If you asked Stones Throw Records owner, Peanut Butter Wolf, if he'd ever thought his record label would be as successful as it is, he would tell you “it’s not as successful as I want it to be.”
But if success is the ultimate goal of founding a record label, Wolf had been taking his team on a winding road towards it. “There’s probably like three or four handfuls of people that when I put out a record, I want them to like it, and beyond them I don’t care,” Wolf explained in “Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton,” a new documentary chronicling the history of the label, which is touring theaters through the country, and is due out on DVD next month.
Eclecticism and individuality, the film details, has always been valued above mainstream appeal. In its early days, Stones Throw became synonymous with a specific musically focused, and experimental brand of hip-hop after launching in 1996. The classic Madlib, MF Doom, and J Dilla records that formed much of the label’s early discography helped set themselves up as an anti-establishment force within the hip-hop scene, earning praise across the regional divides that defined the scene of the mid-90's and early 2000s'.
Over time, however, and especially in recent years, the label has embraced all kinds of musical acts, ranging from the now-international superstar Aloe Blacc to avant garde acts like Gary Wilson, and Wolf’s alter ego Folerio. “It's been a struggle to have artists that do so many different styles of music under one umbrella called Stones Throw,” Wolf admits to Fusion, noting that the widespread selection of music released by the label has made it hard to maintain a fan base the last ten years. Still, he sees taking risks as one of the main reasons that his label has been around for so long. “If mainstream labels gambled, then I'd be out of a job,” he says.
“It feels amazing when you can walk into these spaces and live in that creative zone where people keep it to that level of purity,” says Kanye West, praising the musical integrity that Wolf has never abandoned, despite the many tragedies and triumphs, and booms and busts that he has been through since his musical career started.
“A lot of people, even hardcore fans, might not know what an impact Charizma's passing had on the creation of the label in the first place,” Jeff Burnside, the director of the film, says of the murder of Wolf's friend and musical partner that ultimately ushered the founding of the label. After his passing, Wolf was determined to let the world hear what they had created together, but no one would put it out. It was a few years later that he would start Stones Throw.
That self determination to make people "listen to my shit," according to Wolf has carried on his drive and determination since. "Most of the music industry is about cults of personality, and selling things to people, way before the music," continues Burnside. "But [Stones Throw] has always been the complete opposite of that."
If there’s one thing that the film illustrates, it is that contrary to what mainstream labels and A&Rs would lead potential acts to believe, there are still creative places for artists to thrive in the industry, if for no reason other than creativity itself. Snoop Dogg’s collaborative album with Dam Funk titled “7 Days of Funk,” released late last year with the label, is proof that the ideal is not only for a niche, art-snob crowd. “[Snoop] is one of those artists who has a good management team who lets him do creative things that on paper may sound like a bad business decision,” says Wolf of the project. “But I'm sure they realize that some things are done for a higher purpose than just how much money it is gonna yield.”
As for the questions of success, Wolf and others at the label tend to take a view of the situation that goes far beyond monthly or annual sales. “Wolf believes in something different,” says Madlib in the film. “It might not sell as much, or it may one day, but you gotta take that chance.”
Stones Throw is banking on producing a legacy that will live well beyond the lives of its owners and fans. A hundred years down the road, those obscure-sounding records they are putting out might be some of the most sought after records around. But, that doesn’t mean that the praise featured in the film is always easy to come by.
“I saw a t-shirt that said ‘Stones Throw fell off’ the other day,” Wolf tells Fusion. “And it made me feel like I am doing my job and not doing my job all in one.”
Check out more of Stones Throw’s music below. Some of the content is explicit.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.