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V/A - Stones Throw: Ten Years

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Artist: V/A

Album: Stones Throw: Ten Years

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Feb. 2, 2007

Peanut Butter Wolf cut the ribbon on Stones Throw Records in 1996, a year that DJ Shadow famously described as sucking for hip hop ("It's the money..."). In the more than 10 years since, Peanut Butter Wolf has used his record label as a bulwark against such future epithets. The label’s newest release, Stones Throw: Ten Years, a retrospective, captures Stones Throw’s best efforts to hold hip-hop’s head high. And it is nothing short of commendable that in this precarious genre, which seems to always sit a shade north of self-righteousness and a hair south of self-parody, Wolf and company have consistently made respectable, if not remarkable, hip hop

In the short period it took for the dotcom bubble to inflate, burst, and inflate again, Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf’s “My World Premier,” the first recording Stones Throw released, seems atavistic in relation to the label’s current output. Today’s Stones Throw catalog spans from retro Meters’-style funk to electro to neo-soul to turntable sonatas; yet it all began with the simple and irreducible combination of drumbeat and voice. “My World Premier” sounds more like Marley Marl and MC Shan than Madlib and MF Doom. But while the minimalist form of Stones Throw’s recording may have changed in the past decade, the substance of “My World Premier” can be traced across the entirety of Ten Years: It is percussive and funky, forceful but balanced, sharp and compelling. It is utterly solid and original.

Although Stones Throw is Peanut Butter Wolf’s project, two artists, Madlib and J Dilla, have become the label’s faces, signifying the general Stones Throw aesthetic and the quality upon which its listeners have come to rely. Madlib, in his various incarnations, has been the label’s most prolific performer; J Dilla, after his untimely death last year, is maybe the label’s most praised (though Madlib is certainly no stranger to the seat of pop criticism’s pedestal). Together, Madlib and Dilla released one record, 2003’s Champion Sound and, fittingly, that album’s “The Red” commences Ten Years. When “The Red” was first released, it received a warm welcome on backpacker websites and in the underground hip hop community. And rightfully so: “The Red” was a powerful song, with J Dilla’s firm drums and Madlib’s sleepy raps volleying as if for match point; heightening the drama, a faint soul singer wailed in the background, cheering each return stroke. As Ten Years’ order suggests, however, “The Red” was only a beginning. Later works by Dilla and Madlib — 2006’s Donuts and 2004’s Madvillainy, respectively — would eventually overshadow Champion Sound, and other singles lurking in this Stones Throw collection, like Wildchild’s “Knicknack,” arguably deserve the same center court showcase once reserved for “The Red.”

Regardless of the merits of these Stones Throw staples, the two most interesting parts of Ten Years are not the hip-hop it has previously released. Rather, it is the music outside of the genre — recycled from their original formats here — and J. Rocc’s latest mixing that command the most attention. Stones Throw has been steadily releasing break records, ancient or newly performed recordings whose rhythms and instrumentation beg for a producer’s appropriation. Fabulous Souls’ “Take Me” and the Co-Real Artists’ “What About You” are two examples of Stones Throw’s taste for the historical, especially in the case of the Co-Real Artist’s fondness for the bongos. Meanwhile, current Stones Throw act Koushik, with his shoegazing atmospherics punctuated by a slap bass tone that sounds impossibly dated and current, provides a handful of sequences as sample-prone as Fabulous Souls’ drum kit, albeit to a more downtempo effect.

These songs fascinate like an open kitchen in a three-star restaurant, providing listeners with a view of the master’s tools and a finer appreciation for the delicacy bought and served. Whereas hip-hop producers have traditionally been averse to having their original sources revealed — the specter of intellectual property litigation seems to make even the most stoic hip-hopper weak in the knees — Stones Throw has taken an approach of transparency, releasing both the newest of hip-hop compositions as well as the pieces from which they are or may be composed. An optimist might champion this as a worthy supplement to listeners’ understanding of the art form. The cynic, on the other hand, might applaud this as a business model, as Stones Throw gets paid on the production and the reproduction. Surely, an MBA student has already written a case study on this by now.

Finally, the other part of Ten Years worth noting is the extra second disk, a new mix by J. Rocc, of Beat Junkies fame, weaving the 25 songs on Ten Years into a cohesive whole. After listening to J. Rocc’s mix and the original compilation, it is strange how without fading from and into other tracks, the songs on Ten Years feel naked when buttressed by seconds of silence. Ten Years’ songs, although independently significant, seem to make more sense and to be noticeably better when heard in the continuum of a DJ’s routine. It illuminates the shared attributes between the songs and displays their differences in well-defined contrast. And, insofar as Ten Years is historiography, plotting the narrative of this influential and increasingly vital record label, it tells a better story, with more arc and greater personality. For a label that began with the boastful storytelling of one Charizma 10 years ago, it seems only right to hear its music exhibited this way.

By Ben Yaster

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