At what point in time does a proudly underground label go from "upstart" to "venerable"? It's partly a matter of just surviving and enduring in a constantly shifting musical marketplace, for certain. And Stones Throw, the taste-making hip-hop label started by DJ and producer Peanut Butter Wolf in 1996, is still very much here after two decades. It's partly a matter of keeping your finger on the pulse and staying creatively relevant. While Stones Throw could be forgiven if they just decided to coast by with their roster of established artists (MF Doom, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne) and the occasional J Dilla reissue, Peanut Butter Wolf is constantly on the hunt for new sounds. He promises that this year alone will yield an extensive Egyptian Lover anthology, along with "NxWorries' debut album, Mndsgn's second album, Karriem Riggins' second album, Mild High Club's second album, a new Homeboy Sandman album and some new signings as well." Having a critically feted documentary made about your musical odyssey – Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton (2013) – definitely helps too; as does not letting said documentary go to your head.
Which brings us to the point of this piece. Peanut Butter Wolf is celebrating his label's 20th birthday not with some private, guest-list-only party in LA, but instead by embarking on a short tour with longtime comrade/labelmate DJ J-Rocc and newer Stones Throw artist Mndsgn. The evening promises to be a triumphant celebration of Stones Throw's recorded output, past and present, with a live set from Philly beatmaker/singer Mndsgn, a DJ set from veteran turntablist J-Rocc and a VJ/DJ "Stones Throw only" set from the Wolf. You can't ask for a better victory lap than that.
It's an evening of anniversaries too, with Phat N Jazzy presenting Stones Throw's 20th as part of their own 22nd anniversary party (not enough fingers and toes to keep count).
Somewhat improbably, Orlando scored the first date on this series of limited engagements. What's the score? "I didn't choose you guys. You chose me!" PBW replies. "I've known [Social co-owner] Gerard Mitchell for probably 20 years as well, and he is around my age and still keeps his finger on the pulse of what's next too. ... I'm very happy to be celebrating with him on this run." He reveals that J-Rocc was a natural fit for a tourmate personally, creatively and historically: "I am lucky to have J-Rocc on the bill with me, who I've personally known even before I started my label. When you share anniversaries with people like that, you can't ask for anything more."
Pressed about what he has in store for this series of special shows, PBW explains, "The theme I came up with is to play only songs from Stones Throw and more specifically, the plan is to spin all music videos from Stones Throw. ... Usually, I play music from other artists and labels for the bulk of my show and do like a 15-minute or so Stones Throw segment at the end, but this time, it'll be only Stones Throw music from me." And it's bound to get emotional, hearing so many of the songs that he midwifed blasting out at insane volumes over a good PA system, right? Peanut Butter Wolf slyly answers, "Depends how much I've had to drink. But yeah, I definitely get emotional, and it's unpredictable what song would cause it. If I see someone in the crowd teary-eyed, that'll set me off too."
A serious record collector and music obsessive like PBW must wrestle with the proper balance of playing proven dance floor fodder versus turning an audience on to new sounds. The politics of dancing, if you will. Here's his musical formula for live spots: "If I'm completely sober, I'm not playing to the crowd at all. I'm playing to myself. In other words, not playing hits. If I've had a few, I'm playing songs I've heard over and over and would never wanna hear again, and the crowd is loving it. But I really make a conscious effort to not party rock too much." And with comedic timing that's even apparent over an email chat, the Wolf cracks, "But I've never really had a hit record on Stones Throw so I definitely don't need to worry about playing a hit this time around." Touché.