In 1986, a young kid from San Jose, CA, named Chris Manak decided that he was going to run a record label when he grew up. He was pretty set on the idea and even wrote a high school essay about his aspirations. The teenage bedroom DJ who would become Peanut Butter Wolf was already making mixtapes for his friends, and over the next few years, he worked at turning his words into action. In 1990 he put out his first record with a $500 helping hand from his dad, which, along with meeting a 16-year-old MC going by the name of Charizma, planted some of the seeds that would lead to the birth of Stones Throw Records six years later.
Soon after Charizma and PBW had released themselves from a deal they signed with Disney imprint Hollywood Basics, Charizma was tragically killed in 1993. Manak’s musical partner and best friend was gone, and he stopped making music in response. He gradually returned with compilations and different bits and pieces, but as Manak says in his detailed history of Stones Throw, “Still in the back of my mind, I wanted to release the Charizma songs. Making the dream a reality.” This finally happened in 1996 with the release of “My World Premier” by Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw’s very first release.
This month marks 15 years of existence for the L.A. indie label. Since that first record in 1996, the crew at Stones Throw, led of course by Manak, has brought you artists and releases of considerable weight—the seminal Madvillainy by Madlib and MF Doom as Madvillain; the excellent Champion Sound by Madlib and J Dilla as Jaylib; the countless albums by Madlib under his flotilla of aliases; and Donuts, the last album J Dilla completed while he was alive. The label has its roots in hip-hop but has also branched out into other areas. Boogie-funk extraordinaire Dam-Funk, awkward gentleman James Pants and the godfather of weirdness aka Gary Wilson are some examples of Stones Throw’s willingness to innovate. The commonality among all of the artists who appear on the label’s roster is simply that Manak likes their music.
J Dilla’s “Nothing Like This”
In the midst of a number of celebratory events (including this Saturday’s Direct-To-Vinyl event in Stones Throw’s hometown), Manak took time to clear his inbox (“Today I have 161 [emails],” he says) and email CMJ with some reflections on the past 15 years of his professional career.
What vision did you have for Stones Throw when you started, and how closely has the label grown into what you originally envisaged?
I didn’t really over-think it. I just saw other indie labels doing a worse job at promoting that I felt I could do, so I jumped into it. I originally wanted to “start an indie hip-hop record label” back in high school in the ’80s but changed gears when I got consumed into being an artist in the early ’90s. I eventually went back to plan A (instead of plan B) in 1996. The label has grown into this strange thing I love and hate. Trying to work on making it more of a love/love thing than a love/hate thing at the moment. Lots of successes and an equal amount of frustrations.
In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that you didn’t care if a Stones Throw record sold 100 or 100,000 copies; as long as you and the artist liked it, that was what mattered. This isn’t a conventional approach to business. What would you say are the main factors that guide your business decisions?
Yeah, my degree was in marketing, but I think having that ingrained in me for four years straight scared me outta wanting to do things that way. I don’t run my business with “what will sell” in mind. Most of the records I released that did “worst” commercially are the ones I personally like most. I’m in it for the art, not the popularity. That being said, I strive to promote my artists that I do sign as much as possible.
Stones Throw has a very distinct visual identity. Can you describe what kind of aesthetic vision you and art director Jeff Jank have established for Stones Throw, and how important do you see that being in relation to the label as a whole?
As long as the records look like they sound, it’s all good with me. I’ve always been involved in all the creative decisions for the label though. Artwork, music videos and, of course most importantly, the music.
Obviously Stones Throw is a label founded on hip-hop, but you guys have been branching out with acts beyond just this genre. Why the change? How do you expand the sound of your roster, while not diluting what Stones Throw is so well known for?
Jeff (who does our artwork) showed me an electro/punk project he was doing called Captain Funkaho, and I liked it so I put it out. Then I started putting other things that didn’t “fit the mold” of what people thought was Stones Throw. I quietly did that for around seven or eight years, and the hip-hop records on Stones Throw sold and the non-hip-hop records didn’t. Then about two years ago, a non-hip-hop record actually sold units for me. Then another one did. Now Stones Throw is known for soul/funk/rap, even though we do a lot more than those three genres. James Pants’ third record came out last week with little media attention, but it’s one of the best records in the history of the label in my opinion.
What do you think are the key reasons for Stones Throw thriving and surviving, while other labels have shut their doors?
People still like the music we’re releasing. It’s no secret formula. Put out “good” music, and find people who have the same taste as you do. Of course I put good in quotes, cuz what is good?
My goals in the ’90s were to be in The Source magazine and to perform on In Living Color. Thankfully I did OK without reaching those yet.
Greatest lesson learned?
That there’s no rules that work in the music industry.
Best piece of advice passed on to you, which you can now pass on to others?
Find something you’re good at, and enjoy and do that with your time.