At 19, disc jockey Chris Manak took a fancy for a character named Peanut Butter Wolf, an imaginary illustration of a wolf-like boogeyman avatar. “It was so weird and funny, we even started a band where every song would mention it.” Eventually, Manak, ’92 Business, named his band Peanut Butter Wolf, and also went by that name on stage. Looking back, Manak says, “I probably wouldn’t have taken on that name had I known I’d still have it when I was 50.”
All Manak aka Peanut Butter Wolf wanted to do since his coming of age was make music. “I knew since I was in high school that I wanted to make a living out of music and my business degree from San José State gave me the tools to do that,” says Manak.
Today, Manak lives between several gigs. As the founder of an avant-garde record label Stones Throw Records, launched after his best friend Charizma’s death, Manak works with artists who defy convention and bring an eclectic mix to the craft. Over the years Manak has helped discover artists like J Dilla, Madlib, Anderson Paak and many more. “My goal is always to not let the economics of it prevent me from championing the artists that I personally think are doing something interesting and different,” he says.
When he’s not spinning as a nightclub DJ in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America, Manak channels his energy in a “vinyl bar” that he launched a couple of years ago in Los Angeles. It is the first of its kind in the U.S. and, Manak says, “we have 10,000 records from my personal collection in the bar.”
Growing up, Manak was shy and introverted. He would take refuge in music to beat out the blues of his discordant home life. His parents divorced when he was 15. “Music really helped me through that time period more than anything else,” Manak says. Having had parents with taste in country music and show tunes like Sound of Music, the first album Manak fell in love with was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Gradually, his love for disco became apparent as he would buy all the K-Tel disco albums and funk records.
When he was 14, Manak fanned his DJing skills by teaching himself how to scratch and mix with a mixer and turntables. “I also got a drum machine that year, and a couple of my friends would come over and rap and we’d record it to cassette,” he says.
As a teenager, his dream was to sign with an independent hip-hop label and have his own record out. Manak’s dreams started to feel real when he joined San José State. His involvement in KSJS, SJSU’s 24×7 radio station that supports local, underground music served as a springboard for creative entrepreneurship. Being part of the university’s first hip-hop radio show, Project Sound, helped him release his first hip-hop vinyl record.
“Kim Collett, the show’s hip-hop program director at the time, wanted to put out a record with a local hip-hop group I was a part of—Lyrical Prophecy. Now that record is very rare and in demand with hip-hop collectors.” Manak says. “The fact that I had a record out made every rapper in San José want to work with me. It really gave me my start.”
DJing is still fun for this cool, experimental genre-bending artist whose music cuts across generations. Manak’s enthusiasm shows no signs of waning when he says, “I’m 50 years old, but the people who come to my shows are mainly in their 20s and 30s, so it feels good to see things go intergenerational like that.”
For Manak, “everything is a passion project.” Starting from his early Peanut Butter Wolf band days to launching his classic debut album, “My Vinyl Weighs a Ton,” to founding a record label and owning a “vinyl bar” in Los Angeles, Manak has been pushing the envelope in hip-hop for more than two decades. In between, he worked at record stores, wrote for music magazines, signed with Hollywood Records, and toured Europe in addition to doing his signature DJ trope in music festivals like Coachella and private celebrity events. In November 2019, he returned to San José State to give a talk on hip-hop.
Throughout his career, Manak admits being in awe of artists he works with: “They make music I could never think of making myself.”