Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Thrown Records is the story of Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak) and Stones Throw Records, the record label he founded in 1996.
Setting the Stage:
The Eagles documentary begins with 30 seconds or so of their famous harmonizing; this one starts with a house party in a room full of records. It looks like a slice of vinyl junkie heaven. Peanut Butter Wolf is in the middle, acting as DJ, while various artists shuttle between browsing the shelves and talking amongst themselves. He’s isolated, but not completely alone, and he looks more comfortable there than he does at nearly any other point in the film.
After a series of quick cuts between the party and various guest stars – Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Common, ?uestlove – whose commentary serves to introduce Peanut Butter Wolf (and show their genuine affection for him), the camera comes to rest as Dâm-Funk grabs a hot mic and blows through Don’t Go Swag. It sounds like a warning but really is more of an affirmation. Peanut Butter Wolf doesn’t care about swag. He does what he wants. Sometimes that works really well right away, other times it takes a little while.
Stones Throw Records is something of a phoenix, twice born in the crucible of grief. The first time the fire was lit was in 1996, after the sudden, tragic and untimely death of Charizma, Peanut Butter Wolf’s childhood friend and first musical partner. After several labels rejected their unreleased music, Wolf founded Stones Throw, put it out himself and then, with Egon, Jeff Jank and Madlib, spent the better part of a decade finding and nurturing some of the best underground / independent artists around, most (but not all) drawn from the field of rap and hip-hop. Loot Pack, Madlib/Quasimoto, MF Doom, Peanut Butter Wolf, and J Dilla all put out work via Stones Throw, both individually and in collaboration, and effectively defined the sound and the ethos of the organization while becoming leaders in their field.
The second burning came in 2006, following the equally tragic and untimely passing of J Dilla, which cast a pall over the whole scene. As DJ House Shoes put it, there was “a very long moment of silence.” And then, to add insult to already broken hearts, the entire music industry as they knew went into a tailspin and collapsed; major record store chains closed and labels, including Stones Throw, had thousands of CDs returned.
Some of those labels did not survive. Stones Throw could have shut down, but didn’t. Instead, it entered a period Wolf refers to as the “wild west,” wherein he began pursuing artists from different genres, including punk (The Cliftons) and what I can only describe as “art school rock” (Gary Wilson, Baron Zen, El Captain Funkaho). You could also call it “straight-up weird shit.” Some of it was strange, some of it was great, some of it was strange and great, none of it was boring.
But after the Wild West came a second ascension, as Mayer Hawthorne, Dâm-Funk, Aloe Blacc and James Pants joined the label. Hawthorne and Blacc have since departed, but today Stones Throw continues to nurture young artists that don’t quite fit in anywhere else.
Finest Bit of Showing Rather Than Telling:
The entire last third of the film, which I actually had to watch twice to make sure all of it really happened. All documentaries have an agenda; when intended to document a person or organization for posterity, that agenda is usually to portray their subject in the best possible light. Uncomfortable truths can get glossed over; awkward moments are sometimes minimized. That is not the case here. For example, even as I was boggling at Folerio, the alter ego Wolf created and then signed to the label, I was impressed we, the audience, got to see Folerio in all of his vinyl-trousers-and-bad-wig gothy glory, and that he was introduced with a minimum of explanatory commentary – from others, not from Wolf – for context. I felt like the extended periods of silence during his segments allowed the viewer to draw our own conclusions about what he might mean.
I decided he was a personification of mourning and an escape valve. Peanut Butter Wolf had to run a label and navigate a radically changed industry; Folerio, on the other hand, could be a goth up a tree and in the tub with his dog. Peanut Butter Wolf had to deal with artists leaving the label and shrinking profits; Folerio could play records and make people dance.
Wolf’s friends and employee’s reactions to Folerio and other signing decisions, which – outside of A-Trak, who didn’t see anything unusual about any of it – can basically be summed up as what., though they were still essentially sympathetic. My favorite was James Pants, who had the most optimistic reaction, i.e. that 20 years from now Folerio records will be the Stones Throw “Holy Grail”, pursued as rare and precious gems.
Best Use of Guest Stars:
There were a lot, and all had solid contributions. But Talib Kweli, J Rocc, Kanye West, Madlib, Common, DJ House Shoes, A-Trak, and ?uestlove in particular provided vital musical, historical, and music history context throughout the film, while Anika, Diva, Guilty Simpson, Royal Kush, Vex Ruffin, James Pants, Homeboy Sandman, Dâm-Funk, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator illustrated the critical role Stones Throw continues to play as a conduit for and incubator of underground music.
Most Puzzling Editorial Decision:
Bleeping every other word out of Tyler, The Creator’s mouth in one segment but letting everyone else swear unmolested throughout the film. Related: Tyler, the Creator curses expressively and extensively and seems to have mastered the art of using variations of “fuck” as punctuation.
Best Kanye Quote:
“His music just sounded like good pussy.” – on the work of J Dilla.
Stones Throw Records is a small label that casts a large shadow. After watching Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, I understand why. On balance I thought it was excellent; I was left with a few questions, but they are mainly things like “But why is Jonti wearing a pink fursuit??” and “How many wigs does Gary Wilson have and does he style them all with duct-tape??” and not major structural quibbles. It is most definitely worth your time.