Chronicling almost 20 years of eclectic activity, Jeff Broadway’s Kickstarter-funded film ushers viewers into the vinyl-lined living rooms of the founders of L.A.’s Stones Throw record label, crafting a social history of underground hip-hop against a backdrop of crate digging, studio sessions, and release parties.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton weaves diffuse material into a cohesive whole, meshing hazy, digitised-VHS transfers of early Lootpack television spots with glossy, bleached-out views of its California locations. Its all strung together by a propulsive Madlib score repurposing beats from key label releases. The documentary tracks the development of Stones Throw from its origin—a vehicle for the music of Charizma & Peanut Butter Wolf, aka founder Chris Manak—through its gradual assembly of a roster of unheard heavyweights operating under various guises: Madlib & Quasimoto, MF Doom & Madvillain, and producer James Yancey, aka J Dilla.
Broadway takes an admirably democratic approach to his subject. He dedicates as much space to the current crop of Stones Throw artists and to the commercial misfires endemic through the label’s post-Dilla period of reorientation, as to the first generation of MCs and producers, with whom the label remains most closely associated. The narrative is non-linear, frequently winding back to remind us of overlapping timelines and tracing the individual threads of careers that would later intertwine. Eventually, it stretches beyond its initial geographic parameters to visit Detroit and New York, exploring the fringes of the underground music scenes the label now serves.
Stones Throw remains distinct among contemporary labels, maintaining a uniquely ‘boutique’ identity. Its roster reflects the idiosyncratic tastes of its major players, and the audience is well-exposed to the raw material that makes the stable significant, whether through Talib Kweli’s praise for 2004’s Madvillain LP or Tyler, The Creator’s enthusiasm for Connecticut trio The Stepkids.
Our Vinyl’s crop of talking heads is involved and insightful, supported by the first-person testimony of the Roots’ ?uestlove and punctuated by the awed recollections of Kanye West, who describes the “pressure bust pipes” mentality common among underdog institutions.
The film’s most commanding passages regard its heavy hitters, some of whom did not survive to contribute to the narrative. A chapter on J Dilla’s Donuts, relaying memories of Yancey walking to the park as a child wearing 45s on his wrists like bracelets, pulses to the rhythm of the record, the strain and grind of its refigured soul loops conferring additional weight upon late footage of the producer. Throughout, Broadway and Madlib successfully combine video and audio to work cinematically: in a rephrasing of Dilla’s Lightworks, synced to complement the metallic pounding of record pressing machinery on-screen, or in the expletive-deletion bleeps censoring Tyler’s effusive Stepkids praise, seemingly modulated to a piercing frequency in keeping with the label’s house style.
Above all, the documentary functions as a reminder of the label’s accomplishments: its tracking shots scan across shelves and through studios, and linger on stray Yesterday’s New Quintet records, or half-forgotten MED LPs, each a product of the label’s low-key, steadily-prolific operation. In a music-documentary saturated climate that thrives on rediscovery, Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton provides a valuable focus on a music source that has continued to thrive both in and out of the spotlight, whether or not anybody’s listening.
Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton plays again at 6:45 p.m. on Sunday November 24 at Cinema du Parc, as part of Rencontres Internationales du Documentair de Montréal (RIDM). More information is available online at RIDM.qc.ca.