People often bitch about how commercial and superficial hip-hop has become over the last couple decades.
Yeah, most rap might be cookie-cutter beats and vapid rhymes about Gucci and Crystal. But some artists haven't lost sight of its underground ethos.
Case in point: Los Angeles-based DJ, producer, and Stones Throw Records boss Peanut Butter Wolf, AKA Chris Manak. His label is responsible for some of the most forward-thinking sounds in contemporary hip-hop and home to acclaimed MC-producers like J Dilla, Madlib, and MF Doom, as well as modern funk and soul exponents like Dâm-Funk and Mayer Hawthorne.
Crossfade caught up with Manak ahead of his headlining slot at Bardot's Living Room Sessions on Thursday to chat about the early days, Stones Throw, and J Dilla.
Crossfade: Who is Peanut Butter Wolf? How did you first get into making beats and DJing?
Chris Manak: I think when I heard "Planet Rock" and the beat was so stripped down and underground-sounding, that inspired me. I started making my own beats and DJing a couple years after that, around 1984. Before that, I had dreams of being a baseball player, but never believed in myself. With the DJ thing, it was more of something I was doing as a hobby in middle school, and then in high school, but I didn't know people could DJ clubs for a career. In 1984, in San Jose (where I lived at the time), mixing and scratching was a new thing. Now, everyone is a DJ. I'm embarrassed to tell anyone I'm a DJ. I just tell strangers I meet that I'm in the music industry.
What was the concept behind Stones Throw when you first launched the label and how has it evolved over the years?
The concept behind it was that nobody wanted to release my murdered musical partner's [Charizma AKA Chris Hicks] music -- so I did it. Also, I knew a lot of talented MCs in the Bay Area who couldn't release a record 'cause they weren't doing gangster rap. Made sense to me to do my own label.
Stones Throw has emerged as a real bastion of leftfield hip hop and funk -- and so much on the catalog defies categorization altogether. What sort of general aesthetic are you looking for to define the label and how do you select material for release?
I have a personal record collection that is too big to fit in one house, and it's all different genres -- and so is Stones Throw. Long before I started Stones Throw, in the mid '80s, I was buying funk, soul, rap, new wave, punk, reggae, ska, electronic, '60s rock, you name it. Hip hop grew out of the idea that Kool Herc and Baambaata believed that DJs should be more open minded and play music from different genres and different time periods. To this day, most of my friends follow that mentality too. If you go to the Stones Throw office, the same is true. It's four rooms of people working and you'll hear all different stuff in each room. We started a weekly club where the DJs are all Stones Throw staff members and the theme is more or less "no category".
What have been the biggest challenges for the label following the rise of the internet and digital distribution?
Well, the internet was supposed to even-out the playing field so that the "best music" would find a way into people's living rooms and consciousness, but I don't believe that to be really happening as much as people think it is. I believe people are trying to find out about stuff, but there's so much out there -- it's harder than ever to discover it. And as a label owner, it's harder than ever to break an artist. A lot of my favorite music from different artists (regardless of label) is not getting the attention that I would expect it to. I realize I'm being a hater here, but more times than not, I'll hear or read about something new over and over again and get interested in hearing it, then I actually hear it and go "really?"
The whole "LA beat" scene has really taken off these last few years. Why do you think Los Angeles specifically has become a breeding ground for those types of sounds?
It took off because Madlib and Dilla both moved to LA.
How did you first hook up with J Dilla and what did he impart to you artistically and professionally?
I first found out about Dilla through house shoes in 1995 -- right as I was starting Stones Throw. He had a bunch of remixes he did for artists like Busta and D'Angelo that never came out, so I put 'em out on vinyl with Dilla. He told me he was a fan of a record I released in 1994 called Peanut Butter Breaks, so we were kinda doing the same thing, only he had the edge because one: his beats were better than mine and two: he got discovered by Q-Tip, who started managing him at the time. I finally met him in person in around 1999, when Slum Village did a show in LA. J Rocc filmed the first meeting between me, Dilla and Madlib that day, and he just showed it to me for the first time a month ago. Totally forgot he did that. Freaked me out. But I'm digressing.
The biggest thing I learned from Dilla is the same thing Madlib taught me: not to do this for the fame or critical approval -- do it for yourself. I've personally always been OK without being rich off this and also been OK without being famous. When Charizma and I were a group, our goal was never to be as rich or famous as Hammer and Vanilla Ice were at the time. We did want the critical acclaim though. We looked up to Main Source, and Pete Rock, and DITC, and Ultramagnetic MCs, and groups like that. But Dilla and Madlib taught me that it doesn't matter if the critics give your album a good review or if you get booked for such and such music festival or whatever. They truly did it for themselves first and they got fans strictly based off their music. They weren't on MySpace self-promoting or even really doing that many shows. They were strictly creating.
So is there any truth to the rumors of a new posthumous Dilla release on Stones Throw?
There currently are no plans for Dilla material on Stones Throw, but there's always talks about it. When he was alive, we worked closely with him. He had so much love for Madlib and really uplifted us all. J Rocc, Rhett, etc. His last album he ever released while he was alive was Donuts. He gave me a beat tape and I told him I wanted to release it as is, with no rappers on it, and he said he was with it and he went back and made some more songs for me, and we released it on his birthday and he died a few days later. Nobody saw it coming. He had been sick before but he always managed to pull through. As for the future, I would love to release more Dilla music because some of his best tracks haven't seen official release, but nothing has been finalized.
Bardot's Living Room Sessions have earned a reputation for offering special intimate experiences between headliners and fans. What do you have in store for us?
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The plan is to do a live VJ set incorporating music videos and live performances from the 1950s to present day. It's been a minute since I've been to Miami, besides WMC and Art Basel. I personally love the "intimate setting" gigs though. It allows me to play music I truly like and take more risks as a DJ.
Peanut Butter Wolf. Thursday, March 29. Bardot, 3456 North Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets cost $15 to $20 plus fees via eventbrite.com. Call 305-576-5570 or visit bardotmiai.com.