Hip Hop’s Most Successful Pothead: An interview with Jonny Shipes!

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We recently chopped it up with one of Hip Hop’s most successful potheads, Jonny Shipes. If you don’t already know, Shipes is a pioneer in the independent music world and the founder of Cinematic Music Group. Not only has he helped launch the careers of your favorite underground talent like Smoke DZA, Nipsey Hussle, Big K.R.I.T. and Joey Bad$$, Shipes is also hilarious.

Daily Chiefers: How’d you take Smokers Club from just an idea to a full-fledged brand, which includes the tours, clothing, and the blog?

Jonny Shipes: I did it with a lot of help. The Smokers Club started with Me, Steve O from GFC, Smoke DZA and Curren$y as sort of a pseudo founder. We had just went down to SXSW, which I hadn’t even heard of at the time. We wanted to throw an event and at the time we were just smoking weed at my house. We were just like “yo, this is the smokers club. “ I feel like I came up with the name, it was either DZA or me. From there, it was just for the love of weed, we linked with Wiz and Spitta and all these other heads and from there it was an era in hip-hop.

It’s interesting, now a days everyone’s touring; back in the day, unless you were a huge act, you weren’t touring. We had people like K.R.I.T, Spitta, and DZA working with us so we thought why not go on tour? I put the bread up, we got a tour bus and we had no idea what we were doing. We probably even lost money that year but we just toured and had fun, just for the love of music and weed. I can’t even claim like it was well thought out, it was a cool situation that just happened to blow up. One thing we pride ourselves on at Cinematic is finding talent early on, and Smokers Club was always on that wave. We would find dope young kids, like Maxo Kream before he got super big, and put them on the tour.

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Daily Chiefers: What, in your eyes, was the most iconic Smokers Club tour that you put together and why? Any stories?

Jonny Shipes: No question, it was for sure the Juicy J tour with young Joey Bada$$ [he was 16 years old], Fat Trel and the Slutty Boys, Smoke DZA, Shortstop who was our homie from Cali, and Spitta I believe. That was the most incredible tour, Juicy had just put out “Bands A Make Her Dance” and we were selling out every venue, we had to start getting bigger venues! There were thousands of kids coming out to see him; it was the moment when he really broke out in his solo career. Smokers Club was always sort of a guys tour, when we had Juicy that all changed. There were all types of girls in the crowd, running up on stage, doing crazy shit. DZA and I would look at each other like this shit is crazy.

We were all honestly friends; I’ll never forget when we stopped in LA and played ball. My favorite moment was Fat Trel, on the court drinking Ciroc just draining threes like a mad man. We have some of that footage of it on old Cinematic TV, we were all just running around, sweating, and drinking Gatorade while Trel would be chugging Ciroc.

Daily Chiefers: What were your thoughts when you first heard Nipsey Hustle spit; “This fast money took my focus off this music shit/ Till Jonny Shipes introduced me to his Jewish friends.”

Jonny Shipes: [Laughs] First off I want to say I love Nip, shout out to him, he’s a great dude. We’ve been through a whole lot together, good and bad, lots of laughs. He’s my brother and when I heard that line, to me, it was just the truth. He was really in the streets heavy and it took a lot to get him out and focused on music. He was so good, so talented; he needed to be out of the streets. Look at him now he’s such a great artist and businessman. Opening up different stores in his neighborhood, giving back to his community, he deserves everything he’s getting. When I heard that it was so cool, even today I’ll run into people I’ve never met and they’ll yell out “Till Jonny Shipes introduced me to his Jewish Friends.” I guess it’s a line in history.

Daily Chiefers: I used to love watching old Cinematic TV episodes like Cousin Todd’s NYC Crib. What are some of the influences as well as memorable skits that come to mind?

Jonny Shipes: What my videos were inspired by was comedy. I wasn’t really influenced by any body because I was always doing funny shit. Even when I was a little kid, I used to dress up like Aladdin in my mothers clothes or playing the dentist in Little Shop of Horror for a middle school play. I always just wanted to do funny shit and make people laugh.

With Cousin Todd, I’m mind blown. My mind is actually blown thinking that I’m going to make money representing my cousin because he just got a reality show. I can’t really talk on it but it’s coming out on network and it’s just insane that it happening. The kid is a character, what you see is what you get with him. He’s my real cousin too, which is hysterical. What’s really funny is he’s been around everyday since 14, living with me so he better believe I’m taking my percentage. He’s caused me a lot of headaches, he’s crashed a lot of cars, and he’s done a lot of damage. I plan on getting everything I deserve from Cousin Todd. [Laughs]

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Daily Chiefers: I was watching the most recent episode of Cinematic TV and I couldn’t help but think I might have heard you on that opening song, was that you raping? I know you used to produce a bit.

Jonny Shipes: [Laughs] No, it’s a kid named ExtraLoudPack, although people have hit me and asked if that’s me. It’s funny I would love to take credit for it but he’s a young kid from Harlem. We’re probably going to develop him because his stuff is fire and he’s the homie.

I definitely started off producing, I used to do a lot of tracks for DZA, Nipsey, some old old Wu Tang side project type stuff, shit like that. What happened was, I started off producing and DJing and the music side started taking off for me more on the entrepreneurial side. I became more focused on that and building the brand. Now that I’ve got this whole staff, almost thirty people, who are smarter than me and better on the business side, I’m getting back into producing. Your supposed to keep people who are smarter than you around because that’s how you get better. I produced some stuff on Jayy Gram’s first EP, Good Times. I have a few joints coming out on his mixtape, I’m definitely working hard on LoWFI’s shit. That’s my lane of hip-hop because that’s what I come from. I’m going to be very selective with my production because my time is limited and I only want to work with a certain type of artist.

Daily Chiefers: You’ve been helping develop FELT, which is one of our favorites brands here at Chiefers. What sort of roles do you play along with Kristian Acosta?

Jonny Shipes: At first Kosta interned for me and had everyone in our office wearing these FELT hoodies, tees, and hats. I always thought, damn this stuff is fire. I asked him what FELT was and he told me it was his clothing brand. I immediately asked why don’t we actually do this. I’m from New York City and this culture; my first office was in Supreme’s basement. I watched that culture of skating and streetwear while working in the hip-hop industry. I’ve always been big on clothes: I watched Russel Simmons do Phat Farm, I watched Puff do Sean John, and Jay and Dame do Roc-a-wear. I always gravitated towards streetwear, some of my favorite brands are Stussy, Supreme, Undefeated. When I saw FELT, I was so excited, it was my opportunity to get into clothing. I ran the marketing department at Ecko for the last two years before it shut down, I learned a lot about marketing clothing there.

Long story short, at first I was just an investor at FELT and I wanted to remain silent but Kosta said to me, you are a face of this brand and you should let people know it’s yours as well. I never want to take someone else’s shine; this is really Kosta’s brand. It’s his baby, it’s his vision, but I’ve gotten more comfortable being a partner, I funded it. I help a bit on the creative side but I just allow them to do what they do because Kosta really has a vision for it and it’s fire. I help out on the marketing side of it, I think this brand is going to be huge; we’re not stopping anytime soon. I’m treating it just like developing an artist, baby steps; just making sure we make the right moves. I wear it religiously.

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Daily Chiefers: One of my favorite plaques in your office would have to be for Sean Kingston “Beautiful Girls.” That song sold over 6 million ringtones. I know that statement is crazy dated but how’ve you pivoted from working during the ringtone era to steaming platforms?

Jonny Shipes: It’s different; it took me a few years to gain my footing on this new shit. I’m used to finding an artist, developing them for a couple of years, and them taking off later. Like Sean, Nipsey, Krit, Joey, or Mick Jenkins you know? Now streaming platforms give artists the upper hand, in a good way. They allow artists to build their fan bases before a label even steps in. A Jayy Grams for example, might not have that fan base built in already but that’s more old school me. I’m always going to give someone young a chance, I believe in Jayy and I’m going to go super hard for him. Then there are other artists who are doing hundreds of thousands of streams without anyone behind them, it lets you know this is an artist that if you give the time and energy, the right team, and put some money behind them, they’re going to really take off. I look at streaming as a great thing; it’s really made the guessing game a little less.

For me, I never sign artists off their buzz. If you look at the artists I work with, they never have a buzz, maybe locally in their hoods but not popping on radio. Now with streaming I can say, first is the music good? I do that always before I look at the numbers. I think looking at the numbers first skews how I feel about the music, like oh he’s got a million views so I guess we should do it. I like saying, wow the music is fire, and than have an A&R tell me he’s also got a huge fan base.

Daily Chiefers: How do you balance working with talented up & comers such as Jayy Grams or Squidnice while also dropping new projects from legends like Cam’ron, or T-pain.

Jonny Shipes: Well Cam is damn near my favorite artist ever. It goes Cam, 2Pac, Boosie, Biggie, Nas, something like that. Working with Cam is fun; you’ve got to enjoy what you do in life and some of it you can’t because things are stressful and hard, pause. Cam would make me say pause there [laughs]. The thing is I grew up on this man’s music, he was my favorite MC and this is fun. T-pain’s another one; I came up in the clubs wilding out to his records. I carefully pick and chose who I want to work with, I’m not forced to work with anyone, thank god. I think with the bigger artists vs. the smaller artists, it’s different with time. For example someone like Jayy Grams has a long way to go, vs. a Mick Jenkins who’s album is ready to go, or Joey Bada$$ who’s already working on his next album. It’s timing with everything, it’s literally like how you would slow cook a meal; a chef really takes his time and makes sure all the tastes are there. Not to compare an artist with food but I’m just saying it’s important to let every artist build at his or her own rate. I balance it because I love it all, everyone’s just family and we all want to see each other win.

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