There are certain dates in history that trigger implicitly solemn responses in fans of rap music. March 26, 1995. September 13, 1996. March 9, 1997. February 15, 1999. February 7, 2000. Each date marks the tragic passing of a great rapper who, to some, is considered the greatest of their era or even of all-time. For an intimate group of people, December 16, 1993 carries a similar importance because as one life was taken, another pursued an alternate path that led to the founding of Stones Throw Records.
When Chris Manak first met Charles Hicks in 1989, Manak recalls not clicking with the 16-year-old rapper who was there to record in his San Jose bedroom. Manak, known as Peanut Butter Wolf, took notice of Hicks’ style and energy—his ability to live up to the moniker Charizma—but both youths were too shy and reserved to establish much outside of a common interest in music.
“He definitely had skills, but he wasn’t someone I saw myself hanging out with on my own time,” says Peanut Butter Wolf. “Then as I got to know him I realized he was just as out there and weird as I was. From there we became best friends, basically.”
On the phone Peanut Butter Wolf does not talk about his deceased friend with a rehearsed timeline. Gathering details of their past and bond took asking the right questions, and had I not entered the interview with my research criteria met, Wolf may have skipped over historical cause-and-effect narratives such as an early failure in the music business. Prior to meeting Charizma, Peanut Butter Wolf was learning the industry the hard way by sinking a loan from his father into forming PMR Records with a group of friends to release a 12” by Lyrical Prophecy. PMR pressed 500 units of the record, dropping off a copy at a local radio station and a stack at a local record store.
“We had 450 copies leftover,” Peanut Butter Wolf recalls. “It didn’t sound good. It wasn’t mastered. We didn’t know anything about distribution. It flopped.”
Peanut Butter Wolf and Charizma might not have seen eye to eye initially, but crossing paths distracted the future founder of Stones Throw from his initial failure. He went from wanting to found a label to being part of a rap duo. For the next four years the rapper and producer bonded over activities Wolf describes as “stuff you do when you’re young and invincible” like filming prank videos, coining their own dress code and slang, and recording music. It was a friendship that led to performing on Sway & Tech’s morning show, signing to a major label, touring Europe with Digital Underground’s Money B, opening for Cypress Hill and House of Pain, witnessing the birth of turntablism opening for Mix Master Mike and Q-Bert’s FM20 crew, and eventually being dropped from the label.
As free agents, the future looked bright for Wolf and Charizma. Mere months after being released from Hollywood BASIC, Charizma was shot in his car during a mugging at a stoplight in East Palo Alto. He was on his way to get lunch for his mother.
Now, 20 years later, Peanut Butter Wolf has released a box set retrospective of Charizma’s recordings circa 1990-1993. He stands by the understanding that if it weren’t for his friend’s death, Stones Throw would not exist.
Charizma’s mother, JoAnn Schwartz (formerly Hicks) describes her son over the phone as a comical kid with a charm much like a young Will Smith. Outside of his passion for music, he was a skilled basketball player and she initially thought he might have potential in the sport. Like his father, a keyboardist, Charizma always had an interest in music, playing keyboard, competing in junior talent shows, and appearing on television, one of which he won under the moniker Charlie C.
After meeting Peanut Butter Wolf, she says, his dedication to music blossomed.
“They’d get in the room and all I’d hear was the same beat going over and over and over again,” JoAnn said of her son and Wolf. “Charizma would pay his little sister to make food for him and clean his room, so he could focus on making music.”
Truly the young men’s halcyon days, JoAnn’s recollections are of two innocent kids with a love of pranks and a weird fashion sense—they were comfortable in their individuality. She says they’d record at one another’s parents’ houses, but that Charizma always loved going to Wolf’s house because Mrs. Peanut Butter Wolf would make sure she had extra snacks for him.
Their music was distinct in that by the early ‘90s much of the West Coast sound, despite Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II Da Pharcyde and Souls of Michief’s 93 ‘Til Infinity, was commandeered by Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Doggystyle production duking it out with Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. The music of Peanut Butter Wolf and Charizma drew from influences that most might attribute to East Coast artists like Special Ed, KMD (particularly the Mr. Hood record), and the bohemian jazz of the Native Tongues. As Charizma’s mother notes in regard to her son’s song “Apple Juice Break”, which sounds like an unreleased Buhloone Mindstate demo, “When everybody was drinking back in the day it was all about 40s, but he had his apple juice.”
“He would have been great for a TV commercial for Martinellis,” she says. “He never really got into all that [gangster rap] scene back then because he was just a crazy kid.”
By crazy kid she means her son never tried to fit in. She says he was always coming up with weird fashion styles, like cutting off the tops of his hats to make them into visors and pinning polaroids to chains to make medallion necklaces. He’d play pranks on the local kids during Halloween, and generally make his mom and two sisters laugh. Peanut Butter Wolf even recalls a few ideas Charizma had that were still too ahead of their time for him.
“He really wanted to do the tie-dye shirts,” Wolf says. “At the time tie-dye was something from the ‘70s that I never could see myself wearing. I thought that it was kind of weird and un-hip hop to do, but I just followed his lead, accepted it. Now Odd Future and a bunch of kids nowadays have gone back to that tie-dye look in hip hop.”
[Peanut Butter Wolf, manager Matt Brown, Charizma]
Without an official record, Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf made a name in San Jose and the Bay Area through their live shows and demo tapes. They had yet to complete a record, but their list of industry friends was rapidly expanding. The two appeared on Sway & King Tech’s The Wake Up Show, which then aired on Northern California’s 106 KMEL, and opened for acts like House of Pain, Cypress Hill, and Digital Underground. They regularly recorded with Money B of Digital Underground, and to this day Wolf cannot recall how he got a hold of their demo. Money B took the young group under his tutelage, getting them a meeting with Hollywood BASIC Records and taking them on a European tour. Charizma’s mother remembers her son coming home from signing the contract with Hollywood BASIC as the happiest she ever saw him. He even framed his contract and hung it up in his room.
“I think that’s when he really realized that he was going to hit the big time,” she says. “They came back from signing the contract and he and Chris were on top of the world. They really took it serious at that point.”
Signing to Hollywood BASIC, then home to Organized Konfusion and DJ Shadow, led to hang ups and delays that always enter the equation in dealing with major label politics. Peanut Butter Wolf says that prior to signing, their record was mostly complete. These recordings would later become the posthumously released Big Shots. Of the many hold ups, one included the group’s restrictions on studio time. Wolf recalls their earlier work being recorded in a studio that charged $15 per hour, but Hollywood BASIC put them in a studio that cost $75 per hour. The problem was BASIC was paying and would not allow them to record until they were comfortable footing the fees.
“All the songs we were excited about originally got old and we didn’t want to put them on the album anymore,” Wolf says. “We had songs written but not recorded.”
A Disney-owned label, Hollywood BASIC wanted to shape the group into a proven, pre-existing product. It starts to become the typical music industry story of A&Rs in the artist’s ear, suggesting they change their sound to something that sounds like artist X because artist X has made X amount of dollars for another label. Promises like a Pete Rock remix were made but never fulfilled, and while it mostly reads as shady, Hollywood BASIC was also under tremendous stress with its president being diagnosed with terminal cancer, a setback which was unbeknownst to Charizma and Wolf.
“When he got sick funds were held up,” Wolf says. “We were in limbo.”
Charizma and Peanut Butter Wolf were eventually dropped from Hollywood BASIC. Partially deflated and partially relieved, they accepted a severance of sorts and the label handed over the recordings without friction.
“We still weren’t sure where we were going to go,” Wolf says. “So we just started recording again, not for any label but for ourselves.”
By 1993 rap music was shifting toward slower production with darker textures and aesthetic. The Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” was out, Nas had announced that when he was 12 he went to hell for bucking Jesus, and Show & A.G. had gone from the hyper “Soul Clap” and “Party Groove” to the laid back, off-kilter jazz sampling on “Represent”, featuring a young, nihilistic, and hungry Big L.
Charizma was taken by Big L’s appearances on “Represent” and Lord Finesse’s “Yes You May (Remix)”. It can be heard in the recording of “Methods”. He sounds less like a West Coast version of Special Ed due to the hints of inflection and structural similarities to Big L. Peanut Butter Wolf was keen to the changes in Charizma’s style. He’d never shied from rapping about street life, but it was coming to the forefront in the recordings made after they became unsigned artists again.
“I noticed he started getting more harder, not really gangster, but more street,” he says. “My music was, too. ‘Red Light Green Light’ was kind of showy when we did it. We were trying to be different than everybody. He went from being 16 years old to 20 years old and those are really formative years where you really change a lot.”
“I felt like we were hitting a stride right when he passed,” he continues. “I mean ‘Methods’ is probably my favorite song and that was probably the last song we recorded.”
“… Red Light”
Were it not for a preacher watering his lawn in East Palo Alto around noon, Charizma’s mugger might have escaped his life sentence. Charizma was stopped at a light when the mugger, recently released from San Quentin on similar charges, approached the car and opened fire on the young rapper. It was the day before his girlfriend’s graduation. Charizma’s mother recalls helping her son buy a suit for the occasion, telling him that every man must have a suit. Days later it was the suit he wore at his funeral.
Peanut Butter Wolf was at home when JoAnn called him to report Charizma’s death. She requested he be the one to tell Charizma’s girlfriend the bad news, a responsibility he admits was not something he knew how to do at the time.
“She knew me and Charizma had a weird sense of humor so when I called she thought it was practical joke and got really upset, telling me I shouldn’t mess around with something so serious. Eventually she believed me. It was probably not something I should have called, but talked to her in person.”
After the showing Charizma was cremated. His mother had planned to spread his ashes in a cemetery, but after creating a memorial in his childhood bedroom with mementos from his life, she chose not to part with her son. The visitors kept coming to pay their respects and she kept it for them.
It would be months before Peanut Butter Wolf would record again. The loss of his friend left him numb. He could not return to a craft in which five years of recording and bonding had been abruptly cut short, just when they had regained their footing. Eventually he discovered that producing helped heal his pain.
“It was really therapeutic,” he says. “Once I started making beats I really got into it again. I made this record called Peanut Butter Breaks, which was like instrumental tracks mostly.”
Peanut Butter Breaks, like much of his work with Charizma, embodies a blueprint for future releases under the Stones Throw imprint. The melancholy opener “Summer’s End” is a predecessor to records like Koushik’s Out My Window, while the dusty breaks of “Soggy D” later translate in album’s by Rob Swift and Breakestra. Eventually he’ll encounter Madlib, causing an epidemic strain to splinter from the label that infects and accumulates fixtures within like J Dilla, MF Doom, Lootpack, MED, Oh No, and Dam Funk. Mostly though, no matter how left of center the Stones Throw roster ventures, traces of Charizma can be pinpointed. Early Charizma tracks like “Charizma What” are cut from the same cloth as 3rd Base’s “Gasface” featuring a young MF Doom, then known as Zev Love X. Fast forward a decade later to MF Doom joining Madlib for a collaborative record entitled Madvillainy. Then it felt serendipitous, but dig into Peanut Butter Wolf’s lineage and the narrative shifts towards calculations in the works since ‘94. Meanwhile, the closing song on Peanut Butter Breaks? Well, it’s a somber and jazzy instrumental simply titled, “Charizma”, bidding farewell, or maybe more accurately, “adieu”, as the French understood the necessity for a word that means “until we meet again.”
In 2003 Stones Throw released Big Shots, the never-completed Charizma record the two had nearly finished prior to signing to Hollywood BASIC. Peanut Butter Wolf says upon starting the label that he felt Charizma’s music was too dated to release, but by the 10-year anniversary he no longer wanted to keep his friend’s music to himself. He also had the concerns of Charizma’s family in mind.
[Peanut Butter Wolf with Charizma's sisters]
“When I first put the record out 10 years ago I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about it,” he says. “When I spoke to his mom about it she seemed happy for me, but I wasn’t sure how she really felt. She’s such a nice person. I thought she was just being supportive. Talking with her more in depth recently, she really seems to want this stuff to come out and for new people to hear his music. She tells me she collects all the interviews.”
On the phone she assures me Chris Manak has her full support when it comes to honoring her son’s legacy. “I think people think when people die you shouldn’t talk about it for fear of hurting people’s feelings,” she says. “My feelings are the same now as 20 years ago when it happened. It is hard, but it’s always there and it will always be there.”
With the 20-year anniversary box set, JoAnn Schwartz continues to be that proud parent, in awe that despite the passage of time people still care about her son’s body of work, particularly the song “High School Love”, which was always her favorite song though it never appeared on any of the past releases. She says back when they recorded it, “neither one really liked the song.”
“They’d be like ‘Oh mom, no that’s wack,’ but I’d swear that no, it’s a great song.”
Overwhelmed, she continues:
“I can’t even express the way I feel because it’s so wonderful. It’s such an awesome feeling people are still caring and reliving my son’s music. That means a lot. After 20 years people have not forgotten him. His music is kind of old school, but people still care and that’s a huge huge compliment to me.”
Peanut Butter Wolf & Charizma, Circa 1990-1993 retrospective boxset is out now on Stones Throw.