Saturday, March 01, 2014

Beats & Rhymes, Death & Life

Chris Manak, AKA Peanut Butter Wolf, on the wheels of steel
Fade from black: To the sound of a hot soul bass line we see the interior of a record obsessive's living room. Shelves groaning with vinyl line the walls and there's a party going on. But we're on the outside, looking in through the patio doors, and the music is muffled. The door slides open and someone exits. The music becomes tantalizingly crisp and for a moment it seems that we'll be invited in. Then the door slides shut and [rack focus] we see Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, suave in a pork pie hat, at the wheels of steel. Just as we feel the sting of rejection [smash cut], we're let inside to the ultimate music lover's party. Thus begins Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, a wonderful new documentary about the history and ethos of Stones Throw, the hip hop/soul/DJ culture/whatever record label.

Directed and produced by Jeff Broadway, the film takes us back to the beginning and thoroughly investigates what has become one of the most influential record labels in recent times, effectively letting us outsiders into the party. "Record Label?" you say, "But isn't the music industry dying?" Yes, the music industry is still in the midst of the great ruction caused by the Internet, but people still have a need for filters. Those with mainstream tastes might look to terrestrial radio, the Grammys, or American Idol and its ilk to find music. Others, like me, will look elsewhere, and great labels like Merge, Sub Pop, and Stones Throw are places we can reliably turn to to find the sounds that satisfy. One thing that makes these imprints so good is that they are the product of individuals with discerning taste and their own point of view. And so it is with Peanut Butter Wolf.

Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton gathers dazzling archival footage, marquee-quality talking heads (Kanye West, Common, Mike D., Talib Kweli, and ?uestlove among them), and a pumping soundtrack to tell the engaging story of how an army brat with a lifelong passion for music rebounded from more than one tragedy to create one of the greatest independent labels.
The film is dedicated to the memory of J-Dilla and Charizma. Charizma was Peanut Butter Wolf's early partner in rhyme who was murdered in an attempted carjacking at the age of 20. The film handles this devastating moment with compassion and sensitivity and we feel the loss as our own. "I just turned off," PBW says in a monotone and his grief feels as fresh as if it were yesterday. Eventually, his bereavement became a spur. Determined to get their music heard, PBW sent it to a number of labels, but was faced with either "no thanks" or no response. In 1996, he started Stone's Throw as a way to release Charizma's musical legacy, which remains in print nearly two decades later.

From there, the movie jumps forward to "Stones Throw Today" and introduces us first to Jonwayne, one of the label's newest signings, as he makes a beat out of household objects, and then to other members of the current roster. "We're all struggling for the same thing," Jonwayne tells us, "which is the advancement of independent music." PBW promulgates this philosophy by continually giving the unknown and even odd a chance to be heard. "I feel like I'm kind of a stomping ground to start people's careers and then they can kinda do what they want after," PBW says. Like all great label heads, he goes with his gut and against the mainstream. This has worked out well for artists like Mayer Hawthorne, who launched an international career on Stones Throw and is now signed to a major label.

When the film picks the story back up in 1998 it smoothly moves through the history, starting with the life-changing connection with Madlib (and his alter ego Quasimoto), whose multifarious talent officially put Stones Throw on the map. Madlib's prodigious ("five albums every two or three weeks") and inventive output awakened the competitive fire of a young Detroit producer: J-Dilla. "Madlib is just killing me," he told ?uestlove, "he's going where I want to go." Bringing Madlib and Dilla together was simply magic. Their record as Jaylib, Champion Sound, is indeed "a hip hop monument," as Common puts it.

Like the sun-kissed early days with Charizma, there was a future shadow hanging over this halcyon period: Dilla's blood disorder, which led to his death at 32 in 2006, just days before the release of Donuts, another masterpiece. Kanye calls Dilla's beats "the greatest drums in hip hop history," beautifully describing what makes them that way while getting a tear in his eye. "When Dilla passed, everything changed," says Madlib, "He was like one knew what to do."

It would probably not have surprised anyone if Stones Throw had become a casualty itself at this point. While PBW continued to follow his nose, a lot of his choices alienated the hip hop heads and just plain didn't sell. His dark night of the soul also became a dark night of the wallet, but he held on. Bizarrely enough the road back was partly through Folerio, another alter ego created by Chris Manak. Folerio's smarmy image and bedroom electro-soul attracted renewed attention and new blood to the label. One thing followed another and Mayer Hawthorne, along with Dam Funk and Aloe Blacc, led to firmer ground, both musically and financially.

Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is consistently entertaining and visually appealing, with an eclectic feel that is well matched to its subject. Music fans of all stripes will find it more than gratifying to see Stones Throw get the film it deserves. The movie will be shown tomorrow night at Music Hall Of Williamsburg, along with a panel discussion and performances featuring PBW, Jonwayne, J-Rocc and others. Watch the trailer below and catch it at a screening or festival near you.

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