An independent art cinema in Glasgow isn’t the most wild’n’out place to find Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf. He’s here for a Q&A session on new documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, a film that showcases the iconic history of the label that birthed J Dilla, Madlib, and MF DOOM. And sorry, but he’s not here to answer any questions on Madvillainy 2.
But before I could ask Peanut Butter Wolf what DOOM’s favourite food is, we all sat down to watch Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton together.
Detailing the steady development of the Los Angeles-based record label, director Jeff Broadway’s film is happy to play with the path of history. Like all the best non-chronological films, the documentary toggles between different time lines, the placement of each story acting as an addendum to what came before. At the very moment that the formation of Stones Throw is mentioned, Broadway decides to leap into 2013 and give camera time to the label’s current roster. Jonwayne makes an Eastern-inspired beat by jangling his car keys and shaking a skateboard. Dâm-Funk beatifically shares his dream to grow old “smoking a cigar on a beach [and] drinking a Cadillac Margherita”. Homebody Sandman poses for a photo with a bunch of kids – kids he may have taught in his days as a public school teacher, it’s never made totally clear – and casually says “Black Power!” in lieu of “cheese!” James Pants prepares an audience for an evening of “drumming and screaming” next to a pool, a Very Los Angeles Moment if there ever was one. It’s only with the arrival of a very dapper Madlib can Broadway return to the past.
Our Vinyl could be irritating with its casual treatment of the label’s trajectory but instead feels charmingly off-handed and delivered the way a conversation would, with constant interjections between the past and present. And like one of those conversations, the present makes more sense the more that the past is fleshed out. The Stones Throw narrative could be considered one of constant rebirth. Peanut Butter Wolf started the label after the tragic 1993 death of Charizma, his teenage musical partner. In home movie footage, Charizma and PBW make an appealingly anarchic pair, larking about in character at petrol pumps and spending a TV interview talking about apple juice. When his death by carjacking becomes clear, the sense of loss is palatable. Tragedy rocks the film later on with the passing of J Dilla, from Moschcowitz syndrome, in 2006.
Shaky handheld camera footage of his last public performance, in which Dilla is hoisted onstage in a wheelchair, is equal amounts sad and inspiring. Even in blurry close-ups from a Parisian balcony, his frailness is as evident as his sheer defiance, thousands of people applauding him as he raises his fist from inside his wheelchair. The death shook Stones Throw, leaving the label’s figurehead artist Madlib unable to make music. As PBW says of the immediate post-Dilla period: “it was the Wild West for a while.” Yet, in both instances, incredibly idiosyncratic music arose out of tragic circumstances, solidifying the Stones Throw experience, from left-field hip-hop to jazz to lo-fi to punk to whatever the hell Captain Funkaho was.
Aside from the lapses into tragedy (the film is dedicated to both Charizma and Dilla), Our Vinyl is a chilled-out watch. For a project with such a fractured pre-production history – financiers pulling out of a French crew’s original documentary, then merged together with Broadway’s team to complete the film over three years - a relaxed LA vibe reverberates through the film. At points this breeziness robs the film of delving into whether or not PBW holds a distinctly anti-establishment stance, or how the label can stay afloat in a fractious economy, or what exactly caused a mass recall of vinyl in 2007. For the casual viewer, little of the musical focus will mean something – Common rambling on about Detroit does not function as a replacement for understanding why Dilla’s Donuts is such a daring and gorgeous cap on the man’s career and life.
And still, the film breezily offers you countless tidbits of hip-hop trivia and glimpses into humorous personas. Madlib reflects on taking mushrooms for a month straight while creating The Unseen – not a week as widely believed –and then refers to alter-ego Quasimoto as “a pig face Alf n*****”. Kanye West decides on-screen that Dilla’s drums “sound like good pussy”. Prince Paul appears to talk about MF DOOM, but only while wearing a Captain America mask. Snoop Dogg listens to 7 Days of Funk and does a super endearing chair dance. An early mix from PBW is played, a countdown of disco hits that is interrupted by a pressing deadline for a “stupid book report”. Greatest of all, Geoff Barrow bemoans mid-noughties commercial hip-hop, particularly that well-known rapper “Jay Rule”.
Essentially, there are plenty of gems offered up in Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, enough to keep hip-hop fans feasting for more than a minute. A bunch of people had some questions, here’s a run down of everything we learnt.
Reminiscing on the creation of Madvillainy, an album that just celebrated its tenth anniversary…
“DOOM was like ‘Who’s Madlib? I don’t know anything about this guy.’ So we sent him everything, we sent him the Quasimoto stuff, Lootpack, beats, we sent him jazz stuff… We probably sent him way too much. When you’re sending a demo, you’re usually supposed to send three songs. We sent him, like, ten albums.”
“On [Madvillainy], there’s at least one or two songs that were Yesterday’s New Quintet beats that were not intended for anybody to rap on. “Great Day” was the first one.”
“With Doom, we didn’t have a contract with him or anything. He’s used to contracts because he’d been on major labels before, so we got drunk one night and I took a piece of paper out and wrote ‘I’m gonna pay you this advance’ – it was a really small advance. I wrote ‘we’ll split profits fifty-fifty afterwards’ and he signed it. The thing is that’s really romantic. I personally don’t like contracts at all.”
On his current relationship with Aloe Blacc, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary and is no longer signed to Stones Throw…
“Honestly, I was this close to not putting out [2010’s Good Things]. I didn’t really like the album that much but I had signed him already. It got to a point where we put it out anyway… That’s something that I’ve always struggled with because I don’t want to be too involved with the artists where I’m trying to change the album but then, the Stones Throw logo’s on the back. I want it to be something I buy in the store, and that record was right on the cusp where I might have bought it but probably not. But I’m thankful that it came out… Stones Throw might not have been in business anymore had it not been for the success of Aloe Blacc.”
On being around Madlib’s recreational drug use…
“I have done shrooms with Madlib once and that’s the first and last time I’m going to do shrooms.”
On the supposed vinyl resurgence…
“Really, when I started Stones Throw we were selling fifty thousand units of some stuff and now we’re selling five thousand. Percentage wise… it’s a bigger piece of a smaller pie.”
When asked what record he was proudest of releasing…
He deadpanned “probably be the Folerio seven-inch,” referring to his atonal Prince-esque alter-ego. (The press release for Folerio’s You’re So Precious seven-inch: “Folerio is not available for interviews or appearances because Folerio is for the people and the people are not for Folerio.”)
Amazingly asked from the crowd: how much does your MP3 collection weigh? The answer: “It’s probably a lot.”
On record shopping in Japan…
“We asked for the jazz section and the guy at the record store said ‘only Beatles’. What? ‘Whole record store… only Beatles’. I go upstairs and there’s a George Harrison section, a Ringo Starr section…”
An anecdote: “I opened for New Order at this music festival in Japan. It was basically in the mountains and then we had to go to Tokyo after. Nobody at the festival arranged a ride back to Tokyo for me, so they said ‘we’ll just stick you on New Order’s tour bus’. Peter Hook was like ‘nah, nah, get this kid off! You don’t wanna be on the bus with us, we’re a bunch of rowdy motherfuckers!’ And then Bernard Sumner, he was like ‘no, no, he’s okay…’ I ended up… not getting on the bus.”
On potentially releasing Stones Throw laserdiscs…
“I was looking into it, believe me.”
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