Beat Decade

Ten years on, Stones Throw remains one of hip-hop's best-kept secrets.

The best hip-hop labels throughout the genre's relatively short history are those that have a definable legacy. Once upon a time, you could name a label and a slew of artists immediately came to mind that defined its sound and personality; Def Jam (Beastie Boys, Run DMC), Tommy Boy (De La Soul, Stetsasonic), and Delicious Vinyl (Brand New Heavies, Pharcyde) were all intimately associated with their artists.

Today, we have Stones Throw, an intensely forward-thinking indie hip-hop label based in Los Angeles, founded by DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf and inspired by the death of his MC partner Charizma. Stones Throw's legacy is clearly defined by its insanely eclectic roster: Madlib and his many incarnations (Quasimoto, Yesterday's New Quintet, DJ Rels, etc.), Madvillain, Dudley Perkins, Oh No, Roc C, and others, who all rap, sing, play on, and produce each other's records. But Jeff Jank, art director and jack-of-all-trades at the label, takes a humbler approach. "Stones Throw is clearly a second generation to the labels you mention," he says, "but we might be more comparable to other American indie labels. I don't think our role in the history of music is written yet."

The writing is now inarguably on the wall. On the heels of Danger Doom's well-received The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph)—a collaborative effort between MF Doom (Madvillain, Viktor Vaughan), Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz), and the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim—Stones Throw recently released Chrome Children. The record is a compilation of tracks from all the usual suspects, including Guilty Simpson, MED, Madlib, and the late, great J Dilla. It's also another collaboration with Adult Swim, although one might not realize it by listening to the album alone, as the characters from the cartoons don't appear on the record as they did with The Mouse and the Mask.

"The good people at Adult Swim just love hip-hop," effuses Jank. "I don't know how the idea [came up] of basing songs around the shows, and having characters do drops like Danger Doom did, but that was never even mentioned with our project. Maybe they knew ahead of time our record would be too chaotically diverse as it is, without commentary by Brak driving it completely crazy."

You don't have to be a hard-core hip-hop head to realize that, from the druggy trip-hop of Koushik to Gary Wilson's new-wave funk to MED's boom-bap, PB Wolf and company are very picky about who they choose to represent their label. That being said, according to Jank, the Stones Throw brain trust allows the artists complete freedom.

"The artists we work with are making their creative decisions largely without any kind of interference. You'd never hear Wolf asking Madlib to make a radio hit or make his weird records more accessible—and he's got a lot of weird, inaccessible records."

It appears, from the consistently high quality of releases and lack of any noticeable internal strife, that Peanut Butter Wolf has truly succeeded in creating a musical family, bound by both artistic and personal interests. Jank concurs: "This, to me, is Wolf's best but least-known talent—bringing people together who can work creatively with one another. As Madlib's name and talent has grown over recent years, he, too, had become a magnet for the types of artists that like that spirit of collaboration."

One of those artists was J Dilla, who passed away this past spring after a lengthy battle with lupus. Dilla's legacy reaches into all corners of hip-hop, from his work with Slum Village to his accessible but always innovative beats that have elevated songs by Common, D'Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, and Erykah Badu. One of his last albums, released by Stones Throw just before his death, was the wildly creative beat record Donuts. "J Dilla changed this type of music, made us hear it differently, and deeply influenced a lot of great artists, some of whom are household names," remembers Jank. "He did this all with a humility and invisibility that I didn't know could exist in performing artists, especially those in hip-hop."

Fortunately, Stones Throw remains ever more visible, as the label continues to write its role in the history of music, banging off-kilter beats and rhymes that have found a highly successful niche beneath the shiny veneer of mainstream hip-hop.

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