Homecoming: First San Jose Show in Decades
Stones Throw is a panoply of inventive music, a cadre of artists whom flout convention while making some of the most varied, artful projects in recent memory. It’s all due to Chris Manak, who helms the powerhouse label, which he founded in San Jose, his hometown and early base of operations.
Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, was already known when the San Jose Mercury News featured him years ago. It was for an upcoming, ballyhooed performance and despite the fact that he’d having toured the world since the ’90s, attendance for the show was dismal, “completely empty” according to Manak. “I haven’t been back to San Jose since,” he says.
Stones Throw’s origin was that of a homespun rap label, a partnership that began with Manak and his best friend, Charizma, an exuberant rapper whose life was cut short in the mid ’90s. The duo was neither “Hollywood” nor “Basic” when they were signed to a label of the same name (Hollywood Basics,) yet after Charizma’s death—as well as the label chief’s deteriorating health—their resulting work was shelved. By this millennium’s early aughts, these lost tracks (a reissue called Big Shots) were released to wide acclaim, as Stones Throw’s catalogue and lore expanded.
Ethereal bedroom beat tapes, droning synth records, and kaleidoscopic deviations from its rap origins soon filled Stones Throw’s release schedule. At worst, the approach meandered towards inventiveness; at best they were the inventors.
Manak realized that different acts like Nite Jewel, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, and Anika could flourish under the same banner, that labels almost not need exist if the source material were all strong, all striking. Asked how he chooses his projects, whether by analytics or gut feeling, he laughs. “I think you already know the answer to that one.”
2017 marks Stones Throw’s 21st anniversary, as PB Wolf comes home to perform with Egyptian Lover, an admitted early hero of his and longtime South Bay favorite. The bill is bound with local history, organized by Needle to the Groove, who recently brought Dâm-Funk and DJ QBert to San Jose.
What part of San Jose did you grow up in? What was the San Jose music scene like when you were growing up? What were some music venues you frequented? I grew up in three different houses in San Jose, all in the Berryessa district more or less. The main two resources for me in my early years that helped me discover songs were KSOL radio station and Star Records. I’d listen to the radio religiously in the late ’70s, early ’80s, save up my lunch money, and walk to Star Records on the weekend with my list and buy 45s. This was when I was like 9 or 10, maybe 11 years old. The people at Star Records told me that when I was old enough to work, they’d hire me, and they eventually did. When I started getting into hip-hop, Kev-Ee-Kev’s show “The Drum” on KZSU taught me about a gang of stuff too. His show was every Sunday from 6 to -9pm and this was around the mid ’80s. I’d listen to it at my dad’s house every week and take notes.
What San Jose spots did you check out around then? What struck you? There used to be breakdance battles at Chuck E. Cheese! And some of the clubs I’d go to were One Step Beyond, —where I saw The Red Hot Chili Peppers open for Fishbone—. The Oasis, the Cactus Club, Studio 47, and FX. $2 Tuesdays were popular. I guess the irony was that there were pretty much no nightclubs in San Jose back then that played hip-hop, even though hip-hop was my passion. You’d have to go to the “groove room” at underground raves. I do remember A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, De La Soul, and KMD all played a show together at Studio 47, which was normally a Latin freestyle club, but I missed that one!
Any shows or live acts you saw then that have stuck with you? The first live concert I saw was Kool & The Gang in, like, 1983 at Great America. I liked it but wasn’t super excited about them at that time. I just happened to be at Great America anyway. But the first show I was really excited about going to was Egyptian Lover at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, a year or two later. My mom dropped me off and the show was sold out, so I had to wait for her to go home so I could call her from a pay phone, then wait for her to come back and get me. I was devastated and after missing that show, I didn’t actually get to see him live until the 2000s, but over the past few years, I’ve probably shared the stage with him like 50 times or gotten to tour the world with him. Not many people can say that about one of their teenage heroes.
What about Egyptian Lover made him so memorable? The first time I heard him was on the song “Dial-A-Freak.” I was too young to get into clubs and I don’t remember ever hearing it on the radio, but it was still big on the underground. I bought it at the San Jose Flea Market, which had all the jams. The song was so raw sounding and the stripped-down drum machines and synths all had a Prince feel—but with rapping instead of singing. And he was talking about all the things I was supposed to be listening to as a 13-year-old.
What do you remember most about the chemistry you and Charizma had? What music were you guys into at that point? How do you think your projects would’ve been had fate been different? When I met Charizma, we were really mainly into New York–based hip-hop like Lord Finesse, Showbiz & AG, Special Ed, Ultramagnetic MCs, Rakim, KRS, and Pete Rock. I actually went record shopping with Pete Rock today! We didn’t really care for the underground, G-funk, LA, or Bay Area rap coming out at the time, although I have a big appreciation for that now.
I think Charizma would’ve been a star for sure. Everyone I knew felt the same way. Money B from Digital Underground discovered us and is the reason we got signed to a major label, and the A&R who signed us tried to sign Cypress Hill and Naughty By Nature before signing us. But the president of the label had passed on those two, so when it came to us, the president said “I better listen to the A&R this time.” [Laughs]
Why do you think vinyl has made such a significant comeback in recent years? There’s always talk about the “vinyl comeback,” but vinyl numbers aren’t anywhere near what they used to be. It’s just that CD sales and iTunes sales have decreased so much and vinyl has been steadier, so relative to those two formats, I guess it’s golden. But I will say that Stones Throw started as a vinyl-only label and I’m happy that I’m still able to press vinyl for all of our albums and there’s still an audience for them, so I’m thankful about that.
As hip-hop keeps evolving, what in your opinion makes new hip-hop artists relevant? What’s your whole take on mumble rap vs. lyricism? There are so many different styles of hip-hop these days that it’s hard for me to say. But I don’t worry too much about what’s relevant. I just know what I like and focus on that. I probably prefer “mumble rap” these days because I’ve heard so many good lyrics over the years and most “lyricists” don’t impress me the way the golden era rappers did anyway, so I’d rather hear something different. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” came on the radio today and I was really impressed that I could hardly understand any of the lyrics. Now that’s a star!
What was the most expensive sample Stones Throw cleared? Was there ever a song you wanted to clear but weren’t able to? The ones after the fact are always the most expensive and there’ve been songs that were shelved because of unsuccessful sample clearances, but I’d rather not give those artists and labels publicity.
Would you agree that in the early years of hip-hop more groups existed than in the last 20 years? From PE, DMC, Tribe, De La, to more solo acts now. Having worked with both groups and solo MCs, do you prefer one over the other? True. I’ve been trying to put together a group because it’s true that almost everyone is a solo artist these days. I think that’s part of the appeal of Run The Jewels.
Stones throw is obviously very diverse. Do you feel like the fans embrace your range of music? What’s your typical reaction when releasing two very opposing projects? I think the true Stones Throw fans understand the variety and even if they don’t like every artist on the label, they at least like more than one genre of music that I release. A lot of the records and videos I release get a ‘why’d you put this out?’ reaction, and I get it because Stones Throw originally gained success on the heels of the East Coast–influenced boom-bap, and I feel that since there aren’t many labels doing that sound as well as we did 10 or even 15 years ago, then people expect us to help keep that sound.
What advice could you give a young artist trying to go somewhere in the music industry? It seems pretty easy these days. It doesn’t take as much money to record songs as it used to in the ’80s and ’90s. You don’t need to go into a studio and pay by the hour. A lot of artists are buying affordable music programs and using their computer and putting them up on SoundCloud and YouTube and getting a of attention on their own.
I spoke with DJ Shadow recently and he mentioned meeting you and QBert in the Bay back in the day. How has the Bay Area’s music scene changed since then? How did those guys in particular strike you? Shadow had the same manager as Charizma and I in the early ’90s, so when he wore a Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf T-shirt in his press photos for Endtroducing, that helped put me on the map. And I’ve known QBert since the early ’90s as well, when he, Apollo, and Mix Master Mike were the “Rocksteady Crew DJs” and they opened for Charizma and I. It was the first time I saw three DJs do synchronized, pre-planned routines like a turntable band. They were the hardest act to follow!
San Jose’s music scene has always been eclipsed by other scenes like NY, SF, and LA. What struck you about other scenes when you left San Jose? What can San Jose do to be more on the forefront? I left San Jose for San Francisco in the mid ’90s and at that time, there was way more of a hip-hop scene in SF, at least in the clubs and the record stores. Charizma and I started doing shows in San Francisco with artists like Black Sheep, Cypress Hill, and Nas and that simply wasn’t happening for us in San Jose. But a lot of the guys I work with now finally are getting booked regularly in San Jose, so I feel confident that things are changing in the city.
Given the changing technologies for music and music labels, how has diversity helped or hurt your business model? I don’t know if being more diverse has been a blessing or a curse for Stones Throw, but I’ve had record distributors advise me against it through the years and I didn’t wanna listen. They said, “You should put out rock-based records because nobody wants to hear rock from a hip-hop label,” because we had a successful rock label try to release a rap record and it failed. But I just do it because I want to and am not focused on what’s gonna make the company more successful at the risk of losing the heart and soul of it.
Interview by David Ma
David is a longtime music journalist whose work appears in Pitchfork, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The Source, Cuepoint, Wax Poetics, and other publications. He was featured in Content Magazine Issue 8.4.