Sneaker culture king DJ Bobbito Garcia breaks down his documentary "Rock Rubber 45s"

Salon talks to Bobbito Garcia about his new film and his role in making sneaker culture mainstream

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 8, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

Bobbito Garcia (Imani Vidal)
Bobbito Garcia (Imani Vidal)

Did you line multicolor sneakers up against your wall as a kid? Did those same walls have posters of Air Jordans or CB34s taped to them? If you’re into sneaker culture, this is the guy you should be thanking: Bobbito Garcia — director, writer and producer of  the new documentary "Rock Rubber 45s."

He didn’t design the kicks or the posters, but he blew up sneaker culture and made it cool to bring the flavor of the street into the corporate office. Garcia was the first writer to focus on sneakers. His 1990s radio show “Stretch and Bobbito” introduced the world to an unsigned Nas, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Jay-Z and Eminem, and he made street ball culture mainstream. (The show's been resurrected as an NPR podcast, too.)

Garcia sat down with us in our studio for a recent episode of "Salon Talks" to look back on the mark he made on fashion, music and sports.

Watch the full Salon Talks episode

An interview with DJ Bobbito Garcia

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s just get right into the film. It covers a lot of your life. What made you want to put together this documentary?

Well, I’ve done two films. My first title was "Doin it in The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC," and my second was "Stretch and Bobbito: Radio that Changed Lives." The second being autobiographical, but also the biography of Stretch as well. The first one being like sort of opening up a curtain on the entirety of playground basketball in New York City, in terms of history, the culture, its impact around the world, but there were elements of autobiography in that as well. I had wanted to write an autobiography for some time.

After having written, produced and directed two films I felt the confidence [to do that]. Also based on the reaction — both films hit Netflix, iTunes, won awards at festivals, [had] multiple screenings [on] six continents — just seeing how film impacts people. Literature impacts people as well, of course, but when you add the element of audio and picture, it’s a different experience.

When you’re seeing a film and being impacted in an audience with 300 other people — 3,000 — we did in New York two days ago and it’s like 1,500, 2,000 people, everybody’s clapping at the same time. People are crying and moved at the same time. People are coming up to me afterwards hugging me after the film. It’s those types of experiences, I mean all the big brands know about it, the experiential marketing, so it’s paramount for me to be out there.

To tie it back to the autobiographical documentary, I just felt like it would be more powerful to do a film than to write a book. I think I’m already seeing the reactions, it’s insane.

A lot of times a person thinks they’ll know you from commercials, they’ll know you from television, and they’ll see the end result, but they don’t know what it took for Bobbito to become Bobbito.

I am no different than someone who has never been on television, never been on film, never been in [a] public forum. We are all multidimensional. We all have different narratives. We’re all shaped by multi-variables. The reason why I titled the film "Rock Rubber 45s" is rock is for basketball, rubber is for sneakers, and 45 is for the music aspect of my life, because I’m not alone. I’ve been traveling for 30 years. I’ve been in six continents, 43 countries. Everywhere I go there’s people. Women, men, young people, youth. I mean, they love music. They love basketball.

My film is a personal narrative, but it speaks volumes to a lot of people. I talk about being abused as a kid. I talk about my education quandaries. I talk about the ups and downs of my career. It’s not like a greatest hits, like, “Oh, yes, I played in AND 1, and I did the Nike commercial. I wrote the first article on sneaker culture in media history.” It's also what came and went to get there. It’s an honest portrait.

What do you feel like was your biggest influence? Was it the basketball? Was it the sneakers? Was it the music? Was it just the combination?

As a child, and this is detailed in the film, the entry point for me is basketball. From basketball, that’s how I get into sneakers, because I want to be the best ballplayer I could be, so that’s the performance aspect. And then also through basketball that’s how I met all of my hip-hop heads.

Actually not — I got introduced to hip-hop by my man Craig who was in the Zulu Nation in the ’70s and from the Bronx.

He put me down in ’77, but from there it’s like playing ball every day in the ’80s and traveling to Brooklyn and the Bronx.

I remember the first time I played in the Holcombe Rucker Memorial Tournament in the midgets division. In the lay-up lineup, they put on Treacherous Three, "Body Rock." Some people may not know that record, but that’s monumental. And just to be 1981 in the summer in Harlem at Mount Morris Park and hearing "Body Rock," it’s like all these things were converging.

I’ve tried to explain that in "Rock Rubber 45s," but I’ve also tried to do that in multiple ways throughout my professional career. I’ve authored a book, "Where Did You Get Those: New York City Sneaker Culture, 1960 to 1987" and the film "Doin’ It in the Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC" you see elements of hip-hop and how it was influenced by basketball, it’s really explained here and explored in "Rock Rubber 45s."

The craziest thing about tying it all together is you think about sneaker culture — Air Jordans being one of the, or maybe the biggest, franchises in sneaker history. I don’t have the numbers on that, but it’s the whole idea of Mike not listening to rap music.

That’s a little surprise in the film that I don’t want to talk about, but I did get a chance to interview Michael Jordan when I had my column for Vibe magazine. It was a lot of surprises when I had my column there. I was glad to have a little scene dedicated to my 10-year history with that publication because that was huge for me. My Vibe magazine column is what got me to be in South Africa in 2000. I was the first hip-hop personality to ever perform in post-apartheid South Africa. Vibe magazine is one of the cogs that made that happen, because there was a publication there that used to license my column, and that’s how I got known out there and then that’s how the invite came.

READ MORE: Meet a working class hip-hop hero

One of the amazing things that I took away from it was discovery, too — you discover yourself, your roots, your family. You didn’t speak Spanish as a kid, but then, how important was it for you to play basketball in Puerto Rico? Was that something you were aiming for?

Yes, I mean I think in the process of editing with Ralphie Rivera, and it was a point for me to throw little breadcrumbs. In terms of what I was saying earlier about we're all multidimensional. None of us are just apparent. We’re apparent, we have a nationality, and we have culture, and we have behavior patterns. For me, tying in my roots, and family identity, and my cultural identity, and nationality and all of that, that’s just part of the matrix of also growing up in New York, so there’s breadcrumbs.

Early on in the film I’m talking about how I didn’t speak Spanish, and then you see me play pro ball in Puerto Rico, still don’t speak Spanish. Then later on in the film you see me DJing and I’m opening up for Eddie Palmieri. Ten-time Grammy Award Winner; Latin music legend, and I’m on the mic. I’m like, “Gracias.” It’s like I don’t explain it, but I hope that the people get the breadcrumb reward, it’s like, “Oh, he’s talking Spanish. He’s no longer being called a gringo.” All through the film, it messages your brain to be prepared for Act Three.

I felt really, really bad when Puerto Rico got hit with that hurricane and then to see Trump shoot the paper towel like a basketball. I’m like, “What is wrong with this guy?”

There are little hints in the film, in the end credit sequence, that I was affected by what happened in my homeland. I was there in December to try to spread some positive energy. I was just there two weeks ago to screen this film "Rock Rubber 45s" at the Puerto Rock Steady Festival, and there’s a little hint in the title sequence where there’s graffiti on a wall that was footage shot in PR and it says, “Organize yourself,” and there’s another scene, a beautiful scene of a drone shot of the middle of the island.

I’m just trying to show the end title sequence, song is by Pharoahe Monch and it features Jill Scott. The title is "Still Standing." We had already finished the film, but being affected by what happened post-Hurricane Maria, I tried to infuse some messaging into the film that I thought was relevant. Not everyone is going to catch that, but people who know, they’ll know.

What do you feel about sneaker culture today? You feeling the Dad Sneakers— 

You just went from Trump shooting a paper towel to sneaker culture.

Everybody’s multidimensional.

Yes, that’s right, that’s right. What I feel about sneaker culture today? If you get a chance to watch the film let me allow this premise. I’m ground zero with that movement. I wrote the first article in media history about sneaker culture. It was for The Source magazine back in 1990. I wrote the first book exploring sneaker culture.

You’re like the founding father.

Thank you.

That’s what I think.

I’ll take that. I also was the host and creative producer for the first TV series ever about sneaker culture. It was called "It’s the Shoes" for ESPN. All of that to say I’m fortunate to have been born in the ’60s and seen the burgeoning movement. I’m happy to see where it is today. Most people expect me to be the old grouchy man. I think it’s brilliant.

The ability to buy sneakers from anywhere in the world online provides the consumer a choice. I’m all about selection, and I’m all about . . . in the ’70s we were limited, sneakers would only come out in three colors. Brands would only put out a new model once a year. It wasn’t like, "Oh, it’s a new color every week."

Now it’s like 2,000 colors.

Yes, exactly. I mean it’s lots to choose from, but that’s good. People can search and find their voice with what they wear, and it could be an expression of self and those are all good things.

One of the things I think I didn’t know about was your store, and how you were the first person to set it up like a boutique, because you understood the value and how important it was.

You’re giving a lot of my film away.

Oh, man.

I mean it’s cool; we’re here to entice people to see "Rock Rubber 45s," my autobiographical documentary. I appreciate that.

We’re touching on the surface.

Sure, I mean it’s a lot of layers. Yes, I did have a boutique in ’96 called Footwork in the Lower East Side, which is now been gentrified and called the East Village, and it predates Alife and Reed Space and all these other stores that came afterwards and undefeated. I was a little bit ahead of the curve. I didn’t have the resources or the support of the brands the way those stores . . . I mean the brands sort of changed their tone at the time. They were very focused on the big chains and stuff. I had fun with the store. I’m glad I did it. I have no regrets about it closing. I opened it up in Philadelphia as well with Rich Medina. It was a good time. I don’t want to say too much more about it, because I want people to watch the film and learn about it.

You mentioned gentrification and how New York is constantly changing. As a New Yorker do you feel like original New Yorkers feel like they have a place?

That’s an interesting question, because I lived in D.C. with my wife and my son for a year and just recently moved back two months ago. Sure, New York has changed immensely, and certain blocks are unrecognizable to what they were in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s when I was growing up.

There are like fro-yos and dog parks.

I mean some of that is to be expected. We live in a capitalist society that is stuck on maximizing profit and so towards that real estate is going to become more expensive. Big businesses are going to be supported by the government and there’s a resistance to that and there’s a concern for culture, and there’s a concern for people and a concern for society over all of that.

That spirit is still alive in New York. Having lived in D.C. and having traveled the world I could still tell you that New York has a flavor and an energy, and an intense, just motion that no city can replicate, no city comes close, and that’s not to say there’s an incredible culture and progressive thought in Los Angeles, in D.C., in Baltimore, in Rome, in Tokyo, and London, but there’s something that’s very special and peculiar about New York. It’s explored in my film too because it’s something that shapes me.

New York is the birthplace of hip-hop for a very specific reason. New York is the birthplaceof sneaker culture that we see in 2008 for a very specific reason. New York is the birthplace of playground basketball, that’s an unequivocal fact. That doesn’t mean that Chicago and Baltimore don’t have phenomenal ballplayers, but the sport was invented in 1891, it was reinvented here on the asphalt, on the blacktop. I’m a product of that. I’m an evangelist of that. I am an ambassador of that. I have my tournament Full Court 21 in four continents, 20 international cities. The concept is one on five, which a very basic playground tournament here in New York, but no one has ever offered it in an organized context.

The scene in the film that takes place at the Full Court 21 All World Final, where the qualifiers from all around the world come to the legendary Goat Park aka. Rock Steady Park, which infused my childhood because there’s playground basketball. The legend of Earl Manigault in the park playing ball with me, mentoring me, there’s the Rock Steady Crew. The preeminent progenitors of this global movement right there breaking while I’m playing ball, that’s New York, that’s the infusion that I’m talking about in my childhood and that’s expressed in the film "Rock Rubber 45s." It splashes on screen. You get to sense through the interviews with Crazy Legs or Manigault the things that I was witnessing as a kid.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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