If there’s one thing Bobbito Garcia knows how to do, it’s hustle. From his early days in New York City, he was making things happen in the world of hip-hop and beyond with a truly D.I.Y. spirit. You might recognize his name from the '90s radio show Stretch and Bobbito that broke artists like Biggie Smalls and the Wu-Tang Clan, or from his notorious underground APT parties. Or perhaps from his book Where'd You Get Those? which has become the bible of sneaker culture.
After several on-screen and voiceover roles in TV and commercial productions, he moved on to directing films himself. It soon became clear: who better to put this remarkable journey on film than someone who’s always done things his own way and on his own steam? Bobbito himself.
“There's nobody who can tell my story because no has lived it but me.”
The resulting autobiographical documentary, Rock Rubber 45s, portrays Garcia’s own life story but also the evolution and intersection of the global street basketball and music scenes, with interview subjects as wide-ranging as Patti LaBelle and Lin-Manuel Miranda. And it’s not just a look-at-me-aren’t-I-great puff piece. Garcia goes deep into some of the more troubling aspects of his youth, such as sexual abuse. After the first public screenings of the film, Garcia shared, “People are sharing a lot of deep experiences of their own that might have been under the rug for many years. And the film is shaking that up.” But, he added, “Other people are feeling really inspired and uplifted by the film. As a creative, I'd like to have this in any one of my projects—hitting people in a positive manner.”
No Film School spoke with the director before his film’s VOD release about what he learned from years of working across disciplines, staying truly independent, why he made the film with other freelance creatives in mind, and more.
NFS: You directed this film, but were there times when other people had to overrule you so you could be objective in telling your own story?
Garcia: There was no overruling on this film. And I laugh at that only because when I did my first film [Doin' It in the Park] it was a collaborative project with Kevin Couliau who was the co-director and David Couliau, his brother, who was the editor. I was just uncertain about how the film was supposed to go because I did not go to film school. I have been on camera a bunch recording commercials for Nike, and about nine feature films as an actor, the voice over work, and all this other stuff.
With my second film Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, there was a lot of back and forth with the editor. A lot of back and forth with the producer. A lot of back and forth with Stretch as well because I wasn't just telling my story. I was telling his, so I had to be respectful to his vision and how he wanted to be portrayed.
So this film, because it was my autobiography I wasn't trying to get fuckin' shit. I'm not to say that I am beyond critique, but there's nobody who can tell my story, because no has lived it but me.
That said, there were definitely moments in the editing room with Raafi Rivero and Emir Lewis at different points where they were like, “I think we should stick with the other person saying this, or I think we should stick with whatever”... and I'd be like “Word. Alright. Cool.” But, there were a majority of times when either one of them were telling me something and I was like, “Too bad. I respect your craft. I respect your education, but this is how it's going. This is my family.”
With the first two films there were things that I would have liked to have seen differently. With this one, there is nothing in the film that I am looking at it like, “aw, man I wish I had edited it a little differently.” It is completely the film that I wanted to make.
"No one in their fucking right mind was ever going to do a documentary about Bobbito Garcia."
NFS: What was your biggest learning across having made three films that really made this one what you wanted?
Garcia: Another thing that was different with this film was that we barely did any test screenings. We did a gang with both of the previous films. Especially with the first one, you don't have any confidence. How are people going to react to this? Will they like this? How is the narrative going? Is it too long? Are people who don't like basketball going to be affected by this?
It turned out to be a little bit of a confidence builder. You know, lots of awards. Got it shown worldwide. And then the second film comes along [Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives]. And people are being moved by it. And I’m getting a ton of letters. People appreciating that I made the film. That it spoke volumes for the ‘90s and that it represented not only me and Stretch’s radio show, but the entirety of a cultural movement for an era.
You hear that stuff and it's a confidence builder, but each of the test screenings for the first two films was a little annoying too because it's a test screening. The film is not done. So when you tell people that they're there for a test screening they get the sense that you're looking for me to nitpick this shit. I would say 90% of the feedback I get, like “duh it's not color corrected yet. The sound is off because we haven't sound mixed it yet.”
It's very frustrating with festivals too. Because you show the film and It's mostly rough cut to festivals. You are basically going off of their good faith or their ability to see the potential for a film that is unfinished. Most festivals don't get it. For this film we did two test screenings. That's it. I have conviction in my story and my filmmaking ability and my storytelling ability. I'm appreciative of the people who did give feedback. There were some very poignant critiques that were helpful.
“Ultimately it's human instinct to tell a truthful story.”
NFS: That kind of begs the question, how do you find your authentic storytelling voice?
Garcia: I don't think I have to find it. It's there. People find a way to mask their voice. People find a way to alter their voice. But ultimately it's human instinct to tell a truthful story. I think. It's human instinct to hold back certain things that are vulnerable because we are sensitive objects.
NFS: We want to protect ourselves.
Garcia: Yeah, we're sensitive beings. We don't just want to protect ourselves. We want to protect our families. What happened to me as a kid is potentially embarrassing for my family or embarrassing for those who were involved. Or embarrassing potentially for me. The older I got, and the more removed it got from it, the more I started to understand it. I wasn't at fault there. It wasn't my fault that those things happened to me. That's hard to learn that as a kid.
Coming out about this I have to worry about how my mom is going to react to this vulnerable sensitive topic being public. It happened under her watch basically. Those are things I have to be cautious and aware of. I felt like I dealt with the topic with a delicate and respectful manner. And the same thing with my father's death. I have to think about how my mom is going to react at a theatrical opening to her hearing again about her husband passing away.
Christian Pollock, Bobbito Garcia, and Nina Cruz behind-the-scenes of Rock Rubber 45s.Credit: Jon LopezNFS: Have you had conversations with her to prepare her for what you were doing and the story you were trying to tell?
Garcia: Not enough. I think she needs to be prepped a little bit more. My mother also trusts me as a freelance creator. She always has. She has never questioned my objective and my vision. That's fucking rare. You kidding me? That's rare. Both my parents were never like, “Oh, why don't you become a doctor?” They never have and they are respected in the film as such for that.
NFS: You mentioned the other things you have done over the years in your freelance life. I'm curious what you bring to filmmaking from other disciplines?
Garcia: That's a great question. When I directed and produced Doin' it in the Park and wrote it and music supervised it, I really felt it was like that ah-ha moment of my career. Literally, everything that I had done prior led up to that moment. The years of DJ'ing, and record collecting, and researching, and reading liner notes. Making relationships with artists. When it came to being a music supervisor, I infused my entire DJ and music journalist experiences into that.
When it came to being in the editing room, and deciding that this quote is going to go really well with this quote. I was editor-in-chief of a magazine at one point. I have been writing freelance since the '90s and editing my own articles before I would send them to the features' editor or the found a book editor. All those things, my education at Wesleyan, my education at Lower Merion. My experiences. All that shit came to help as I started making films.
This last film, which is hugely and remarkably different from my first two experiences, is that I was supported by Adobe. They gave me a free cloud license for me and my entire editing staff for a whole year.
I taught myself Premiere Pro. There are scenes in the film that I edited. Literally A to Z in an entire scene then I would pass it to Raafi Rivero and he would make sure that the frames and everything was right. And fix the music. That was a huge difference. Technology being what it is now and also YouTube. Thank God. They have a bunch of tutorials. Adobe Premiere Pro I think is user-friendly a little bit more than Final Cut. I was able to catch a rhythm with it enough to let Raafi know this is how I want this scene to go. Let's swap these quotes and put the graphics over here. I was way more hands-on with editing.
I credit myself as assistant editor in the credits at the end. I'm not trying to be self-aggrandizing like I did everything. But, I did it!
“Figure out what is missing and fill in the void. That is everything to filmmakers."
NFS: That is the D.I.Y. spirit that we champion at No Film School.
Garcia: Yeah. I'm the one who booked the Kennedy Center US premiere. I'm the one who booked the Metrograph Cinema. That's not to knock Goldcrest/Saboteur Media. It's a collaborative effort. I'm well connected. I have been a performer for 25 plus years. If I can get bookings in LA at the Regents Theater through the promoter who had me spin for him, then I am going to do it. I am not going to wait for theaters or festivals to say we want to invite you.
I'm going to create my own marketing, my own promotions. I was ready to do my own publicity. This interview was created by me hitting you up. And Emma Griffiths the publicist made it happen but the initial contact was not me sitting on my ass and thinking that the world is going to be at my feet, because what the fuck do I have to say? I have three films.
Bobbito Garcia and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Rock Rubber 45sNFS: On a different note, I thinking that music people make the best films because you really understand rhythm and story beats. In this case, I stopped counting after like 50 tracks in the credits. How did you put the music together and how did you manage all the rights for all that?
Garcia: [Laughs] We have a fantastic fair us attorney named Karen Shatzkin. And the law is on documentary filmmakers’ side. As long as the music that is in the film is in the context of historical, educational, or cultural documentary filmmaking and not entertainment. And not an abuse of the original copyright. [If you’re using] a small respectful section of it. That's one part of it.
And the other part is I’ve been DJing since the ‘90s, I was on a radio show, I gave birth to a lot of artists’ careers so I have a lot of goodwill. And so Pharoahe Monch, for example, loves me and I love him and so he wrote an original verse for the title track, and the title sequence track. I was able to get Eddie Palmieri and Robert Glasper together for the first time ever to collaborate on a song for the title track, which I produced. My relationships with Osunlade, DJ Spinna, the Du-Rights and Monica Blaire—it ranges from super well known and completely unknown artists that did the original scoring for the film.
Also Eli Escobar who was the original composer for Stretch and Bobbito as well. And anybody else who I am forgetting. I'm blessed. I'm connected. I have done right by a lot of people. That comes back.
“I made this film for freelance creatives. 100%. I had them in mind.”
NFS: What advice do you have for filmmakers or just other creatives for remaining independent and true to your vision in the way that you have?
Garcia: I have a great recommendation. The digital download for Rock Rubber 45s is available now. We have screenings across the world. I really went to lengths to include the sort of template mentality that it took for me to make this film as well as all my other independent projects. It's in the narrative. It's all explained. So watch the film like three or four times because there is a lot of stuff that's coded. If you watch it and have comprehension you'll figure it out.
That is what I can suggest. I made this film for freelance creatives. 100%. I had them in mind. When I drop the jewel about “Figure out what is missing and fill in the void.” That is everything to a filmmaker.
No one had ever done a film about pick up basketball in the history of filmmaking. How could that be? Everybody plays pickup basketball. So I filled the void. I made a film about it. No one had ever made a film about me and Stretch's contribution to hip-hop. No one was ever going to do it. So I just took it upon myself to do it. And no one in their fucking right mind was ever going to do a documentary about Bobbito Garcia. Why would they? So I took it upon myself to do it.
I think all these efforts are worthwhile because of the jewels and inspiration and motivation that people get off of each of my films. I am grateful to have the opportunity and to have the support in the community to put this forward in the way that I have. I am not an island unto myself. I might do all these things on my own and be this independent spirit, but ultimately I can't really do it on my own.
'Rock Rubber 45s' is now available on all major VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo, Vudu and Google Play.