Stones Throw: The First 10 Years

When Stones Throw was founded by DJ/producer Chris Manak — better known as Peanut Butter Wolf — it seemed like yet another entry in a flourishing mid ’90s underground hip-hop label boom alongside the likes of Rawkus, Rhymesayers, Fondle ‘Em, Solesides, and Hiero Imperium. But in the ten years that followed, from the first singles in ’96 through to a flourishing 2006 buoyed by hip-hop classics like J Dilla’s Donuts and a stack of Madlib joints, it was firmly established that the label’s vision of hip-hop would extend a lot further than most indies. That year’s PBW-curated Chrome Children comp served as a fascinating cross-section of what the label had ventured into, and what they’d continue to expand on in the future: hip-hop beat tapes that strayed fearlessly into esoteric psychedelia and bedrock-deep funk, dreamlike indie pop that outdid chillwave before chillwave was a thing, and some of the most left-field mutations of synth-twiddling mania this side of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Yet for all the label’s eclecticism, its first ten years were best embodied by that spirit as it pertained to a hip-hop perspective, whether it was a turntablist’s breaks-and-cuts exhibition, a reissue of funk obscurities that even the most diligent sample-seekers hadn’t found yet, a beat-driven neo-soul suite that’d stand toe-to-toe with any high-profile Soulquarians release, or a portfolio of rap records that embody anything from West Coast post-Good Life Cafe battle raps to psilocybin-driven comedic experiments. Picking out a baker’s dozen from the label’s first ten years to encompass everything Stones Throw pulled off means leaving out some of the more outre gems — apologies to Gary Wilson and Baron Zen — but even the (relatively) straightforward rap stuff on here has the classic indie-label vibe of getting away with some tectonic evolutionary shit when the tastemakers aren’t looking.

Big Shots cover

One of the primary reasons Peanut Butter Wolf formed Stones Throw in the first place was to have full control over his early work with the MC he should’ve spent a Guru/DJ Premier-length stint with. Tragically, the 1993 shooting death of rapper Charizma ended that promise right when it was gaining underground momentum, but there was far more in store than just the ’96 archival release of label-christening West Coast boom-bap single “My World Premiere”. Charisma’s voice has a gusto to it that knocks most ’90s indie peers flat, and the hard-knocking drums and soul jazz loops Wolf brought to cuts like “Here’s A Smirk” and “Red Light, Green Light” would make the hardest NYC partisans jump out their Timbs.

Presents Soulful Fruit cover

Stones Throw was quick to break regional boundaries — it was a Cali label, but that didn’t stop them from releasing an album by X-Ecutioners master turntablist Rob Swift at an early stretch of his long-tail career peak. At least, that’s the name on the cover — but the routines also include appearances from fellow Xers Diamond Jay, Mista Sinista, and Roc Raida. A classic breaks-and-scratches record that features instantly recognizable sample sources amd seamless transitions (David Matthews’ “Sandworms” into Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Superman Lover”!) and then shows what happens when a top-tier DJ gets ahold of them.

Time Waits for No Man cover

Bay Area rapper Rasco benefited from an early stint with the group Various Blends, but was limited to self-released demos and EPs for years before his solo debut on Stones Throw. And while he might not have reached his highest profile until he teamed up with Planet Asia as Cali Agents in 2000, Time Waits for No Man leapfrogs over “promising” to land squarely on “give him props already.” Themes might be late ’90s indie-rap familiar — putdowns of quasi-Cosa Nostra champagne MCs, cold- and clear-eyed true crime storytelling, and backed-up declarations of lyrical dominance — but they’re delivered with a solarplexus-crushing authority over a beat suite that makes ’98 San Mateo sound like a quick detour into ’92 Queensbridge.

My Vinyl Weighs a Ton cover

DJs are curators as much as they’re soundsystem-dominating performers — maybe moreso — so it’s understandable if Peanut Butter Wolf’s discography leans far more towards compilations and mixtapes than self-made personal statements. Still, being a turntablist in the late ’90s meant you were practically obligated to put out a scratch record with a whole bunch of your DJ and rapper friends, and My Vinyl Weighs a Ton stands as both a solid self-contained entry into the field and a glimpse at the Stones Throw stylistic philosophy. It’s heavy on wide-underground-appeal headnod rap cuts (Planet Asia, Lootpack, and an unearthed Charizma collab deliver high points), but the all-star scratch summit centerpiece “Tale of Five Cities” — with Wolf joined by an eleven-man-strong who’s-who assemblage of battle DJs — is the berserk peak.

Soundpieces: Da Antidote! cover

If you followed West Coast hip-hop closely enough, you’d’ve heard a Madlib beat long before the Stones Throw years — at least, assuming you had enough savvy to check for the first three Alkaholiks albums, which featured guest spots from Lootpack years before they concocted their official debut. That even the first pressings of Soundpieces featured a starburst caption reading “ANOTHER MADLIB INVAZION!” should say something about the producer/MC’s rep preceding him, but alongside fellow rapper Wildchild and cut-and-scratch maestro DJ Romes, the ensemble justifies the hype; the blunt(ed) lyricism, left-turn jazz-weirdo sample collages, and quick-cutting 74-minutes-that-feel-like-30 pace make this a repeat-listen must.

The Unseen cover

Some vocalists might hear themselves on a recording and find themselves dissatisfied with the sound of their own voice. Few, if any, would make the same decision about it that Madlib did: take a bunch of mushrooms and record an album where he plays himself as a chipmunk-voiced, brick-wielding cartoon, a sort of Krazy Kat via “Funky Worm” Mothershipper Junie Morrison. As a “bad character” foil to his natural semi-deadpan baritone, Lord Quas followed in the steps of (and liberally sampled from) the cast of flawed-but-human archetypes in the early ’70s stage works of Melvin Van Peebles, three incarnations of beat poetry mingling together into hip-hop as a holistic exploration of the unknown and unheard — and inspiring listeners to ponder the question unseen by whom?

The Funky 16 Corners cover

It’d be more than enough if Stones Throw was strictly in the business of letting assorted hip-hop experimenters do their thing without some brow-furrowing A&R getting on their case. But label GM Eothen “Egon” Alapatt was also a voracious collector and archivist, and this roundly-praised obscure funk collection he curated for the label did brisk enough numbers to spin off his reissue imprint Now-Again Records. The bands on this comp were stylistic peers of late ’60s/early ’70s peak-power Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Kool & the Gang, just with a fraction of their success — but Egon’s deep-dive liner notes reveal how even the most underheard of these regional bands contained worlds within themselves. A sample-ready legacy of blank-filling music history starts here.

Now cover

When Hoagy Carmichael’s son was a producer at Boston public TV station WGBH, he got the notion to update his father’s 1958 kiddie album Havin’ A Party for the Sesame Street-savvy children of the ’70s. Fatefully, the group he recruited to do this was an experimental jazz ensemble called the Stark Reality, and the resulting 1970 LP The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop exposed many unwitting youths to music that sounded like Roy Ayers wrapped in aluminum foil and put in a centrifuge until it all sounded flailingly dizzy. Naturally it became a top-dollar cratedigger nugget, and this collection of cuts from it and contemporaneous sessions made its bizarre wonder available to all.

Champion Sound cover

After reaching out to each other with mutual beat-geek enthusiasm and a series of by-mail mixtape trades, Madlib and J Dilla formed the kind of musical partnership that would change both artists in significant ways. Champion Sound is a sort of producer-MC handshake where each artist raps over the other’s beats — Dilla going rugged over Madlib’s subterranean haze and Madlib playing it cool amid Dilla’s loping sub-bass. But it’s also a turning point for both producers: after a brief early ’00s phase of avoiding traditional hip-hop for multitracked one-man-band jazz, Madlib sounds re-energized and down for whatever in Dilla’s presence, while Dilla slips free of the MCA handcuffs  to workshop and refine the more experimental, indie-appeal tendencies he’d started showing on Common’s Electric Circus.

Madvillainy cover

If you can think of two pop-cult encyclopedias with wide-angle perspectives who were better suited to collaborate than early ’00s MF DOOM and Madlib, tell them to get in the studio and record something already. In the meantime, keep sinking your head inside this masterpiece of can hip-hop do this? conceptualism and lyrics that leave no proverb unmutated. Funny and deep in ways that conflate the two, which makes it a more potent weed substitute than delta 8.

Donuts cover

Imagine if this album didn’t emerge as a self-eulogy, if its creator didn’t pass before the music even had time to sink in for its listeners, if it didn’t finally turn a whole generation or two on to the rulebreaker beatmaking of a hip-hop visionary who spent his whole career as an underappreciated “producer’s producer.” It’d still be a shining example of how Dilla wasn’t content to use sampling as a second language — he created an entirely new language out of it, finding expressive resilience in concision, disjointed repetition, and counter-intuitive rhythms.

Expressions cover

Dudley Perkins — a/k/a Declaime — was there with Madlib from early times, including a Lootpack-adjacent guest verse kicking off Tha Alkaholiks’ Coast II Coast in ’95. A stream-of-consciousness rapper-turned-singer with a raw, wavering, casually off-kilter voice like a significantly more chill ODB, Perkins hit his stride here with a Madlib-produced LP that was unafraid to let the idiosyncratic, all-posi side of g-funk come out to play. Perkins shows off a neo-soul depth with the joyful enthusiasm of a singer who’s more about upfront, spontaneous energy than melismatic chops.

Olesi: Fragments of an Earth cover

If Dudley Perkins was an early fixture of the Madlib / Stones Throw universe, his wife Georgia Anne Muldrow held a more fleeting yet notable role on the label — the first woman to be signed, if only briefly, where she announced the start of a still-flourishing career in avant-soul-jazz with a debut album that already sounded like a fully-formed life statement. In tune with a spirituality somewhere between the expansive meditations of Alice Coltrane and the funky reinforcement of Erykah Badu, she produced and sequenced Olesi to reveal often small but always powerful fragments of a style where her soaring, searching voice is just the start of a deep immersion in an unfamiliar but welcoming new galaxy.