Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak) is the Los Angeles–based DJ/producer and mastermind-contriver behind Stones Throw Records. Can you say they're the best record label in the world? If you're having that conversation, Stones Throw is in there, and they're up there. People like to classify Stones Throw as a "leading name in underground hiphop circles," but they're not underground—Stones Throw is the ground. The innate-gold ground, tasty ground, or foreground—the consistently what's-what ground. Since 1996, Manak has simply been putting out what he likes. And what he likes is the shit. His J Dilla connection brought about the holy Donuts (and last year's all-7-inch reissue). Then there's the vitalical (yes, that's vital, critical, crucial, essential) nature of Madlib/Madvillain. More recently, Manak has spread his spectrum with James Pants, DâM-FunK, and Mayer Hawthorne. At his core, Manak is a crate-digger extraordinaire whose ear-brain can smell what the world needs to hear. Manak spoke, calling in from Montebello, California.
You've been on the road. Do tell us a road story. The worse the better.
I have a bad one. It's good, though. Bad meaning good, I guess. We were driving in the tour bus near Denver, and out of the blue, I started having breathing problems. I couldn't figure out what it was. First, I thought it was a panic attack, then I thought it was the altitude, being in Denver. Then I just thought I was losing my mind and asked them to pull the bus over. I'd kind of let it go for a long time because I didn't want anybody to think I was a weirdo. I really couldn't figure out what it was. We googled it, and someone thought it might be cabin fever from being in the bus too long. I thought maybe it was a mosquito bite and the mosquito had malaria or something. Or the flu. Or a spider bite.
A spider bite. You're Spider-Man. I thought the story would have nudity, but being Spider-Man is better than nudity.
I was convinced I was going to have either a heart attack or a stroke—I wanted to tear my face off. It was scary. I almost drove, thinking it might help to be in control of the bus. I cooled off for a bit, and then we started again. About an hour or two later, one of the guys noticed I'd eaten some of his weed-laced gummy bears. I'd been eating gummy bears and accidentally ate his—we'd been switching seats, and I didn't realize. I didn't even know weed gummy bears existed, I'm so out of touch with that stuff. These things had professional levels of weed in them. I was so relieved to figure out what it was. I have a bad reaction to any of that. I've eaten mushrooms and tried ecstasy a couple of times—I try to stay open-minded—but they're not a good thing for me. Last time I smoked weed was, like, 12 years ago, and that was only because I was with Madlib and Dilla in the same room. How do you say no to that [laughs]?
Allman Brothers' Live at Ludlow Garage will usually guide you back from way-too-highness. Duane Allman has his ways.
They were playing the Grateful Dead, actually [laughs]. DâM-FunK and one of the guys from the Stepkids were carrying on a conversation, playing a lot of trippy music. Stuff I normally wouldn't normally consider trippy, but after weed gummy bears, yes. I mean, the times I've been high in the past, music sounded better—you really enjoy it. Things sound all separated, and you hear things you don't normally hear.
For the reissue of J Dilla's Donuts, what comes to mind when you look back at putting it together?
It's all 7-inches, you know. That was DJ House Shoes's idea. When Dilla made Donuts, he gave me a CD of it and explained that he sampled a lot of 7-inches. When I went on tour with him to Europe, I would play all 7-inches because I didn't want to carry around big records. It was in pre-Serato days. Dilla said he made this record using all 45s, and we listened to it in the car, and I told him, I want to put this out. There were only a handful of songs at that point, and he said he was going to make a bunch more; he went back and really fine-tuned it. He'd taken some time off because he wasn't feeling well. For the reissue, it never dawned on me to put it out as a 7-inch box set. And it's such an obvious idea. House Shoes was the guy who introduced me to J Dilla originally, so with the reissue, it was kinda awesome that it went full circle like that.
Jeff Jank also got involved. He does our artwork and website. But he was a musician first. I was in a band with him before I started Stones Throw many years ago, and Jeff was the musical genius in my eyes. He usually stays out of creative decisions musically with Stones Throw, but with Donuts, when Dilla turned it in, Jeff really liked it but thought it should be sequenced differently—he thought some of the songs should be extended and some should be shortened. He got really passionate about it. And Dilla's like a scientist—I would never have asked him to change it. So Jeff talked to Dilla, and Dilla said, "Yeah, go ahead, do whatever you want with it." Jeff made the changes, and Dilla signed off on it. The Donuts album that everybody knows, Jeff more or less coproduced it. I still have the CD Dilla gave me that says Donuts in his handwriting—that's worth more to me that any prized record or any of that crap.
Do you ever play that CD Dilla gave you?
I haven't played it in a while. I probably should. I think I Instagrammed it like a year ago.
What was on your very first mixtape?
It was the mid-'80s. I think I was 14. My mom's stereo had a turntable, and I got a second one and a mixer. It was the first time I tried mixing and scratching; I just pressed record. Basically, I played "Numbers" by Kraftwerk over and over again, scratching over it for about a half hour.
You're a crate-digger extraordinaire. What's Val Shively's R&B Records in Philadelphia like? They have four million records?
That was fun. I've always been into 45s. I started on 45s because that's all I could afford—they weren't a novelty, that was the format. Jazzy Jeff told me this guy, Val Shively, had the biggest store for 45s in the world. I was in Philly, so I took a cab over there. When I got there, he told me they were closed. He asked what I was looking for, and I said, "I don't know. I'll know it when I see it." And he said, "Well, you're wasting my time." It was the end of the day—he doesn't really leave it open for everybody. Then I mentioned Jazzy Jeff, and he let me in. He was cool. He's used to people coming in, not spending money, or asking for REO Speedwagon. I'm not really one of those collectors who wants something that all the other collectors have and is worth $1,000. I get more satisfaction out of finding a record that's not worth that much money and turning it into a record that's more valuable.
What's an example of a record that you've made more valuable?
The Grand Master Lover. It was a dollar. I found it in Saint Louis—it was a Saint Louis record. I put it on some mixtapes and started playing it in my DJ sets. Other collector DJs were like, "Oh my God, what is that? I need that."
What's the difference between a collector and a hoarder?
When I saw that TV show about hoarders, I felt really awkward because I felt like it was me. I definitely have more records than I need, or will ever listen to in my lifetime. I continue to buy things from record stores when I have things at home I don't even know I have. That makes me sort of a hoarder, maybe, with a sickness.
But with hoarders, there's a maggot element. You don't have maggots.
That's true. I haven't seen any maggots yet. Sometimes I might leave a cup in my car. I get in some people's cars, and they have food wrappers and cups with stuff in them. My car's usually clean, except for a bunch of demo CDs.
Speaking of demos, what's next for Stones Throw?
I recently signed a band called Boardwalk. Kind of shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine music-wise, but the producer works with Dr. Dre and has his feet in different worlds. I really like Boardwalk's music. I signed another group that doesn't have a name yet. That's always good. They've never played a show.
They've never played a show? What made you sign them?
I just heard their music—that's all it takes for me. I want to put my logo on the back of the record. If it does well, we have good 50/50 split between artist and label. Minus 10 percent for the staff, so it's really like 60/40. I'm always hungry for people who nobody knows about, who are doing something great to my ears. I found out about them through Leaving Records, who we distribute as well. Matthew David brought them to my attention. They're calling themselves Close Encounters right now, but I don't know if it's final. Vex Ruffin is another one of my favorites—he goes all over the place. He started off doing hiphop beats influenced by Madvillain's album, then he started making garage rock where he's singing, playing guitar, and playing drums. Then he got into some minimal-wave synth music. His album now, you can't pick out the influences as much, and that's more fun for me. He got his name from watching the Temptations made-for-TV movie—I guess David Ruffin is really angry in it, so he said, "David Ruffin's vexed."
When you DJ out, do you preplan your sets?
No, I never do. Well, I DJ'd Coachella and only had half an hour, so I planned that, but it makes you sort of an actor, and I'm not a good actor. These guys just made a movie about Stones Throw—I'm in it and had to do voice-overs and stuff. I enjoy feeding off the crowd so much more. For the set in Seattle, I'm doing music videos and using Serato for it. I have 8,000 videos. My computer has a terabyte, and I'm maxed out on it, so I'm pretty much not trying to get a bunch more videos at this point. I'll narrow it down to something like 400 that I think will work for the event, and I'll play maybe a 10th of those on the fly. It makes it a lot more exciting for me when I'm up there, seeing what works with what.
If you were to play me a song right now, what would it be?
See, I don't know. I'm never good at that one. You'd have to come to my house—then I'd have to go through stuff.
Then what? You have a section of records on a shelf you'd go to?
No. I moved houses and my stuff's unorganized now. I actually almost prefer to keep it that way. For a while, I had it genre-specific—the top shelf was the best from that genre, and on down. There are five shelves, so where the floor is, that's stuff I'm not that excited about.
Like in the grocery store cereal isle—the bottom row is for the crack-rock version of Cocoa Pebbles.
True. In the cereal aisle, I go for the Honeycomb and Lucky Charms. No matter what row they're on [laughs]. I like Cheerios, too. I did this thing for 12/12/12 where I DJ'd 12 hours straight out of my house. They did it for Boiler Room, and I had a box of Cheerios in case I got hungry during the 12 hours. There was controversy because it looked like it was an ad for Cheerios. But I didn't even think about that, I was just being stupid. I had them there in case I needed wholesome grains.