It is impossible to begin this story without mentioning Jay Dee. Born James Yancey, the influential hip-hop producer also known as J Dilla passed away February 7 in a Los Angeles hospital after years spent battling a rare blood disease. Three days before he died at the age of 32, Stones Throw Records issued his new album, the instrumental opus Donuts, which he largely composed while hospitalized.
Jay Dee's legacy his stature as one of hip-hop's most widely copied musicians, his triumphant struggle to make profound art in spite of his illness, and the outpouring of love and support his family received after he passed hangs over Stones Throw's tenth anniversary.
Peanut Butter Wolf created the label in 1996, just as the independent hip-hop movement was picking up steam, and now heads a nine-person staff. Most of the labels with which he competed back then no longer exist. Solesides (which spawned DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, and Lyrics Born) folded and then re-emerged as Quannum. Rawkus (which turned Mos Def and Talib Kweli into stars) disappeared for several years and only began to issue new product in 2005. Then there's Fondle 'Em, Raw Shack, Makin' Records, Ocean Floor ... all formerly hot indie labels, all no more. Stones Throw is one of a handful which survived that era.
Peanut Butter Wolf began his music career in 1989 as part of Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf, a rap duo he formed with Charles Hicks in San Jose, California. The two secured a deal with Hollywood Basic, a Disney-owned pop music imprint, but artistic differences arose between them, and the label prevented a full-length album from being released. In December 1993, Charizma was murdered outside a church in East Palo Alto.
Three years later, after earning a reputation as a hip-hop producer, Peanut Butter Wolf created Stones Throw with loans from a few friends. Running the label from his San Francisco home, he first released a twelve-inch single highlighting his onetime partnership with Charizma, "My World Premiere b/w Methods."
"I've always wanted to do a label since I was a kid. [But] I forgot about doing the label thing and concentrated on being an artist with [Charizma]. I felt like he was special, and that's where I wanted to focus my energies. Then, when he passed away, it was back to plan A, I guess," explains PB Wolf. "I named the label after a saying we used to have. He was always in my mind."
Stones Throw quickly secured a national reputation for issuing quality Bay Area hip-hop records by Rasco (Time Waits for No Man), himself (1999's My Vinyl Weighs a Ton), and others (Encore, Persevere, Homeless Derelix). Then PB Wolf began working with Otis "Madlib" Jackson, Jr. A rapper/producer from Oxnard in Southern California, Madlib led his own group, Lootpack.
Madlib's unmistakable talent slowly exerted a transformative effect on Stones Throw. In 2000, Peanut Butter Wolf moved to the Los Angeles area, first getting a house and then a warehouse with Madlib. Meanwhile Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, a graduate from Tennessee's Vanderbilt University with a formidable knowledge of rare funk and soul records, joined the camp as label manager.
From 2000 to 2003, Stones Throw devoted nearly all of its resources to promoting Madlib and Egon's projects. Rarely issuing a record under his own name, Madlib adopted different guises, whether it was Quasimoto (a character whose voice was a sped-up version of his own), Yesterday's New Quintet (an imaginary soul-jazz band), or DJ Rels (a mysterious broken-beat producer). He produced records for friends such as Kazi, Wildchild, Declaime, and Med, and mentored his younger brother, rapper/producer Oh No. Meanwhile Egon helmed reissue projects like The Funky 16 Corners, a compilation of relatively unknown Seventies groups like the Highlighters and Co-Real Artists.
Over the past decade, Stones Throw has occasionally drawn mainstream interest. Its best-known releases are Quasimoto's wondrously psychedelic The Unseen from 2000, and Madvillain's Madvillainy, a brilliant collaboration between Madlib and eccentric rapper MF Doom, from 2004.
More important, however, Stones Throw fortified a reputation for professionalism, consistency, and excellence. It eludes the darts often thrown at indie rap records, which music critics and mainstream audiences often malign as amateurish and derivative, because Madlib is clearly a major hip-hop artist.
It was Madlib who drew Jay Dee, already famous among hip-hop fans for his work with A Tribe Called Quest, Janet Jackson, and Common, and his onetime membership in the group Slum Village. The two mutual admirers traded beat tapes cassettes and CDs full of instrumentals before they decided to work on a project together as Jaylib.
"He was accustomed to working for Janet Jackson and getting six figures [a track]," PB Wolf says of Jay Dee, whose final productions included tracks for Common's Be and Ghostface Killah's Fishscale. "Basically everybody was knocking on his door to work with him. He saw something in Madlib and in Stones Throw. I always had a good relationship with him."
But Jaylib's 2004's Champion Sound, a hard and uncompromising rap album, received mixed reviews from critics and fans. It doesn't reach the nihilistic depths of a typical thugcore album. But Jay Dee's inimitable rap style, which encompassed short words phrased in staccato fashion, seemingly ran counter to the label's prior, sometimes-whimsical output. Madlib followed Jay Dee's lead, unveiling his own tales of strip clubs and clocking dollars with equal bluntness. "He always had a street edge to him. But he also made soulful, beautiful music as well," PB Wolf says of Jay Dee. Sometimes, however, hip-hop fans found it difficult to process Jay Dee's musical contradictions: the undeniable beauty of his beats, and his sharp, edgy raps.
At the beginning of 2006, it appeared that Jay Dee's Donuts would be one of the Stones Throw releases that drew cursory attention. That all changed when he suddenly passed away. Across the nation, fans held tribute parties, and sales of the album picked up dramatically. "It reminded me how it's not necessarily about the music, but it's really about the story. Everybody wants the scoop. That's been difficult for me to process," says PB Wolf.
This year, Stones Throw celebrates its tenth anniversary with a massive artist showcase at SXSW. The concert is organized in conjunction with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, for which Stones Throw is assembling a compilation. Scheduled to appear are Madlib and MF Doom as Madvillain; Oh No; Med; and Declaime (as Dudley Perkins), along with new roster additions Percee P, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Roc C, Koushik, Aloe Blacc. PB Wolf and Egon will DJ. There will also be a DJ party at WMC featuring PB Wolf, Egon, Madlib, and J-Rocc. A full release schedule for 2006 is in the offing too. All of this is happening while the label mourns Jay Dee's untimely passing.
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