Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, is a busy man. Between producing his own music and running the rap/soul/funk beacon Stones Throw Records, he has started a side label (Circle Star), starred in his own documentary (Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton), and still manages to make time to dig obscure record crates looking for more lost nuggets. Hopes&Fears chatted with the guru at his Los Angeles home about the six-year-old who coined his name, connecting with Minimal Wave's Veronica Vasicka, and why no one should be starting a record label in 2015.
Hopes&Fears: What are you up to today?
Chris Manak: Well, I missed a conference call earlier, so it started off pretty bad. I'm in trouble again. I'm in the middle of a move right now, so that's encompassing everything. As far as Stones Throw stuff, there's always new artists that we're working with. I actually started a new label for the stuff that I felt didn't really fit what people have come to expect from Stones Throw.
H&F: Stones Throw has such a variety to it. I'd be curious about what doesn't fit within the Stones Throw catalog.
CM: It is kind of an experiment. I just felt like all the stuff that was closer to rock music was not being accepted by the traditional Stones Throw audience. I mean, there's some people that are into Stones Throw that do have eclectic tastes in music, but then some people just want to hear hip hop and soul and funk, you know?
H&F: What's the new label called?
CM: It's called Circle Star. There are only a few artists on the roster right now. There's a guy, Jesse Hackett, we’re actually releasing his album right now.
Chris is more into providing an assortment of high-quality acts than pushing the envelope with avant-garde music
H&F: Just looking at Stones Throw roster, there are already a bunch of rock bands, like Boardwalk, for instance.
CM: Well, that's a good example of something that I felt having the Stones Throw name on might have hurt it more than helped. I could be wrong. One artist, Vex Ruffin, is someone who's been one of my favorites, but it's been really hard to find an audience for him as well. I'm bumping him over to Circle Star. I just know as a kid, I was into all different types of music, but then I would go to certain labels for certain things. For hip-hop, I would go to Def Jam when it first came out, or Tommy Boy. For rock music, I would go to 4AD or something.
H&F: Is Circle Star your 4AD?
CM: It's funny. I wish I worked for 4AD. They have a long history and they're an awesome label.
H&F: I was reading up on some of your most recent interviews and it actually struck me that a lot of the labels you were mentioning were pretty much straight forward rock or pop music. You just mentioned 4AD. I read an interview before where you mentioned Captured Tracks. What do you think drives you towards certain rock music?
CM: I like rock bands that have an understanding of a lot of different stuff. The group Tones on Tail is a group that I like a lot. They have jazz influences and African influences and everything. I mean, I guess even Talking Heads or something. They were considered a rock band. Liquid Liquid might be a better example. Still, a lot of the artists that I'm putting out on Circle Star would prefer to be on Stones Throw just because of the history of it.
H&F: There was recently a documentary about your life and Stones Throw. What do you make of the label’s legacy?
CM: I guess I don't need a funeral now. By there being a documentary out there, it's almost like, "Okay, this label's over now." You know what I mean? That was the concern when they wanted to do the documentary. I don't really want to be known as a label that was big from such and such year to such and such. I always find a way to align myself with talented artists. That's really the life and blood of the labels. Finding artists that are still making relevant music.
H&F: Do you feel like the legacy of the label determines its future?
CM: I'm more interested in finding good music than pushing the envelope. Interesting music is usually interesting because it doesn't sound like stuff that's already been heard before. It's not so much I want to be different or I want to be weird.
H&F: How much do you look to new acts versus robbing the record crates?
CM: I see something similar happening with XL where they'll put out Bobby Womack or they'll put out Gil Scott-Heron, but then most of the stuff that they put out is newer, contemporary music. That's just something that I've done unconsciously throughout the years. I’m putting out an album with Steve Arrington. Steve Arrington was an artist that I grew up really appreciating and when I heard that he was making music again through Dam Funk, we both were equally excited to reach out to him and to try to work something out where we worked with him. I mean, even the Madvillain record with Madlib, KMD was a group that we really liked. If you talk to Doom's fans, I mean, most of them found out about KMD afterward, like a whole generation of people, while heads like myself and Madlib knew KMD to begin with. The same thing happened with Kool Keith and Dr. Octagon or Del.
H&F: What’s been your favorite summer jam of 2015?
CM: I think it’s the Thundercat single [“Them Changes”]. That was really cool. It has those Isley Brothers drums that Dilla sampled for "Won't Do." He's always been really talented. Some of it is really reminiscent of George Duke, but I think now he's doing his own thing a little more. It's just a catchy pop song.
H&F: Where do you think you listen to the most music?
CM: In the car a lot of the time although I get my phone calls done in the car as well. Which, I know, I'm not supposed to be doing but at least I'm not texting. A lot of it is on the computer. I mean, it's a combination. I was in a record store in Chicago recently and I spent several hours just going through gospel records. I still spend a lot of time trying to discover things, new and old.
H&F: Who’s got to go? Drake, Meek, Wayne or Future.
CM: Oh. No. I'd have to hear every song by every artist before making that judgment. I'm really ADHD like that, I wouldn't make that judgment call. Plus, I'm a Libra, so I have to weigh it all out; I'm constantly seeking balance. There's this new Sprite ad now where it has Rakim, Biggie, and then Drake. I actually do think Drake is talented and makes really catchy good songs, but it's totally different than what Rakim was doing. I don't see him as an extension of what they were doing. For Sprite to put them all in that same category is just weird.
H&F: Yeah. It’s weird and I wonder who gave them permission to use some of those images.
CM: Well, Sprite has such a long history with hip hop. I mean, I’ve seen old Sprite commercials from the early eighties where there was just breakdancing. They didn't even have any rappers. Then they had Q-Tip and Large Professor and everybody from the early nineties during their heyday. It was almost like, oh, there's this totally huge corporation that's supporting underground hip hop. That's cool, but I don't know. It’s weird but cool. They've aligned themselves with hip hop.
H&F: You see a lot of that. Sprite's got its foot in the hip hop game. You see things like Red Bull doing Boiler Room, which is something that really helped me lock into a lot of underground electronic music. There is this idea that these different lifestyle companies help music to grow, but at the same time, they use them to their own ends.
CM: I had this one artist that I was working with. I asked them if they wanted to do this Red Bull thing. They were just like, "No way. Fuck Red Bull." I mean, Red Bull has done a lot of good for music. It still helps feed these creative scenes even if it's exploiting them or whatever. I don't see it as that exploitative. I remember KRS-One. He had one of his songs in a Nike commercial and everyone criticized him. He was like, "Man, when I was a kid, I felt like I really made it if I could save up enough money to even wear a pair of Nike's. To be asked by them to do their music, Hell yeah I'm going to do it."
H&F: I was looking through your label's roster and one name stuck out to me pretty profoundly. How did you first hear about Homeboy Sandman?
CM: There is this rapper, Jonwayne, that I worked with. When I was talking to Jonwayne, he showed me a beat and Homeboy Sandman was rapping on it. I was like, "Who's this rapping?" He was like, "Oh. Homeboy Sandman. You don't know who that is?" I mean, just hearing his music, right away I felt it was something that Stones Throw was missing. He has the consciousness, but he embodies the essence of old school hip hop, even though he's not really from the old school.
H&F: Yeah, definitely. I've lived in New York for ten years now and I feel like if there is any rapper from New York whose name I have seen, it's definitely Homeboy Sandman's. I mean, I feel like he's papered every single train in NYC with flyers. There wasn't a train coming from Queens I could have ridden that was not covered in his flyers.
CM: When was that?
H&F: This was more prevalent up until about 2010, 2011, then I didn't see it as much. Before that, everywhere. I'm sure if you Google "Homeboy Sandman New York Train" or something, you will see so many pictures that people have taken because they were everywhere. He definitely has a lot of drive and definitely really, really wants to make music.
CM: He's super motivated and he writes so many songs. I mean, it's hard for any of us to really keep up with him. He's so prolific. With most artists on Stones Throw, it takes years for them to even finish an album and Sandman is like, "Here's fifty songs. Let's go through these and pick the best twelve." I think that's how the best albums are made.
H&F: I read that you got your name from your ex-girlfriend's younger brother.
Chris believes that sometimes, all it takes is one original person to really bring a style back
H&F: I was wondering if you still talk to him and what he's up to?
CM: I do talk to him through Facebook. I think he's in Southeast Asia now. He's still involved in the arts. He's alive and well. It's so weird that he's probably in his thirties now and he was six years old I think when he made that name up.
H&F: What is an average day like for Peanut Butter Wolf?
CM: I try to go into the office as much as I can. Whenever I'm there, there's always stuff going on and I can allow myself to be creative and make creative decisions. There's always artists there. It's really an artist-friendly community at the office. We have a studio there and we actually are expanding it to be two studios, two different rooms, because everyone's fighting over that one room. We just kind of took over the whole building where we're at. It's a good place to be. There's around ten of us now at Stones Throw and we're going strong with that number. We're not hiring more, we're not letting people go, we're in a good stride right now.
H&F: You got your family together.
CM: We got the family.
H&F: One of the early Stones Throw releases that resonated with me a lot was when you reissued the Minimal Wave compilation. I feel like since then, that kind of coldwave meets minimal synth music has exploded. I feel like I hear a lot of it in rap music and in electronic music, especially experimental techno. I'm curious about how that all came together. What was the catalyst for that whole experience for you?
CM: Well, I had a soft spot for that music. In high school, I would buy Cabaret Voltaire records, but a lot of it was hard to find. I was living in San Jose, so even PIL "Second Edition", or it used to be called "Metal Box." It was a little more post-punk, but I was always seeking out music like that. There was a compilation called "Some Bizarre" and it was Bizarre Records' first thing.
It had Depeche Mode's first song before any of their albums before they got picked up by Sire. I was always looking for stuff like that back then. Basically, I found a couple compilations that Veronica Vasicka did on her label, which is called Minimal Wave. When I looked at the back of them, I noticed it was a Brooklyn, New York address and I called my friend, Dwayne, who lives in New York and works at the record store, Other Music. He's the guy who introduced me to Gary Wilson, who's not minimal wave, but still very alternative. I called Dwayne. I figured if anybody knew who this girl was, it would be him. He's like, "Oh. That's my girlfriend's best friend." He gave me her phone number. Sure enough, it was his girlfriend's best friend. I spoke to Veronica and I was like, "I really like all the stuff you're finding and reissuing." I just told her I wanted to do a compilation through Stones Throw, where her and I choose the songs together and she was receptive. I just think she's kind of a leader in that movement and sometimes, all it takes is one person to really bring something back. I kind of see Dam-Funk the same way for electric eighties funk. What they call modern funk or modern synth, synth funk. It just really made sense for me to put something out like that. It kind of had gothic overtones. It was a side of my high school [experience] that people didn't really know about me.
H&F: Well, I see this connection between Minimal Wave and then Dam-Funk and J Dilla, it's all these nuggets, you know? It's all these classic sounds that have informed what people are doing so much now, but you want to show everyone "Look what the roots of it are," so they can make their own conclusions where to go with everything.
CM: I mean, I sat in on an interview with Madlib one time and they asked Madlib, right in front of me, they said, "What is your favorite Stones Throw release that you had nothing to do with?" He said, "The Minimal Wave album." That's not the response that I expected from him.
H&F: That's interesting.
CM: It's true. I mean, it's raw music. He's working on a [Minimal Wave-esque] album right now where it's his beat or his interpretation of [the genre]. He called me up one day and he said, "I need a singer for this." I'm like, "Well, who do you want on it?" He's like, "I don't care. Anybody, as long as they're white." I said, "Oh. I can sing on it."
H&F: I feel like there's been a lot of weird grey areas about the legal proceedings involving sampled music in the industry. For example, with "Blurred Lines" and Marvin Gaye's family. Although, I really didn't enjoy that song at all, there is a sentiment that the rules are being rewritten, almost. I was just curious if you had anything to say about the future of music publishing in regards to copyright infringement.
CM: The sample thing is definitely strange. I mean, even the fact that Marvin Gaye had a lawsuit with Pharrell, I didn't see the outcome turning out the way that it did. I mean, there's just so many songs that sound similar to other songs; just the feel of it. In that case, it was the cowbell and the way the drums were recorded. It wasn't even the melody or anything like that. It was just the feel of it. That was a bummer to me because what it does is it makes artists afraid to mention who their influences are. [Pharrell and Robin Thicke] were talking about in an interview and were like, "oh, we really like that song, so we wanted to create something with that feel." They basically incriminated themselves by saying that.
Beyond that, yeah, I mean, everybody's influenced by somebody, somehow, some way. It just doesn't promote a healthy creative environment. I feel like samples should be treated the same way that covers are, where when anybody does a cover of somebody [else’s song] there's just a statutory rate that they pay, but with samples you can get sued for whatever that person wants to hit you up for. For Biz Markie or De La Soul to lose out as high as they did on money, it was just really scary. They sampled and they got hit so hard that it made people not want to sample anymore. The Quasimoto album that I put out, or J Dilla’s "Donuts," those would never come out on a major label because anybody that was sampled in the creation of those albums would come after the label [if it’s] a major label who has a lot of money but [the records don’t] even necessarily make that much money. It's more just a reflection of the U.S. law system, where the lawyers really just rule everything. Everybody's afraid.
H&F: What advice would you give to somebody trying to start a record label in 2015?
CM: I mean, I would just say "Don't do it."