To say that Chris Manak, better known as Peanut Butter Wolf, has had an interesting career would be a unforgivable understatement. Founding Stones Throw Records in 1996 because the giant hip-hop labels at the time had no idea what to do with the rise of underground music, he signed the likes of J Dilla, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne and many others. ACCLAIM catches up with Peanut Butter Wolf at this year’s Sugar Mountain Festival to talk about his incredible 20 years in the business, collecting vinyl, Donuts and almost getting sued by Marlboro.
You’re asked a lot in interviews about first meeting the artists you’ve worked with over the years, but I wanna ask – what first sparked your love of music?
It started really young for me, it was maybe the fifth grade where I was always buying records, like little 45’s and stuff. It wasn’t anything I thought too hard about – I just loved music.
Was there a particular record you remember?
There was so many; I’m Ready by Kano; Rapper’s Delight had just come out… but seriously, I had so many records for a kid that age. I used to go to the record store and they told me when I was old enough they’d hire me and they did. I used to go in and ask for things they didn’t know what I was talking about.
With a lot of people now accessing music by Bandcamp and platforms like that, vinyl still seems to be preferred by music lovers, what is it about the vinyl format that you think people respond to?
Yeah, I was wondering if we’ve gone through another generational gap where people’s parents downloaded for free so their kids are going to buy vinyl. I can’t really explain it, I’ve always been a collector, like people collect shoes or clothes or whatever – I’ve always wanted to own it physically, and I love the covers.
I read an interview where you mention the JAYLIB collaboration in the 90s happened primarily through sending tapes in the post. With the rise of digital media, do you ever miss the kinda home DIY style of those days?
That was mostly through CDs, until the mid-2000’s, but before that we did a lot of stuff through tapes. Actually, the GM of Stones Throw was going through his old tape collection and he found an old demo tape that I’d sent to him when he was at Interscope. It’s gone full circle from me sending him tapes to him working alongside me on a record label. I just got asked actually, to DJ a night of only tapes. I’ve been making my own tapes since the 80’s – just taping my own songs before I could afford decks. But I’ve never DJ’ed with tapes before. I put so much effort into playing that night, you know, you only have one song on a tape before you have to rewind or fast forward, so a hundred songs is a hundred tapes.
How did you mix them?
Just pausing really quickly. That’s how you used to record on tapes back in the day. Pausing on the one and then unpausing it on another tape player on the one. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s kind of like a re-edit. You have to do it perfectly in time and a lot of tape decks back then wouldn’t be on beat. The tape decks at the gig had pitch control so you could mix with then, which I’d never done before and by the end it was really fun. I’d like to do it again.
There’s a big rise in cassette culture lately, you’ve put out tapes with Leaving Records who are known for a lot…
With the Jon Wayne tape we did a knock-off with the Marlboro packet, and made it look like a cigarette case and we just got a cease-and-desist recently. It made us feel kind of important that we’d been noticed by such a big brand [laughs] although we have to change the artwork now.
Hip-hop has definitely changed, what do you see for the future of the genre?
I can’t really predict – I mean, if you had of asked me when I was ten-years-old if I’d be doing this, I would have told you I really liked music, but I’m forty-three now and it’s not like I’m in a come-back phase of my career, it’s just been steady. I’ve been touring frequently since the 90’s and I’ve been able to work with a lot of people that I grew up looking up to. It’s a dream job.
You stepped a little away from producing your own tracks; do you have any plans to go back to it?
I think about it. I just started making hip-hop beats again after it had gotten boring for a while, I think about doing electro, or covers, or signing or playing instruments but now I’ve started making beats for the first time since the 80’s. So I guess that’s kind of a come-back. But the Djing and the label has been steady for the last seventeen years.
You’re touring here in Australia with Jonti, who was a fairly recent signing of yours – how did you discover his music?
The guy that masters our stuff for Stones Throw, Jonti had used the same guy to master his LP. So the guy who was doing it, the engineer, called me up and was like ‘you have to hear this, I think you’ll really like it.’ And he really gave it a big sell, he was like ‘you know, I don’t do this to you very often, I think I know your taste and I think this is it’ and usually people who say that are wrong, but Dave was really right on this one. I immediately thought ‘I have to sign this guy’. But I almost didn’t sign him; it took about six months for the lawyers to work things out. It was frustrating because whenever Jonti and I would talk and be on the same page, but they couldn’t work it out. There are some artists I’m friends with and I’m a fan of their music, but they’re not signed to Stones Throw because what they want and what I can offer are two different things. With Jonti, I’m glad that it’s all been able to work out. We’re touring together. Sharing a room today because there were only two rooms between four people (laughs) I was like ‘oh, OK’.
How has the tour been around Aus so far, you first toured here in ’99 – have the audiences changed much are you surprised by the people that come out to see you play?
I guess so, last night I knew it was a 90’s hip-hop crowd and that’s more-or-less what I did. It sort of felt like playing in ’99. But tonight [at Sugar Mountain Festival] will be different – I’ll play a little bit of hip-hop, but a lot of different stuff.
The few artists I’ve interviewed that have affiliation with Stones Throw have nothing but respect for you –
That’s nice. I guess I must have paid them off.
(laughs) – are you ever surprised that your looked up to as a mentor for musicians?
I never take for granted that part. That’s the dream part of the job – that I get to spend time with and work with people whose music I look up to. I mean, some of the ballads like I Wish It Would Rain – I could have never done anything like that. And just the talented people that I’ve got to work with, J Dilla for one, and Jonti – his music is just so complex. That’s why I think it’s taken longer for people to gravitate towards him, it’s not simple catchy pop music, but I mean it is catchy in a way, but I think it will take some time.
What advice have you got for young musicians that look up to Stones Throw and the artists you’ve signed?
I just signed a rapper whose twenty years old who told me it was an honour to be signed to a label he’s been listening to Stones Throw since 2009 (laughs) it’s just so funny to me because I’m used to people saying they’ve been listening to the label since the 90s’. But it was such a compliment because a lot of people look at us for the early years and it means we were still relevant then… and now for twenty year olds. I know that the groups and artists I listened to when I was fifteen and sixteen are the artists I’ll always admire and if Stones Throw can do that, just make an impression and kind of help steer their journey… it’s incredible. I mean I’ve been Djing since I was a teenager and when I got into my twenties I only wanted to play to twenty-ones and over and I thought that eighteen year olds wouldn’t get it. But they’re the ones that haven’t been to that many shows yet and aren’t jaded by gigs yet, and they’re the ones whose energy you want to play to.
My advice for musicians that want to be on the label though… just make good music.
Stones Throw re-released Dilla’s Donuts at the end of last year, is it important to you that new and younger audiences, like you mentioned, discover his music?
That was one of the things that inspired it. I mean there was A Tribe Called Quest film that came out last year, focused on the first one or two albums and that’s what I thought was the best and the director, Michael Rapaport, thought was the best, and then there was these kids we met at a screening were like ‘I thought they were going to feature more stuff about the Dilla era of A Tribe Called Quest’ and that was even the earlier years for Dilla. Kids are, like you said, still just finding Dilla. I feel like he’s a Jimi Hendrix, people will always keep finding him. They’re artists who left the world at a young age and had a lot more years ahead of them musically, but we’ll never get to hear it…
You’ve been involved with music for the better part of your life, what keeps you inspired by it?
Just hearing new artists. Just hearing new work. I’m excited when new artists reference the past, appreciate the past but put their take on it because they weren’t there for when it happened. And just going back to Jonti, because we were talking about him earlier, he’s an artist who understands and appreciates the past but it doesn’t sound retro, it’s more futuristic.
Stones Throw went from an indie label to being internationally recognised – what are you most proud of achieving the with the label?
My greatest achievement has been having the ability to put out music that I like that doesn’t have to do well. There was this guy I’ve known since fifth grade – Baron Zen – 80’s rock with hip-hop influences that sounds really bad on paper and he’s the only artists on Stones Throw that did a Joy Division cover, but those are the things… I’m glad that I never took the legacy so seriously that I would only put out music that I knew would do well, you know? It’s not a numbers game for me, I put out what I’m passionate about. If only five hundred people come along for the ride then so be it.