The sneaker guru who introduced the world to Eminem and Jay Z

We caught up with Bobbito Garcia at this year’s Sole DXB to talk about basketball, hip-hop and sneakers.

Meryl D'Souza November 29, 2016

Believe it or not, there was a time when Eminem, Jay Z, Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan were just your average hip-hop artists waiting to be discovered. At the time, all these guys – along with other stars of today – strived towards getting on a college radio program called The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show. 

Back then, rap didn’t get the commercial recognition it does today and appearing on the show created by DJ Adrian Bartos (Stretch Armstrong) and Bobby Garcia (Bobbito) meant you had made it. As a measurement of its popularity, Busta Rhymes made a tidy business selling tape recordings of the show before he got signed.

Here’s a clip of a young Eminem on the show, years before he wrote the lyrics for his Grammy-winning "Lose Yourself".

Today, apart from being a writer, ball player and DJ, many consider Garcia the forerunner and de facto historian of sneaker culture. Rightly so, his book Where'd You Get Those?: New York City's Sneaker Culture, 1960-1987 explained the how and why of sneakerheads at a time when sneakers were just picking up steam and Michael Jordan was still playing ball on the court (for the Wizards).

We caught up with the legend at Nike’s space at this year’s Sole DXB, where Nike previewed its new 12 Soles collection that celebrated the American brand’s impact on basketball. We even got a sneak peek at Nike’s new sneaker exclusively for Dubai.

What role has basketball and hip-hop played in the rise of sneaker culture? 
Sneakers were designed for performance and basketball was the inspiration for that design. In the 1960s and '70s, the very best players in the world were playing outdoor for free in New York. That’s where this explosion started.

The sneakers they wore were etched into the psyche of those watching them. Hip-hop took its cues from the street ballers. DJs, MCs and rap artists borrowed that style and incorporated it into the hip-hop lifestyle. While the ball players ensured the explosion of sneakers in America, hip-hop was the conduit for the rest of the world by virtue of music videos and tours.

You told us how New York led the way in sneaker culture. Which city would you say stands at second place?
Tokyo. Japan dove into sneaker culture in a dissimilar way to New York in that they were the first resellers. Back in the early '90s, the Japanese would send buyers to old sneaker stores in New York and those buyers would take away entire shops. They would then go back to Japan and sell those sneakers at prices marked up by 300 per cent.

How much has sneaker culture changed over the years?
The sneakers I see kids wearing today are insane. They really know their stuff and go out and buy the best. Back in my day, there was no marketing. The street awarded the best sneakers. But if we went around showing off our sneakers like these kids, we’d get mugged. Back then, we knew where to not wear our good sneakers. If you went to the Bronx with crazy sneakers, Fat Joe would mug you. That’s just how things were. 

Did you ever get mugged for your sneakers?
Nah, I was tactical with my sneakers. I had divided my pairs up well so if I ever went to a sketchy neighbourhood, I’d wear sneakers no one would want to take away. People have offered to pay me for my sneakers though. 

What got you hooked onto sneakers?
My older brother. I took all my cues from him.

What sneaker designs have resonated with you the most?
On the courts, it would be the Nike Air Force 1. Those kicks made me a better ball player. Suddenly I didn’t have to wear more than three pairs of socks just to save my heels from the constant shock of jumping around. Off the courts, I coveted the Nike Franchise. It’s become even more enduring now as Nike has never and will never re-issue it.

You launched Jay Z, Eminem and a whole host of other hip-hop and rap artists. Did you have an influence on their style?
Stretch and I have the honour of saying that the first time anyone ever heard of Nas, Biggie (aka The Notorious B.I.G) Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Fat Joe, Jay Z and the whole laundry list was on our show. Although those guys did look up to me back then, I’d say they were still trying to be their own man. So while I may have had a pair of sneakers on that they didn’t have, most of them were forward thinking enough to go on and get sneakers that I didn’t have.

So you never suggested sneakers they should wear or things like that?
Not that I can remember, but I did help Raekwon of the Wu-Tang Clan once. No one knows this, but back when he was recording his “Sneakers” track he called me up from the studio. He was trying to incorporate as many names as he could in his song to pay homage and needed help with brands to name-drop.

What are your thoughts on Dubai’s sneaker culture? 
This is only my second year so I haven’t been here long enough. However, I will say that what Sole DXB has going on here is a cut above what everyone else is doing. I’ve been to many sneaker-based events and this one by far is the most inclusive and innovative place I’ve ever been to.