"It's hard getting play on the larger networks," confesses Chris Manak, better known as beloved Bay Area-bred DJ, producer, and indie-label head Peanut Butter Wolf. "Some of our stuff, I could see only collectors being into." Unfortunately, that's proved true for the music videos his label, Stones Throw, has pounded out over the last eight years. But collectors rejoice: Those clips now comprise the Stones Throw 101DVD, which celebrates the label's passing of the century mark release-wise.
PBW proudly notes that "A lot of labels have come and gone" since Stones Throw started; furthermore, thanks to the overwhelmingly acclaimed Madlib/MF Doom Madvillainy album, 2004 is the label's most successful year yet. Go ahead and call the Stones Throw guys underdogs -- they relish the term. With a braintrust of three certified "record collector nerds" (PBW, Egon, and Madlib) who all happen to be active DJs, their creative tastes are far from the norm.
The label first rose to prominence with Super Duck Breaks, a DJ-oriented vinyl LP of hip-hop instrumentals and sampled sounds, which became ubiquitous in the burgeoning turntablist movement. It became a playa in the rap game with "The Unassisted," a now-classic twelve-inch featuring Rasco's rhymes and Fanatik's beats, solidifying its position with well-received full-lengths from Rasco, the Lootpack, and PBW himself. Since then, Stones Throw has diversified with a series of limited-edition 45s (including A-Trak's "Enter Ralph Wiggum"); various Madlib projects (Quasimoto, Jaylib, Madvillain); artist albums by Dudley Perkins and Wildchild; and a reissue department that has returned jazz-funk artists like Stark Reality and the Joe McDuphrey Experience to retail shelves, where they belong. Furthermore, the imprint also recently branched out into weird psychedelic guitar music (via Gary Wilson and Koushik), if for no other reason than that it can.
Perhaps that same rationale explains why Stones Throw has generated videos at a regular clip, despite almost no airplay in the MTV universe. For the DVD project, PBW says, "I tried to include a lot of stuff that's never been seen," and that certainly holds true for almost everything here. He's somewhat at a loss for words as to what motivated him (from a commercial standpoint, anyway) to commission some of this stuff in the first place, other than offering up the Stones Throw 101 project as validation for his folly.
And validate it does. The DVD begins with an inspired treatment of Madvillain's "All Caps," one actually worthy of repeated viewings on TRL. In keeping with the MF Doom's famous comic book aesthetic, the video is fully animated, complete with pulp-like panels connecting the storyboards. While Doom is correct in stating that The beat is so butter, the visuals here emphasize the MC's action-packed rhymes, and ooh, are they some doozys, perhaps none doozier than The pot doubles, now they really got troubles/Mad man never go "pop" like snot bubbles.
Inexplicably, MTV passed on airing it. "We thought we'd get on MTV2 for sure," PBW says, and though MTV's sister channel aired it once or twice, that was it.
Another must-see video, Quasimoto's "C'mon Feet," is brilliant in its simplicity. Using hand puppets, it tells the story of a lovable yet nebbishlike green alien with a backpack, who wanders through an urban environment while Quas' helium voice provides commentary. Along the way, he steps on some tough bugs, and eventually, his bleeding foot gets to hurting so bad, he just pulls it off, reaches into his bag, and pulls out -- voilà --another foot, which he then reattaches to his stump before continuing his trek. It's utterly captivating stuff. PBW says the video became a much-requested short at film festivals, but again, MTV didn't come a-calling.
He actually seems a little surprised by this, which makes you wonder if he's a little naive for a Wolf. After all, the album he's most proud of, Dudley Perkins', was one of Stones Throw's least successful commercially. And the video for Perkins' intense, subversive ditty "Money" is basically an extended shot of the artist singing the tune in that off-key way only he can pull off; still, the stripped-down visuals reveal all Perkins' imperfections in a way hi-gloss video candy rarely does.
So what's pushing Quasimoto out of rotation? Let's take a quick peep at Now That's What I Call Music DVD 2, a hyper-mainstream collection inspired by that modern-day equivalent of the K-Tel compilation, the Now That's What I Call Music series. It's not an exaggeration to suggest each of the so-called "Best Videos of 2004" probably cost more to make than all of Stones Throw's put together -- each slicked-up production plays like a mini-movie, no matter how blue-collar or "alternative" the group's image. The most remarkable example is probably No Doubt's retro noir remake of Talk Talk's "It's My Life," wherein an overly made-up and melodramatic Gwen Stefani murders her bandmates one by one, all the while vamping à la Jean Harlow. Elsewhere, it's safe to say Christina Milian's "Dip It Low," a treatise in oral sex techniques, will not be remembered as a high point in feminist history. And while we're on the subject, what's Liz Phair doing here, looking like an extra from Desperate Housewives?
But that's not to say the Now selections are all inherently bad. Even singer and eye candy Fergie's vapidity can't sabotage the Black Eyed Peas' disco-dancehall-funk-ska smash "Hey Mama," a great song any way you slice it. Furthermore, what's most revealing about the Now DVD is how much better the videos are than the songs themselves. Snoop Dogg turns in a better acting performance as the porter in Chingy's "Holidae In" than in his last few movies -- both Snoop and Ludacris (not to mention the ultra-blinging set) upstage poor little Chingy in his own video.
Still, what Stones Throw's videos lack in expensive production values, they make up for in charm. Even when they delve into cliché-ridden territory, as on Jaylib's "McNasty Filth" and its Detroit strip-club setting, the treatment can't help but parody the form by prominently featuring, as PBW delicately puts it, a "heavyset woman." And finally, given the choice between Lil' Flip's "Sunshine" on Now and PBW & Charizma's "Red Light, Green Light" on 101, it's a no-brainer to embrace the latter's Bay Area b-boy classic over the former's Houston balla -- the footage of the late MC Charizma onstage is priceless, despite the fact that the video looks like it cost about 49 cents to make.
As Miami rapper Pitbull once said, "Money is a major issue," especially when you're on the outside, looking in. "A lot of it, they base on Soundscan," PBW says of MTV's to-air-or-not-to-air rationale; while innovative, artistic videos dominated the halcyon early years of music television, these days, "It's become more of a science and less of an art."
Thankfully, plenty of folks live for Stones Throw's art and science, which will make the mix CD packaged with Stones Throw 101 a welcome bonus for true believers. The set plays like a curio cabinet of rare chestnuts (LA Carnival's "Blind Man"), along with the occasional modern-day indie hip-hop classic (Madvillain's "Accordion" or Jaylib's "Champion Sound"). It's a treasure trove for the initiated, and a litmus test for rookies: How far will Stones Throw throw you?
As for PBW, staying true to "the DJ perspective" is the key to the Stones Throw sound, albeit more in the sense of an innovator like Afrika Bambaataa than an opportunist like Funk Master Flex. Unlike most label heads, he claims to spend the majority of his days searching through vinyl stacks. You can't imagine P. Diddy, for instance, ever admitting that "Every girlfriend I've had has hated the fact that my room is always full of records." Now if that isn't keeping it real, what is?
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