Going to California – James Atkinson discovers Stones Throw records and Peanut Butter Wolf
Stones Throw Records have been at the forefront of a recent indie hip-hop renaissance as a response to the ever-present obsession with sales and celebrity. The label was initially founded with the intent of releasing DJ Peanut Butter Wolf’s collaborations with murdered emcee Charizma in San Jose. They had left their previous label before the release of their debut album in 1993 (shortly before Charizma’s death), citing a lack of artistic freedom. In forming his own label as a response to this, Wolf (real name Chris Manak) was following an historical template experienced by several later Stones Throw artists.
Perhaps this alumni is best illustrated by the label’s best known, and certainly best selling LP, the self titled album by Madvillain, known separately as Madlib and MF Doom.
Doom, British-born emcee Daniel Dumile, originally came to fame as Zev Love X, one third of early nineties hip-hop group KMD. They released the semi-conceptual debut album Mr Hood to moderate acclaim, with great rotation on the TV shows such as Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Following the death of his brother and fellow KMD member Subroc, the group were dropped from Elektra due to controversy surrounding the name and cover art for their second album Black Bastards. Dumile spent the next few years in a form of self-imposed exile from the music industry as he suffered from depression.
Making a limited return at numerous poetry slams and performing behind a series of symbolic masks influenced by the Marvel Comics character Dr. Doom, Dumile changed his emcee name to MF Doom and started to garner underground recognition by bootlegging the by-now cult Black Bastards album. The combination within his mask of a wish for a hidden identity juxtaposed with Dumile’s love for sci-fi reflects the complexity of many of his lyrical themes. Far from the likes of Snoop Dogg and his Hennessey sponsorship deals, Doom, often with a shrewdly comical eye, observes his fellow Americans with pin-point references ranging from Moby Dick to country singer Glen Campbell.
Following the success of Madvillainy, Dumile recorded several projects on Stones Throw and other labels, including the album DangerDoom with Gnarls Barkley member and super-producer Danger Mouse. For him, like Peanut Butter Wolf, the label represented freedom from the sales-obsessed labels.
Similarly, J Dilla, came to Stones Throw having experienced major-label disappointment with his hip-hop collective Slum Village and a lack of recognition in spite of his unceasing work as a producer for the likes of Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Common and many others. Following a failed record deal with MCA, Dilla started to release on Stones Throw from 2002 onwards, starting with the Champion Sound album, a collaboration between himself and Madlib under the moniker Jaylib. This album showcased his exquisite knack for blending hip-hop with an authentic soul sound: perfect for a label which by now was re-releasing hundreds of discontinued funk and soul LPs to California record stores.
After being diagnosed with the rare blood-disease TTP and contracting Lupus, Dilla started to work through a series of projects, aiming to have them finished before his death. The main work, Donuts, released three days after his death, is a gloriously emotional mix, flowing seamlessly on a nostalgic energy and borrowing from sources as diverse as Kool & The Gang, The Beastie Boys, Frank Zappa and many more. It combines precise, moving hip-hop with a rich backdrop of eclectic sources, and is the perfect introduction to Dilla’s pioneering ‘nu-soul’ sound, lauded by the likes of Kanye West, Flying Lotus and The Roots. Once again Stones Throw offers freedom from the mainstream and innovation to enter a genre which has not changed significantly since Dr Dre’s 1992 landmark album The Chronic.
Also of particular note is Madlib’s 1998 Quasimoto album, The Unseen. Quasimoto as a project uses exclusively jazz samples, borrowing from the likes of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Mixing this template with a series of slow, psychedelic beats, Madlib himself raps over it, as does ‘Quasimoto’, his invented weed-obsessed, ramen-eating alter-ego. The voice of Quasimoto is actually made from Madlib rapping over the beats at half-speed and then speeding it up to a normal tempo, creating a comical yet endearing vocal effect.
Discovered by Peanut Butter Wolf after coming second in a local talent contest, you wonder how Madlib would have managed to make such inventive and enduring hip-hop on any other label. They have been the perfect antidote to the monotonous hip-hop of the last twelve years, both reinventing artists and finding a place for music without any other obvious output.