DJ Stretch Armstrong on the 5 ’90s Hip-Hop Clubs That Shaped Him

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It is no exaggeration to say that DJ Stretch Armstrong is one of the most vital figures in the history of New York’s club scene. Getting his start in the late ’80s and ’90s in underground clubs around the Big Apple, Stretch was responsible for introducing the city to artists and genres that remain just as relevant now as then, namely, that he helped usher in a new era of hip-hop, dancehall, reggae-focused club bangers in addition to the world of house music beginning to make its emergence. And all of that before he started one of the most crucial FM radio shows to ever air.

Stretch has recently collected his experiences in the burgeoning hip-hop club scene as both a DJ and a visual artist in a book titled No Sleep: NYC Nightlife Flyers 1988-1999, co-authored with Evan Auerbach. Initially, we reached out to him for a Q&A to discuss the work, but he hopped back with an even more enticing prospect: a personal guide through the clubs in his formative experiences and the music that came with it, including flyers from his book. See all his picks below.

1. Nell’s – 1988

Nell’s, was, in my opinion, one of the greatest clubs ever. Of course, it was the first club I ever went to, so I know there were great clubs before it. But from 1988 on, I don’t think anything touches Nell’s.

There were several DJs in rotation but of all of them, Frankie Inglese’s taste just did it for me. He had a really wide breadth of knowledge and in any given night, would take you through different genres and eras. A lot of my homework was done in the basement of Nell’s, with its low ceiling, dark dance floor that was only lit up by the lights on the turntables and records. The DJ booth was practically on the dance floor, so it was easy to talk to Frankie, to let him know you were feeling what he was playing, or, if you asked politely enough and he was feeling generous, what the name of a particular song he played was.

The cast of regulars at Nell’s was a who’s who of cool, from music industry types, to the fashion crowd, charismatic hard rocks, models, and a bunch of people who seemed like their full time job was just being cool.

I remember the night that we were treated to a highly-anticipated musical offering from Public Enemy. Everyone was dying to know how and if they could top “Rebel Without a Pause.” One night in ’88, to a packed house, Russell Simmons walks up to Frankie and hands him two test pressings, white label with the iconic Def Jam logo. Within minutes, Frankie threw the record on. It was “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and the energy on the dance floor jumped up, hearing Chuck’s commanding voice over that half-familiar and half-strange music put together by the Bomb Squad. Outside of the group and label, we were the first people in the world to hear that record.

2. Soul Kitchen – late ’80s-mid ’90s

Soul Kitchen, along with Giant Step, provided the equivalent of the UK’s rare groove and acid jazz scenes, with the former’s focus on old music and the latter’s on new sounds. I rarely went to Giant Step because it was on a Thursday night, when I had my radio show, but I was a regular at the Kitchen, one of the handful of people that got in and didn’t pay, no matter what the door situation was. Frankie Inglese was the DJ, playing old soul and funk tunes, with sprinkles of reggae, to a crowd that, over time, were completely in the palm of his hand.

What also set this part apart was that Frankie played the entire songs out, which was his way of saying that these songs are important, not just for the breaks and familiar samples, but as compositions and performances. Over time, Soul Kitchen became a hot spot for established and up-and-coming execs and producers, eager to mine Frankie’s collection for samples. There ended up being a synergy between the budding hip-hop industry and Soul Kitchen, and it was not unusual to hear artists and songs that Frankie used to rinse end up as the foundation for many hip-hop records and also enjoy a renewed interest in their careers by a younger audience. Typically, Frankie would end the night with Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” to a full club.

3. BLDG aka The Building – 1989-1991

The Building was where Clark Kent and Kid Capri reigned supreme. I have too many memories of both of them absolutely murdering that club. Set in a former power plant, BLDG was one cavernous brick structure that, as a club, was one room with ceilings that was at least twelve meters tall – a massive room that echoed unless it was full with people to absorb the sound waves. The dance floor would become a sea of people moving in unison and it was not uncommon to see the likes of Naomi Campbell, Mike Tyson, rappers like Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes, hanging out on the regular.

The three records that I most identify with BLDG are The Jungle Brothers’ “JBs Comin’ Through” from ’89, LL Cool J’s “Boomin’ System” in ’90 and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rime” in ’91. I can still hear Clark cutting up the kicks and Q-Tip’s grunts from the top of “Check…”

4. Mars – 1988-1990

Mars was a five story mega club that had a weekly lineup of great local and European DJ’s from the dance, hip-hop and reggae world. Some of the regulars included Clark Kent, Moby, Duke of Denmark, Bobby Konders, Justin Strauss, Red Alert, Frankie Knuckles and me. All of the DJ’s had their lane musically, but in ’89, you couldn’t escape Junior Reid’s “One Blood.”

It would be a mistake to not acknowledge Red Alert as the one who really made dancehall popular in the NYC hip-hop scene, largely a result of his starting his Friday and Saturday mix show on Kiss-FM with the latest hits coming out of Jamaica at a time when Shabba Ranks’ name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

5. DEEP – 1989-1991

DEEP was the brainchild of DJ DB, a transplant from London. The party, which moved around to new, unorthodox, places made it feel like a true, old-school party. Musically, DB and Frankie Inglese would play a daring mix of music from NY-based hip-hop and house, but one of the musical touches that made the party different was the variety of import 12”s that DB would play. Everyone got hip to the R&B/hip-hop hybrids coming out of London as epitomized by Smith & Mighty and Soul II Soul.

One of my favorites was a cover of Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” by the Fresh 4 which used the break from James Brown’s ubiquitous “Funky Drummer” and a pitched down, thunderous “Hot Pants” breakbeat by Bobby Byrd. Soon, this song would be a staple at cooler downtown clubs.

Stretch Armstrong & Evan Auerbach’s ‘No Sleep’ is out now.

Catch Stretch play a set at LIMF this weekend. Click here for tickets.

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