Peanut Butter Wolf talks 15th anniversary of Stones Throw Records
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Those who try to pigeonhole Stones Throw Records’ catalog are almost guaranteed to get it wrong. Even at Stones Throw’s inception, DJ and label boss Peanut Butter Wolf (born Chris Manak) probably wouldn’t have guessed that a tiny hip-hop label born in the Bay Area a decade and a half ago could become a tastemaker, risk taker and archaeological site for genres that included shoegaze, soul and psychedelia. From innovative MCs and producers such as Madlib to retro-styled newcomers such as the Stepkids, no two artists here sound alike.
What started as a means of releasing Peanut Butter Wolf’s now-classic debut album with the late MC Charles Hicks (a.k.a Charizma), Stones Throw has grown into a multigeneration, multiracial underground powerhouse prospecting envelope-pushing artists that use classic music from the past, reformatted and twisted to fit the present.
As Peanut Butter Wolf sits down with Pop & Hiss before Stones Throw’s 15-year anniversary party at Exchange L.A. on Thursday, it’s clear that his mission to mine and release the music he loves has been harder -- and more rewarding -- than he’d ever imagined.
Describe yourself 15 years ago. How would you characterize yourself as an artist and label owner?
For the 15-year party we’re doing, I was going through all the old pictures, trying to scan photos in, and I noticed I was wearing a shirt that was so long it looked like a dress. That was me 15 years ago. That was everybody 15 years ago in hip-hop. I think when I started the label, I was so passionate about what people call backpack hip-hop, but I never wore backpacks when I went to the shows. But music that was very similar to Gangstarr and Diggin’ in the Crates Crew, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest. Those were the early influences for Stones Throw. And when the Internet started and there was no iTunes yet, it was a totally different climate for music. I started the label in the San Francisco Bay area and was really involved in the hip-hop and turntablism scene. We only did vinyl. I didn’t even have a distributor for CDs; the label was really just for DJs.
Considering the identity that Stones Throw has created with artists who really thrive on classic sounds, samples and genres, do you think the label has played a role in the way we look at “old” hip-hop, soul and jazz?
We look to the past, and we also look forward. I was on Charizma’s Facebook page today and I was looking at the fan base and most of the people were between age 17 and 24, and he died almost 20 years ago. It’s exciting for me when I meet people that just found out about Stones Throw. Of course, I appreciate the people who’ve been with us since Day 1, and that’s exciting too. But when I meet someone who knows about Jonti and then they’re going back to learn about Madvillain, I forget that those kind of people exist, so it’s great to see.
What are some mistakes you think you’ve made as a label owner -- from the time you started the label until now?
I’m drawing a blank; I’ve done everything right [laughs]. I really rely on my instincts more than thinking too long about the next move I make. Some of the mistakes might be just some of the artists I wanted to sign but people told me not to. Flying Lotus was one of those. But it can also be a mistake when you sign somebody and your staff doesn’t understand that either. I’ve had that situation where I’m pushing and pushing an artist and getting angry and frustrated and that doesn’t help anybody. But for the most part, I definitely have the support of my staff.
In your first interactions with marquee artists like Madlib, J Dilla and MF Doom, did they really understand and appreciate what you were trying to do with the new label and where you wanted to go with it?
Madlib put out his first record with Lootpack through his own imprint that his dad funded. So I took a meeting with his dad originally because I worked for a record distributor at the time but still had my own label. And the guys in Lootpack were already familiar with the music on Stones Throw back in 1997 when we’d only put out a few records. So it seemed like they believed in what I was doing early on. With Dilla, I actually knew him because I’d put out a record called ‘Peanut Butter Breaks’ in 1994 before Stones Throw happened, and DJ House Shoes introduced me to J Dilla back then, and he was really into the Lootpack guys, so he was really supportive.
This label wasn’t the end-all-be-all for these guys, obviously, but the records we did with these guys, I’m very proud of. That’s what’s important for me. I don’t wanna put something out that someone’s going to listen to 10 times in a row and get sick of it. With Doom, he didn’t really know Stones Throw or Madlib when we first reached out to him, so that made me a little nervous. I didn’t know what he would think. But sure enough, he was on board with it.
Looking at artists like Jonti, Jonwayne, M.E.D. Vex Ruffin and the Stepkids, each of these artists that you’ve signed or put out in the last year or so have all been very different. Is this part of a continued effort to put out whatever music you like, no matter where it falls on the genre spectrum?
I think I’m just really into artist development. I don’t think of things in terms of what is best for Stones Throw. I think that Stones Throw has to be what’s best for me. And that sounds egotistical and pisses everybody off, but that’s what the message boards are for, to complain about what an idiot I am. When we put out Aloe Blacc, there were a lot of complaints about him. Aloe was our biggest selling artist of all time now and if it weren’t for Aloe, we might have had to close the doors on Stones Throw. I think people have a very specific idea in their head of what Stones Throw means to them and what they like about it, and whenever I deviate from that it upsets them. But there’s not a lot of hip-hop coming out that sounds like the early days, and I think they’re more upset about that than anything. It’s almost like “Stones Throw save us,” but that’s too big of a responsibility for me, personally.
Any strategies, plans or artists you’re looking to develop over the next year?
I just wanna break new artists. When somebody that I work with has never been to Japan or Australia and I get to take them with me and see things through their eyes it makes it a lot of fun. I remember what it was like the first time I went to Germany with Charizma in 1992 and we opened up the mini bar in our hotel and drank every ounce of booze in it because we thought it was free and then we got a huge bill for it the next day. That kind of naivete, I need it in my life still.
Stones Throw Celebrates 15 Years, featuring DJ sets from Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, Peanut Butter Wolf, Dam Funk and more. Dec. 22 at Exchange L.A., 618 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. (213) 627-8070, www.exchangela.com. $30. 9 p.m. 21+.
-- Nate Jackson