Dusted: Reviews
December 9, 2004

Stones Throw 101

Like fast food, smoking and narcotics, MTV is a product of evil money-driven conglomerates. But sometimes, it’s so juicy, you can’t help but forget about the evil and just indulge.

While you can dismiss the network for being a multi-media outlet that only seeks out to misappropriate underground culture for profit, this wasn't always the case. For the lucky ones – i.e. those in large Metropolitan areas that had access to all-ages venues, alternative bookstores, and indie-record stores – they didn't need MTV to stay abreast on great bands, or music. However for the unlucky – i.e. the larger sect of rural residents that had to travel sometimes hours away into neighboring cities or college towns to get some sort of counter-culture that wasn't being spoon-fed to them either by their local school or church (talk about misappropriation!) – they needed MTV. Maybe not 24 hours of the stuff, but they sorely needed the specialty shows. And the “specialties” were great; they shied away from the daily mélange of sexually frustrated hair-rock boys and milquetoast teens serenading gaggles of mall-zombies. Instead, specialties focused on music first. It didn't matter if the videos were big-budget major label, or shoe-string indie projects, so long as they were compatible with the music they were showcasing.

As a result, turning on “Headbangers Ball,” “120 Minutes,” “Yo! MTV Raps,” and later “AMP” was like entering a secret treehouse of worlds and music that weren't within walking distance of your local hamlet. You even forgot that this was the MTV Jello bitched about…until the commercial break. Consequently, nerdery came afoot and tapes of these shows traded hands with like-minded neighbors and in some cases, future band mates, artists, DJ's, writers, etc. (If anyone has tapes of full “Yo!” episodes, contact me; my tapes are worn down beyond repair.) There's no denying it – every small town had a band of miscreants and their attitude, music tastes, weird humor, and creativity could be squarely blamed on specialty shows...or Red Dwarf…

Anyway, we're talking about a golden era that diminished the second the U.S. Army got involved. Once the Army got a strong-arm on MTV via advertising, the specialty shows became phantom-transmissions. For in the eyes of his dibs “The Sarge,” these shows weren't about the music or the videos. Instead they were invitations to alternative living and/or self-destruction through drug-use (“AMP”), devil-worshiping (“Headbangers Ball”), apathetic rebellion shrouded in sexual ambiguity (“120 Minutes”) or even, even (God forbid!) an inherent desire to “act black” (“Yo! MTV Raps”). The little bastards out in the woods may not want to join up with Uncle Sam right away, so out went the good and in came the bad and the ugly: a lab-rat tension experiment named “The Real World” along with examinations of gaudy celebrity homes, and even shows about the perils of being in a Fraternity.

Not only were the kids screwed, but so were some labels. If you didn't have the major cash, the Hype Williams/McG style video, your stuff was never going to get played during the small blocks of time MTV actually played videos. As a result, indies and even some majors had to turn to cable-request shows like the Box, or in some cases BET to get any kind of airplay. Thankfully, now in the “DVD Age,” it's getting easier to get your videos to a larger audience, and – without any censors – it’s free-reign as far as content goes.

California indie label Stones Throw probably could have continued to exist as a template of what a great independent label can be (especially in the superficial world of Rap) even if they never did a video. If anything, it seems like a video was secondary – something fun to do when the label had a little (and for their early forays into this medium, lets stress “little”) extra cash. Stones Throw 101 serves as a visual compendium of the label's vast catalog – not only reserved for rap, but for instrumental electronic music, rare funk reissues and outsider pop.

The label's first video was a dual-screen clip for Rasco & Planet Asia's “Take it Back Home.” A touch flashier than some of the early videos, it unfortunately doesn't do the song justice; a sort of b-boy take on the visual aesthetics explored in the original “Thomas Crown Affair,” it's only redeeming quality is giving some love to San-Fran ice cream shop “Perry's Joint.” This is perhaps the only problem with the set; as daring as the label is in their individuality, a small portion of the videos showcased just don't add up to actual songs. Blame it on a limited budget, but Rasco's clip and Kazi's “A.V.E.R.A.G.E.” are rather snoozy in the final cut.

With exception of the aforementioned videos, the first four years of Stones Throw's visual output was crude but quite imaginative; a fine example of this is the two part Ed Wood, X-Files homage in the form of Lootpack's “Whenimondamic.” Directed by Jason Goldwatch, this is early Stones Throw in spades: limited effects, imaginative design, and lots of friends (throughout the set, you occasionally see members of Beat Junkies, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and label suits Peanut Butter Wolf, Jeff Jank, and Eothan Allapat making cameos). In the commentary, Goldwatch acknowledges using frisbees as UFO's, a cheap but stimulating effect created by a Berkley acid-freak called an “OEI” that Goldwatch acquired at the California Institute of Art, and that member Wildchild kept the tags on his rented suit shown in plain view. Another fantastic early work is director Tomas Apodaca's video for Quasimoto's “Come On Feet.” Using puppets with visible wires, the result is a bad-trip down the Sesame Street on the other side of the tracks. Silk blood pours out of feet, ants get stomped and a bag-lady drinks herself to dizziness.

By 2002, the label stepped things up a bit and brought in two directors: Lex Sidon and Andrew Gura. Both men brought a soft sheen to the final product, and made the videos an exciting alternative to the now tepid ice’n’titties that dominate so many major label videos. Sidon particularly took the popular hip-hop video M.O. to the mat in Jaylib's “McNasty Filth” by not only including a mixed race of ladies but by also not airbrushing them or relying solely on models – something he attributes to not wanting to bankrupt the label. With such an emphasis on superficial clutter in modern rap, Sidon's use of real women – most of whom were girlfriends of people working and hanging out the set – and real sized women at that, holds two middle fingers up at every Jay-Z and Petey Pablo video that employs only the skinniest of the hour-glass lasses. Gura on the other hand, doesn't really have an M.O. with his videos, more so set on mixing medias like animation and 35mm camera stills, along with incorporating several different film styles like 16mm and hand-held DV cameras. In doing so, he turns Dudley Perkins into a romantic, vintage hustler in “Money,” shows just how left-field Gary Wilson is as his Robert Palmer-esque models dump flour on his head in “Linda Wants to Be Alone,” and captures MF Doom as the beer-swilling street troubadour that he truly is in Madvillain's “Rhinestone Cowboy” (which should be listened to with commentary as Gura and producer Brett Hannenberg deadpan through a list of technical references bound to irritate film majors, and ridiculous amounts of embellishment like claiming that parts of the video were shot in New Zealand because Doom liked Lord Of The Rings).

Elsewhere, Jerry A. Henry and Steven McIntyre cull the spirits of Maya Deryan and Stan Brakhage in Koushik's “One In A Day.” Jeff Jank compiles live clips and home movies for a posthumous Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf video. David Ahuia replicates Reed Miles' legendary Blue Note artwork for Madlib's “Slims Return.” The elusive Spygirl pastes together found Super-8 footage, along with burnt blaxploitation flicks for Quasimoto's “Good Morning Sunshine” (again, commentary is necessary as Spygirl giggles her way through the video, not even touching on what she created, but instead telling two horrific stories of why she's a vegetarian). And animator James Reitano turns Madvillain into the comic book super-duo the two always dreamed about in the incredible “All Caps.”

In true Stones Throw tradition, the label has offered a pair of bonuses (one visual, one audio) to accompany the retrospective. The visual “Extra Credit” includes story boards for “All Caps,” a live public access TV performance from 1992, a shite-sounding clip of Jaylib's live debut in London, culminating with Madlib and Mos Def getting kicked out of the club for playing piano and drums well after closing time. If that wasn't enough, there's a brief documentary of funk-bloodhound Eothan “Egon” Allapat tracking down Lester Abrams of the until-recently mythical LA Carnival; in it, Abrams marvels that anyone owns the album, and Egon humbly admits not owning it. Abrams in turn “hooks up” a wide-eyed Egon with the original master tapes and notes. The final icing on the cake is a rare clip of the mighty jazz-fusion group Stark Reality performing two songs on the Boston public television show “Say Brother.” It's an exciting find that any fan of lost-music would surely enjoy. The audio bonus comes in the form of a 42-minute mixed CD from label owner Peanut Butter Wolf. Here, he puts his own spin on telling the label's history, seamlessly blending the psychedelic ambience of Koushik with the throbbing punch of Medaphor, and including unreleased tracks from Quasimoto, Jaylib and Madlib.

While the phrase “keeping it real” is a tired cliché today, Stones Throw humbly exists as a palace in the rap world, for their love of music and not money allows them to take the risks they display here. A beautiful examination of low-budget adversity.

By Stephen Sowley