When Taiwanese-Chinese chef Eddie Huang sat down for an interview with one of NPR’s latest podcasts, he found himself reminiscing about sneakers—specifically, the Air Jordan 5s he’d coveted as a kid after seeing them on another student named Chaz. The restaurateur told the hosts about how he did extra chores for weeks, attempting to convince his mom that he deserved the Jordans. “My mom’s an immigrant,” he said. “She don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, she didn’t know how much they cost!” When she finally agreed to take him shopping, Huang said she took one look at the price and made the universal noise for “No way.” It’s hilarious to hear him tell it; the hosts crack up all the way through. But they get very quiet when Huang adds: “And that was like, my entryway into like, untouchable American culture that I could not have.” Then it’s dead silent—until Huang mentions how his dad called him “more of a Charles Barkley dude” anyway and how he resigned himself to wearing Barkley’s “ugly-ass” sneakers instead.
The fast-paced, expletive-peppered anecdote suits the hosts, Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia, two native New Yorkers and veterans of the hip-hop world, whose new weekly podcast on NPR started earlier this summer. On What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito, you can forget any stereotypes about public radio being fusty, dry, or lifeless; the duo approach conversations with guests in a fashion that mixes up goofy banter with proud hip-hop nerdery, while coaxing their guests to speak about broader topics. Through quick-witted, back-and-forth exchanges with Stretch and Bob, Huang opens up about more expansive cultural issues, like how hip-hop helped him stop feeling “segregated in thought and identity from other people of color” while growing up in Orlando.
Hip-hop fans who developed their musical tastes in the ‘90s will know Stretch and Bob from The Stretch Armstrong And Bobbito Show, the college radio program they ran for eight years on Columbia University’s 89.9 WKCR station. While on air, the duo’s keen critical ears premiered songs and freestyles from artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Big L, while their irreverent sense of humor and zany studio antics secured the show cult status. Fans who couldn’t tune in live would feverishly hunt down taped copies of the broadcasts in a move that helped secure its place in hip-hop folklore.
Stretch and Bob’s personalities still come through on their NPR show, but now they’re speaking on wider topics and to guests selected from a broader field. During his interview, Huang went on to compare how hip-hop was seen as “a deviant culture” in his community to the way in which food was “the vehicle that in a lot of ways, because of my race, I was allowed to play in.” You’ll also hear political activist Linda Sarsour speaking on American-Palestinian issues on Stretch and Bob’s show, along with guests culled from the fine arts and literary fields. Two decades on from their college radio music show, Stretch and Bob have graduated to touching on socio-political problems and directing the cultural conversation to mainstream ears.
“Hip-hop, in many ways, has been a remarkably transformative movement,” Stretch told TrackRecord over email when asked about this shift. “It has bridged a lot of divides here in the States and has given a voice to the voiceless all over the world. I’d like to think those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in the center of it—particularly at a time when the music’s message was less compromised by the demands of mainstream consumption—have earned a degree of openness and empathy, as well as an ability to think creatively and forge new paths.”
As a culture, hip-hop has always contained a political element—its origin story stems from the blighted socio-economic environment of the South Bronx in New York City during the early ‘70s. In 1982, Melle Mel could be heard spitting uncut reportage about urban city problems on “The Message.” As hip-hop entered its fabled golden era in the mid-to-late-’80s, MCs used lyrics to embrace an Afro-centric state of mind while taking aim at institutionalized racism and throwing shots at politicians and presidents. As the ‘90s kicked into play, Paris, a rapper and activist from the Bay Area, infamously wrote about assassinating George Bush in part for his role in the Gulf War. But these political messages were largely communicated to those already within hip-hop culture. Mainstream news outlets rarely paid attention—unless it was to cast hip-hop as a moral panic that was inciting kids towards violence. The nuances of the culture—including its positive role in helping fans like Huang find their voice and identity—were usually overlooked. Hip-hop talking heads were invited to current affairs shows so that they could react to controversies like the murders of rappers, not broaden the conversation in the first place.
A venture like What’s Good With Stretch & Bobbito? helps redress the balance by giving trusted hip-hop tastemakers a platform to shape and set an agenda in the mainstream, rather than just defend an existing one. It’s similar to Killer Mike’s interviews with Bernie Sanders before the Democratic primaries. Back in the Reaganomics era, it would have been hard to imagine a black rapper named Killer Mike sitting down with a presidential nominee to discuss the details of a policy platform. Sanders didn’t win the Democratic party’s nomination, but Killer Mike’s six-part interview with him helped send a message and viewpoint to generations who are happy to look to hip-hop artists as spokespeople.
When Stretch and Bob interview someone like Linda Sarsour, who was born in Brooklyn to Palestinian immigrants and helped petition for New York City public schools to recognize Muslim holidays, a similar mechanism is taking place. The conversation delves into what Stretch calls “different parts of the cultural spectrum.” In Sarsour’s case, she speaks to Stretch and Bob about what she calls the connection between “the Islamic influence on Spanish culture” and how “if you go to any parts of Latin America there are very rich Arabic speaking communities.” Broaching the subject of being a Muslim and a feminist, she says that the issue is often seen as “white women are trying to save these oppressed women in the Middle East.” But she adds that, in her opinion, Muslim women “are oppressed by Muslim men, not our religion, Islam.”
Responding to a question over email about their approach to interviewing guests like Sarsour, Bobbito contends that when talking about these broader issues, he and Stretch “one hundred percent” feel a greater responsibility compared to back in the days when it was about hearing a rapper plug an upcoming album release. “We want to challenge [the guests] in the hopes they may open up topics they may not arrive at on other platforms,” he says. “We’re going to be goofy ‘cause that’s who we are, but we’re both educated, critical thinkers and so are our guests. We want to explore that.”
Now that the language and iconography of hip-hop have become a standard part of everyday pop culture, What’s Good With Stretch & Bobbito? fittingly allows its hosts to come full circle. Back in the early ‘90s, they were the first radio DJs to play songs by the Wu-Tang Clan. At the time, crew MCs like Ghostface Killah and Method Man were fond of invoking the name of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which at one point was considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, to coin braggadocio lyrics. “I’m like a sniper, hyper off the ginseng root, P.L.O. style,” boasted Meth on the rugged “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” Now, Stretch and Bob are asking actual Palestinian activists about their views on worldly issues. That’s important progress—and crucially, the conversation is being conveyed through a hip-hop lens.