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Stretch and Bob Reunion show Recap by Jon C. It was a pleasure and an honor to be at the show.

Reliving Rap’s Down-and-Dirty Early Days

 

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Raekwon, left, and Masta Killa at “The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show” 20th-anniversary reunion.

By JON CARAMANICA

For a few years in the late 1990s, the space at 158 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village was known as the nightclub Life, which, with its parties that attracted mixing rappers, actors, models and rock stars, came to be one of New York’s centers of gravity for hip-hop’s rise to crossover power.

So there was unexpected resonance in the choice of that space — now Le Poisson Rouge — for the reunion of “The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show,” which ran from 1990 to 1998 on WKCR-FM (89.9), the Columbia University station, and was the most noteworthy bulwark against that move to commercialism. In the Stretch & Bobbito world, mainstream was a four-letter word.

That that resistance proved largely futile only enhanced the memory of the battle’s intensity. On Thursday night a few hundred flamekeepers — several in vintage T-shirts advertising the radio show — came out to watch a one-night revival (following a one-off radio show in October). The D.J.’s and hosts Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia were joined by a revolving crew of sidekicks, rappers and hangers-on to revisit a time when jeans were baggy, records were vinyl, and borders were heavily policed.

It was a class reunion, featuring not only performances but also the deep, long hugs of people who went through war together and had not seen one another since. Not surprisingly, the night unfolded much as the radio show used to — meandering at the beginning, intense at the middle, fizzling out at the end. There were scads of inside jokes and several videos of old shows, including a blistering freestyle session by Souls of Mischief.

Most of the music came from Mr. Armstrong, who was playing MP3s off his computer. Mr. Garcia, ever the purist, had been spinning actual vinyl earlier in the night. For a stretch, Mr. Armstrong played recordings of live sessions from the show, including ones by Nas and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, followed by a sinister 1995 appearance by Jay-Z and Big L — the recording features Mr. Garcia’s laughing ad- libs — that received one of the night’s biggest responses.

In the era of Internet marketing (and Internet leaks) it’s easy to forget that this was often how rappers tested out new material: by trudging up to a college radio station studio and delivering it live.

For the eight years it ran, from 1 to 5 in the early hours of Friday morning, “The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show” gave early exposure to artists like Jay-Z, Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, who eventually went on to mainstream stardom. But for every one who made it, there were several who remained in the underground, happily or otherwise.

Of the many guests on Thursday night — including Raekwon and Masta Killa of the Wu-Tang Clan — the underground stalwarts were the fiercest, and often the most visibly moved. There was the fantastically gravelly Rock, of Heltah Skeltah, who performed a bit of “Laflaur Leflah Eshkoshka,” and Artifacts, who were the night’s first guests, and whose “Wrong Side of da Tracks” was still sturdy, more than 15 years after it was released.

After solo sets, Masta Ace and Buckshot collaborated for an impromptu reunion of two-thirds of the Crooklyn Dodgers, the one-off group assembled for the soundtrack of the 1994 Spike Lee film, “Crooklyn.” Nice & Smooth closed the night, and almost stole it, with vintage hits, a tribute to Guru of Gang Starr, who died last year, and boundless energy.

Early in the night, when Mr. Garcia was the D.J., the soundtrack skewed toward the mid-1990s, when New York independent rap was beginning to develop its own identity with labels like Rawkus, the scene powerhouse; Raw Shack; Mr. Garcia’s label Fondle ’Em; and others. He played MF Doom’s “Rhymes Like Dimes,” Medina Green’s “Crosstown Beef,” J-Live’s “Braggin’ Writes” and Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty,” the closest the scene ever got to a crossover record.

This music was a bit more distant than the records that defined the radio show’s early years, the signature sample-heavy boom-bap that moved with a heavy strut. In response, this audience of mostly young men danced only from the neck up. Some of them were probably too young to have listened to the show, and there was probably at least a little overlap with the crowd that crammed into the tiny Avenue of the Americas record shop Fat Beats on its final day last year.

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