“Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records” is a film that’s full of inspired detours, colorful non sequiturs, inside jokes and unexplained phenomena that will likely give hip-hop fans paroxysms of pleasure while leaving the uninitiated alternately amused and confused. In other words, it’s a perfect cinematic distillation of the storied underground record label’s ethos. The esoteric nature of the subject will limit its potential audience, but for anyone who’s spent hours in a dorm room puzzling over “Madvillainy,” Jeff Broadway’s music documentary will be greeted as a godsend.
Despite the gleeful absurdity that characterizes so much of the music released through Stones Throw, the label had its roots in tragedy. Founder Chris Manak (aka Peanut Butter Wolf) grew up an omnivorous music fan and DJ in San Jose, Calif., making playful hip-hop with his childhood friend, the rapper Charizma. Shortly after signing a record deal, the 20-year-old Charizma was murdered by a carjacker in 1993, and Manak started Stones Throw three years later as a way to finally release their old music, setting up shop in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
By the mid-2000s, Stones Throw had began to develop a reputation as a sort of Motown for misfit MCs. It found its Smokey Robinson equivalent in Madlib (a prolific, prodigiously talented beatmaker and rapper who became a sort of producer-in-residence), its Rick James in masked eccentric MF Doom, and its tragic Marvin Gaye figure in J Dilla, whose untouchable instrumental masterpiece, “Donuts,” was released on the label three days before he died of a rare blood disease. (Stones Throw never did find its Diana Ross, however, and the lack of prominent female acts is the only strike against a label roster that otherwise cuts across boundaries of race, age and genre with impunity.)
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After Dilla’s death, Manak truly began to implement his stated policy of simply releasing whatever he personally liked, signing a slew of uncategorizable experimental acts that he must have been aware stood little chance of finding an audience. Yet more recent years have seen the label score two of its biggest crossover successes with the neo-soul of Mayer Hawthorne and Aloe Blacc, as well as the emergence of a new label ambassador in keytar-wielding Pasadena troubadour Dam-Funk.
Stones Throw has never notched a Billboard hit, but its influence is underlined by the number of major label figures who show up in the film to sing the indie’s praises. Beastie Boy Mike D, Tyler, the Creator, Common, Questlove and Warner Music Group A&R prexy Mike Caren all make appearances, as does Kanye West, who spends a good minute and a half trying and failing to describe J Dilla’s genius in purely musical terms, before finally settling on a left-field metaphor that’s startling, obscene and completely accurate.
While it has style to spare, the film does display a deficit of discipline. A few scenes here will be puzzling to those not fully versed in label lore, and early on it departs from an otherwise chronological structure to recap some of Stones Throw’s more outre recent signings before properly explaining its overall importance. It would also have been nice to have gotten a peak behind the curtain at how such a defiantly anti-commercial label manages to stay solvent at a time when so many mainstream-targeting operations have closed their doors. No doubt a more formulaic account of the label’s history would have been at odds with the spirit of the subject, but the film could have made better efforts to preach beyond the choir.
The footage on display here is voluminous and intimate, briskly edited together in a sort of studiously haphazard way that syncs up perfectly with Madlib’s far-reaching soundtrack mix.