Feature: Peanut Butter Wolf

Feature: Peanut Butter Wolf

Monday 14th July, 2014 11:00AM

Between his work as a DJ, producer and record label owner, Peanut Butter Wolf (real name Chris Manak) is one of the most crucial figures operating within the international underground hip-hop/deep soul and funk community. The central architect of Stones Throw Records, over the last eighteen years, Peanut Butter Wolf has been responsible for helping to not only introduce us to the works of Charizma, Madlib, Dam-Funk, Jonwayne, Aloe Blacc, Mayer Hawthorne and countless others, but setting the benchmark standard for the visual presentation of physical music releases within the constellation of styles Stones Throw focuses on.

Circa 2014, Peanut Butter Wolf is on tour promoting the recent Stones Throw documentary Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton | This is Stones Throw Records. At the end of July he visits New Zealand for two screenings of the documentary in Wellington and Auckland, both accompanied by live DJ/AV sets from the man himself. In celebration of this, I asked him for the stories behind several crucial Stones Throw Records releases from Quasimoto, Jay Dee, Dam-Funk and Mayer Hawthorne...

Quasimoto, The Unseen (2000)

I first heard about Madlib through a song called 'Attack Of The Tupperware Puppets' by the Lootpack. I heard it on college radio. I called in and the DJ read me the phone number on the record. I called it and Madlib's dad answered. He put out their first 12-inch single but didn't have distribution so I ordered one thousand copies because I was working at a record distributor at the time.

I met with the group and Madlib's dad and signed them to Stones Throw, which I had just started about a year earlier. I was living in San Francisco at the time. Madlib would come up for weeks at a time and record at my home studio. When I heard the Quasimoto stuff, I found myself listening to it over and over. Madlib was surprised I liked it so much, but he was with the idea of me releasing it. We went through his 8-track cassette tapes and started mixing songs down. He got me high during the mixing session. I hardly ever smoked weed, but I felt like I should get high with him to mix that down since he was high when he created it.

I didn't know anything about compression or how to mix properly, but Madlib and I both had confidence and just did it the way we wanted to hear it. We mixed about half of it in my apartment in San Francisco. The other half was mixed by Kut Masta Kurt in his apartment in Los Angeles. We released it to little fanfare at first, but it eventually took on a life of its own.

Jay Dee (aka J Dilla), Ruff Draft (2007)

That was originally released as an EP on German hip hop label/distributor Groove Attack Records. I felt like Dilla was majorly influenced by Madlib's Quasimoto with that, because years before, we released Quasimoto on record even though it was taken from cassette tape. Nobody would release an official hip hop album on vinyl and CD from a cassette in those days. By the late 90s, everything had gone digital. People mixed on ADAT or Pro-tools if they could afford it and mastered to DAT or recordable CD.

Dilla was having problems with MCA Records, who signed him to a deal as a rapper. I think they wanted him to sound more polished. His album got held up from being released because the label was going through budget problems. I think Ruff Draft was the opposite of the MCA album he did.

Several years later, while he was working on Donuts for me, I asked him about re-releasing Ruff Draft as an album for Stones Throw. He agreed, then passed away several months later. His mom was with him and I when we had that discussion. She honoured our conversation and allowed me to release it. We mixed it down again from the multi-track and the Stones Throw version actually sounds more polished than the Groove Attack one. This is cool to me because it gives people a choice to buy one or the other or both.

Dam Funk, Toeachizown (2009)

There used to be a nightclub right in the thick of Hollywood's Sunset Strip. It was on the walk of fame, which is about as commercial/touristy an area as you can get in the United States. If you're a music fan, you don't go to that area, but this bar/club called Star Shoes was owned by a guy named Jonny who was an underground music fanatic. He let DJ Miles Tackett do a weekly night of 60s deep funk called Funky Soul. Basically stuff that sounds like James Brown but is way more rare. The stuff that DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist built their names off of.

Those two would actually spin there unannounced for free on the night from time-to-time because it was such a fun vibe. The place held around one hundred people tops. They asked me to guest spin there and instead of playing late 60s funk, I decided to play rare mid-80s funk. Stuff that sounded like Prince and Rick James by unknown artists. This guy Damon comes up to me and says, "Wow. This is so refreshing to hear this. Nobody plays this music in clubs. I collect rare 80s funk too." We exchanged info and we stayed in contact.

We started making each other CDs of our rare finds. Eventually he tells me he makes music. I had no idea. Then I find out he's been quietly making this type of music from his bedroom since the eighties. He got an early start. Part of me is afraid to hear it. What if I don't like it? Well, I did like it and I asked him to do a remix for Baron Zen who was my childhood friend who I was releasing a record from. He did it and that remix turned out so well that DJs around the world played it. Suddenly Dam was on the map.

When I approached him about doing an album for Stones Throw, he had around ten hours of material. We tried to narrow it down to 45 minutes and we couldn't do it. Dam waited so long to come out that he simply had more than an hour to share for his debut. We narrowed it down to five LPs of music and released his debut album as a box set.

Mayer Hawthorne, A Strange Arrangement (2009)

Mayer was introduced to me in a nightclub by Noelle Skaggs. At the time she was singing on hooks for some of the rappers on my label. I tried to sign her as a solo artist singing over Madlib tracks but she had just joined a band with her then boyfriend called Fitz and the Tantrums. That became her focus.

Noelle introduces me to her friend Drew as DJ Houseshoes. He gives me a vinyl 12-inch record he pressed which was a re-edit of a disco track. I was pretty drunk and kinda confused by our conversation but I remembered he said he was from Detroit and a friend of Houseshoes, so I gave him my email address to stay in touch. He then sent me the demo version of 'Just Ain't Gonna Work Out' and I was even more confused.

I thought he had taken an old song and did a DJ re-edit of it and wanted to press a bootleg vinyl of it. I really liked it, but am not in the business of bootlegs. Then he told me it wasn't a DJ re-edit. It was an actual song he made from scratch where he wrote all the parts, played every instrument and sang it and mixed it. I signed him to a multi-album deal based on just that one song and I later found out he was also a rapper whose rap demo I had rejected, and that he was a computer nerd who designed other people's websites as a day job.

He also came up with the idea to make his record a red heart shaped vinyl and I didn't want to because it had already been done by a couple artists in the 80's (Bobby Caldwell and Yarbrough & Peoples), but I granted him his creative wish. It worked out because everybody and their mother talked about that red heart shaped record. ?uestlove told me he put one over his bed. People without a turntable were buying it. Guys were buying it for their girlfriend on Valentine's Day; and it was a breakup song.

His appeal was pretty instant. He was touring the world without ever releasing an album and had to record it on the road. I remember taking Q-Tip record shopping and playing songs without telling him what I was playing. He freaked out. When I told him it was new and that I was releasing it, he called his manager and played him a full song over the phone from in my car. Snoop reached out soon after and by the time the album came out, everyone from Kanye to Justin Timberlake were tweeting and blogging about it. Then came the national late night TV appearances and bidding war from the major labels. It was a fun ride.

By Martyn Pepperell

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