Culture

The legendary DJ, streetballer, and sneaker guru talks his revealing new film.

Bobbito Garcia Is the Most Interesting Man in New York City

How do you sum up someone with almost as many jobs on his resume as nicknames? Someone credited with pioneering sneaker journalism and launching sneaker culture into the mainstream, who’s a streetball legend hailing from the Mecca of basketball. Oh, and he’s also responsible for helping launch the careers of some of your hip-hop favourites — Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep — thanks to his seminal ‘90s radio show.

That’s the challenge in writing about Bobbito Garcia, a.k.a. Kool Bob Love, a.k.a. DJ Cucumber Slice, a.k.a. Bobbito the Barber, a.k.a. Boogie Bob, Bobby Love, Make It Happen, Bag of Tricks, Soul Food Bob. An author, DJ, journalist, former professional basketball player, TV and radio personality, sneaker designer, announcer, A&R man, coach, and now award-winning documentary filmmaker.1

It’s also the challenge behind Rock Rubber 45s, a hybrid documentary/autobiography that Garcia wrote, directed, produced, music supervised, location scouted, everything short of worked craft services on. In it, Garcia tells his life story, with help from interviews with famous friends like Rosie Perez, Questlove, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Chris Paul, but it’s not just some self-congratulatory “Greatest Hits” compilation. He also opens up about being bullied and sexually abused growing up, his father’s alcoholism. Ultimately, though, it’s a movie about love: for basketball, for sneakers, for music.2 And how Garcia’s passion for all three has led to a life packed with more than enough highlights for one 90-minute movie — let alone a 15-minute interview.

Garica is still on the road promoting his latest film, but with Rock Rubber 45s poised for its worldwide digital release on July 24, we spoke to the Puerto Rican polymath about how he went from DJing to documentaries, why he wanted to be the one to tell his own story, and, of course, sneakers.

TITLE: I feel like there’s so much to talk about in only a short amount of time. I can only imagine how hard it must’ve been for you to cut down this documentary to an hour and a half.

BOBBITO GARCIA: Dude, I’m covering 51 years of my life in 90 minutes! That’s an impossible task.

Is there a four-hour cut of Rock Rubber 45s somewhere?

[Laughs.] No, the first cut was a good three hours though, and then we had to trim the fat.

What was the hardest thing for you to cut?

You can’t put everything in. I did the NBA Street Vol. 2 video game, I was the announcer for that. That just got like a five-second blip in the film. I had a hilarious dialogue with [b-boy pioneer] Crazy Legs about some battles that we had that was just like fall-on-the-floor, holding-your-stomach laughter, that didn’t make the film but that’ll be in the deleted scenes. Rosie Perez had some hilarious anecdotes. Her and Clark Kent were just so funny when we interviewed them, and I told them both, “Look, this is my autobiographical film. You can’t outshine me. I’m gonna have to chop you down a little bit.” [Laughs.]

Watching this, I remember thinking, man, writing the intro for this interview is gonna be trouble. If I start listing your career highlights, it’s going to take up half my word count.

Oh, yeah. I’m fortunate in that I was blessed with the work ethic from my mother, and with the love for music and basketball from my father, and with a keen eye for sneakers from my brothers. So I’m a combo of all the people before me who helped shape me. And then I’ve just been able to be in New York and create a lot of opportunities, because of the great city that it is, and the pace that it has. And that’s how I’m here today.

I’m constantly trying to figure out new opportunities and new lanes and new challenges. I follow my passions and I figure out how to make money off of them – and in some cases, I don’t figure out how to make money off of them, I just do them. If I make money, cool. If I don’t, I’m still going to do them regardless.

I know I could ask you the same question about any of your career shifts, but what made you want to make the jump to film? You’ve been doing this for eight years now, right?

Correct. I started producing, directing and writing Doin’ It In The Park: Pick-Up Basketball, NYC in 2010, it got released in 2013, and then two years later, I popped out Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, which became an even bigger film than my first one, because it got on Netflix at a time when that platform expanded. And then, this new film Rock Rubber 45s, it has its digital release July 24th, so it can be streamed and downloaded from iTunes and Amazon and Hulu and Vimeo, and direct to fans from RockRubber45s.com.

I think becoming a filmmaker was kind of a natural progression, although it’s not like people handed me a camera and an editing station and were like, “Man, you should be a filmmaker!” That was a decision that I made, out of the blue, without having gone to film school, only with the experience of being on camera, not behind it. But I was intrigued and fascinated by it, and maybe it was just a natural progression of my storytelling. Because I was an author, I was a journalist, a writer, an event host, a basketball announcer. So I’ve been weaving stories for years, and sharing history and narratives. I was also the editor-in-chief of a playground basketball magazine called Bounce. And I think my experiences doing that, and authoring the book Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987, and just having the ability to transcribe multiple interviews and weave various quotes into one cohesive thread — that’s what filmmaking is.

And the beauty of film is it’s very different than writing a 3,000-word article, because now you’ve got not only picture, but you have audio to really enhance the experience. So, doing Rock Rubber 45sis also like the culmination of my years of DJing and creating rhythms for people to dance to for two, three, four hours, and using those sensibilities for how to score 90 minutes of film.

It seems to me like DJing and making documentaries actually have a lot in common. You’re curating all these different pieces and stringing them together to make something new.

Yeah. It’s funny, when we had our theatrical run at the Metrograph in Chinatown in Manhattan, this one filmmaker came up to me afterwards. He was like, “Filmmaker to filmmaker, you have a manner in your storytelling that is very unique and different.” I was really grateful and humbled when he said that. I don’t know what my next film project is, I don’t know if I’ll do another film project. If one comes along that seems like the right fit, maybe I’ll jump on it. But it’s a lot. It’s a lot of effort, a lot of attention to very minute detail, but it’s all worth it.

Just watching the credits, you did basically everything on this film. But I guess that’s the way it’s got to be when you’re making an indie documentary.

Well, listen, I don’t know if you watched the end credits…

Oh, for sure. Let’s see, we’ve got “Title track producer, music and archive supervisor, interviewer, assistant editor.” I could keep going. There’s more.

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. Location scout. I mean, I did everything! And it wasn’t to be self-aggrandizing [putting that in]. I was doing that so other filmmakers, aspiring or not, could see. It’s not to pat myself on the back, it’s to inspire people, like, “Yo, this shit ain’t easy! But if you put your work in, and your effort in and your research in… You can do a lot of shit.”

There’s a moment early on where Michael Rapaport says he wanted to make a documentary about you, but you beat him to it. Why was it important to you to be the one to tell your own story? Do you think that allowed you to be more open and more vulnerable, since you were the one with final cut?

Mike Rapaport was being kind when he said that. I don’t know that he ever really would’ve made a documentary about me. I know ever since we’ve met, he’s been intrigued by me. He’s always been fascinated by what I do, and he’s a good dude. He’s come to my DJ gigs, we’ve played ball together, we’ve hung out. I interviewed him in my Vibe column. But, you know, push comes to shove, I don’t know that he was going to find 200 or 300 thousand dollars to do a film about me. [Laughs.] I’m not a former NBA player, I’m not a platinum-selling artist. At the O Cinema [in Miami] last night, they had a documentary about Whitney Houston, and then afterwards, it’s Rock Rubber 45s. Wasn’t nobody in the world was going to do a documentary about me, unless I did it by myself.

And I think some people in the film industry have not necessarily received the idea of someone like me doing an autobiographical doc well. Some of the festivals passed on it. Like, “Great film, but it’s not what we’re looking for.” There’s not a lot of autobiographical docs out there. It’s a very unexplored genre. And for me, that was the challenge of it. I’m going to do an autobiographical doc, but it’s not really going to be an autobiography, because my story is the same story as a lot of people.

When it comes to sexual abuse, every screening, I’m having grown men and women come up to me, either crying or asking for a hug, or telling me, “Yo, that shit happened to me too.” So when that many people are seeing themselves on screen, and identifying with my narrative, it gets bigger than an autobiography. And I think some of the programmers at festivals — and some of the film reviewers even — missed that point. But I hope I open up the door to other people having the strength and aspiring to tell their own stories, because a lot of us have compelling narratives. We don’t all have the platform to share it though. And I’m not going to sit here and think that I’m any less worthy of telling my story because I don’t have the mainstream name that someone else might.

I know I have to let you go, but if I don’t ask you a question about sneakers, my editor will kill me. Did you have a special sneaker that you brought with you on your press tour for this movie?

[Laughs.] No, no. As you saw in the film, I’ve been heavy on advocating for sneaker donating to various non-profits. So, that’s where my head is at these days. I am grateful that I’ve done some collabs — most recently, I did the PUMA Suede 50th anniversary. That dropped in May. Two colours, had my name on the side of the shoe. That’s an iconic model, so that I had the opportunity to put my spin on it and decide on fabrics and colours, that’s an honor. So thanks to PUMA. I also did a collab with them in 2015 with the PUMA Clyde. Which is like, Whoa. That’s like the crème de la crème for that brand.

So I’ve had some good opportunities, and they’ve definitely been unexpected. Again, because I’m not an NBA athlete. Most signature shoes are from really famous people. So, to have an opportunity to have my name on a shoe, when I’m a heavyweight in the sneaker space, but not in the mainstream pop culture space, that speaks volumes for my contributions and for the respect that brands like PUMA and Nike and Adidas have given me. So props to all them for doing those collab releases, and props to you for the interview, man. Thanks a lot, and I hope your editor’s happy with the story. [Laughs.]

References   [ + ]

1. There’s more, but I’ve got a word count to keep in mind.
2. Hence the title, with its nod to each.