The LA label Stones Throw has held a high watermark in the quality of its musical output in the world of hip-hop, and in its latter years, beyond the fringes of rap, into punk, electronica, outsider music and jazz. It has been consistently referenced into the fabric of posts on this site, since I started.
More than any other label, independent or otherwise, it has stamped its communication and catalogue with its own identity, whether it’s their online site (a good example of how to do a music label website right), email marketing, their artwork or their personal touch (the label’s artwork director and co-founder Jeff Jank once emailed me to tell me about a new Dilla release which doesn’t really happen with most labels).
Most independent labels these days are labours of love, but the new documentary, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records , on Stones Throw by Jeff Broadway, really makes you feel it.
The film recounts the history of the label, giving context through a prologue about Peanut Butter Wolf, the label’s founder. Wolf has an aspiring musician, a music-mad kid who spent his lunch money on vinyl and with his friend, recorded a radio show-style chart countdown of the albums they collectively owned. The recording ends abruptly, when the budding DJ is forced to end play time to finish a book report for school.
That enthusiasm and thirst for music lead Wolf to form a group with his lifelong friend and rapper Charizma, only for the progressing career of both to end with the untimely passing of Charizma in a random car jacking.
That sadness and leads to a void musically, that is partly filled by the set up of Stones Throw, which Wolf sets up after meeting Madlib and his then group, Lootpack.
The film charts the ups and downs of the label between profiles of its artists, given insight by peers, label admirers and clear enthusiasts including Questlove, Mike D, Common, J Rocc, Talib Kweli, Flying Lotus, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Kanye.
The back stories of Madlib, MF Doom and J Dilla and how they came to be on Stones Throw are among the most fascinating. Small details matter: while Madlib was sleeping in the Stones Throw label HQ, MF Doom would be down in the bomb shelter studio recording vocals over tracks Madlib made that day that would eventually become one of the best rap albums of all-time – Madvillain. The only thing they did together was “chocolate mushrooms.”
The film really gives a sense of the “quiet power” and mutual respect between producers Madlib and Dilla, who made the Jaylib Champion Sound record together after Dilla was tractor-beamed into the sunny world of LA by the label.
The section on J Dilla, who of course died of a rare blood disease in 2006 remains poignant, particularly the story about him wearing 45 records on his wrist as a boy and the footage of him in the wheelchair at a gig shortly before he died. Music was his life, and he left a elegant parting gift in the stunning soulful sample-heavy beat record Donuts.
After Dilla died, the label went through some turmoil that resulted in some terrible releases: Gary Wilson, Wolf’s alter-ego Folerio, Wolf’s brother’s punk band. It’s understandable that labels will hit bad patches but the film paints this period as sort of an identity crisis, but talking heads like A-Trak are too polite and respectful of the label to say so.
Similarly missing in the film are details of record construction: surface level details are given about now-classic records but little else in terms of creativity and process. But those omissions are forgivable thanks to the film’s positivity, which is warranted and infectious.
In the last five or so years, the label had a renaissance of sorts, while moving away from its core sound of hip-hop, that lead to the release of records from soul-nerd Mayer Hawthorne, the classic-soul of Aloe Blacc and the west coast funk of Dam Funk. Hawthorne and Blacc both moved to major labels in 2011, a move that presumably helped the financial stability of the label at the time.
Wolf talks about the difficulty of running a label who want to remain staunchly independent, resisting being bought out by a major. He defines Stones Throw in opposition to the major label system, which moulds artists for an audience where as Wolf is a curator, a finder of artists who just need a family, an audience.
I did find myself wondering if, with Blacc and Hawthorne, Stones Throw could have made a distribution deal with a larger label to get the music out while retaining creative control. Wolf acknowledges he may not have made the best business decisions. That Aloe Blacc declined to be interviewed for the film maybe tells you how the vision differed in that case.
But Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton isn’t a film about the business acumen of a record label. It’s a film about a shared ethos, a thirst and desire for creativity, for the love of it. It’s a film about a label as a home, a family, as Questlove puts it, who are welcomed into the fold by Wolf, a man “embracing the unembraced.”