By: Jordan Ferguson
“Welcome to my world,” said the soft-spoken man in the cowl-neck cardigan and cadet cap as he gestured meekly towards the screen lowering behind him. The man’s name is Chris Manak, but everyone at the theatre knew him better by his wonderfully nonsensical nom d’art Peanut Butter Wolf: DJ, producer, occasional beatmaker and founder of the beloved California-based indie label Stones Throw Records.
Stones Throw was the reason we gathered at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema March 6, for an early peek at Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Throw Records, a documentary released to commemorate the label’s 15-plus years of operation. Featuring gobs of archival footage and new interviews with Wolf, his friends and family, artists past and present like Mayer Hawthorne, Flying Lotus and Madlib, as well as fans and admirers like Mike D of the Beastie Boys, Questlove and A-Trak, the doc is a fun if meandering look at how an independent record label keeps it together in the current economic landscape.
Despite the subtitle, the film is really about Wolf’s journey more than the label he founded. A military brat who crossed the country before settling in the San Jose area of California, Wolf’s love of record collecting and early hip-hop led him to link up with local rapper Charles “Charizma” Hicks when the two were teenagers. Success around San Jose eventually scored the duo a deal with the Disney-owned label Hollywood Basic, but creative differences between the pair and company execs meant they never released a proper album and got dropped. When Hicks was killed in a 1993 carjacking attempt, Wolf attempted to score another deal to honour the work he made with his best friend. Frustrated with the lack of interest, he started Stones Throw in 1996 with the sole purpose of releasing the Charizma songs. The work of an up and coming producer from Oxnard, California named Madlib inspired Wolf to relocate and move the whole operation into a house in LA’s Mount Washington neighbourhood, complete with a 1950’s-era bomb shelter Madlib used as a studio. It was there that Stones Throw would gain its first notoriety, buoyed by Madlib’s musical innovation and indefatigable work ethic (he claims in the movie to operate on little more than two hours of sleep per night). Along with longtime colleague Jeff Jank, who developed the label’s visual aesthetic, and Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, who handled much of its day to day operations, Stones Throw gained a reputation as risk-taking weirdos who gave artists the freedom to follow their passions, a rarity in hip-hop during the early-aughts era of bling bling and hyper-commercial crossover. As long as Wolf found it worthy of putting out. Which can be problematic for the movie, and the label as a whole for that matter.
Because the film is so centered on Wolf’s point of view, there’s never really a sense of how some of these classic works were assembled: Wolf asked Madlib who he wanted to work with, Madlib said J Dilla, bang! You get Jaylib and Dilla’s entrance to the label, which subsequently resulted in the release of Dilla’s final album Donuts. Then Madlib said DOOM, and poof! Madvillain is born. That’s the extent of the insight offered to projects that still stand as arguably the label’s crowning achievements. One walks away from the film feeling that while Wolf’s vision is unparalleled, there are parts of how the sausage gets made that he doesn’t really concern himself with. These are details that a few interviews with the other members of the four-man crew could have illuminated. Madlib’s on hand to talk about the musical side of things, and Jeff Jank is present as a spectre, in reference and in photographs, but Egon is nowhere to be found aside from a few cursory mentions. Why the producers opted not to include such a gregarious and outspoken personality, someone who filled such a crucial role in its narrative is puzzling, and the film suffers as a documentary because of it.
Really, I didn’t come out of the theatre feeling like I’d seen a documentary at all. The film is a deserved piece of glowing PR for the label; staying afloat in a fickle music economy for almost 20 years is no mean feat and should be celebrated. But because the film and the label are so closely tied to the vision of a single man, one’s enjoyment of both is determined by how much his tastes intersect with your own. Following the death of J Dilla from a rare blood disorder in 2006 and Madlib’s subsequent withdrawal from music, Stones Throw went through a bit of an identity crisis, an historical moment that offers the only sense of real conflict in the entire film. Wolf’s own creative urgings inspired him to release albums from company intern James Pants, his childhood friend Baron Zen, DIY New Wave pioneer Gary Wilson, and Wolf’s own Euro-disco alter ego Folerio. These projects are all things Wolf likes, and a necessary part of the Stones Throw story, but the decidedly hip-hop crowd at the Bloor seemed to have trouble figuring out how seriously they should take it all, and nervous titters floated up from the audience throughout. Wolf mentions in the film he’s well aware of the decisions he’s made that have cost him and the label opportunities to be more successful and profitable, but profit’s never been the primary motivator, which is ultimately the reason for Stones Throw’s continued success. Nobody worried about profit puts out a five-LP box set as a new artist’s debut release, but that’s exactly what Stones Throw did for the synth-funk jams of Dam-Funk in 2009. Four years later, Stones Throw released 7 Days of Funk, Dam-Funk’s collaboration with Snoop Dogg, and the label’s highest-profile release to date.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton is a fun, if light and scattered, overview of what inspires one man to dedicate his life to guiding others as they fulfil their own artistic ambitions. It might not be the comprehensive investigation into Stones Throw’s history that some fans want, but it remains joyful and inspiring, even as it confuses and frustrates.