As a kid, Christopher George Manak's ambitions for adulthood didn't involve growing up to be rich or famous. Instead, he wanted to be an inventor, like Thomas Edison. "My dream is always to discover things," says the man who also goes by Peanut Butter Wolf. "I wanted to do something with historical relevance."
The San Jose native's ticket to a dream come true was hip-hop. A fan of the genre since its salad days, Manak noticed that '80s rap was dominated by independent labels — Cold Chillin', Tuff City, Rap-A-Lot, B-Boy Records, Tommy Boy — so Manak's goal became to found his own imprint. In 1990, the young DJ and producer made good on the ambition, starting PMR Records (not to be confused with the currently active British label PMR), alongside Kim Collett, who DJ'd with Manak at the local radio station. "We put out a vinyl-only 12-inch single for a rap group I made the beats for, and it flopped," Manak says, referencing Lyrical Prophecy's "You Can't Swing This," "but it felt so good to hold a record in my hand of something I created."
That same year, Manak heard of Charles Hicks (a.k.a. Charizma) through the grapevine. Hicks was a rapper from the San Jose suburb of Milpitas. The pair established a close working relationship of producer and MC, in the vein of Eric B. & Rakim. Manak decided to focus on being a DJ/producer for the duo, and they inked a deal with Hollywood Basic, a hip-hop arm of Disney-owned Hollywood Records. But in 1993, before things could take off, Hicks, 20, was shot and killed during an attempted car theft.
Hicks' death tossed Manak into a funk, and he didn't create music for several months. When he rose again, he went back to developing beats but had little desire to work as closely with another artist as he had with Charizma. Wanting to release his music on his own label, Manak established Stones Throw Records, putting out "My World Premiere" — a 12-inch single from Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf — as its first release.
"When I started Stones Throw in '96, it was a very different time. The Internet had just started. There was no iTunes or YouTube or Pitchfork yet. Music videos were seen nationally on TV, record stores sold physical CDs in the millions, and there were physical music magazines," says Manak, now 43. "My goals and dreams for my artists and myself were very different from a specific standpoint. But from a general standpoint, they were the same then as they are now: to put out cool shit."
Seventeen years later, Manak is still steering the Los Angeles-based label, which thrives as a reliably top-shelf source for hip-hop and — to a less prominent degree — funk and soul. Manak wrote about Stones Throw's fundamental philosophy in an "Our History" page on the label's site: "As executive producer, I don't put out what I think the people will like; I put out what I like." Manak once characterized the Stones Throw sound as "really gutter basement." Now, he emphasizes its untamed, anything-goes aesthetic by calling it "imperfect" and "more of a feeling than a specific type of music."
"Some of our stuff is really pretty, some of it is depressing, some of it is loud and boisterous, some spiritual, but what it has in common is it brings out emotions in the people listening to it," he says.
Stones Throw still maintains a roster of generally unknown musicians, strengthening an aura of the label's entire catalog being tightly curated. The three most crucial albums in the Stones Throw discography are Madvillain's Madvillainy (2004), J Dilla's Donuts (2006), and Quasimoto's The Unseen (2000) — all bona fide hip-hop classics. More recently, the label's lineup has included enigma/beatsmith extraordinaire Madlib (who also appears in Quasimoto and Madvillain releases); jazz drummer Karriem Riggins; Jonti, a dude making playful, odd indie pop; traditional soul vocalist Aloe Blacc; workmanlike rapper Homeboy Sandman; Dam-Funk, a purveyor of greasy-around-the-edges electro-funk; avant-garde soul/jazz outfit the Stepkids; and Myron & E, a slinky R&B duo that probably could cover "Strawberry Letter 23" without missing a note. (On the current Stones Throw Soul tour, Peanut Butter Wolf is hitting the road with the last three artists on that list.)
"My main thing is find good music to release. It's out there. You just gotta search and keep your third eye open," Manak says. "You shouldn't have to rely on gimmicks if you work with good talent. I'm in a great position in terms of finding new artists because Stones Throw has had a few successes under our belt." That sense of keen curation has also shone through in Stones Throw's merchandising, with the label releasing a Madvillain comic book, cassette tapes via Jonwayne, and two bizarre drum machines from Dam-Funk called Dam Drums.
Including Manak, Stones Throw's staff consists of about 14 people. Manak, whose business card doesn't have a job title on it, has a hand in all aspects of the label: studio recordings, music videos, promotion, artwork, merchandise, and more — "everything creative and a lot of business, too."
As the label has taken off, all its activity has left a serious dent in his own music-making as Peanut Butter Wolf. He has little time to generate his own output or even engage "the huge record collection I've amassed over the years." Still, Manak — whose work as a beat-maker leans on substantial crate-digging and his sharp knack for building profoundly warm- and old-school-feeling tunes — doesn't regret the move at all. "I'm still very creative in different ways. I'd regret it if I was forced to do something I wasn't inspired to do out of money necessity," he says. "I've seen that happen to other artists and I feel for them."
Even with the label's cachet and strong ideological identity, it caters to a niche. This is a niche that is loyal to the charms of largely bygone styles of black music and the cause of amassing a distinct, cutting-edge roster, but a niche nonetheless. Manak finds a lot of good in Stones Throw occupying its own pocket of cultural real estate. "I just had a few people devote the past couple years of their life to a full-length feature documentary, so I feel like we're more of a secret society then a slept-on label," he says about Jeff Broadway's Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (This Is Stones Throw Records).
"Blue Note Records was founded in 1939 — if my memory serves me — and didn't have a true hit record 'til Norah Jones in the 2000s. I'd prefer to be that label who never had a hit but stayed in business for 60-plus years. Atlantic was a blues label that attracted Led Zeppelin — one of their biggest artists ever — because all of Led Zeppelin's favorite blues artists were on that label. Being true to themselves paid off for Atlantic. If I ended Stones Throw today, I'd feel blessed by the ride God has taken me on so far, but my work isn't done yet."