Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, Jeff Broadway's affectionate, meandering portrait of left field hip hop label Stones Throw Records, opens with one of the artists, Dam-Funk, performing a song that speaks for the label as much as for himself. Facing a small but appreciative crowd, he chants, 'don't go swag, stay true, don't go swag, stay you,' grinning widely the whole time. It sounds kind of silly written out, as most hip-hop lyrics would do, but on screen it evokes an equally wide smile. It's the Stone Throw ethos in a nutshell, authenticity and integrity above all else. The warmth of the label, the community and its artists comes across before its beacon and owner Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak) has even been introduced.
Early on, contributor (to just about every hip-hop doc ever made) ?uestlove says that Stones Throw is all about "embracing the unembraced." Though it might be hard to see that icons like J Dilla, MF Doom and Madlib were once unsung, from seeing some of the less known figures Manak has taken under his wing, it becomes clear that the label is all about giving the little guy his shot. There is a disparity between Madlib, the label's prime star, and some of the unknowns he shares label listings with, oddball-no-hopers-made-good like James Pants or Anika (to say nothing of late-joining weirdo's weirdo Gary Wilson), that is simultaneously so glaringly obvious and yet so unacknowledged it is almost a point of irony. Manak's attitude is so democratic, his aims so far outside of the realm of commercialism, that to him his (frankly talentless) pal Baron Zen is as equally worthy of a record pressing as the genius beatmaker Madlib. It is at once humbling and confounding. How has a label with so little interest in commercial success done quite so well for itself?
"Stones Throw came crashing into the world, just crashing" offers ?uestlove as explanation. Broadway's doc presents the labels rise through the lens of tragedy, Chris Manak's commitment to seeing the label dream out coming from a loss, that of his partner and friend Charles Hicks (Charizma). This same sense of loss is what bonds Manak and Doom it is later revealed, Doom having chosen masked anonymity after losing his brother. The loss is a neat frame for a documentary that would otherwise have no obvious arc, but to his credit Broadway doesn't exploit it as such. He honours the late Charizma, then darts off, presenting Stones Throw through a number of loose chapters each looking at key figures in the label's history, with J Dilla and Madlib, the obvious totems receiving appropriately the most attention. The reason for their success emerges as having two main reasons, commitment to the curation of the left of centre and underexposed, regardless of the likelyhood of commercial success, and the luck of landing Mr. Otis Jackson Jr., or Madlib, as an early and pivotal collaborator.
Indeed, the film is at its best when it's following the label's best. The segments following J Dilla and Madlib are by far and way the strongest, the Madlib giving insight into obsessive, prodigious genius and the Dilla part acting as a fitting tribute to underground hip hop's most revered and missed figure. Footage of a near-death Dilla being wheeled out to a small but deeply appreciative group of fans is very touching. At one point, Dilla is quoted as having said "Madlib is killing me, just killing me" and that his music "is talking to me and only me,' yet footage of them together reveals that “the only thing [they] did together was a lot of chocolate shrooms." Its a documentary made of titbits like this, morsels of archive footage and after-the-fact reminiscing. it means that to the uninitiated it might come across as more than a little unfocused and skittish, but to its fanbase will feel a fitting tribute. If it is impenetrable then thats probably what Manek would want, what is a subcultures without its sense of exclusivity?
Compared to Michael Rapaport's A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life (a recent hip hop doc touchstone), Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton lacks structure. Rapaport's film tracked the group's rise more cohesively and felt like it had real insight in its exposure of the group's squabbles and struggles to stay on good terms. Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton feels more like a mishmashing of found clips. Broadway has access, offering plenty of archive footage, as well as contributions to many of those with ties to or affection for the label (Talib Kweli, Kanye West, Common, Flying Lotus and Tyler the Creator inclusive). Perhaps it is that the story doesn't lend itself so naturally to narrative, that the characters involved are so assuming and spotlight-averse as to not lend themselves to smooth MTV-biopic treatment. It also lacks the gimmick that made Ice T fronted rap doc The Art of Rap's contributions interesting, having the featured rappers do live freestyles of their favourite verses, but it does have the fortune of a few inspired candid moments. A segment with Kanye West eulogising J Dilla's drums is incredible - "his swings, his shuffles, his snare choices [...] felt like drugs, sounded like good pussy."
Yet despite all of this, Broadway's documentary has something others don't, a quality that makes it joyous, self-referential and inward looking but celebratory and spirited. As a patchwork quilt of samples, stories, non-sequitors, clips, references and interviews, it is a lot like the best of the output of the label it seeks to represent.