Why do independent record labels fall apart? Some do because of financial problems or creative differences. Others sign major label distribution deals or even sell their small empires. Iconoclastic Los Angeles independent Stones Throw is a rare exception, however; as we've chronicled on these pages dozens and dozens of times, they're a paragon of independent perseverance.
Now 17 years old, the imprint seem impervious to the pressures of the marketplace, sticking with work that is consistent with its founder's eclectic, underground hip-hop and experimental vision. All of this gets perspective in Jeff Broadway's new documentary film, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records, which premieres in L.A. on Monday, March 17th at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
The film chronicles the history of the label with a mix of archival material – photos, concert footage – with interviews and performance from Stones Throw artists such as Jonwayne and James Pants. We also hear from big name artists who count themselves as fans, from Kanye West and Questlove to Tyler, the Creator and Ariel Pink. It's chock full of fun details for the die-hard fans, but it's also quite watchable for someone new to the label.
The first chapter recounts label founder Peanut Butter Wolf's formative years, as he came up and befriended future Stones Throw employees Steve Helmer (a.k.a. Baron Zen) and Jeff Jank. The most affecting moments revolve around the relationship between Wolf and his late friend and collaborator Charizma, the first Stones Throw artist and Wolf's reason for starting the label.
Then there were the glory days, the aughts, when Stones Throw was releasing some of the most venerated music out there: including MF Doom and Madlib's Madvillainy, and J. Dilla's Donuts. Dilla and Madlib's first in-studio meeting is a highlight. It's also interesting to hear about how things got bleak after J. Dilla passed in 2006. Record stores shut down en masse, and Wolf wasn't certain whether Stones Throw would survive.
Yet one gets the sense that there's a narrative left untold. It would have been nice to hear more about the difficulty of navigating the record industry during a time when the internet and illegal downloading were taking over. One wonders just exactly how Stones Throw – which was never selling a ton of copies even in its heyday – has been able to weather the storm.
Still, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a well-rendered portrait of a perennial independent titan. It ends on a high note, outlining Stone's Throw's modern resurgence via non hip-hop artists such as Dam-Funk and Mayer Hawthorne.
Just before the credits, Wolf quips that in 30 years he either wants Stones Throw records in the 99-cent bin or the $100 dollar bin. Our bet it on the latter.
Following the screening tonight in Hollywood (tickets here) there will be a Q&A with Jeff Broadway and Peanut Butter Wolf. The film's DVD and digital release is April 29, 2014.