Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of LA hip-hop label Stones Throw, shuffles back and forth between the Bionic recording studio in Echo Park and his dark gray Volvo parked out front, alternately mastering the remix of Wildchild’s “The Wonder Years” and examining the results on his car stereo. The studio is small, unventilated, and overflowing with vinyl and outboard equipment, and the SoCal heat is transforming the normally tedious process of mixing down a track into a sheer endurance contest. It’s as though I’ve descended into the tenth layer of hell, where b-boy imps come strapped with circuit-bending Moogs and force you to listen to the same five seconds of the same remix for eternity in order to determine whether or not to salvage an MC’s ad-libs.
Finally, in a voice that conveys equal parts sarcasm, frustration, and curiosity, PBW turns to me and says, “We’ll let you decide whether or not we keep the ad-libs.”
“I’d take them out,” I reply. I feel godlike for the next ten minutes, imagining my decision reverberating throughout the hip-hop world, sending ad-libs the way of Hula-Hoops and Eric B. And then, without consulting me, Peanut Butter Wolf abruptly reinserts them.
In a more pleasant time, three hours earlier to be exact, Stones Throw art director Jeff Jank is leading me around the label headquarters that doubles as a residence for Jank, PBW, and fellow Stones Throw music archivist Egon. The airy, two-story building looks like a frat house for obsessive pop-culture archeologists – posters of cult movies Cotton Comes to Harlem, Rhinoceros, and Hair line the walls, portable turntables from the 1960s serve as a decorative motif, and broken bongs have been laid to rest on a back porch that doubles as a smoking lounge.
As Peanut Butter Wolf deals with the first in a long series of label-related phone calls, Jank walks me through the large living room and down a narrow flight of stairs that leads to a basement studio dubbed the “Bomb Shelter.” It is literally a 1950s-style nuclear bomb shelter that Stones Throw converted into a recording studio when they moved here from San Francisco two years ago. “Almost everything on Stones Throw over the past two years was recorded here,” Jank says, although it’s hard to believe. The room is no larger than ten by ten feet, has low ceilings, and is nearly impenetrable due to an ungodly amount of clutter- stacks of promotional material, an assortment of archaic samplers, turntables, and discombobulated musical instruments. At least a half a dozen empty pot bags litter the room and a chalice with what appears to be rum rests on one of the turntables.
As with almost every other room in the house, the Bomb Shelter acts as a monument to the nearly extinct, and often romanticized recording medium of vinyl. Large bookshelves are bulging with records by everyone from hip-hop pioneers the Last Poets to late-1960s art-rock pioneers Soft Machine, to the soundtrack for the Superman TV series.
In the past few years, particularly since the arrival of Egon in 2001, Stones Throw’s recreational obsession with rare and out-of-print vinyl has become a central part of the record label’s identity. While Stone’s Throw has been responsible for a slew of critically acclaimed first-run releases, including the legendary jazz/hip-hop fusion album The Unseen by Quasimoto (aka Madlib), half of its operation is now devoted to unearthing quirky, out-of-print albums from the 1960s to the early 1980s. When Jank leads me out of the Bomb Shelter and into Peanut Butter Wolf’s room, where he is busy resorting his records, I ask PBW to explain his rather antediluvian preoccupation.
“It’s just like…” PBW begins to answer before trailing off. As with many of the questions I’ve posed to him throughout the day, he answers with a record. Walking over to his three-ton wall of LPs and pulling out a Free Design record, he says, “You should listen to this,” as if Free Design’s combination of post-psychedelic funk and early-’60s folk-rock harmonies will explain everything. And surprisingly, it does, in a way. Between the blasts of lush rhythmic funk and the high melodic vocals lie sounds that were once relevant and logical, but have subsequently been deemed a failed, lost experiment by the record-buying masses.
While Stones Throw’s preoccupation with re-releasing rare groove albums suggests a resurrection of a shared, if forgotten, past, Stones Throw’s genesis can be traced to a much more tangible and personal event: the death of MC Charizma. In the early 1990s, South Bay MC Charizma, with Peanut Butter Wolf as his producer and DJ, was being groomed as the next major star to emerge from the West Coast hip-hop scene. He wore a picture of Rodney King around his neck, rapped with a lightning-fast flow and biting wit, and was signed to Disney subsidiary, Hollywood Records. Unfortunately, the execs at Disney were more adept at handling G-rated cinema than they were a hip-hop label, and Charizma and PBW were dropped-with a full album in the can-due to “creative differences.” Disillusioned with the record industry, Charizma returned to the streets and was fatally shot less than two months later. This traumatic experience provides a context for everything that PBW and Stones Throw do – most notably, their prioritizing of art over commerce, their artist-first mentality.
When we finally leave Bionic Studios, it’s early in the evening and the vicious heat has subsided, leaving us beneath a blanket of dark shadows and cool breezes. PBW insists that he’s happy with the finished remix. “I knew there was something there,” he says to me as we pull out of the driveway. “We just had to find it.” It’s the first time today that we’re alone, and without the distraction of the concerns that come with running a label.
“Why don’t you think Stones Throw has experienced more commercial success?” I ask.
“Everybody buys into images. I don’t like talking about this, because I don’t want to be the label that’s always complaining,” he says. “But it is my biggest frustration.”
Unlike his diamond-encrusted peers, PBW seems genuinely evangelical about the music he’s producing. And if he takes his modest album sales personally, it isn’t because he’s without wealth and fame, but because he feels as though he’s let his artists down. “I think Madlib has an important place in hip-hop history, and the press isn’t recognizing that,” he says, referring to his label’s premier artist. “From Pete Rock to Q-Tip to Diamond D, they all give him his due, but that hasn’t translated [into commercial success]. I need to do a better job promoting him.” To PBW, the burden of carrying the artist’s genius to the public lies squarely on his shoulders, and if he fails, they fade back into the same cultural void as Free Design did so many years ago.
When we arrive back at the Stones Throw headquarters, PBW decides that he needs to hear the remix one more time. By this point, I’m actually singing along with the ad-libs, “Remix… the wonder years… Throw your hands up.. Oh yeah… the wonder years.”
Housemate Egon walks up to the car. He takes a 45 of the Madlib-fronted jazz group Yesterdays New Quintet out of his backpack and plops it down on my lap. The cover is a dotted poster board with retro African-American nudes on the cover. Egon exclaims, “Another classic example of the packaging costing three times more than we could possibly sell the product for.”
“Yeah,” PBW says. He smiles for the first time today and looks at Egon. “But it is beautiful.”