Ask Chris Manak (a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf) why he decided to found the hip indie music label Stones Throw back in 1996 and he’ll tell you it was “to do cool shit.” But the hip hop producer’s reasons go much deeper than that. Manak had longed to make beats ever since he was a kid digging through record bins in the 1970s.
“I actually started a label in San Jose in 1990 and released only one record and it flopped,” he tells Hive. “I was discouraged because we made a list of all these goals, and didn’t really achieve any of them. Things like ‘perform on In Living Color’or ‘do a video and get it on Yo! MTV Raps or ‘get a mic review in The Source.’ We couldn’t even get our damn record into stores.”
That of course has all changed. Today, Manak manages Stones Throw from his headquarters in L.A., and relishes the freedom to sign artists he truly believes in, regardless of how well they’ll “move units,” or do commercially. He also spearheads some truly impressive projects, from releasing the highly anticipated Dilla’s Donuts on vinyl to launching the solo career of Karriem Riggins, one of the most eclectic, and talented, jazz drummers in the business today.
“I just have to really really really like it,” Manak says of artists he takes under his wing. “I know pride is the devil, but I have to be able to see myself being proud of it.” So far, his formula seems to be working. If you’re looking to explore the vast catalog that Stones Throw has unleashed over the years, Manak was gracious enough to provide a path.
1. Madvillain’s Madvillainy
The beats are so butter, the flow is so slick, and every cut off emcee MF Doom’s blockbuster project with Madlib exudes an impish brilliance rarely seen or felt in hip hop since the G-funk reign of Snoop Dogg. These are Scooby Snacks for a blissed-out day: subversive hip hop — “spit so many verses, sometimes my jaw twitches/ One thing this party could use is more … booze” — that’s so on the level and sonically superior it boggles the mind that the duo hasn’t teamed up more often.
2. J Dilla‘s Donuts
The beloved Dilla album did more than inspire a generation of bedroom producers, it proved record splicing was an art form if you did it with heart. Paper-thin percussion glides nicely over blu-lite soul in the heavenly cut, “Don’t Cry,” making good on the singer’s promise that if you play it, “I’ll show you how my voice would have made it unbelievable, baby girl.” Dilla, a guy better known for cutting wax with Slum Village and Q-Tip, had a proclivity for making even the dreariest loop sound romantic, and it’s a damn shame that the gifted producer was taken from this world too soon.
3. Mayer Hawthorne‘s A Strange Arrangement
The man responsible for last year’s drop-your-panties jam, “Get to Know You,” has his ’70s grooves down pat, but while Hawthorne’s mid-tempo numbers are more about imitation than interpretation, he still does a solid job of paying tribute to powerhouse crooners like Curtis Mayfield and Smokey Robinson, thanks to that lovelorn falsetto and penchant for Moog organs. Lump him in with Amy Winehouse’s revival soul if you like, we’re sure the alter ego of DJ/producer Drew Cohen won’t mind.
4. Chrome Canyon‘s Elemental Themes
Better slip on your 3D glasses and grab your season pass to the laser light show: The only thing on analog synth freak Morgan Z’s mind is attending the latest alien coronation. Or paying homage to all those sci-fi wet dreams from “Blade Runner.”
5. Quasimodo‘s The Unseen
Meet the brainchild/hyperactive alter-ego of Madvillain, a nasal-voiced rapper who gets top billing throughout 2000′s Unseen and 2005′s The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, while getting high on his own supply. Whereas each cut off Madvillainy helped to shape a theme of impish subversion, each track on Unseen feels like a standalone experiment, one where the squeaky guy’s running the show and Madvillain’s the all-knowing mastermind, gleefully sampling from sci-fi, Saturday morning cartoons and B-rated cinema — all things that ignite his creativity and make a solitary night in the studio preferable to pretty much anything else.