Wolf Like Me

Chris Manak's metamorphosis into label boss, benefactor and video-mixing party DJ Peanut Butter Wolf.

Let's go back to 1992. The location: Santa Clara University's radio station KSCU.

A 22-year-old man named Chris Manak, who, for some reason, calls himself Peanut Butter Wolf (he's very coy when asked to explain the name's origins) is explaining to the host how he began DJing: by getting a $70 mixer at Radio Shack back in 1983.

Then he snapped up a drum machine, a 4-track recorder and a sampler. Eventually, he began making tapes for folks in high school and rocking parties.

Who says a rabbit and a wolf can't get along?
Jake Green
Who says a rabbit and a wolf can't get along?

He's at the station with another young man, a rapper named Charles "Charizma" Hicks, 18, who would unfortunately be shot dead a year later in a mugging. Both men are there to play their newest single, "Jack the Mack," and to alert listeners to their mission: to make a name for themselves in the rap world.

"We're not looking on a local level anymore," says the Wolf.

Cut to today. Peanut Butter Wolf is still a DJ. He's also much, much more. Producer. Label head. Podcaster. Tastemaker. He's toured all over the world, collaborated with and remixed the best of them.

Basically, Peanut Butter Wolf is one of the most influential entities in contemporary hip-hop.

For more than a decade, the Wolf has been overseeing operations at Stones Throw Records, the Los Angeles-based independent label he founded that has become a clearinghouse for acclaimed, inventive, groundbreaking hip-hop.

Stones Throw releases like The Funky 16 Corners, a 2001 collection of forgotten soul music compiled by Wolf and label manager Eothen "Egon" Alapatt; Madvillainy, Madvillain's universally hailed 2004 pairing of enigmatic wordsmith MF DOOM and even-more-enigmatic beatmaker Madlib; and Donuts, the 2006 instrumental hip-hop album from revered Detroit producer J Dilla released three days before his death, have already been popping up on several online best-of-decade lists.

The aforementioned KSCU interview can be heard and even downloaded on Stones Throw's Web site (www.stonesthrow.com). When asked if it's mind-blowing to go back to that recording and hear where he was so long ago, Wolf remains humble and self-deprecating.

"It's funny more than anything," he says. "I let Charizma do most of the talking, but that's why he was the rapper and I the DJ. I went through all my tapes recently and transferred a bunch of stuff digitally."

It almost seems apropos that the Wolf, who has nearly spent most of his life crate-digging for obscure, long-forgotten beats — don't even ask him for the exact number of his record collection: "I lost track about 20 years ago." — and even re-releasing some of these lost treasures on his Now-Again imprint, would get a bit nostalgic.

But then again, the Wolf has just hit the big 4-0. So, his replaying moments from his callow, cockier days begins to make more sense.

These days, the Wolf is stepping his game up as a party DJ. Instead of the regular two-turntables routine, he's been adding video projections, turning out live video mixes — as he spins anything from Ol' Dirty Bastard to Michael Jackson, synched-up video clips are projected behind him. (Yes, he will be doing this at Numbers.)

According to Wolf, these mixes have been getting positive responses.

"I was always doing shows on stages where people were watching me instead of dancing," he says. "So I figured I'd give them something else to watch."

But the Wolf is still invested in discovering and distributing good music, both old and new. "Every decision I make goes like this: 'Hey, I like that music. I wanna put that out on Stones Throw, '" he explains. "It's that simple. My staff has the hard part. They have to find people who actually care about the same stuff as I do, who will actually buy it!"

This year, the Wolf aided Michigan-born hip-hop producer-turned-R&B singer Mayer Hawthorne in making an impressive debut in the blue-eyed soul game when he signed him and released his first R&B album, A Strange Arrangement. Speaking of Hawthorne, the Wolf takes on the role of proud papa.

"Mayer's outgoing answering machine message has him yelling, 'Life is great, leave a message,'" he says. "He left that greeting years ago, before any of this success. So, that's what I admire about him most. You hear the stories about people who 'blow up overnight,' and how it goes to their head.

"But he hasn't changed," Wolf adds. "Probably because it wasn't really overnight. He's been doing music for years!"

The Wolf still enjoys keeping throwback hip-hop available to consumers and connoisseurs, such as this fall's release of 45 Live, a collection of 18 hip-hop songs released on 7-inch vinyl (a mix-CD version was also released) he re-edited and coordinated.

Although he says he was very honored to take on this project, which features tracks from such old-schoolers as Spoonie G, Busy Bee and Biz Markie, he wasn't expecting it to sell big. As he states on the collection's page on the Stones Throw site, "I'm sure it will hardly sell any units cuz the music industry SUCKS and most people only wanna hear bullshit."

"That's kind of taken out of context, and I was probably in a bad mood that day," the Wolf explains now. "But the point I was trying to make was that I was honored to be chosen by the guys at Traffic Records to put that comp together, and [to] involve Stones Throw. But, yeah, the record industry does suck!"

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