OUR VINYL WEIGHS A TON: STICK TO YOUR GUNS
Stones Throw is an independent label for the ages, and the documentary Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton tells the story of Stones Throw first as the story of label founder Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak). From the first wobbly VHS days, Wolf leads director Jeff Broadway and writer Rob Bralver from low lows to high highs—you know what we mean—and then back and forth again a few times, tracking the label from (as the film notes) “Stones Throw?” to “STONES THROW!” It’s part documentary, part biopic, part time capsule and part mixtape—actually, it’s really a study in character, and how strength of character is sometimes all you need. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Was it Kanye’s idea to be filmed in front of classic Greek temple architecture or did he bring his own columns?
Jeff Broadway: That was not the filmmakers’ idea. That was a place that we were told was Kanye’s home. Thankfully the interview took place at a time of day which provided a lot of very natural light that one of our guys took advantage of but that was not our idea nor was it a column that he traveled with to a certain location. That was a place we were told was his home, which I am quite wary of.
That is a little bit how I pictured his home. Yet you suspect that there are other, bigger columns in a secret home somewhere else?
JB: I do, yeah.
This is sort of a Kanye-esque question—what do you think is the greatest music documentary of all time? I’m curious what you saw as the absolute pinnacle of this art form.
JB: I think the official answer should be Cure for Pain: The Mark Sandman Story.
Rob Bralver: The second best is The Last Waltz maybe.
So many music documentaries are just endless talking heads, like Thurston Moore telling you why something is cool. When you started this, what kind of things did you know you didn’t want to do—and what did you know you had to do?
JB: We knew that we had to get a lot of experiential life stuff with Wolf. He was going to be our primary vehicle through this journey that amasses two plus decades and all of these other still iconic artists who have been part of the Stones Throw collective over the years—and that to travel to all those corners and those places to explore all those different people in this constellation we would really have to understand who Chris was and where he was coming from. That’s why we really felt like focusing on his childhood and most importantly on his relationship with Charizma and the experience that the two of them shared together while trying to start a career in the music business. That really sculpted and shaped the way that Chris approached Stones Throw some years later and has continued to do for almost twenty years.
How did the fact that he’s such an archiver by nature affect making this film? He still has the little mixtapes they made in sixth grade in a little carrying case that he probably also had in sixth grade. What’s it like having that as a resource? In some ways it seems totally awesome and in other ways it seems like, ‘We’re going to be rooting through so much stuff—this is going to be an editing nightmare.’
JB: Well, both. It’s definitely a better problem to have than the opposite where you are struggling with things to put on screen and Chris always had a few too many things to suggest putting in.
RB: When I first went to his house to begin hauling things out of there, initially I was quite surprised by the quantity of what he was attempting to turn over to me. In his house he has storage space and he has all these old and surprisingly well-organized classified boxes of all of his shit from over the years. I think when you think of pack rats, you often just think of a sprawling mess and stacks and stacks of bullshit. It’s not really like that with him. Most of it was in his house, very neatly organized. Some of it we got from the Stones Throw offices—some stuff that wasn’t quite so personal to him. All that archival stuff Stones Throw had done over the years. Obviously it’s an extension of Chris so they’d done a very nice job of keeping artifacts and press and all kinds of stuff from over the years. Not just Chris but Stones Throw has every CD they did, every flier, every tape and vinyl and all of the art that went with it. Hundreds of releases worth of stuff.
What about ephemera? Like little notes that say, ‘Need more chocolate shrooms.’
JB: Yeah, there’s stuff like that. We found some pretty cool stuff. Some early back and forth writings between [art director] Jeff Jank and Madlib regarding Quasimoto artwork. That note that’s in the movie: ‘To Otis, From Jeff.’
Didn’t Wolf do some kind of like report in elementary school about ‘I WILL BE A WORLD FAMOUS MUSICIAN ONE DAY’?
RB: It’s in the movie!
JB: From a very early age, he was quite fixated on living out what is now his current reality.
Why did he save all this? Did he know that one day two guys would come around to make a documentary?
JB: I don’t think so … but you know, maybe Chris always did think one day there’d be a movie! You know what? Sure—let’s go with that!
So what is the actual Stones Throw story? The film ends on a complex note—not to spoil it, but it’s not an ‘and then everything is great forever!’ ending. Wolf even says something like, ‘In the future, I want people to love us or hate us—nothing in between.’
RB: The main message we settled on is simple. It encompasses the whole story: ‘Stick to your guns, and sometimes there will be good times and sometimes there won’t.’
That’s more like a moral than a story.
JB: It’s the moral of the story. In exploring all these different individual and sometimes collective stories, you really get a look at this entity which has largely existed right on the periphery of a more traditional business that is very different—a business that is explicitly commercial, that makes decisions based on the bottom line. And then on the fringe in East L.A. is a label that’s very quietly been influencing the mainstream for years. And like Rob said about Chris—he’s stuck to his guns and remained unencumbered with the conventional wisdom the rest of the industry uses.
That’s in the film, too—Kanye is on like three of the magazine covers down at my supermarket, and he’s a reverent fan of Dilla and Stones Throw. It’s crazy that they’re that close to mass influence.
JB: We really wanted people to understand that and feel that. We didn’t go to celebrities like Kanye gratuitously. We went to them cuz they’re relevant. For a film about niche subject matter, when you have mainstream voices calling attention to it, it has a larger impact. You understand the breadth and length of the reach.
In a lot of these kinds of documentaries, the story is already over. Like the band broke up, the albums stopped coming and now we can go back and examine it. But Stones Throw is still very active. That’s even in the film—you have a scene dated September 13, 2013, and that was like … two weeks ago! What’s it like to try and attach a story to something that’s still in motion?
JB: We grappled with that quite a bit. We understood this wasn’t a story with a finite ending, nor was it going to have an ending while we made the film—or at least we hoped not! So in large part, it’s a working history and exploration of where Stones Throw exists today. But that’s why the end of the film is rather open. To use your word—‘complex.’ That’s the nature of Stones Throw. From the beginning to the end, we wanted the film to be largely informed by Stones Throw’s history and aesthetic. We both felt OK with not having a more traditional ending. The film ends where the filmmaking ended.
RB: And even though the details of the particular artists in Chris’ life are still ongoing, if you made the same film ten or twenty years from now, you could still end on similar sentiment and outlook. The moral would still be the same. This is what they do—this is what they’re always gonna do.
JB: Seventeen years now. We tried to illuminate as best we could without going into Chris’ bank statements! It seems like Chris … something we omitted from the film was him talking about months and months where he didn’t pay himself. He’d had money saved from previous successes, but with the previous successes came decisions to save or put money here or there, and however he’s done it—and with whoever has been advising him—even through thinner times they manage to stay afloat and solvent.
How? What actually got them through?
JB: They made really solid bets early on. Namely Madlib, who attracted Dilla, who attracted Doom.
RB: Really their greatest challenge was probably navigating the change out of hip-hop—the Gary Wilson years. I thought Gary was hilarious. It’s a combination of vision and luck that made this work out. Stones Throw doesn’t do market research. Sometimes they put shit out no one buys. Sometimes people buy it and then they keep going.
Why does Wolf love characters? There are so many people on Stones Throw that are just one-of-a-kind. There aren’t like budget copies of more famous people.
RB: This is only a guess but it’s a pretty good one at this point—they all sort of reflect Chris and Charizma in those early years. That’s what we saw. Dressing up, making funny voices, screwing around with instruments … and they managed to become a magnet for similar kinds of kids. There was a line that used to be in the movie about how Stones Throw was an island of misfit toys, and that made a lot of sense.
Anika talks from the stage about the ‘fake world’ of the music business—how did you avoid falling into that world? What do you think she meant?
RB: There’s definitely a funny line to relate to that. We all know what that is to a degree as music fans. But at the same time, the film is aware it’s serving as an advertisement to this music, so we walk the line of not doing what you’re sort of criticizing. Our approach was to simply not editorialize, and to call it as we saw it and let people speak for themselves. We’re simply the messengers, I guess.
If you had made an ad for Stones Throw, what would it have been like?
RB: Does it have to be five minutes?
An hour long but it airs at 4 AM.
RB: We had thirty more artists we could’ve included! It was hard to decide who to omit. The main point for us was to represent Stones Throw as a place that’s very diverse. But unfortunately the Lions aren’t in there, though we wanted people to know that Stones Throw also did reggae. But it just got too repetitive to be like, ‘Another cool artist! Another cool artist!’
How did you break it to the people who didn’t get to be in the movie?
RB: We loved the stuff with Black Shakespeare and the Lions, and dozens of other artists were all really cool. And we thought if we had to cut something cool, maybe it could at least be on the DVD. As far as breaking it to people, we never had to do that personally. Chris has been a really nice protective buffer for us! I think he got some flak, though—plenty of angry text messages!
What kind of rare Dilla and Madlib artifacts did you get access to? To me, that was such an historic time for Stones Throw.
RB: You saw some in the film for sure. Hopefully we included the best of it. But unfortunately people didn’t film a ton then. There’s a lot more of them in the studio that night you see them hanging out. And we got a little of them out in the car driving around, probably going out for drinks.
JB: In the Dillalade! He had an Escalade he’d had customized at the Dillalade.
Could Stones Throw happen again? Chris was able to build this label before the internet, before downloading, before the music industry started turning inside out—is there a way to create self-sufficient independents of this level now? Or are we going to see a lot more but a lot smaller labels?
JB: We’ve witnessed the birth of Odd Future so it’s certainly still a possibility. But now it’s much more about the cult of personality and having the ability to transcend music. It’s not necessarily about the sale of physical music and if you can make good music, you can become successful. It’s more who you are, where you are, how you understand the media, how you fully exploit your talent commercially but also who you are as a person. That’s why Tyler’s done phenomenally well as Odd Future, which has been independent since day one. And now it’s music, a clothing brand, a TV show—it’s 360! And he’s 21 years old.
That’s a different skill set—Wolf has a lot of personality, but he’s not as much a public personality. It comes through his work and the people on his label.
JB: He’s not. You just have to be a showman in this day and age. You have to have quality product to back it up, but you have to be a showman. And with Chris, that’s an astute point that he’s not an outward showman. It’s the artists who are extensions of him. Or that’s how he perceives it.
So now that you’ve made this documentary, what have you learned that would help you start your own record label?
JB: I don’t think we’d do that!
RB: We definitely always talk about hoping this would go beyond aspiring musicians and music entrepreneurs to idea men of any kind. It’s a simple message you can’t repeat enough—just try and do what you wanna do.
JB: For Rob and me, our filmmaking is in many ways quite similar. The sort of lo-fi bedroom nature of our productions which can kinda play among the larger players in the film world. That’s something Stones Throw has mastered. It still trips people out when they learn how Doom and Madlib made Madvillainy. Madlib just had beat CDs he gave to Doom, and they weren’t even in the studio. Just bedroom to bedroom. And that’s one of the most pure and untouchable independent hip-hop releases of all time.
RB: And we make our movies out of our living room.
JB: We met in college and made a few documentaries, all out of our living room. That’s the spirit we really wanted to tip our caps to and share with the world.
That’s important that you suggest they could compete against major players—that these things aren’t inferior or limited. They can stand next to art made by people with a lot more resources and connections.
RB: It really comes down to talent and hard work. If you have something unique and other talented people get it, you’ll end up finding each other.
JB: The world has access to the things Doom and Madlib used for Madvillainy, or what Rob and I used to make this movie. But if you don’t understand your craft when you’re using rudimentary equipment, it’s not gonna be any good.
Madlib has a scene where he says he doesn’t care about money, fame, any of that—do you think that you have to not want those things to have any chance of actually getting those things?
RB: Unfortunately I think plenty of people succeed who don’t care—for better or for worse.
JB: Madlib—he himself is like that but Chris understands it’s a business, and people around him understand it’s a business and they want to be successful. And if Madlib is personally not concerned, there are enough people who have been able to convert that talent into commercial success to a certain extent. You can romanticize that and consider how idealistic it is, but at the end of the day, Madlib still has a vehicle that drives that thing. It’s not like he just puts music out and enough people hear it and he becomes famous.
I’d hate to see a world where no one knew who people like Madlib were in their own time—so much would be missing. So much is probably still missing now from people the world doesn’t yet know about.
JB: Tyler is a dude who very much understands he’s in a position of major influence.
For better or worse?
JB: And he also gets that he’s a conduit for kids his age who don’t give a fuck about the history of music and he definitely does—despite whatever his public persona is. If you talk to that dude for an hour or so, it becomes incredibly apparent how much he cares about what he’s involved in.
RB: He was super-excited to talk to Jeff as someone who cared about this kind of music—‘No one knows what I’m talking about!’
JB: And it’s also interesting to know that he didn’t learn about Stones Throw through Madlib or Dilla or Doom. He came through the backdoor with James Pants—he was a big James Pants fan, and through that got to Stepkids and Jonti and then was like, ‘No way—this label puts out Doom!’
That seems like a perfect validation of Wolf’s entire aesthetic.
JB: He lives for that! When he hears Tyler learned about Stones Throw through the backdoor, that’s completely validating for him.
RB: ‘Thank God! Someone else gets it!’
OUR VINYL WEIGHS A TON SCREENS ON FRI., NOV. 8, AND MON., NOV. 11, AT THE LEEDS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL AND ON FRI., NOV. 8, AND SUN., NOV. 10, AT THE STOCKHOLM FILM FESTIVAL. FURTHER SCREENINGS IN DENVER, ST. PAUL AND COPENHAGEN NEXT WEEK. VISIT OURVINYLWEIGHSATON.COM FOR SCREENING SCHEDULE AND FURTHER INFORMATION.