Known to hip-hop heads and vinyl connoisseurs as Peanut Butter Wolf, Chris Manak is a DJ and producer who founded the influential underground label Stones Throw Records. The new documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton tells the story of this nearly two-decade-old Los Angeles record label by exploring Wolf's personal struggles and triumphs, as well as the careers of label icons like Madlib, J Dilla, Dâm Funk and more.
In advance of the one-night-only screening of Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton this Saturday, April 12 at the Sie FilmCenter, Westword spoke with the documentary's director and producer, Jeff Broadway, about why he decided to create a film about the underground, artist-first record label.
Westword: How did you come to make a documentary about Stones Throw in the first place?
Jeff Broadway: I grew up listening to quite a bit of hip-hop and when I was in college, as one will do, I got into more experimental music and I was looking for more offbeat stuff. I was very into music at an early age -- I had interned at record labels and such, and I came across Madvillainy (a collaborative effort between Stones Throw artists MF Doom and Madlib), which really just introduced me to Madlib, and eventually Stones Throw and that catalogue.
I had been a fan of the label for about ten years -- I was just really into these alternative worlds created by the label and Jeff Jank (Stones Throw's art and web director) for these releases to exist in. I was compelled by the visual element that they created for their album releases -- something I always felt would lend itself quite nicely to a film, should there ever be one made about Stones Throw.
I had been living in L.A. for a few years and I wanted to do something that was local and would allow me to do something that was of a certain production value and at a certain level. Obviously, my physical proximity to the label and my understanding of Stones Throw and the demand I felt there was coming from the fan base to know more led me to inquiring about the label and Wolf's (label head Peanut Butter Wolf) interest in a film being produced about him.
I sent a cold e-mail to the info account at Stones Throw in February 2012 and heard back from Wolf directly several hours later. A couple days later I was in the office meeting with them about the project. I had done a music documentary prior to that called Cure For Pain, which I shared with Wolf. He liked it and agreed to give me a shot and let me try to make Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton.
There are so many artists you could highlight when talking about a label like Stones Throw. How did you pick the artists you chose to profile?
I think as far as the present-day artists go, obviously there are a number of great musicians on the label who we don't talk about in the film. But basically, with the present-day section, we wanted to illustrate the diversity at the label and really show what an eclectic home for musicians of all different walks of life Stones Throw has become.
As far as focusing on Wolf, Madlib and Dilla and kind of those mini-biographies that the film delves into, obviously Wolf's part goes without saying -- he's the facilitator of the culture. Madlib has really been the epicenter of the musical evolution there and has chiefly been the guy who has attracted artists like J Dilla and MF Doom and kind of built up the icon that is Stones Throw. From a hip-hop place, for me, Madlib, J Dilla and Doom were important. As far as the other, more iconic releases go, there's Aloe Blacc, Dâm Funk, Mayer Hawthorne -- we saw these six guys as musically being the most important stories to the label. Then providing people just a smattering of other musicians who exist there today to illustrate again, the diversity at Stones Throw.
We really wanted the film to speak to the diversity and reinforce their greatness, and then also shed light on what a crazy, wonky place it has become over the years. Although it has become so primarily known for its, again, more iconic hip-hop releases that have been so Madlib-centric, there is also just this whole other world there that has been created and fostered by Wolf and is largely lesser known, I guess.
What I think this kind of diversity in a label like Stones Throw lends itself to is the idea of an ethos versus a genre being the driving idea behind a label.
Absolutely. I think it's certainly an artist-first label; traditional labels are much more concerned with how they are going to market and package an artist than they are concerned about their music. Not to sound overly idealistic about the way in which Wolf has run his business over the years but, as it is said in the film, Stones Throw doesn't make artists, they find artists. I think that is really kind of exciting in this day and age -- there are still these artists that are just looking to get out their creations as they intended for them to be experienced and not put through a processing machine that churns out a product that they feel is ultimately going to be more sellable and marketable.
Which is why a release like Toeachizown, Dâm Funk's five vinyl record debut, could be a box set and Stones Throw would do it anyway --
Definitely. It's like, okay. If this is what you wanted to put out, then let's put it out. It certainly is a kind of bizarre business M.O. to forgo most traditional practices and standards and all of that. But I think they are able to also with their art direction and the creative direction at the label create a much larger-than-life presence with some of these releases.
You look at that first Dâm Funk record, Toeachizown, and like Wolf says in the film, it is hard to see that on a shelf at a record store and think, wow, how have I not heard of this guy? Like, if there is this huge box set being put out for this artist, apparently it is something I should know about. So I think they have done an amazing job of just creating this world for these releases to exist in, whether it has been Quasimoto, Madvillainy or Toeachizown. They all have this presence in the business and Stones Throw has been very accomplished at achieving that.
You were obviously a big Stones Throw fan before making Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, but was there anything you learned about or a record or artist you discovered in the making of the film?
Certainly. It wasn't as if I knew everything about and everyone on the label -- there were a number of things I didn't know about. I at first kind of approached Wolf and the label from a very hip-hop-centric place and position because that is how I knew them. What I discovered was something much more complex that the film indicates. I didn't really understand that Charizma and his death had been so monumental in creating the foundation and the framework for the label moving forward. That really informed how Wolf intended to run Stones Throw and still does today.
There were a number of artists that I hadn't heard of that I discovered through the process of making this film and things I learned about people. I think another thing would be in how the present-day section of the film gets into a number of what I like to call "citizen musicians" who are on the label -- Vex Ruffin still works at UPS and has put out a couple of albums.
It's not as if everyone on the label has gone on to achieve great fame and fortune as a musician; there are a lot of guys who still have day jobs and still have to feed their families and it is amazing that Stones Throw as an outlet exists for musicians who are so passionate about what they do, even though they might not be career musicians necessarily.
People like Dâm Funk -- before being a full-time, touring, international musician, he worked for a very long time at a number of jobs. He was continuing to create his music and, like he says in the film, not give up on the dream. All that stuff, for anyone who is a dreamer, is so encouraging. I wanted for that to really come through in the film. Again, not to sound too overly idealistic about Stones Throw as a label, but it is a dream factory in some ways.
How did you connect with Kanye West and why did you choose for him to be a part of the commentary, coming from an artist not on the label?
I was connected to Kanye through a friend of mine, who worked for Takashi Murakimi who, among other things, designed Kanye's third album, Graduation. That was kind of the intro. I felt like Kanye was very illustrative in the way in which Stones Throw as a subculture has been very influential over mainstream trends in hip-hop. On a microcosmic level, Dilla and Madlib illustrated that in Kanye.
I sent word to his camp that I wanted to interview him for this film that was about Stones Throw Records and specifically I wanted to speak to him as a producer on Dilla and Madlib as influences in his early production style. He was very keen to talk to that and pay respects to underground producing legends like those guys, and that was really at the heart of the conversation.
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Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 12 at the Sie FilmCenter. Tickets are $12 to $15 and can be purchased at the box office, by phone at 303-595-3456, or via the Sie website. Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies