In the early days, hip-hop didn’t have a separate underground scene; the entire genre was outsider by default. But when a true rap underground finally coalesced in New York in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it was at an unexpected place: Columbia University. That’s where what Nas calls “the most important radio show of its time,” the subject of this affable and eye-opening documentary, was broadcast by hosts Bobbito Garcia and DJ Stretch Armstrong.
And what a time it was: A rap-nerd cornucopia, the film is highlighted by priceless footage of freestyles from golden-era icons when they were unpolished rookies, including a long-lost verse from The Notorious B.I.G. There are also present-day interviews in which Jay Z, Eminem and Nas — just three of the rap Mount Rushmore figures for whom the show was a crucial launchpad — geek out over the show’s invaluable impact on their careers. (Tidal co-owner Jay Z has a particularly notable moment lamenting the death of human gatekeepers and curators in the digital age.) Garcia makes his directorial debut, and the film, much like college radio, sometimes feels insular. But unlike N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton (another film about belle epoque rap partly controlled by its subjects), Stretch and Bobbito doesn’t flinch at its heroes’ faults: At one point it takes an admirable deep dive into the misogyny that was sometimes prevalent — in both the weekly show’s otherwise hilarious late-night roast sessions and 1990s hip-hop as a whole.