John Carroll Kirby
Mild High Club
Peanut Butter Wolf
“I started buying records weekly. I could only afford the 45 singles, but that was enough for me.”
I first discovered popular music as a young kid in the mid 1970’s. The first song I remember making an impact on me (besides Schoolhouse Rock) was “What’s Goin On” by Marvin Gaye. The TV station I used to watch would play it saturday morning right before cartoons started at 6AM. I remember liking the music, the vocals, and even the message it brought. (Kids understand more than we give them credit for). In the late 1970’s I started buying records. My second grade teacher would play us disco songs on Fridays. I was maybe 6 years old and would get a record for my birthday or Christmas. Some favorites were “Saturday Night Fever,” “Boogie Nights,” and “YMCA.”
1979 was my “coming of age” year. I was nine years old and started getting allowance. What that translates to is: I started buying records weekly. I could only afford the 45 singles, but that was enough for me. Holidays would get me a 12″ (Double Dutch Bus) or an album (Cameo). I would also save my lunch money and eat when I came home so I could buy more records.
Coincidentally, 1979 was also the year that hip hop records started to spring up at the neighborhood record store. It was mostly songs on an independent label called Sugarhill Records that made it to the West Coast (They had their promotion, as well as their distribution together.) I soon noticed that whatever I bought from that label would be consistant to the other songs from the label.
In 1982, I bought “Planet Rock” on Tommy Boy Records. I started to realise that they always had it together. With songs like “Pack Jam”, “Play That Beat,” “Space Is the Place,” and “Play At Your Own Risk,” you always got your five dollar’s worth.
Then I noticed a pattern. Sunnyview Records was cool because of “Jam On Revenge” and “ET Boogie”. Beauty & the Beat Records had “Triple Threat,” “King Kut,” and “What the Party Needs.” Vintertainment had “2,3 Break,” “Hip Hop On Wax,” “Girls,” and “Pee Wee’s Dance.” Def Jam had “It’s Yours,” “I Need A Beat,” “Drum Machine,” “Beat The Clock,” and “Party’s Gettin Rough” (They couldn’t go wrong.) At this time, I was a bedroom DJ, making mixtapes for my friends at school. I also borrowed a drum machine and started recording demos with a group called The Slobs.
For me, 1986 was the year that I first considered starting a label when I grew up. I wrote a high school essay about it that year (Just recently found it). I even went so far as to decide against college, since I figured it wouldn’t help my music career anyway. (I later changed my mind and got my degree in Business Marketing).
“We were local heros. Who would ever think a group from San Jose, California could put out their own hip hop record?”
Four years later while still in college, I put out my first record (“You Can’t Swing This” by Lyrical Prophecy) with a label called PMR Records. It was run by Kim Collett, who DJed with me at the local radio station (KSJS). I got my dad to pitch in $500 to get the thing released, making me a part owner in the label. We only pressed 500 copies, never mastered it, cut and pasted the artwork, and didn’t even know you could sell them to a distributor. We gave some copies away to our friends and family and local radio stations and sold some to the local stores. After all that, we still had about half of the records leftover. But our goal was to make a record and we had reached it! We were local heros. Who would ever think a group from San Jose, California could put out their own hip hop record?
Later, that year I met Charles Hicks AKA Charizma. We hit it off right away and before you knew it, we were a group. Charizma was a lot like myself in that he was weird, liked to take chances musically, and had a good knowledge and appreciation of hip hop (even though he was only 16 when we met.) After a while, Charizma and I decided that we wanted to sign with a label that had already proven themselves. Wild Pitch and Tuff City came to mind, since we liked their artist rosters, but we were thinking bigger like an Elektra (Leaders, KMD, Del, Brand Nubians) or Jive (Tribe, BDP, Too Short). The Source had just come out as did Yo MTV Raps and hip hop promotion was becoming the fifth element of hip hop.
After shopping our tape to a few labels, we decided to “settle” for Hollywood Basics (Walt Disney). We were never too excited about the deal (we were cocky back then), although we were fans of Organized Konfusion. We figured that at least we would have artistic freedom with them, since they were the most interested in us. Besides, they were promising us soundtracks, a movie role in “Sister Act 2” alongside a then unknown Lauryn Hill, and a big wad of cash.
As far as the artistic freedom, the exact opposite was the case. Since they hadn’t proven themselves as a hip hop label, they wouldn’t give any of the groups freedom. Being owned by Walt Disney made it even a harder situation, because the people in charge had no experience with hip hop. Charizma and I eventually got out of the deal right before they ended their hip hop division. Two months later, in December 1993, Charizma passed away.
“As executive producer, I don’t put out what I think the people will like, I put out what I like.”
Of course, this put my life into perspective. At first I quit music completely. Eventually, making beats and DJing was a way for me to deal with the pain of losing both my music partner and my best friend. I also decided that our music had to be heard. I made some demos and gave them out to a few industry people I knew, but nobody was serious about the project.
While I was giving out tapes, Dave Paul from the Bomb Hip Hop Magazine put out an album featuring the best hip hop artists of the Bay Area. It featured (among others) Blackalicious, Mystic Journeymen, Qbert, and of course Charizma.
The next two years brought several compilations (Return of the DJ), instrumental beats (Peanut Butter Breaks), and production work (Kool Keith) for me. I even released an EP called “Step On Our Egos” for Southpaw Records. Still in the back of my mind, I wanted to release the Charizma songs. Making the dream a reality
After recording for these other labels, I realised that I was having as much fun promoting the records as recording the songs. I also became confident that I could do a good job running a label, and more importantly convinced a distibutor (Nu Gruv Alliance) that I could do it. 1996 saw the release of “My World Premier” by Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf on Stones Throw Records. The name “Stones Throw” came from a saying my mom used that Charizma and I teased her about (We were big on mom jokes). It had been three years since he died, but people still thought it was a new song. A year later, I was at KRS One’s “Step Into A World” video shoot when Kenny Parker played it. KRS was nodding his head and asked Kenny who it was and how he could get a copy. At that point, I realised another goal had been met – approval from someone who influenced us.
So, why am I telling you this personal story? Because Stones Throw Records is a very personal label for me. I put out what I personally like and save the rest for the other labels out there. As executive producer, I don’t put out what I think the people will like, I put out what I like. This has worked for me so far, and if it stops working for me, it will be the end of Stones Throw as a label. I’ve passed on some artists that I knew would sell a lot of units because I didn’t like the songs. That sounds like a bad business move and from a purely financial standpoint it is one, but profit isn’t the only thing that drives my label. If money were my sole motivation, I’d be rich by now because so far I’ve attained everything I’ve put my mind to. I may be wealthy someday, but only as an indirect consequence of putting out what I believe to be good music.
As an artist myself, I have the artists help decide how much money to spend on promoting their records. We all split the profits after expenses, so it makes sense that we collectively decide how much to spend on promotion. This includes video budget, advertising, radio promotion, video promotion, street teams, snippet tapes, stickers, flats, posters, 8×10 glossies, etc.
As a DJ myself, I have always been commited to releasing vinyl LPs as well as breakbeat records. I put out instrumental versions of the albums because (1) the artists should be able to rock a show from vinyl, and (2) the DJs ask for it.
Since my record buying “career” started as a kid buying 45’s, I’m now releasing 45’s and have found several artists commited to joining the cause of preserving this endangered species, even if it means selling only 1,000 units per title. Does the reality live up to the dream?
So is it stressful running a record label? Of course.
First of all, there are never enough hours in the day to answer every letter, phone call, and email. People get straight up offended when you don’t respond. In the morning you brainstorm about work while taking a shower and at night your dreams revolve around deadlines that you missed. Collecting money from people and for people also takes a toll after a while. Monthly phone bills the size of a house payment can bring on an ulcer. Also, you want to help people starting out because you were there once, but when people get aggresive and demanding, you have to draw the line. Others are upset with your perceived success and want to keep you down so they talk about you and of course it gets back to you.
Is it challenging? Of course.
Maintaining relationships is the biggest challenge because it is so time intensive. You have relationships with your artists, distributors, radio stations, video stations, stores, writers, promoters, publicists, designers, pressing plants, and of course the people buying your records. Sometimes you piss people off by giving your opinion and at other times people piss you off by giving you theirs. The challenge is to move ahead with that person, because the industry is small and incestual and you’ll probably have to work together in the future.
Is it fulfilling? Of course.
- Peanut Butter Wolf