Rebel Central. The fantastical real-life story of L.A.’s Stones Throw Records, a hip-hop legend in the making

Rebel Central. The fantastical real-life story of L.A.’s Stones Throw Records, a hip-hop legend in the making

  • John Payne
  • LA Weekly
  • December 09, 2006

There’s a grit in the air: Can you feel it? These are weird times, grim times, happy times, sexy times. Good god, these are the funkiest of times. In times such as these, music becomes more important, not less. People need sustenance — and many are finding it through an independent record label based out of an old converted industrial space in Highland Park. Down there on Figueroa Street, bathed in the ginger light of late autumn, you will find the elegantly funky headquarters of Stones Throw Records: L.A.’s pre-eminent indie hip-hop label, an aesthetic beacon of national stature, and a model for anyone who might dream of handcrafting a record label — and making it good.

Here you will also find a low-key, levelheaded and stylishly dressed young man named Chris Manak — the one they call Peanut Butter Wolf. He’s the fellow who started the whole thing 10 years ago, after spending years fantasizing about it as a kid in San Jose. “This was always kind of a dream in the back of my mind,” he explains. “Like in high school when they’d have you write What do you want to do when you grow up? That’s what I put. I wanted to start a record label.”

He’s done that, clearly, but he — and his partners at the label — have done so much more. Over its 10 years, Stones Throw has managed to distill and bottle a mysteriously diverse yet distinctive aesthetic, pickling the roots of great black American music — hip-hop, soul, R&B and jazz sounds — dicing it all up, then serving it back fresh, fun and freaky. This aesthetic is a Zen-like conflation of total existential foolishness with the most sincere of spiritual sonority and rhythmic poetry. And it’s an aesthetic open-armed enough to accommodate divergently pioneering raps, songs and avant mixes by Madvillain, the late J. Dilla, MF Doom, Yesterday’s New Quintet, J. Rocc, Percee P, Aloe Blacc and Georgia Anne Muldrow — and even the demented free expression of San Diego chronic outsider Gary Wilson, or the electronically mangled ’70s kool bop of the Stark Reality.

Stones Throw is like a state of mind, a fantastical one — albeit one rooted in the coarse realities of urban life, and the fetid stank of the record industry. Don’t forget: The Stones Throw aesthetic is emerging at a time when so many superficially similar major-label hip-hop-type endeavors drop like flies into the barrel-scraping depths of commercially calculated crappery. Better still, the label is breaking new creative dirt and coming out ahead $$-wise by doing only what it feels like doing — such as releasing recent big-selling items like J. Dilla’s Donuts and Madlib’s Beat Konducta. The Adult Swim cable network has jumped onboard, helping to release the label’s new Chrome Children CD/DVD compilation and co-presenting Stones Throw’s recent 10th-anniversary national tour. And get this: Nike has commissioned a limited-edition series of Stones Throw–themed sneakers. WTF?

Label general manager Eothen Alapatt tries, with charming awkwardness, to explain the unknowable chemistry behind the label’s momentum: “It’s not like we’re trying to eschew commercial music just because we’re indie. It’s just that we feel that there’s something that’s on the fringe of the commercial that’s ultimately timeless, and if you find a way to put that out now, then we’re putting out music that 20 years from now will be like the music that we’re championing personally, all of us, from 20 years ago.”

The kids are listening, in short, because the Stones Throw crew retains its standing as arbiters of taste by remaining fanatics for good music. Says Wolf, “It’s funny how many requests I get from people who say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do A&R for your label,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m the A&R.’ ”

Only he’s not a bastard, nor a formerly starry-eyed cynic. He’s more an artist than any normal A&R guy. Take the case of his new roster addition Aloe Blacc, whose album Shine Through was recently released to critical laud. When Wolf invited Blacc to assemble his best tracks for an album, he essentially told Blacc not to deliver the goods till he felt it was ready to be heard. That’s an attitude the songwriter/producer savors, and sees as the real identifying characteristic of Stones Throw. “I’m glad that I got to put this album out on Stones Throw — I can’t think of any label that has the kind of legacy and attention that Stones Throw has that would also give you that kind of freedom,” says Blacc. “If I had signed with a major label, they’d want me to sing one type of music, and try to market a specific genre. But my goal is different: I want to create music that is diverse, and sits with people almost as if they’re putting their media player on shuffle.”

Doing only what you feel like doing is a very fine thing, an admirable thing, a righteous thing. Getting people to listen to it is another story. Getting paid for it is another story still. Hundreds of record labels have specialized in the various strands of historical black American music, and a thousand more have dished out hip-hop mash-ups that pay ostensible tribute to that black American legacy. But when a label does what this label does, and then that label ends up selling a lot of records — well, what do you call this aesthetic? What’s its true source? Why does it work on us, and what does it mean that it does? And what’s the capital of South Dakota?

We know this: The story of Stones Throw is kind of like one of those romance novels with the pastel castles on the covers that you gaze at in line at Ralphs. It spans generations, and ends up in Hollywood. And its origins are considerably earlier than 1996.

“I started in 1979, ’cause that’s when I really knew that that was my life,” Wolf, 37, explains, adjusting the rake on his brown felt porkpie. “In the mid-’80s, I started making music with rappers, with a drum machine that someone lent me, and a 4-track. By about 1990, I kind of had the confidence to take it to the stage.”

Wolf was a nice, middle-class, disco- and electro-loving white boy with an untraumatic family life in deepest San Jose, which is “not really the epicenter of music,” he admits. “I really didn’t know anybody who’d put a record out or anything like that — I guess the Doobie Brothers were originally from San Jose. But I didn’t know that at the time.”

Could be he was better off not knowing. No matter; in 1990, he put out a record by a group called Lyric Prophecy, pressed 500 copies, got it to the radio stations and into the local record store. “And that’s really all we knew,” he says. “We didn’t know about distribution or how to get it outside our area.”

But from that start, pretty much every rapper in San Jose came out of the woodwork to collaborate with Peanut Butter Wolf, including a kid aptly named MC Charizma. Theirs was to be a short but beautiful — and pivotal — friendship.

“Charizma lived down the street from me,” Wolf recalls fondly. “A friend of mine brought him over to my house. He was 16 at the time, and I noticed in him — the lyrics were there and everything else, but there was something besides that. I think it was more the attitude.

“He always had that attitude like he was number one, he was gonna show everybody.

“Working with him, I really started getting more of that confidence. I was really shy in high school; I was introverted and I didn’t have that many friends, whereas he was kind of the opposite. So we signed with a major label, and then Charizma started getting into trouble and stuff, and eventually he was killed.”

After Charizma passed, Wolf didn’t exactly know what he was going to do. So he started producing tracks for a bunch of other labels, and began scheming about one day having his own.

Back then, in the early ’90s, hip-hop was primarily an indie-label thing. “You had groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr, they were on majors,” says Wolf, “or the stuff that Def Jam built, it wasn’t indie, but it was still like an alternative major.” But by the mid-’90s, as the majors came creeping into the hip-hop game, something shifted. “I noticed in the mid-’90s, the majors were no longer putting out the kind of hip-hop that I liked. Everything kind of changed,” he says. “I think after [album sales-tracking system] SoundScan came out, everything became more calculated. It became a numbers game.”

The landscape wasn’t all bleak, though: “Wu Tang Clan came out, and they were an exception to the rule,” Wolf recalls. “They were on a major and they went platinum, and they made music for music’s sake — they weren’t really making catchy singles or anything like that. You know, they were raw beats, raw lyrics. That’s a group that I always look up to, to this day.”

And so, in pursuit of his dream of a life surrounded by music, in the midst of a wildly morphing environment, Peanut Butter Wolf just plain did it all.

“When I was in college, I deejayed for the radio station, did hip-hop specialty programs, started writing the hip-hop columns for various magazines and worked at a record store. I did all these things ’cause I wanted to make money doing music; I didn’t want to make money doing something else.”

Around 1996, Wolf was working in San Mateo, at a house-music record distributor, and persuaded his boss to let him establish a hip-hop division. There was a huge unmet demand for underground hip-hop at the time: “This record by Dr. Octagon [rapper Kool Keith and DJ-producer Dan the Automator] had just come out, and they had no distribution; I was selling them to Europe and all over the world,” Wolf says. “And like [Bay Area DJ] Q-Bert, all of his records — all of these people had talent, but they didn’t have an outlet, and they suddenly had one.”

This experience complemented the broad palette of skills he’d developed over the years. “It really worked, it really helped me when I decided to start my own label, ’cause I kind of felt like I could see where everyone else was coming from. I understood what it was like to be an artist or a radio DJ or something.”

That year, Wolf decided that he was ready to start his own label. He called it Stones Throw Records, and initially only intended to put out the late Charizma’s record. It was basically just him, doing the label at night, working at the distributor during the day.

Wolf struggled mightily to get Stones Throw off the ground. His stuff was selling, but in limited numbers, and it was such a hustle getting the word out. More importantly, the quietly intense Wolf — one often notices a faraway look in his eyes — realized he needed a plan, and some help. He also figured he needed to do a geographic, so he took his business to the show-biz capital of the world — Los Angeles.

Jeff Jank, an unassuming indie-punk-type dude, was working in a library when he got the call from Wolf. The two had been mates since high school, and they’d been in bands together, but it was the self-taught Jank’s visual gifts that had impressed Wolf. The idea Wolf presented to him was simple: Distinctively high-quality, visually striking album covers would further define Stones Throw’s aesthetic in the public eye. Janks came through, creating a stunning series of covers tailored for the vibe of each artist on Wolf’s growing roster — often ingeniously referencing the vintage jazz, soul, funk and psychedelic album art that both he and Wolf had grown up with.

Around the same time, Wolf brought on a young recent college grad named Eothen (pronounced Ethan) Alapatt, who had run the radio station at his school, Vanderbilt University, and had asked Wolf to DJ shows a couple of times. “While I was out there, I just saw how determined Eothen was about everything,” Wolf says. “He had a lot of that fire that I think the label needed. I just said, ‘Create your own job.’ And he basically did it.”

The super-upbeat Alapatt is a very tall, darkly handsome fella whose Indian father and East European–American mother were a couple of ex-hippies with musical ambitions of their own. Growing up in the New Haven, Connecticut, area, Alapatt came to obsess on old-school hip-hop and ’60s-’70s funk and soul, and when Stones Throw phoned, he brought that fixation to the mix. “Being very close to New York, that’s really how I fell in love with hip-hop,” he says. “I would often go there and buy records, and found a lot of record stores that were selling vinyl to DJs. There was quite a deep network of these stores in the early ’90s, before the Internet, that were bringing up these really cool independent records.”

Alapatt could see how different Stones Throw was from its peers. “I thought the consistency was something that other hip-hop labels seriously lacked — I mean, they would put out one or two great records, and then they would put out a bunch of weak records. And this was at a time [mid-’90s] when an independent hip-hop record of relatively mediocre worth could ship 15,000 copies. Wolf was a guy who would wait and put out a record only when he had one that really struck him as good enough.”

Wolf and Alapatt — who now acts as the label’s general manager — hatched one of Stones Throw’s biggest early successes on the road trip out West to the label’s new headquarters in L.A.

“I was working on a reissue package for a distributor that was based in Boston,” Alapatt explains, “and at that time I knew very little about the business. I told Wolf, ‘Look, you need to meet these funk musicians who I’ve been tracking down, and I need to broker these reissues for this box set of 45s I’m gonna put together.’ And he said, ‘Well, let me take a look at that contract.’ And he was like, ‘Man, this is a really bad contract. I wouldn’t suggest giving this to anybody who you respect. Why don’t we do something?’ ”

That project became the Funky 16 Corners compilation, on the label’s Now Again imprint, which would be the best-selling deep-funk compilation of its time. “And these guys, the musicians whose music we reissued,” says Alapatt, “it paid over and over again.”

Peanut Butter Wolf, was first inspired by deceased friend Charizma: ''I was really introverted in high school, and he was number one. He was gonna show everybody.''

The thing is, and as bullshit as it might sound, a concern with integrity was the glue that bound the label’s Big Four creative team from the start: Wolf, Alapatt, Jank and their star artist, Madlib. The integrity touched on both the quality of the music they’d put out and the way in which their artists would be treated. In fact, you get a real sense from all of these guys that they’d rather work at Sav-on if they couldn’t do the right thing by both the music and the people who created it.

Time passes, and Stones Throw struggles, scores, slumps, then rises again. Numerous solo albums by Madlib, the label’s sonic Einstein (or “the Sun Ra of hip-hop,” as labelmate Georgia Anne Muldrow calls him), are released — as well as many well-respected funk compilations such as Alapatt’s L.A. Carnival project. All of these boost Stones Throw’s critical cred if not quite its bank. Then — not out of nowhere — in 2004 the label released the brain-wiping 2004 Madvillain album, Madvillainy (featuring Madlib in collaboration with blunted former KMD rapper MF Doom). At last, something like success on a wider scale was in sight.

“Madvillain really turned things around for us,” says Alapatt. “All of a sudden, things just changed drastically; the phone started ringing when it hadn’t been ringing; we were getting contacts and opportunities that we’d never been given before.”

Meanwhile, Peanut Butter Wolf had renewed his friendship with revered Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla, who’d famously crafted tracks with A Tribe Called Quest, Common, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and his own excellent Slum Village. J Dilla’s eventual move to L.A. resulted in his pairing with Madlib as Jaylib, and their 2003 Stones Throw release, Champion Sound, turned critical heads with a lotta fabulous beats, Bollywood-drenched samples and some pretty dubious vocalizing. (The two soundworld kingpins had decided to rap on a lark.) Back in instrumentalist mode, J Dilla followed up his Jaylib foray with the creation of his brutely gorgeous 2006 solo Donuts album, which has become a relatively massive seller for the label. (Dilla lost his battle with lupus in February 2006.)

Stones Throw rolls on, in fact seems now to be flying quite high. Through its personalized, creative-control-guaranteed distribution deal with Caroline (a division of EMI/Capitol), it has managed to get its product out worldwide. Of course, its catalog has become a favored source of hip cachet for high-profile corporate and film and television creative consultants.

The impetus behind all of this freakily miscellaneous outpouring, meanwhile, remains the core belief in simply following one’s intuitions. Paying heed to the history of African-American music while reinventing what hip-hop may mean to us in the future. But for all that, this music rarely strikes one as self-consciously avant-garde; the point, if there is one, seems far simpler: Retro or futuro, we’ll do it any effin’ way we em-effin’ feel.

On that score, young Aloe Blacc perfectly represents the accessibly modern jumble of styles that define the Stones Throw way of life. His new Shine Through is a whole different kettle o’ fish again, with the singer–multi-instrumentalist offering a soulful, lyrical approach to both party-down and high-conscious raps — and singing. It’s all set to music whose source of heat is in essence hip-hop, but which has mutated with odd strains of jazz and funk and rock psychedelia, and most notably salsa-fied realms that tip a hat to his Panamanian heritage.

But let’s give a woman the last word on the subject of the ever-elusive key to the Stones Throw sound. One of the label’s recent signings is Georgia Anne Muldrow, formerly with L.A./N.Y. production team Sa Ra Creative Partners and Detroit’s Platinum Pied Pipers. She’s a Nina Simone–ish poet–rapper–singer– keyboardist–recording engineer of extraordinarily fresh and unusual gifts who shakes the foundations of poetic song/classic soul/R&B convention on her exhilarating Olesi: Fragments of an Earth disc.

“I love doing it all,” Muldrow says, laughing. “I like to write. I’ve always been surrounded by beautiful poets in my life. But I don’t know what kind of stuff I do; I just do like what has to come out of me, you know? I don’t necessarily disagree with nobody else’s views, everybody who’s doing hip-hop, that’s great; everybody who’s doing jazz, that’s great. I’d just rather have something relevant to some kind of revolution of my own.” Sounds like an attitude she shares with her labelmates at Stones Throw.

“Everybody’s trying to find the perfect groove,” says Muldrow. “Everybody’s got to find that perfect beat, with their big mouth to the ’phone. I think the message is everybody’s a rebel, you know, and I love that. Stones Throw is Rebel Central. And there’s beautiful things that come with that.”