "fresh" and original was strong.
What was your favorite era of hip-hop?
My favorite is 1986 to 1989, when we first saw the emergence of Big Daddy Kane, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Marley Marl, Kool G Rap, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Schoolly D, Just-Ice, Jungle Brothers, Ultramagnetic, and so much more, not to mention countless singles that broke new ground production-wise and lyrically.
When you and Bobbito helped launch the careers of huge acts like Nas, Jay-Z, etc., on your radio show, what were the characteristics you guys looked for and felt made a particular artist worth playing?
I think it was as simple as, "Is this artist not wack? Great, let's book 'em." Of course, that's subjective, and over time Bobbito and my tastes diverged more and more, but it was clear, certainly to us and our listeners, what we were into. I would say that 99.9 percent of the time, it came down to personal taste.
How do you think media conglomeration has changed radio since you got your start?
Well, it's no secret that the deregulation of media has been utterly disastrous. FM radio is almost unlistenable.
Why do you say that?
Commercial radio, at least in terms of hip-hop, is unlistenable because most of the stations play the same thing with very little variation geographically. It's almost impossible to be an underground artist and break through. Also, the mix shows seem to be, for the most part, DJs mixing the same music that the station plays the rest of the time. But it's okay, because there are a hundred other outlets to hear new music.
Do you guys think you'll ever upload or release a compilation of all the recordings during the Stretch and Bobbito Show in another format besides the old cassette tapes?
That's a legal near-impossibility that isn't justified by how niche the audience [is]. Maybe I'm wrong, but it strikes me as a great fantasy that will remain one.
Recently, DJ Spinderella gave her take on celebrity DJs and their credibility, with comments such as "DJing is just a 'trend' now and artists jump on it just because it's an 'in' career move." What do you think about the influx of celebrity DJs, given your history?
Well, I don't think it's a trend. As long as it's so easy to get the tools to DJ and the music, it will be something that celebrities, who are not DJs, will do. Getting celebrities to your club is great marketing, and I guess it'd be better to have them actually do something rather than sit around. That's the thinking, though I think it's totally corny. The bar has been so lowered in all genres of music that have DJs. People don't even know what a good DJ is because they are used to models, celebrities, or even club promoters that have hired themselves, or even artists who tour as DJs but can't. I wish I could say that real DJs will start to be appreciated, but I don't think this is a trend. With that being said, there are some amazingly talented DJs that are getting recognition.