Stones Throw show recalls J Dilla

Special to The Times

A J Dilla song roared over the loudspeakers of a packed El Rey Thursday as Stones Throw rap record label impresario Peanut Butter Wolf told a near-capacity crowd of post-backpackers that, “This isn’t some bandwagon . . . . J Dilla was my man and I’ll play his music until the day I die.”

Certainly, if anyone has the right to carry on the spirit of the man born James Yancey, it’d be Stones Throw, with a roster including the likes of frequent Dilla collaborators Madlib and Guilty Simpson, as well as close ties with his younger brother, Illa J, who emerged from the shadows during Madlib’s set to perform tracks from Dilla and Madlib’s “Champion Sound” project.

Dilla’s death nearly two years ago raised the profile of the eclectic indie hip-hop label to previously unseen heights, with his posthumous “Donuts” record becoming the biggest seller in Stones Throw’s 11 years in existence.


Its success has been one of the causes for the label’s recent escape from the subterranean rap ghetto, also aided by deals with the likes of Adult Swim and most recently a pact to provide a video game tie-in soundtrack for “NBA 2K8: B-Ball Zombie War.”

But while the label was ostensibly promoting its newest release on Thursday (several 2K8 stations were hogged all evening by gamers), a night that should’ve felt like a coronation of sorts seemed more of a melancholy celebration, a bittersweet tribute to their fallen comrade.

The label’s biggest gun, Madlib -- the erstwhile Otis Jackson Jr. -- served as the headliner and came off like a hybrid West Coast strain of Erick Sermon and Redman, an energetic producer-rapper wielding an off-kilter sense of humor targeted at the narcotically inclined. Aided by Illa J and his Supreme Team partner, Karriem Riggins, Madlib drew heavily from “Champion Sound,” along with his more recent output as the helium-voiced alter-ego Quasimoto.

In particular, a confident, swaggering and fluid rendition of “The Official” elicited a cacophonous roar from the crowd. As the night wound down, Madlib retreated to his familiar position, scratching at a set of turntables, backed by a four-piece band that let off silky-smooth funk and jazz licks. The move subtly reflected the reasons for Stones Throw’s surge in popularity, with its ability to create a delicate compromise between the granola organicism of its Native Tongues/ Okayplayer forebears, the B-boy backpack rap of previous L.A. underground kings Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples, and enough drugs-and-battle rap squawking to satisfy the streets.

The show also featured a stunning display of technical proficiency from Bronx veteran Percee P, and Guilty Simpson impressed with his zigzagging Detroit flow and songs from his upcoming “Ode to the Ghetto.”