The career of producer, DJ, and label head Peanut Butter Wolf has been dominated by three auspicious partnerships. Two ended prematurely and tragically; the third continues to turn out remarkable work. Wolf first attracted attention as the producer for rapper Charizma. The duo signed to Hollywood Records and recorded a remarkable debut (Big Shots), but they parted ways with the Disney subsidiary over creative differences, and Charizma was killed in 1993. Wolf subsequently formed the Stones Throw label, partly to release the music he and Charizma recorded.
Stones Throw rose to prominence largely through Wolf's relationship with adventurous rapper, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Madlib. Stones Throw released such Madlib-produced and Wolf executive-produced standouts as Lootpack's Soundpieces: Da Antidote!, Quasimoto's The Unseen and The Further Adventures Of Lord Quas, Madvillain's Madvillainy, and Jaylib's Champion Sound. That last album brought Detroit cult hero Jay Dee into the Stones Throw family, a pairing that later resulted in his well-received instrumental opus Donuts. Like Charizma, Jay Dee died young, but Stones Throw will help keep his memory alive by re-releasing his acclaimed but little-heard solo EP Ruff Draft in March. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Wolf about Charizma, Madlib, Jay Dee, recording in a genuine bomb shelter, and Stones Throw's ongoing collaboration with Adult Swim.
The A.V. Club: How did you get the name Peanut Butter Wolf?
Peanut Butter Wolf: I've got to ask my spiritual advisor about that one. [Pause.] My spiritual advisor says I can't answer that question.
AVC: You can't answer that question?
PBW: No, there's a lawsuit pending on it.
AVC: What's the first hip-hop album that made a real impact on you?
PBW: There was never an album that I was really excited about. There was always just a few tracks. The early, early stuff. It was always about the single. Kurtis Blow, or Sugarhill Gang, or Grandmaster Flash, or any of those.
AVC: Did you gravitate more toward East Coast stuff as opposed to West Coast?
PBW: Well, when I started listening to it, that's all that was out.
AVC: How did you meet Charizma?
PBW: He was somebody I met when I was producing for all different people in my hometown of San Jose. Well, two things: I was the one that had the equipment, and I was the one who was making the beats. So everyone came to my house, and I would make tracks for them. And Charizma was someone who found out about me because I put out this record, this group called Lyrical Prophecy in 1990. Someone just brought him over to my house, a guy that I went to high school with. Charizma was like 16 at the time; I was like 20. We just became a group. At first, I was just producing for him and everybody else, and I'd have to schedule my time accordingly. He would get kind of frustrated, but he was like, "Aww, I know one day you're going to drop everybody else and just work with me." Which is what ended up happening.
AVC: Did you have instant chemistry with him?
PBW: No, I wouldn't say it was instant. He was really kind of reserved, and I was too. It took us both a little time to get out of our shells. It was kind of the same thing with Madlib. When I met Madlib, it reminded me of Charizma in a lot of ways. And our relationship is similar in a lot of ways, too. When Charizma passed away, I promised myself I would never be in a group again, and I really haven't. But I guess Madlib would be the closest thing to my relationship with Charizma.
AVC: You and Charizma were signed to the infamous Hollywood Records. Do you have any horror stories from your time on Hollywood?
PBW: Little stuff here and there. Our biggest horror story is that they wouldn't return our calls. We were just frustrated. They held up our studio time. They wanted us to go into a bigger studio that was a lot more expensive. We really liked the way our stuff sounded when it was in a $15-an-hour studio, and we didn't really see the point in doing that, especially when the recording budget gets recouped against the artist anyway, you know?
AVC: So you'd end up paying for it in the long and the short run.
PBW: And it wasn't so much that, it was just more that they never let us go in the studio. They just kept saying, "Oh, we've got to get approval from that person and this person." We got shelved. It was frustrating, because we couldn't even be creative anymore, because most of our stuff was done in the studio, and we spent all our time sitting around waiting. There was only so much we could do in preproduction. Now, everybody has home studios.
AVC: Is it true that you kind of gave up on music after Charizma died?
PBW: Yeah. For six months or something.
AVC: What did you do during that time?
PBW: I didn't do anything. I was just in shock. I just sat around and felt sorry for myself.
AVC: How did Stones Throw begin?
PBW: Stones Throw started because I was doing this stuff for all these other labels, and I was always frustrated with the end result. I felt like I had done enough stuff in the music industry—writing for magazines, DJing on the radio, working at record stores, working at a record distributor, being a recording artist. I felt like I knew a little bit about everything. One day I just said, "Well, I might as well just start putting records out."
AVC: Did you plan on releasing Big Shots as one of Stones Throw's first releases?
PBW: I kind of went back and forth with that, yeah. For one thing, I felt like my label wasn't set up yet. I didn't want to put it out until I was really up and running. I felt like it deserved the biggest push it could get. And then when I started feeling confident about the label, I felt like it was too dated-sounding, so I wanted to wait even longer and put it out as kind of a retro thing. Because I did realize that everything kind of goes in cycles with what people listen to. Just like fashion. It's just like 10 or 20 years later, people want to hear it again and dress that way again.
AVC: Big Shots doesn't really sound like a West Coast album.
PBW: We got criticized a lot because we sounded like we were from New York. Cypress Hill, that was another group. They're from L.A., but they had more of an East Coast sound, I guess. Most of the Bay Area stuff was the gangsta stuff that came out of NWA. Too $hort as well, I guess, but Too $hort wasn't really preaching gangsta stuff. West Coast hip-hop then was a lot more '80s funk-minded. The East Coast hip-hop went back to the '60s element. Kind of went all over the place, I guess. It's ironic, because in the '80s I was really into all that funk—The Gap Band, Parliament. I guess by the early '90s, I turned my back on it temporarily, but I love that stuff now.
AVC: Listening to Big Shots, you get this sense that it was made during the Wild West era of sampling. Before the Biz Markie lawsuit, you had albums like Paul's Boutique and 3 Feet High And Rising. It'd be impossible to make those albums today, because you'd have to clear every sample, and they would cost $8 million.
PBW: With Stones Throw, we've been lucky. We're under the radar to the point where we can put out an album like Quasimoto's and not deal with lawsuits and stuff. Quasimoto would never come out on a major label; it just wouldn't happen.
AVC: When you're working on an album like that, did you have to clear all the Melvin Van Peebles samples? It seems like once you deal with that, you have a whole lot taken care of.
PBW: We worked on that arrangement with Melvin, definitely. Madlib calls him the third member of Quasimoto, but I guess Madlib and Madlib are the first and second.
AVC: There's going to be a Madlib/Melvin Van Peebles album as well, right?
PBW: Well, they've talked about it, but it never. Yeah, Melvin's very intimidating initially. But you get to know him, and you realize he's just a sweet guy as well, I guess.
AVC: Did you see that documentary about him, How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (And Enjoy It)?
PBW: Yes, I did. Actually, I was at the thing. He kind of spoke at it in L.A., and then they played it. We went out to dinner with them afterward, and I felt like a celebrity.
AVC: So much of hip-hop culture comes from Melvin Van Peebles and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. You were talking about history working in —it sort of makes sense that he would have a huge hip-hop presence again, thanks to Madlib.
PBW: Quasimoto was just doing that album in his bedroom and not really thinking in terms of how it was going to be released, or if it was going to be released. The way Melvin found out about it, he did this play in New York where he did some of the songs from one of his old albums, and this young kid came up to him afterward and was like, "That's awesome that you did a cover of Quasimoto." "Who's Quasimoto?" He was really upset. He just felt really disrespected.
AVC: Why don't you produce for rappers anymore?
PBW: I just kind of got burned-out after a while. It didn't feel right anymore for me. I never wanted it to be a job, you know what I mean?
AVC: Do you still have rappers coming to you for beats?
PBW: No, not really. I don't feel like my production was ever really right for rappers, except maybe in the early days, in the early- to mid-'90s. But even when my solo album came out, I was just doing different kind of stuff.
AVC: The Bomb Shelter is an actual bomb shelter. How did you come to purchase a bomb shelter as your recording studio?
PBW: Our house was built in the Cold War era. And whoever built it made it all concrete underneath. I don't know how effective it would really be during a nuclear war, but it was built as a bomb shelter. That's where Madlib did all of his recording, and we just called it that.
AVC: Is there a weird vibe making albums in a bomb shelter?
PBW: Well, there's just a hell of a lot of privacy. There's no windows, and it's kind of underground. It just kind of has a basement feel. When MF Doom did the album with us, he ended up recording some stuff in the bomb shelter, and he liked it so much that he always wanted to record everything there, even though he can go to big studios now. He loves the bomb shelter. We would get him a hotel, a real nice hotel in Beverly Hills, and he would stay over at our house and be recording in the bomb shelter, and he would just sleep on the floor. He's basically a humble person, still. He hasn't let his success change him in that way.
AVC: The other big benefit is if there's a nuclear war and you're in the bomb shelter, you can totally survive that.
PBW: There's definitely a safety factor in there.
AVC: You mentioned before that Madlib didn't necessarily intend Quasimoto to be commercially released.
PBW: No, not at all. That was just his record that he made to keep his sanity, I think. When I told him I wanted to release it, he thought I was kidding or something. I guess he didn't think I would like that kind of stuff.
PBW: Because it was early in my relationship with him, and he didn't really know who I was yet. He just thought I was this real straight and narrow fellow. I don't know. I guess I'd have to ask him what he thought. For whatever reason, he just thought I wasn't going to get it.
AVC: When you first listened to The Unseen, did you think "Oh my God, this is fucking amazing. This will change Stones"?
PBW: I just found myself listening to it over and over again. I didn't really think in terms of what it would do for Stones Throw. I just always liked it. I loved it. I showed it to people, and they loved it. Some people didn't like it at all. I had some respected DJs in New York calling me, telling me, "Well, I like the beats, but I can't get past the voice, P." [Laughs.] Sucks for you.
AVC: How did the Adult Swim/Stones Throw collaboration come about?
PBW: We'd been doing a lot of stuff with them for years before that. Basically giving them instrumentals for their TV shows. One day they just approached us about doing an album. They wanted me to do a Peanut Butter Wolf album for them. I just thought, "Since I'm not really doing tracks, I would just do a 'Peanut Butter Wolf presents,' featuring all different people from the roster."
AVC: The MF Doom/Danger Mouse album has lots of cameos from Adult Swim characters. Was that ever an idea for the Stones Throw album as well?
PBW: Not really. I felt that they had already done it, so it wouldn't really make sense to do it again.
AVC: It seems like the Georgia Anne Muldrow album didn't get enough attention. Why do you think it didn't make more of a splash?
PBW: Quas' first album was kind of received the same way, at first. It took a little bit of time. Georgia's album, she just got the cover of Straight No Chaser, which was really great. They called and told us they wanted to do a huge feature and put her on the cover. We were surprised, not because her stuff's not worthy of it, because she gets slept on. But things are starting to pick up for her. I'm seeing her album on top 10 of the year lists here and there. Not as many as I think she deserves to be on, but…
AVC: A lot of indie rap labels sort of have their moment, then fade into insignificance—Death Row, Ruthless, Rawkus. Why do you think Stones Throw has managed to stay relevant for so long?
PBW: Well, it's only been 10 years, so you've got to ask me later. [Laughs.]
AVC: In hip-hop terms, 10 years is a veritable eternity.
PBW: I know. And I think we've been able to stay relevant for so long because we've been under the radar for so long. We never really became a household name like those other labels. I think our focus has always been more on the artist and not on the label.
AVC: How did Stones Throw's involvement with Jay Dee come about?
PBW: Jay Dee was someone I had known before I even started Stones Throw. I put out this record, Peanut Butter Breaks, in '94. This guy, House Shoes, from Detroit, calls me up and he wanted the record, he really liked it. He had a record store, and he started telling me about this guy, Jay Dee that made beats too, that I should hear his beats. Eventually, I put out a record of Jay Dee remixes. I did it with Jay Dee and House Shoes. We did it for Japan only. And it was basically a lot of remixes that got shelved from major labels. It was vinyl-only. We did a real limited run. It was on green vinyl. And that's kind of where my relationship with him began. I would get him some of our stuff.
AVC: Can you talk about what Jay Dee meant to you and Stones Throw, and to hip-hop as a whole?
PBW: I couldn't even answer that. Him and Madlib are equally like the gods of hip-hop, basically. I can't really say much more than that.