For a certain sect of music obsessives, a chance to tour Stones Throw Records' headquarters is like getting a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The two-story office-cum-emporium causes normally cool customers to tweak; walls and corners are covered with pictures, vintage toys and old show handbills for Madlib and J Dilla. The bathroom stall has a hand-drawn sketch of MF Doom at his most scatological.
The highlight is the downstairs stockroom, a bugout-inducing Valhalla of vinyl and CDs. Fuck Everlasting Gobstoppers; here lies the limitless reserve of everything released by the Highland Park–based independent label in its decade and a half of existence. Fusion and free jazz. Esoteric afro-beat reissues. Skinny-tie soul. Modern funk. Garage rock. Broken beats. Minimal wave. Cosmic beat music. And a chocolate river's worth of hazy, psychedelic hip-hop.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary this month, Stones Throw is a Masada for those who never sold their turntables. There's an unspoken compact between the label and those who love what Madlib called "the old music." Collectors. Romantics. Sentimentalists.
"Our releases have always been whatever and whoever I've liked, whatever makes me excited at the time," says Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw's founder and resident Wonka. Wearing a gray porkpie hat and T-shirt, the San Jose–born Chris Manak looks a decade younger than his 42 years. "It's all outsider music."
In the upstairs offices — made up of four large rooms and a small studio — a pencil sketch of Manak's late musical partner, Charizma, is framed above his desk. It starts a mini Stones Throw wall of fame, including the label's most iconic artists, the late J Dilla, Madlib and MF Doom. To a generation of underground rap fans, the trio might well be Mount Rushmore, a holy trinity that has accounted for six of its seven top-selling records in the United States: Madvillain's Madvillainy; J Dilla's Donuts and Ruff Draft; Jaylib's Champion Sound; and (Madlib alias) Quasimoto's The Unseen and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. (The seventh is Mayer Hawthorne's A Strange Arrangement.) Madvillainy, the top seller, has moved just north of 150,000 copies.
It all began with Stones Throw's first release, 1996's "My World Premiere," a vinyl-only 12-inch from Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf. Manak was the DJ half of the rap duo, who had been signed to Disney-owned Hollywood Records in the early '90s. But before their work could be released, the imprint's president died, and its hip-hop division folded. At the end of 1993, Charizma was murdered while resisting a robbery attempt in East Palo Alto.
Stones Throw was founded partly to create a legacy for Charizma, but also to fulfill Manak's lifelong dream of running a label. (Other goals, according to a 20-year-old list unearthed in Manak's parents' San Jose home, included appearances on In Living Color and Yo! MTV Raps, and a write-up in The Source.)
Though by 1996 major-label rap was getting glossy, the underground boom had begun, providing an opening for the stripped-down jazziness Manak favored. Almost immediately, the fledgling Stones Throw scored a hit with 1997's Super Duck Breaks, a DJ Babu–orchestrated breakbeat compilation aimed at turntablists. Unbeknownst to Manak, the firm they employed manufactured vinyl that wore out after repeated scratching.
"It meant that DJs bought four instead of two," Manak says, with a sheepish laugh. "It practically made me and Babu rich."
Around that time, Manak signed Oxnard's Lootpack, a trio produced by young Otis Jackson Jr. — known as Madlib. Like all Stones Throw deals before 2004, it was a handshake agreement, a 50-50 profit split once the advance was recouped.
"I didn't believe in contracts. In hindsight, it was very idealistic. You can't spell everything out in a handshake deal, like who's going to deal with sample clearances or what happens if a song gets licensed," Manak says.
A voracious record collector, Manak estimates that he owns every rap record pressed between 1979 and 1998. (For his Nov. 11, 2011, party at Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock, he brought with him 1,100 of his favorite albums.) But his tastes have been omnivorous since he got into Joy Division, the Smiths and Slave as a teenager. There also was a stint playing electric bass in his high school garage band, Electra, which he describes as "Beck before Beck."
While studying marketing at San Jose State, Manak produced a 12-inch for hip-hop act Lyric Prophecy, which instantly made him a neighborhood celebrity.
In 2000, Manak moved to L.A., partly to be closer to his reclusive nascent star, Madlib. He also hired current art director Jeff Jank and former general manager Eothen "Egon" Alapatt to complete the label's core of creative executives. For much of the first half of the decade, the four of them shared a house in Mount Washington, the site of Madlib's fabled Bomb Shelter studio.
It was Jank who spearheaded Stones Throw's peerless Internet strategy. A pioneer indie label to sell its music on iTunes, its website was one of the first to become a one-stop shop for music, merchandise, artist biography and a fan message board. The imprint liberally gives out free MP3s to fans and bloggers but also has taken a strict approach to online piracy. A recent Justice Department list ranked Stones Throw among the top 10 organizations requesting Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedowns — right behind the Michael Jackson estate.
During an era when illegal downloading has forced label consolidation, specialization and focus-grouped singles, Stones Throw has taken the opposite tack. It has forged a cult of the weird and random, one that creates market demand rather than responding to it. It's the authentic Japanese restaurant of labels — you only see Japanese people eating there. Of course, there have been missed opportunities: Warp Records star Flying Lotus was once a Stones Throw intern; he has since become a spiritual leader of the city's beat-scene underground.
But more often than not, Manak has deftly developed new talent, including soul man Hawthorne and DâM-FunK, whose futuristic funk has almost single-handedly revived an interest in early-'80s boogie music.
Stones Throw's biggest recent success story is Aloe Blacc, whose Sam Cooke–style soul has gone gold in England, France and Germany. Granted, not every record has been profitable, but there have been enough hits to stay in the black.
"At every decision along the way, someone has said that it was a bad idea. When I put out Lootpack, guys in the Bay told me I was crazy," Manak says over eggs, potatoes and toast at the nearby Antigua coffee shop. "No one liked Quasimoto at first. People said James Pants had too many styles, and before Donuts, our distributor told us that no one wanted to buy instrumental hip-hop."
Yet the small imprint has had an incalculable influence on contemporary music. Both Thom Yorke and seminal British electronic producer Four Tet have remixed Stones Throw artists. Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator has cited James Pants as one of his favorite producers, and the chopped soul melancholia of Donuts has assumed near-biblical influence.
But the label's most significant contribution may still be its first major artist, Madlib, whose psychedelic beats, jazz and globe-trotting mixes deserve a genre unto themselves.
In any case, it's surprising when Madlib stumbles into Antigua. Dressed in a sharp wool peacoat, the laconic producer is as lanky as a woodwind.
He has either just returned from, or is on his way to, a pre-Thanksgiving smoke session at his studio down the street. It's not clear; indeed, it's sometimes hard to understand Madlib. He speaks softly and in fragments, making faces like a silent comedian when something catches his interest. Nonetheless, he proceeds to catch Manak up on his raft of projects. An album with Freddie Gibbs is half-done, as is a full-length with Planet Asia and one with Georgia Anne Muldrow. Madlib and Flying Lotus have begun work on the collaborative "Lying Otis." He and Doom have been trying to work together again, but Doom is even harder to get hold of than Madlib.
"We made it this far because [Manak] gave everyone creative freedom to do different things in different genres," Madlib adds. "Most labels only do one type of music, rock or hip-hop or jazz, but we're trying to do everything."
Fifteen years into the experiment, both men are married. Madlib has a baby on the way, while Manak is getting ready to drive up north to see his parents for the holiday.
"Crazy," Madlib nods his head.
"What's crazy?" Wolf asks.
"Stones Throw. Fifteen years?"
I mention that a decade and a half in the record business might as well be numbered in dog years.
"Any dog born when we started would be dead by now," Wolf cracks.
The longtime partners talk about the perils of staying afloat in an ever-contracting and fickle industry. Music is their business; moreover, it's their entire way of life. When Manak isn't dealing with label matters, as Peanut Butter Wolf he's a highly in-demand DJ who spins kaleidoscopic video sets all over the world.
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They speak of their still-inexorable desire to create something timeless, and their tones are heavy with the weariness of innovators. After all, Wonka described invention as 93 percent perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation and 2 percent butterscotch ripple.
"I met with my distributors recently and they said, 'You know what the problem with Stones Throw is? You guys are always two steps ahead,' " Manak says. "Which is ironic because we embrace a lot of forms of retro music."
"One day, everyone will get it," Madlib says, waving his arm, raising an eyebrow and standing up to disappear. "But by then, we'll already be on to the next thing."
Stones Throw's 15th-anniversary party is Thurs., Dec. 22, at Exchange Los Angeles.