Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf has a simple and uncompromising vision for his label. “I put out what I personally like and save the rest for the other labels out there,” he explained on their website.
Wolf’s combination of impeccable taste and stubbornness has allowed him to straddle the line between accessible and obscure during his two decades plus as head decision maker at Stones Throw. “As executive producer, I don’t put out what I think the people will like, I put out what I like. This has worked for me so far, and if it stops working for me, it will be the end of Stones Throw as a label,” he said.
Though the label’s visibility skyrocketed in the early and mid 2000s, Stones Throw’s origins date back to the early 90s when Wolf was working as a DJ/producer with then-rhyme partner Charizma. The duo landed a deal with Hollywood Basics (Walt Disney) and were promised movie roles in Sister Act 2, but they were unhappy with the Disney’s lack of experience with rap groups and left after a short time.
Then tragedy struck in December of 1993 when Charizma was shot and killed in a mugging. Devastated by the loss of his best friend and collaborator, Wolf had to step away from music for a brief time. “At first I quit music completely,” he said.
But before long, music became a helpful coping mechanism and a way to work through the emotional aftermath. “Eventually, making beats and DJing was a way for me to deal with the pain of losing both my music partner and my best friend. I also decided that our music had to be heard,” Wolf said.
And so Stones Throw Records was born in 1996 with the release of Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf’s “My World Premiere” single. From there, the label quickly gained steam with Lootpack’s Soundpieces: Da Antidote, Peanut Butter Wolf’s My Vinyl Weighs A Ton, and Rasco’s Time Waits For No Man. Two subsequent Mablib collaborations a few years later — 2003’s Jaylib album with J Dilla and 2004’s Madvillainy project with MF Doom — catapulted the label into new levels of success. The release of Dilla’s iconic Donuts album on February 7, 2006 — just three days before his untimely passing from health complications due to lupus — cemented their legacy as one of the all-time great independent record labels.
Throughout Stones Throw’s existance a DIY aesthetic and energy has informed much of their work. While describing the song “Raquel” from the recent Charizma collection Circa 1990–1993, Wolf explained the limitations of the equipment he used to produce the song many years ago. “The sampler I was using didn’t have sequencing so I had to hit the loops live every time.” And the vocals? “The vocals were done live to cassette ‘cause neither of us had multi-track equipment and weren’t serious enough yet to go into an actual recording studio.”
This can-do, minimalist approach can be seen throughout their catalog. Mayer Hawthrone used an old pair of headphones to record the demos that helped him land a deal with Stones Throw and release his breakthrough A Strange Arrangement. Madlib made “Strange Ways” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” for the Madvillainy album with a SP-303 and a tape deck. And Dilla created the majority of Donuts while in a hospital bed. Madlib did an expert job of capturing this creative spirit while describing his sampling philosophy to Wax Poetics “Take shit off cassette, VCR, iTunes, anything,” he said. “Some water dripping, it don’t matter.”
Though the methods aren’t always glamorous, the final product is difficult to fuck with. The label’s impressive list of releases is a testament to the incredible arsenal of talent they’ve showcased over the past twenty years. In addition to label staple Madlib, ultra-raw MCs like Guilty Simpson and Oh No, drummer/rapper/producer Karriem Riggins, and funk renaissance man Dâm-Funk have all found a home for their creative vision at Stones Throw. Add more recent successes like rapper/producer Jonwayne and the Knxwledge and Anderson .Paak duo NxWorries to the equation and it seems like Wolf’s “I put out what I like” philosophy has found a perfect harmony with what the fans like.
The label’s deep back-catalog coupled with their willingness flip the bird to trend-chasing and hit-making has won the admiration of industry heavyweights like Common, Tyler The Creator, Questlove, Snoop, and Kanye West. Yet despite a star-studded list of fans and a resume of successful albums, the harsh financial realities and stress of running a label are not always fun, as Wolf is quick to acknowledge on the Stones Throw site. “In the morning you brainstorm about work while taking a shower and at night your dreams revolve around deadlines that you missed. Collecting money from people and for people also takes a toll after a while. Monthly phone bills the size of a house payment can bring on an ulcer,” he explained.
Despite the emotional drain, Stones Throw seems to be in a good place after working through a rocky patch prior to the success of A Strange Arrangement in 2009 and Aloe Blacc’s Good Things in 2010. They saw the release of a feature length documentary about the label in 2013, celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2016, and added another commercial and critical success to their resume with NxWorries Yes Lawd!.
In the end, the struggles that come with having a unique vision seem worth it to Wolf and the artists on the label. And since Wolf’s formula has worked thus far, don’t it expect it to change any time soon. “I may be wealthy someday,” he said. “But only as an indirect consequence of putting out what I believe to be good music.”
Please check out the included retrospective Stones Throw playlist. You can purchase music directly from Stones Throw here.
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