In an era when many music labels are foundering, stymied by the Internet free-for-all, and struggling to keep up with changing nuances of popular tastes, L.A.'s Stones Throw Records is unexpectedly thriving.
Founded in 1996 by Chris Manak (better known in the hip-hop underground as his alter-ego, DJ Peanut Butter Worn the label has slowly and steadily evolved, defying the climate of the time with not much more than good taste and common sense.
"I just release what I like," says Manak, sitting in the label's sunny Highland Park offices, "and hope other people will like it too."
Lucky for Manak, other people do. His tastes coincide with those of a substantial number of discerning audiophiles, the type of music consumers who would rather have new vinyl spinning on their turntables than another MP3 in the computer files. Over the last eight years, Stones Throw and its subsidiary Now Again (which specializes in astutely selected soul/funk reissues) have released albums featuring the kind of hip-hop you rarely hear on commercial radio – jazz inflected experimental beats as opposed to bling-bling bravado.
Artists such as Madlib, Quasimoto and Medaphoar call Stones Throw home, in large part because of an innate trust in Manak and partners Eothen "Egon" Alapatt and Jeff Jank, all of whom come from musical backgrounds. Take a look at the credits of any Stones Throw release and frequently you'll see a member of the executive board listed as producer or collaborator.
"I think there's mutual respect there," Manak says of the relationship between label and artists. "Even if we're hands-off when it comes to the creative process, they're always pretty willing to hear our suggestions."
Reared in Northern California, Manak began his musical career at 13 as a DJ and turntablist. By his early 20s, he was well on his way to a major label release with his collaborator, the late hip-hop artist Charizma.
"I started collecting records when I was a little kid, a lot of soul and funk," he says. "And then I got some mismatched turntables and that was it. But after Charizma passed, I stopped for a while and gathered up what I had learned from being signed and working with various labels. I decided to take all that experience and throw it into creating my own label, just go ahead and do it myself."
Stones Throw's first release, in 1996, was, appropriately enough, a posthumous Charizma single produced by Peanut Butter Wolf. As a programmer for a college radio station in Tennessee, Alapatt got hold of Stones Throw's debut and was instantly impressed. "It took a while to figure out that Chris was actually Peanut Butter Wolf," Alapatt says.
Soon after graduating, Alapatt relocated to L.A. to join Stones Throw as label manager. The three, including art director Jank, have carved out a place for themselves in an industry with little love for the underdog outsider. "We've tried to be fair to the artists and keep it simple in terms of distribution and promotion," Alapatt says. "Basically, we just try to do the best thing for the people on the label and hope that it works."
Stones Throw's bare-bones business model, which relies on modest orders of its mostly vinyl pressings and on the Internet and word of mouth for the bulk of promotion, has allowed the label to release a staggering number of titles in a brief period. In 2003 alone, Stones Throw put out nearly 40 records and CDs, among them the highly acclaimed Dudley Perkins album and Stark Reality's "Now," a Now-Again lost gem reissued to roar of critical accolades. Its biggest success, the Quasimoto album "The Unseen," has sold more than 60,000 copies.
And the new year finds them poised for more. In addition to upcoming releases from Madlib and Charizma, Now-Again (which reissues everything from old funk 45s to '80s old-school rhymes) has scored big with its newest discovery – L.A. Carnival, an obscure '70s soul band from Omaha.
"We had reissued a single from them called 'Blind Man,'" Alapatt explains. "It had been remixed by Cut Chemist and Medaphoar and everyone loved it. When we found out that there was a whole album that had never been released we couldn't believe it. And when we heard it, we were absolutely blown away. I mean it's really incredible stuff."
In many ways, the L.A. Carnival reissue perfectly reflects the Stones Throw/Now-Again aesthetic – enthralling musical experimentation, executed with raw emotion and absolute commitment, a sound as fresh today as it was in Omaha in 1969.
"One of the things we're trying to do is to bring all this great music from the past into the present," Alapatt says. "That's why the Cut Chemist collaboration worked so perfectly. You have everything coming full circle."
"With the new Charizma release," Jank says, "it feels like the label itself has come full circle. He was a lot of the reason the label started in the first place, so it feels right to be releasing that album."
In the end Stones Throw's success has come without much concern for massive promotional campaigns or executive strategies for moving more units. Instead Manak and his crew are simply releasing music for true music lovers.
"We just sort of take it one step at a time," Alapatt says. "If we like something, whether it's a kid in Canada making music in his bedroom or an old funk band from Nebraska – we try the best we can to get it out there."