My Label Weighs A Ton

My Label Weighs A Ton

  • Dave O'Malley
  • Undercover
  • January 09, 2005

As well as being renowned for his own (mighty sharp) beats, Peanut Butter Wolf Is the overseer and executive producer of every record on the Stones Throw label, and as the label's dedicated following grows, the DJ once known as Chris Cut may well be on his way to becoming one of the most important men in the hiphop world (though of course you know that's not the same as being the richest). Home to Madlib among others, Stones Throw is celebrating its 101st release with a mix of tracks from the Stones Throw collection you wish you owned: back catalogue, future catalogue and not-quite-catalogue.

One of the first facts that an avid PBW fan learns is that his rather unconventional name comes from a boogie monster that haunted an ex-girlfriend's little brother. His government handle, Chris Manak, is slightly odd too. "It's a made-up Americanized Polish name," he explains. "Prince Paul - was touring with him a few years back, somehow my real name came up and he goes, 'That's a dope name man, you should make that your DJ name! Forget about Peanut Butter Wolf, I'm talking about DJ Chris Manak!"

The long-awaited Big Shots LP by Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf was recorded between 1991 and Charizma's tragic death in 1993, but was only released last year. In the meantime there have only been a handful of releases, most of them impossible to get. Why the long wait?

"I wanted to release it [at the time] but I didn't have a label," says Wolf. "We'd just gotten out of our deal with Hollywood Records right before he passed away, maybe like a couple of months before... Ironically, no one wanted to touch a record from an MC who'd passed away."

But once Stones Throw was launched with the classic 12" My World Premiere, Wolf found that 'a lot of it [the Charizma material] sounded dated, like that three-four year mark afterwards, when you don't really want to hear that type of music again. I just didn't want people to think it was stuff that was new, like I'm behind the times. So around that time I told myself: at the ten-year mark I'm going to release it, if I still have a label. Then 2003 roiled around, and I was like: do I really want to do this still? I had a lot of doubts. I was just afraid of negative critique I guess."

It's a paranoia PBW struggles to overcome (he worries that people thought his 12" Tale Of Five Cities didn't have enough cities), and it shows in the work with Charizma: as he notes, "We just kept remixing our own stuff rather than making new songs." Rather than submit the original version of My World Premiere for the Bomb Hip Hop Compilation (their first release), they re-worked it into the ATCQ-inspired Just Like A Test. "That was one thing I can look back at and say that was kind of a waste of time, to keep trying to make it sound better, because half of the time it kinda sounded worse.

"Rather than Big Shots, 1994 saw the somewhat reluctant release of Wolf's solo debut, Peanut Butter Breaks. "That was more or less a producer-album that I hid under the name of a break beat," he says, "Just because there were no instrumental hiphop records then that were selling that way, I felt that if I labeled it a break beat then people would buy it and listen to it. And sample it." Which indeed they have: as well as providing drums for Garbage's 1996 chart raider #1 Crush, it has been used by Cypress Hill and Incubus, among others.

Despite its success, PBW says he's not really interested in doing another breaks record. "I never considered myself as an artist; I considered myself as a producer, and a sideman to Charizma - producer-based albums didn't really seem that interesting to me." Essentially, it seems that Chris just doesn't like the limelight to himself. "I always made it a point to not be on record covers," he says, though look closely at the cover of My Vinyl Weighs A Ton and you can just make out a thin young man with wistful eyes. The record was originally released on the Copasetik label, partly because PBW didn't want to have to promote his own material. So why start up Stones Throw?

"Well, every label that I released stuff with, they all gave me a shot. I'm thankful to anyone that believed in me. But at the same time I felt like I was doing a lot of the promoting on my own; as the artist, I was the one mailing the record out to the DJs, I was the one doing the research, and from those experiences I felt that I could do a good job of doing a label myself. I also felt that there were a lot of artists that needed a label. I just kinda kept all my contacts.

"Since 1996, the label has gone from dusty West coast strength to transatlantic genre-defining strength. By far its greatest asset is the unstoppable soul machine of Madlib. Does it surprise Peanut Butter Wolf that his protégé has blown up so huge? "No," he says. "I always aim higher than where I'm at, I like to throw myself with people more successful than me. I expected Madlib to be at a lot higher level than he is right now, to be honest. I think he should be where Kanye West is, or Lil John, in terms of popularity."While Madlib's undeniable freshness is not untouchable, and others have produced material that's as dope, the man certainly cannot be matched for sheer volume of quality beats: PBW is happy to confirm the rumour that he remixed the entire Lootpack album.

As for The Unseen, the album from his alter ego Quasimoto... "I pressured him for years. Not directly, but like, 'What's up, when you going to finish the Quasimoto?' I didn't say, 'This is your deadline,' or anything like that, 'cos as an artist myself I know albums don't get done well that way. But then one day he goes, 'Oh, I finished the Quasimoto album.' Finished it? I didn't even know you'd started it. When did you do it? 'Last week.' Egon had given him some beats that previous week, and he used those beats on it too. It was definitely done within the course of a week. And he's done more Quas songs since then. It's crazy, the way he works."

So the beats are hot, and it only takes a week to put an album's worth together. Why not make like his Madvillain co-conspirator MF Doom and put out regular instrumental albums? "We've toyed around with the idea," says PBW. Madlib has made no fewer than six 50-track beat tapes, and there's always a market for instrumental beats. "But most of his beats end up getting used... if you listen to the Madlib beats 1-50 you'll hear half of the Jaylib album, half of the Madvillain album, half of the Dudley Perkins album, and a couple of tracks from Wildchild... I felt that if we were doing that then it would prevent him from getting snatched up by artists."

Which is something he's very good at. "Even though we've put out probably ten Madlib albums, we haven't put out a follow up to any of his different side projects," Wolf notes.

It's all been under different names, there was never a Lootpack 2, Quas 2. We just like the challenge of trying to do something different every time. But the Quas is probably like the first follow up album that's anticipated, of anything we've done... I think Quas is just all-encompassing though, it's just so many different things. That's what keeps me interested in it."And it's PBW'S interest that determines, ultimately, what gets a release on Stones Throw and what doesn't. Hence, for example, the label's 7" EP by The Cliftons: check it out for some thrashing punk action, if you can find it (or, indeed, bear to listen to it once you have).

"[Madlib] and I, from the early '80s when we were young, and Dudley [Perkins] especially, we have a very similar taste in music," he remembers. "That's kinda how the Dudley album came about, we were just in the car one day, going back and forth, singing old songs, and he told me that he was a singer, and he sang the song Flowers acapella in the car, showed it to us, and everyone in the car got a kick out of it." Dudley got Madlib to make a beat for the song, and Chris held on to the track for 2-3 years before finally releasing it as a 7". "I think Dudley is a better singer than, y'know, anybody," Wolf reckons. "I like that style of singing. I don't like to hear things all perfect... I really wanted people to hear it, but I didn't think people would understand it, and the same thing with Quas."

It's true that crackly or squeaky-voiced space rap may not be to everyone's tastes, but surely the heads will have been most surprised by Mary Had Brown Hair, the first release in 25 years by eccentric sub-pop legend Gary Wilson. Perhaps the man who signed him could explain, for those who don't get it?

"Gary is just someone I fell in love with musically," says Wolf. "His stuff to me is the epitome of what's important in music... I don't look at it as rock at all, he comes from a free-jazz background. I think it has more in common with Sun Ra. The new album is very poppy also, but in the interludes you can tell that he's really out there... I'm thinking of starting some other labels with different names, because Stones Throw has such a strong direction one way that when we try to do different things, it does upset people. The purists. A part of me is like, 'Fuck them, I like it.' But it's almost a disservice to Gary Wilson to be on Stones Throw, because he doesn't get a fair shake with who his audience might be. DJ Rels is the same."

More tentacles to the bay area hiphop monster! In the meantime, keep an eye out in the more immediate future for Madlib's disco project Spectrum 77, the follow-up Quasimoto LP, and some new Madvillain remixes by Canadian mystery man Koushik.

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