Throughout the history of hip-hop, there has been a group of very important indie labels that have simultaneously pushed the genre in new directions and kept the b-boy spirit alive. Some of these don’t exist anymore—Rawkus, Def Jux, First Priority, Sleeping Bag—while others are still going strong today. One of the most eclectic and innovative of the latter group is Stones Throw. The label, the brainchild of DJ/producer Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak), was founded in 1996 and is known for releases from artists including Madlib (and his many, many aliases), J Dilla, Oh No, Da Lootpack, Baron Zen, Mayer Hawthorne, Anika, and Vex Ruffin, to name just a few. Jeff Broadway’s excellent new documentary, Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, skillfully and artfully tells the Stone Throw story as it reaches some great heights and sinks to some deep lows, blending home movie footage, interviews, animation and, most importantly, lots and lots of music and performance footage.
Mainstream hip-hop luminaries like Common, Questlove, Talib Kweli and Kanye West show up to express their admiration and love for Stones Throw, which says a lot about this thriving Los Angeles-based indie. As one interviewee describes it, the Stones Throw crew is like a band of Lost Boys, the label acting as a haven for a misfit posse of DJs, artists, musicians and rappers. Broadway divides the film up into sections, beginning with Peanut Butter Wolf’s youth in San Jose, Calif., where he teamed up with the rapper, Charizma. The two had just signed a record deal when Charizma was tragically murdered in a carjacking in East Palo Alto. Wolf took a while to recover from this loss, but when he did he founded the label, in part to put out the music the two friends had made together.
Another important section of the doc details the “Madlib Invazion.” It can’t be overstated how important Madlib has been to the success and importance of Stones Throw. Without his amazing production, his spot-on rapping (including his high-pitched, deviant Quasimoto persona), and collaborations with other artists including Dilla and MF Doom, Stones Throw probably wouldn’t be where it is today. These two artists also get their own sections, including a really moving tribute to Dilla, who died at the age of 32 in 2006 due to complications from a blood disease. In some amateur footage, he is brought to the stage in a wheelchair as an adoring crowd chants his name. He proceeds to speak a few words to the crowd, his face shrouded by the stage lights, in probably one of the last public appearances he made before his death.
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton is a music documentary that should be of interest to those who are unfamiliar with the label, or even with hip-hop music itself. (There are still a few, I suppose.) After Dilla’s death, the wildly diverse roster expanded to feature some truly weird, experimental artists like James Pants, Baron Zen, and Wolf’s alter ego, Italian crooner Folerio. But no matter how far the label ranges, its roots remain firmly planted in rap music. Some of the interviewees in the film seem a bit put off by some of Wolf’s A&R decisions, but most realize that he’s an indie label head who doesn’t feel the need to conform to current trends.
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton doesn’t fall into the trap that these kind of documentaries are prone to—becoming a sappy, mutual admiration love fest of fellow artists heaping praise upon each other. There is that, but the film sincerely gives the impression that the oddball collective that makes up the label, behind the scenes and out on stage performing, is truly a band of brothers and sisters who really love and get one another, artistically and socially.
Director: Jeff Broadway
Release Date: 5/27/14