Peanut Butter Wolf on '90s vs. 2010s Hip-Hop: "The Commercial Music's Worse Now"
Photo by Joel Frijhoff
Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of the legendary Stones Throw Records, has presided over some of the most important releases and moments in modern hip-hop history.
Recently, a Kickstarter-funded documentary, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, was released about his iconic mecca of underground hip-hop beats. It has received rave reviews.
PBW, an accomplished and very danceable DJ in his own right, will be bringing his eclectic brand of groovy, jazzy and funkadelic beats to The Stage this weekend as part of "Stones Throw Weekend." So we here at Crossfade had a chill phone chat with him about creating beats, recreational drug use, and losing friends.
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Crossfade: Why do you think that Madlib and J Dilla are such great producers?
Peanut Butter Wolf: I think they're both awesome. Part of what made them awesome is they were working together and challenging each other. It wasn't spoken, but you could just tell that they were listening to each other's music and inspiring each other to raise the bar. I mean, their styles are kind of different. And another thing is they both just kept making new beats every day. Now I can speak more because I've lived with them and they would make, like, twenty beats a day. You know? And a lot of producers take a week to do one track. Madlib would never want to hear the same song over and over again. I think that's what made him the way he was. I mean Madlib would just pick up the snare drum sometimes and go at it.
And Dilla has so many tracks too.
When Dilla died, his mom and I and J Rocc decided to play all his music. And it was at that point we realized that we had like ten hours of music.
Madlib's been able to make the transition to the mainstream music, and he's been involved with so many different genres now. Do you think Dilla's career would have gone in a similar direction if he had continued on?
I think Dilla's had a lot more commercial success than Madlib's had so far. I mean he got discovered by A Tribe Called Quest. And he was hooking up with everybody from the Roots to D'Angelo and Erykah Badu, Pharcyde, De La Soul. And now Drake's rapped over a Dilla beat on one of his mixtapes. And I mean Kanye's worked with Dilla and he hasn't worked with Madlib yet. So I feel like when Dilla co-signed on Madlib's stuff, it really helped Madlib's career and definitely Stones Throw as well. I mean Dilla was already pretty big and well known when he started working with us.
You once did shrooms with Madlib, and now you apparently never want to do shrooms again.
Yeah, that was a big mistake.
Why was it such a big mistake?
I just don't have the right mind for doing drugs. I mean, I barely even smoke weed. I don't like smoking weed. It makes me paranoid. I was never really a big smoker. But being around Madlib, he was always smoking and he'd pass it. So I'd take courtesy hits or whatever. Or when Dilla was in the studio for the first time, we were all smoking weed. So, of course, I'm not going to say no. But yeah, I've crossed [shrooms] off the list of things I want to do before I die. At the time we did it, we were in Vegas. I didn't know enough about the drug. And everyone I've talked to is like, 'Wow, that's the worst place to do mushrooms. Why would you do that?"
Yeah, I did mushrooms and walked through Time Square once. It was weird.
That sounds similar. My sister used to be really big on ecstasy and she used to always ask me to do ecstasy and go to raves. So I did that a few times and it was the same thing. I just instantly get paranoid, whatever drug it is. Except for alcohol.
Is it challenging to work with or manage eccentric personalities like Kool Keith or MF Doom?
Well, Kool Keith, I worked with him on his first solo record in 1995. I produced a single of his. But those were early days in my career as far as working with people. He was the biggest name I had worked with up until that point. I was in the bay and he was working in L.A., and he put me in his apartment. He put me on his couch. I mean, yeah, he was definitely eccentric. Different maybe. Very flamboyant. We went to a club afterwards and he was giving girls his business card and his business card said that he was a photographer, not a rapper. And if he had just told them he was a rapper he probably would have gotten more interest from girls. He basically just got like these $20 business cards made, right from the airport or something. They just said "Keith Thornton, Photographer." I mean, that's just how he was.
Though it is funny that you mentioned Doom and Kool Keith in the same sentence, because I feel like Doom's career was almost mimicking Kool Keith's career. Not intentionally. But they were both old-school rappers who were in groups. Keith was in Ultramagnetic. Doom was in KMD. They both reinvented themselves and got a whole new generation of people interested in them.
Also, in my opinion, both of those guys are those kind of rappers that people are like: "Wow, how did that guy manage to rap over that beat?" And that's something that got people interested in them and Stones Throw.
I mean, with them -- just to illustrate your point -- we sent Doom like a hundred Madlib beats. And then we sent him Madlib's jazz stuff, which Madlib really only had intended to keep as instrumentals. And then Doom heard it out and he rapped over it. That was something that neither Madlib, nor myself, nor anybody would have thought he would have done. He was looking at it from a different perspective.
Would you say that stories like that are the reason you wanted to found a record label? To do something different? Or was it just that you wanted to make the music you wanted to make?
I mean, I put out Madvillain like seven or eight years after I started the label. But yeah, I started a label so I could put out stuff like that and not have to answer to anybody else. As a hip-hop fan, I was always just buying mostly independent stuff. During the whole Diddy era, I was pretty turned off by the hip-hop scene. And now I listen back to it and I appreciate it. I think, at that point, it was like the "Keep it Real" era for me.
Why do you think you're able to appreciate it now?
Because I think the commercial music's worse now than it was then.
I mean, not all of it. That's kind of the old-person thing to say. I like a lot of the trap stuff. I think there's still good commercial songs, I guess.
See also: Miami's Top Ten Hip-Hop DJs of All Time
Do you spend more time DJing or producing these days?
I don't produce anymore these days, in terms of getting out my equipment and making stuff from scratch. But I'll do a lot of remixes and go into the studio with people. I help people with mix-downs, arrangements, things like that. I would say I spend an equal amount of time DJing and managing the record label.
Do you feel that, as a DJ who plays kind of slower Stones Throw-vibe music, you get pressured by clubs to play more commercial stuff?
Every now and then someone will book me without knowing what I do. And when that happens it's a disaster because they'll say they want to hear a certain style of music. I'll say that I don't. And the truth is I don't even have that kind of music in my computer so I can't. That usually happens when I DJ in Vegas. Every time I go to Vegas, the promoter will be like "Oh, this time's going to be different! We're trying to change the vibe and that's why we brought you." And I'll be playing stuff that I think is danceable, but someone will come up and complain. Or the bar manager will go "We need you to stop soon..." (laughs).
Yeah. That happened to DJ Shadow down here.
Oh right. Is that going to happen to me tomorrow?
I don't think so. Have you played in Miami before?
Yeah. Usually when I'm in Miami Winter Music Conference. The last time, it was kind of an upscale bar. And that was a really great gig, I didn't play any music I didn't want to play. Before that, was right when they launched Beats by Dre Headphones. Dr. Dre was the headliner and I was the opener. Only Dr. Dre missed his flight and I had to DJ the whole night. It was for all these Dr. Dre fans who didn't really like me as much.
Was that fun?
No that wasn't fun at all. It would have been if he'd shown up.
How do you feel about the general EDM trend of DJing?
I don't really like EDM. For a while, like in 2005 or something, I was getting into the electro stuff. Like when DJ AM, A-Trak, and Steve Aoki all started getting really popular. Now most of the stuff I hear, I don't like.
Are there any DJ's, in general, that you do like?
There's so many, I wouldn't even know where to start. I mean, J Rocc and a lot of the guys I work with are great. I think Dam Funk has a great mix of new and old music and well.
He's in the new documentary on Stone's Throw Records, "Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton."
Speaking of which, how was it reminiscing about old times for that movie?
It wasn't really that. It was fun talking about [old times] and going through all the old memoribilia. But when when it on the silver screen, it really made me feel emotional. I think it did a really good job. And I don't know if people who don't know Stones Throw will get the same feeling from seeing it. And Snoop Dogg, after he saw it, called me and said that he shed a tear because it reminded him of losing some of his friends. I'm assuming he meant Tupac, I don't even know. The Red Hot Chili Peppers said the same thing to me when I met up with them.
And wasn't Snoop Dogg supposed to rap on a few Dilla tracks before Dilla passed away?
For the MCA album. There is one track that Dilla rapped on and Snoop was supposed to rap on it as well. And Dilla actually even shouted out Snoop on the song. I've been wanting to get Snoop that track and seeing if he wanted to rap over it.
You've talked a lot about your father in interviews. He's also been diagnosed with cancer. Can you talk about the influence he's had on your life and career?
He actually passed away a month ago.
My condolences. I'm so sorry.
His birthday was actually yesterday. So it's been kind of fresh in my mind. He came from a long line of scientists and was into computers. He moved his family to San Jose when I was six years old. This was in the 70's before the big internet boom. He always wanted me to go into computers and I was never really good at it. I'm also just not very interested in math in general. I always told him how much I wanted to do music. He and my mom both discouraged me from going into music because they were worried about me and knew that musicians have a lot of ups and downs. When my mom was growing up, her dad was a really good musician. He played with the Boston Pops and Duke Ellington and other jazz musicians. And he moved refrigerators in the daytime...so she grew up dirt poor. She had seven brothers. So, naturally, she told me she didn't want to see me [going into music.]
That being said, when I wanted to start a record label, my dad lent me five hundred dollars to start it. He and my mom both knew how much I wanted this, so from that point on they were really supportive. The documentary was a big celebration in my family. Everyone watched it together. Both my parents have been divorced for many years but they both came down to L.A. to watch it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. My whole family came. It was a really cool time.
What kind of feedback did you get from your parents about your music?
They don't really understand it or listen to it. Except for Aloe Blacc. He's the only thing my mom will watch. She'll watch "Dancing with the Stars" or "The Voice" and she'll see Aloe Blacc on them. So that's something that she understands. My dad was the same way. He would talk to his friends and none of them knew who [Aloe Blacc] was but he liked to brag about Aloe Blacc. When I got a gold record for Aloe Blacc I gave it to my dad. He was really proud of that.
What do you think of the city of Miami?
I enjoy it. I really like coming during Art Basel during the Winter. And I always have good gigs then as well. It's got a lot of similarities to L.A. So I feel like I'm at home.
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Peanut Butter Wolf. As part of Stones Throw Weekend. Friday, April 25. The Stage, 170 NE 38th St., Miami. Doors open at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $15 via wantickets.com. Ages 18 and up. Call 305-576-9577 or visit thestagemiami.com.
Dam-Funk. As part of Stones Throw Weekend. Saturday, April 26. The Stage, 170 NE 38th St., Miami. Doors open at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $10 via wantickets.com. Ages 18 and up. Call 305-576-9577 or visit thestagemiami.com.
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