Stones Throw: The Second Decade

From its 1996 founding through its ten-year anniversary, Stones Throw had established itself as a remarkably eclectic label: driven by the visions of founder Peanut Butter Wolf, artists like Madlib and J Dilla, and the curatorial savvy of reissue majordomo Egon, it dove deeper into the odder outer reaches of hip-hop and its inspirations than any other indie. Cultivating a culture and aesthetic that still maintained a deep connection to hip-hop’s roots while finding countless new avenues through which to express it often made Stones Throw resemble a 21st Century West Coast update of the early ’80s NYC uptown-meets-downtown art-rap aesthetic that gave us Basquiat in Blondie videos and Liquid Liquid interpolations in Melle Mel tracks — except nobody seemed like a newcomer to a nascent culture, instead having lived and breathed within its boundaries to the point where those boundaries were fearlessly redrawn outwards.

With a roster that was either steeped in hip-hop since juvenile times or fulfilled the deeper promise in a once-lost world of cratedigging obscurities, the second decade of Stones Throw continued their bi-coastal-to-international outreach while still putting out reissues and new works that spoke deeply to the label’s Cali roots from classic electro to g-funk futurism. And while the passing of Dilla, the departure of Madlib to form his own label, and the exodus of Egon over creative differences changed the shape of the label noticeably, the foundations they helped build were strong enough to support many more years of curious art, whether it was hi-performance underground rap, psychedelia of uncanny provenance, low budget/hi-fidelity synth jams, or — most appropriately — some intersection of all three.

Toeachizown cover

Synth wizards have been integral to funk since the dawn of the ’70s, from famous pioneers like Stevie Wonder, Bernie Worrell, and Prince to cult heroes like Dexter Wansel and Mandré. That’s the universe Damon Riddick grew up in, and he expanded through that experience to evolve from g-funk session player in the ’90s to one of the most fascinating figures in West Coast funk. Ever want to hear a Zapp-caliber bounce groove stretched into the sort of endless, sprawling vistas Tangerine Dream escaped to? Dâm-Funk would take you there, whether the journey was a relaxed nightvision glide or a high-noon dose of Cali heat.

Out My Window cover

Koushik Ghosh’s career was so fleeting that it seems almost like a vaguely remembered but pleasant dream. After getting a break in the early ’00s collaborating with Dan Snaith’s Manitoba (before he had to change the name to Caribou), Koushik eventually emerged with his debut full-length, a concentrated blast of icy warmth that cut through the beachfront meditations of that year’s chillwave crop like gleaming winter sunshine. Think the graceful haze of Four Tet’s beat-driven ambience worked into funky-rhythmed psych-pop somewhere between Shuggie Otis and Yo La Tengo — assuming you even need to think about it when feeling it hits more directly.

Yesterdays Universe! cover

Shortly after the completion of the first Quasimoto record, Madlib took a sabbatical from traditional beats-and-rhymes hip-hop — or at least as “traditional” as he got — to work on something even stranger. Creating an entire label roster’s worth of alter egos and taking on all their different instrumental roles, Madlib reverse-engineered ’60s and ’70s spiritual, cosmic, and soul jazz by creating one-man-band compositions that would soon mutate into full-ensemble efforts. Yesterdays Universe! chronicles the transition from his Yesterdays New Quintet solo-ish work to an alias-riddled collaborative project with drummers Karriem Riggins and Ivan “Mamão” Conti, a definitive statement that hip-hop couldn’t just sample jazz, but be jazz.

Perseverance cover

Like Too $hort, South Bronx rapper Percee P became just as known for his DIY hustle as he was for his lyricism, and sold so many copies of his self-pressed mixtapes outside Manhattan rap Mecca record store Fat Beats that he was destined to have his own shelf space inside eventually. Stones Throw made that happen in 2007 with the Madlib-produced PerseverancePerserverance, where the then-38-year-old rapper let every permutation of his pure-technique style hit with decades’ worth of sword-sharpening refinement. And if the “rapping about being good at rapping” subject matter is simultaneous show/tell/prove, Madlib’s production — ranging from 8-bit action-game burbles to dirtbag hard rock guitar riffs — gives those lyrics countless environments to unfold in.

Hud Dreems cover

It’s a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint who on the current Stones Throw roster is doing the most praiseworthy job of carrying the Madlib torch, but the hyperprolific knxwledge — whose Bandcamp page discography breaks triple digits — definitely belongs in the same league. Released mere months after his co-production credit for “Momma” on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, his first instrumental full-length Hud Dreems shows a Beat Konducta-caliber ear for the wavier, more hauntological side of jazz-break hip-hop, all melodic sketches that take little time to fully sink in and even less to grab your heart.

Yawn Zen cover

PR spun a lot of wild tales around Ringgo Ancheta when he seemingly emerged out of nowhere to drop Yawn Zen for Stones Throw: Was his family in a cult? Did he grow up on a commune? Had he even heard contemporary pop music before his late teens? But the truth was both more quotidian and more inspiring: mndsgn is just a better-than-most bedroom beatmaker who broke out of stifling suburban ennui with a post-genre enthusiasm for new sounds. This record’s textural instrumentals, which crackle and stutter with the janky grace of early Flying Lotus and treat ’10s indie and ’60s psych as contemporaneous inspirations, hint at his later expansions into skygazing R&B/hip-hop hybrids.

Anika cover

Annika Henderson has developed into one of the most grab-you-by-the-throat voices in contemporary post-punk — a singer with all the right influences (think Nico if she had the good sense to be into Grace Jones, or Ari Up covered in a fine layer of frost) who then synthesized them into some stunning collaborative dubscapes. Her first big statement was backed by Geoff Barrow’s kosmische-dub reverb wizards BEAK> — not the last time the Portishead alum would show up on Stones Throw — and balances staggering covers of icons like Yoko Ono (“Yang Yang”) and Bob Dylan (“Masters of War”) with nervy originals unafraid to evoke the more disquieting bits of early ’80s pre-Factory DIY.

Innovative Life: The Anthology 1984-1989 cover

Before Ice-T and N.W.A. dominated Los Angeles hip-hop, the sound of the city was distinctly more uptempo and electro-indebted — a West Coast counterpart to the sounds of Soulsonic Force and Arthur Baker that brought together g’s and new wavers alike to rock with crews like Uncle Jamm’s Army. Arabian Prince was positioned somewhere between those two worlds — he was an unjustly under-remembered founding member of N.W.A. who also produced J.J. Fad’s deathless electro classic “Supersonic” — but Innovative Life positions him as one of the scene’s most joyfully infectious funk futurists, and jams like “It Ain’t Tough” and “Situation Hot” are the things that Lockers dream of.

The Minimal Wave Tapes, Vol. 1 cover

Call this a fateful meeting of cratedigging tastemakers-slash-archeologists: when Peanut Butter Wolf joined up with Veronica Vascika, the founder and curator of archival electronic label Minimal Wave, Stones Throw’s dalliances in oddball synthpop fully tapped a rich vein of inspiring otherwise-lost greatness. Think the late ’70s/early ’80s electronic equivalent of garage rock — simple and stripped down by budget-dictated necessity but far from basic, with intersections of techno, industrial, Italo-disco, funk, and post-punk assembling a vision of bedroom synth as a movement every bit as vital to the future of underground music as any endlessly-chronicled hardcore punk scene.

Quakers cover

While BEAK> brought out the dubby side of Geoff Barrow, his longtime immersion in hip-hop-influenced production would also drive him to put out an absolute inspiration-hemorrhage of a record. Created alongside veteran producer Katalyst and Portishead’s Third engineer Stuart “7stu7” Matthews, Quakers is more exhaustive than exhausting, with only a couple of its 41 (!) tracks itching the skip-button finger and many, many more of them proving to be psych-rock-b-boy bangers begging for a volume crank. The Radiohead-gone-"Tusk” marching band clobber of “Fitta Happier,” featuring Stones Throw mainstays Guilty Simpson and M.E.D., is only the most immediate thrill; further features from Estee Nack (“Lost and Found”), Dead Prez (“Soul Power”), and Organized Konfusion’s Prince Po (“Rock My Soul”) burrow in heavy, too.

First of a Living Breed cover

If there was a single rapper on Stones Throw worth singling out as the ace of the label during the 2010s, it was Homeboy Sandman, the Queens MC who dropped tight EPs and deep LPs throughout a creatively relentless decade. His first salvo for the label shows off a breadth that answers to nobody but himself, where his hyperfocused technical spitting can amaze in itself even before you get to the fact that his wordplay’s high-tier and his punchlines can hit for profundity and goofiness with equal sharpness. An all-star lineup of producers, including 8-bit eclecticist Jonwayne, soul-flipper Oddisee, and the always-shapeshifting Oh No add to the breadth.

Dr. No's Oxperiment cover

Imagine being Otis Jackson Jr.’s younger brother — how could you not get drawn into his world just by pure osmosis? Thankfully, being the best rapper/producer to sound like Madlib next to Madlib himself helps Oh No shake off any accusations of being derivative, but so does his music — in a similar spirit to big brother’s international excursions, but a bit cleaner, brighter, and to-the-point. Dr. No’s Oxperiment might be  his most notable for providing opening cut “Heavy,” later tweaked into the beat for Mos Def’s classic cut “Supermagic.” But this beat-suite of tracks concocted from Mediterranean rock and traditional music is crammed with jams just as heavy — all 28 of which bust down the door, rock your speakers, and make their mark in less than two minutes, efficient yet potent.

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