The story of Stones Throw, the influential West Coast music label run by DJ, producer, tastemaker, and all-around chill dude Peanut Butter Wolf is suffused with stoned triumphs and major tragedy. The label would not exist if Wolf’s partner, collaborator, and close friend Charizma hadn’t been killed during a carjacking in 1993. By that point, the duo had already learned about the fickleness of the industry; Disney subsidiary Hollywood BASIC dropped them before they could release their debut, Big Shots, which went on to become a cult classic.
Wolf was left dispirited, with no partner, no label, and no real direction, so he started Stones Throw partially as an outlet to release the music he created with his late friend. Wolf’s trauma echoed the similar plight of one of the label’s greatest artists, MF DOOM, whose brother and KMD bandmate Subroc died around the time Elektra Records dropped KMD.
But these tragedies proved constructive as well as destructive. The death of Subroc and KMD caused DOOM to brilliantly reinvent himself as a masked supervillain, while Charizma’s passing led to the creation of Stones Throw. The essence of hip-hop is making something out of nothing, and these two self-starting geniuses created great art out of great pain.
Death claimed another of Stones Throw’s most influential artists in 2006: J-Dilla, the idiosyncratic, brilliant Detroit beatsmith who moved to Los Angeles to collaborate with Stones Throw production super-genius Madlib on the Jaylib project Champion Sound, died of lupus at 32 after recording his final masterpiece, the instrumental album Donuts.
That’s a lot of death for one record label, and Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the solid, great-sounding new documentary on this essential fixture of independent hip-hop, has an unmistakably melancholy air. The film is never more powerful or moving than in adorable early home-video footage of Peanut Butter Wolf and Charizma goofing around as fresh-faced kids radiating giddy hope about the wild ride ahead. They’re sweet young men luxuriating in the energy of youth, never imagining how short-lived their shared ride through music and life will be.
There’s an infectious, almost utopian sense of countercultural optimism coursing through Stones Throw’s history, which leavens the darkness and deepens the poignancy of a narrative where many of the key players died long before their time. Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton depicts Stones Throw less as a conventional label or a commercial enterprise than as a blissful way of life, albeit one that has its ghosts and martyrs.
Unfortunately, those ghosts and martyrs tend to be more compelling than the artists who survived. For all their genius and creativity, Wolf and Madlib are shy, self-effacing types who abhor the limelight, and MF DOOM is so intent on not being recognized that he professionally wears a mask at all times.
The filmmakers behind Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton benefit and suffer from an excess of fascinating subject material. Brilliant documentaries could, and should, be made about Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf’s tragic friendship, or Dilla’s remarkable life and late-career renaissance, but the heartrending intensity of those sequences is diluted by segments on lesser-known—and just plain lesser—current Stones Throw artists. Sometimes the film has the vaguely promotional quality of a really hip infomercial.
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton brings in big names like Common and Talib Kweli to attest to Stones Throw’s cultural significance, but these slick, effusive testimonials feel like a violation of the funky, low-fi aesthetic of the label and the film. A prominent exception is Kanye West, who appears to be on the verge of tears discussing J-Dilla’s passionate appreciation for the intricacies of production style. A worked-up West says Dilla’s music was alternately like drugs and “good pussy,” which is why Kanye West should be in at least as many documentaries as Questlove. (Of course the latter is also in the film, talking about his reverence for his close friend and collaborator Dilla.)
Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton covers a lot of ground in little time, sacrificing depth for breadth. The film chronicles the crumbling of the music industry and Stones Throw’s ability to weather the storm by changing with the times and embracing left-field artists like retro soul singer Mayer Hawthorne and funk renegade Dam-Funk. But the film doesn’t have time to do justice to fascinating eccentrics and short-lived Stones Throw artists like 1970s new wave weirdo Gary Wilson—whom Stones Throw essentially rescued from obscurity—or MF DOOM, though that’s understandable, given the artists’ extreme reclusiveness. The documentary is inspirational and scrappy, sweet and agreeably homemade, but it never reaches its enormous potential to be a definitive hip-hop documentary. It seldom takes the kind of daring, crazy chances that make Stones Throw artists like Madlib, DOOM, and J-Dilla great.