Touring Australia as a guest of this year’s Sugar Mountain Festival, preeminent DJ, producer, VJ luminary and head of LA’s legendary Stones Throw Records, Peanut Butter Wolf (aka Chris Manak) played his first gig of the tour in Adelaide last week.
It was nondescript in terms of billing and the set featured a VJ-less Wolf relying on just the decks to make things happen. It was the first time in a long time that he hadn’t used the visuals as a backdrop and the change in dynamics freaked Wolf out a touch.
“It was a last minute thing,” informs Manak, “because I’ve been doing VJ with my DJ sets for the past seven or eight years and now I’m afraid to do shows without video…
“It’s just not as fun for me without the VJ part and if I’m not having fun up there then I think the crowd can read it.”
Pushing his DJ sets out from one and a half hours to three or four can be commonplace if he’s in the zone – but with one proviso. “It just depends on how much I drink I guess,” he laughs.
An in-demand artist, Manak has come some way since his early days as a teen making mix tapes and trawling the skating scene of San Jose, California in the 1980s.
Signed to Hollywood Basic (Disney) in the early 90s along with his now sadly departed counterpart Charizma (aka Charles Hicks), who was murdered in 1993 at age 20, Wolf grew into the role and label that he shared with the likes of influential players such as Organized Confusion and DJ Shadow.
The breakout cut Peanut Butter Breaks (1994) would lead to Manak collaborate with fellow DJs Qbert, Cut Chemist and Rob Swift, going onto launch his own label in 1996 with hip-hop high on the agenda.
Stones Throw Records has since been responsible for some of contemporary hip-hop and soul’s most groundbreaking and innovative releases, with the likes of Madlib, J Dilla, MF Doom, Dam-Funk, Mayer Hawthorne, Aloe Blacc, Karriem Riggins, Guilty Simpson, MED and Georgia Anne Muldrow all doing time on the label. Indeed, Madlib and MF Doom’s 2004 classic Madvillainy is still considered one of the most game-changing records in hip-hop history.
While countless producers make it their life’s work to scout clubs for new and emerging DJ talent, Manak has always embraced an alternative approach. “I like to go check out DJs for myself and am not really looking [to sign them], it’s more me spending a lot of time in clubs [and things go from there],” he says.
When pressed on the most discernible evolutions in the scene and the ways he’s had to adjust to keep up to speed after decades in the game, Manak explains that the digital world is the one key factor.
“The internet has been the biggest change in finding new music because beforehand [in the 80s and early 90s] it was just college radio where we got our music from.”
The strike-rate of finding new artists has now changed considerably due to the hyper exposure on the net and through social media, but it’s still a challenge to rifle through the noise to discover the gold. “Now it’s like one out of every 50 people probably [that you listen to], not like one out of every five [back then].”
Luckily, Manak’s reputation over the journey holds him in good stead and affords him the luxury of colleagues sourcing new material for him, which in turn makes his label life that little bit simpler. “I still go online for myself, but I get a lot of music sent to me…friends who know friends, that type of thing,” he says.
But Wolf still has plenty more to offer as an artist. He’s currently working on there’s a cover of Go Bananas from 1982 DJ Danan Potts (aka Superlife) in which PBW gives the one-time Detroit early electro track a harsher, detuned vocal and more vital percussive musical feel.
Manak is also contemplating a request to play a showcase in Singapore after his Australian visit and upon his return home will meld his trademark hip-hop beats with dextrous Stones Throw label-mate Homeboy Sandman in what will sure to be a polished collaboration.