By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There’s a grit in the air: Can you feel it? These are weird times, grim times, happy times, sexy times. Good god, these are the funkiest of times. In times such as these, music becomes more important, not less. People need sustenance — and many are finding it through an independent record label based out of an old converted industrial space in Highland Park. Down there on Figueroa Street, bathed in the ginger light of late autumn, you will find the elegantly funky headquarters of Stones Throw Records: L.A.’s pre-eminent indie hip-hop label, an aesthetic beacon of national stature, and a model for anyone who might dream of handcrafting a record label — and making it good.
Here you will also find a low-key, levelheaded and stylishly dressed young man named Chris Manak — the one they call Peanut Butter Wolf. He’s the fellow who started the whole thing 10 years ago, after spending years fantasizing about it as a kid in San Jose. “This was always kind of a dream in the back of my mind,” he explains. “Like in high school when they’d have you write What do you want to do when you grow up? That’s what I put. I wanted to start a record label.”
He’s done that, clearly, but he — and his partners at the label — have done so much more. Over its 10 years, Stones Throw has managed to distill and bottle a mysteriously diverse yet distinctive aesthetic, pickling the roots of great black American music — hip-hop, soul, R&B and jazz sounds — dicing it all up, then serving it back fresh, fun and freaky. This aesthetic is a Zen-like conflation of total existential foolishness with the most sincere of spiritual sonority and rhythmic poetry. And it’s an aesthetic open-armed enough to accommodate divergently pioneering raps, songs and avant mixes by Madvillain, the late J. Dilla, MF Doom, Yesterday’s New Quintet, J. Rocc, Percee P, Aloe Blacc and Georgia Anne Muldrow — and even the demented free expression of San Diego chronic outsider Gary Wilson, or the electronically mangled ’70s kool bop of the Stark Reality.
Stones Throw is like a state of mind, a fantastical one — albeit one rooted in the coarse realities of urban life, and the fetid stank of the record industry. Don’t forget: The Stones Throw aesthetic is emerging at a time when so many superficially similar major-label hip-hop-type endeavors drop like flies into the barrel-scraping depths of commercially calculated crappery. Better still, the label is breaking new creative dirt and coming out ahead $$-wise by doing only what it feels like doing — such as releasing recent big-selling items like J. Dilla’s Donuts and Madlib’s Beat Konducta. The Adult Swim cable network has jumped onboard, helping to release the label’s new Chrome Children CD/DVD compilation and co-presenting Stones Throw’s recent 10th-anniversary national tour. And get this: Nike has commissioned a limited-edition series of Stones Throw–themed sneakers. WTF?
Label general manager Eothen Alapatt tries, with charming awkwardness, to explain the unknowable chemistry behind the label’s momentum: “It’s not like we’re trying to eschew commercial music just because we’re indie. It’s just that we feel that there’s something that’s on the fringe of the commercial that’s ultimately timeless, and if you find a way to put that out now, then we’re putting out music that 20 years from now will be like the music that we’re championing personally, all of us, from 20 years ago.”
The kids are listening, in short, because the Stones Throw crew retains its standing as arbiters of taste by remaining fanatics for good music. Says Wolf, “It’s funny how many requests I get from people who say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do A&R for your label,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m the A&R.’ ”
Only he’s not a bastard, nor a formerly starry-eyed cynic. He’s more an artist than any normal A&R guy. Take the case of his new roster addition Aloe Blacc, whose album Shine Through was recently released to critical laud. When Wolf invited Blacc to assemble his best tracks for an album, he essentially told Blacc not to deliver the goods till he felt it was ready to be heard. That’s an attitude the songwriter/producer savors, and sees as the real identifying characteristic of Stones Throw. “I’m glad that I got to put this album out on Stones Throw — I can’t think of any label that has the kind of legacy and attention that Stones Throw has that would also give you that kind of freedom,” says Blacc. “If I had signed with a major label, they’d want me to sing one type of music, and try to market a specific genre. But my goal is different: I want to create music that is diverse, and sits with people almost as if they’re putting their media player on shuffle.”
Doing only what you feel like doing is a very fine thing, an admirable thing, a righteous thing. Getting people to listen to it is another story. Getting paid for it is another story still. Hundreds of record labels have specialized in the various strands of historical black American music, and a thousand more have dished out hip-hop mash-ups that pay ostensible tribute to that black American legacy. But when a label does what this label does, and then that label ends up selling a lot of records — well, what do you call this aesthetic? What’s its true source? Why does it work on us, and what does it mean that it does? And what’s the capital of South Dakota?