Watch the Tunes: Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton

On April 22, 2016


There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, which is streaming over at Netflix.

For me, I think I officially crossed the line from casual music fan into straight up record nerd when I started caring about what label an album came out on. It’s one thing to be into individual bands, picking favorite artists who speak to you directly, but it’s a whole other thing to basically become invested in individual small business owners, getting stoked when they sign someone new or change some small aspect of their logo. One of the first labels that I fell in love with as an institutional entity was Stones Throw, so this week we’ll be sizing up Jeff Broadway’s Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton.

Stones Throw, founded in 1996 by a dude who calls himself Peanut Butter Wolf, is an island of playfully anarchic musical misfits churning out left-field masterpieces, and it’s unlike just about any other label out there. The film itself is structured pretty formally insofar as narrative structure, presenting the VH1 Behind The Music house style of birth, rise, fall, and rebirth. Understandably, Broadway plays the Kanye card pretty quickly, following up with appearances by ?uestlove and Talib Kweli who are all big fans of Peanut Butter Wolf’s anything-goes curatorial approach to running a label. Fairly predictable stuff, but the meat of the story itself is endlessly fascinating and has a tremendous amount of heart to it.

The whole reason Peanut Butter Wolf (real name Chris Manak, spoiler) started the label in the first place, was to put out the left-field boom-bap he had been recording with a San Jose rapper named Charizma. Not long after the two had signed to Hollywood Records in 1992,  Charizma became the victim of a carjacking gone wrong which ended his life. Not only were Peanut Butter Wolf and Charizma a rap duo, but they were the best of friends. There’s some goofily endearing home footage of a high-school aged Wolf and Charizma dressed around in costumes and wigs, which is bittersweet to watch knowing how it’s all gonna pan out. From that posthumous release though, the perfectly named first single “My World Premiere,” Stones Throw was off and running, releasing mostly hip-hop related albums and singles.

After some incredible (maybe even unexpected) early aughts successes, which were predominantly fueled by the reclusive super-producer known as Madlib (Jaylib’s Champion Sound with J Dilla and Madvillian’s Madvillainy with MF Doom), Stones Throw hit something of a critical and commercial peak when they dropped J Dilla’s instrumental beat-album Donuts in 2006. J Dilla (born James Yancey) recorded the album mostly in the hospital while being treated for a rare blood disorder, would die just three days after the release of the album. It’s here that the film cuts to the always quotable Kanye for some perspective: “Dilla has arguably the best drums in hip hop history... His music Sounded like good pussy." There were definitely some other big albums for Stones Throw around this time, but after Donuts and the loss of Dilla, the film tells us, the label (and by extension Peanut Butter Wolf, or maybe vice versa) floundered and was in need of some new blood.

The chapter of Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton that covers this period of the label following the release of Donuts is titled “The Wild West” and finds Peanut Butter Wolf continuing to trust his instincts, but expanding the range of genres he’s embracing to include everything from sweet soul music by Mayer Hawthorne, R&B from Aloe Blacc, and electro-funk throwback DâM-FunK. Wolf’s instincts were clearly on target since both Hawthorne and Blacc ended up landing major label deals after getting discovered through Stones Throw, and DâM-FunK would go on to record an entire album with Snoop Dogg.  These days Stones Throw’s roster is made up of everyone from former interns (James Pants), lots of low key psych rock (The Stepkids), legit hardcore rap (Guilty Simpson), and some other stuff that’s almost aggressively unclassifiable (Peanut Butter Wolf’s inexplicable alter ego Folerio).

Given the byzantine history of the label and the wild variety of acts it’s signed and put out, it’s hard to imagine any one documentary pinning down the soul of Stones Throw, but Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton goes a long way towards that goal, and even though it was produced and distributed by the organization it’s documenting, you get the sense that nothing was really held back. Even if you only dig some of the stuff coming out of Stones Throw, you’ll have to respect the wholly unique game they’re playing over there after watching this film. Peanut Butter Wolf really seems like a solid humble dude that’s living his perfect life giving talented folks who tickle his fancy a stage on which to shine.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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