words by Peter Holslin
illustrations by Killer Acid
The smoke-out machine had the appetite of Thor, the lung capacity of Poseidon, and the relentlessness of the steel driver that felled John Henry. It was built out of an old leaf blower. Attached to the engine was a long tube. Attached to the tube was a large bowl. Inside the bowl was half a pound of “bomb” weed called “Black Magic,” a hybrid strain developed for the merchandising/touring company The Smokers Club that combined the divine powers of Pope sativa with the euphoric, stress-relieving properties of OG Kush.
The machine was the brainchild of Jonny Shipes, president of the rap label Cinematic Music Group, the man behind the Smokers Club, and a lifelong stoner. He remembers inviting a large crowd to test out the machine at his label’s bustling “club house,” a four-story brownstone next door to the Brooklyn stash spot Jay Z had immortalized in his song “Empire State of Mind.” For months friends, family, label employees and rappers—including the sprawling Pro Era crew headed by 20-year-old rapper Joey Bada$$—had come by to work, party, and smoke weed. But on this particular afternoon, as Shipes powered up the machine and set a torch to the pile of green nugs, things got a little out of hand.
“So much weed smoke poured out of it that my brother tried to punch me in the face, but couldn’t because he couldn’t find me through the smoke,” Shipes recalls. “He was like, ‘You motherfucker! The fire department’s coming!’ Every single alarm in the house went off, and everybody left me, holding the machine… You went outside the building and you saw billows of smoke coming out of the windows. The fire department came and I had to tell them what happened. They were like, ‘You guys are fucking idiots.’”
We all know how forgetful stoners can be, so it’s hard to say how much of this particular episode was fact, and how much was legend. What’s clear, though, is that few in rap music have been able to combine marijuana with business in the same way as Shipes. In the past 15 years, the 35-year-old upstart mogul has managed to build a modest but steadily growing independent fiefdom. He’s helped launch the careers of rappers like Joey Bada$$ and Big K.R.I.T., forged connections with key operators in the hip-hop world, and created his own line of weed-centric Smokers Club merchandise and paraphernalia. And he’s managed to do it all while smoking tons of weed everyday.
“I think he’s a little bit of an idiot-savant,” says Jessica Rosenblum, an influential promoter and major figure in New York hip-hop, who’s worked with Shipes regularly over the years. “You meet him, and he’s so funny and so charming, but you can’t imagine that he’s actually really, really smart and really driven. It’s so incongruous.
“Of course, once you get to know him, all you want to do is champion him, because you can see the brightness and the drive,” she adds. “But your first impression is, ‘Really? Come on.’”
Slightly schlubby with a brusque New York accent, Shipes (real name: Jon Shapiro) does indeed look less like a swashbuckling label-head than a working-class stoner stopping by the neighborhood bodega for a handful of Phillies. But though he might not flaunt it, Shipes has a lot going on. He manages a growing group of artists, and to boost Cinematic Music Group’s roster he’s struck up a partnership with a prominent Wall Street investor (he declined to say who on the record). He also recently met with the legendary DJ Funkmaster Flex—who now goes by the name Funk Flex—to help bring about the recent reunion of beloved Harlem rap group the Diplomats.
When I caught Shipes on the phone recently, he was in the middle of a marathon week, making stops in Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles to handle a music video shoot, meet with new artists he’s working with, and to take care of other label business. He hadn’t smoked that day, but it was only because he’d been battling a nasty case of strep throat—the result, he says, of a demanding schedule that can spiral into 18-hour workdays.
“I’m always going to smoke weed, period. It’s just my lifestyle. I love it. The only thing that gets me to stop smoking weed is strep throat right now,” he says. “I love her. I just love Mary Jane. Just the smell of it. Just when you get the dank buds, those beautiful buds that are just—” He lets out a little sigh. “They just look beautiful and smell beautiful and break up beautiful.”
Hip-hop artists have long embraced dank buds. For one, they’re regarded as an agent of spiritual kinship and fraternal bonding—a point KRS-One emphasizes in his 1993 song “I Can’t Wake Up,” in which he envisions himself as a blunt making the rounds between the likes of Cypress Hill, De La Soul and a non-inhaling Bill Clinton. But on top of that, the leafy green has long been considered a catalyst for sonic exploration and studio transcendence. It’s an idea that has roots in Jamaican reggae and dub, and it was continued with pioneers like Dr. Dre, who during his N.W.A. years boasted that he never touched the stuff, but then as a solo artist turned around and called his game-changing 1992 debut The Chronic.
The ubiquity of marijuana in hip-hop has helped sustain the careers of “weed rappers” like Devin the Dude, Curren$y and Cinematic Music Group’s own Smoke DZA. But it’s also arguably shaped public opinion at large, with now-iconic celebrities like Snoop Dogg making the art of puffing weed seem ever more normal in the eyes of the masses. At this point, as hip-hop has achieved mainstream status and states like Colorado and Washington have passed legislation decriminalizing the plant, some analysts are hoping pro-weed rappers will get involved in advocacy for political change.
"We’ve got to look at the future," Dr. Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Ohio’s Hiram College and the politics editor at The Source, told The Huffington Post last October. "It's like gay marriage and anything else. This is eventually going to drop in every state. You’re going to have marijuana—it’s going to be legal in every single state. The question is going to be, what’s the next step?”
Is this part of Shipes’ grand scheme? Eh, not likely. Describing himself as a cross between Larry David and Eastbound & Down’s Danny McBride, he professes a love for hard work and ambition, but also crude comedy and Animal House-style pranksterism.
“I am a derelict that was able to turn my life around and make it, and I’m proud of that,” he says. “I don’t hide it. I don’t mind it. And I think that’s why I’m able to connect with artists so well.”
Raised on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Shipes was an inveterate class clown and troublemaker as a kid. He was 13 when he smoked his first blunt, and he was six when he fell in love with rap music. His first exposure came at a sleep-away sports camp in Massachusetts; some older kids were playing basketball and the Geto Boys’ ultra-raunchy track “Gangster of Love” was blasting from a boombox. Shipes was sucked in, listening intently as the Houston group unleashed such memorable lines as “I need a bitch to lick my nuts until my dick is cumming.”
“Just imagine me hearing that at six,” Shipes says. “I just fell in love. It was just, like, ‘Music!’”
Though he wasn’t the best student—he bounced around in high school and finally finished up his studies in the East Hamptons after repeating senior year—he was only a teenager when he started dreaming of making Cinematic Music Group a real label. Ambitious and persistent, he got his start in the industry working under Rosenblum, helping her put on Sean “Puffy” Combs’ swanky “White Parties” and other events. At the time Shipes was also dealing weed on the side, but he quit that hustle in his early 20s to do music full-time, serving as a manager for Foxy Brown and Nappy Roots.
After a few years where he’d occasionally struggle to make rent, he got a big break when one of his clients, Sean Kingston, blew up with his 2007 self-titled debut. The Jamaican-American rapper/singer, best known for his hit “Beautiful Girls,” started touring internationally, and as his manager, Shipes would rake in a twenty percent commission on each gig. In effect Kingston’s success was Shipes’ success, giving him industry cred and enough of a cash infusion necessary that he could start realizing his own dreams of building a music empire.
His mission got a major boost in recent years thanks to the rise of Joey Bada$$. Shipes first stumbled across the young Brooklyn rapper on YouTube. Though he was only 15 years old, the 3-minute video made clear he had promise, showing him drop a fierce freestyle while flexing some viral marketing savvy while he was at it.
“The title said ’15 Year Old Freestyles for Worldstar,’ so when people came to it, they thought that it was on Worldstar, but it wasn’t,” Bada$$ says, referring to WorldStarHipHop, the popular online hub for rap videos and videotaped street fights.
Shipes quickly signed Bada$$ to Cinematic Music Group in 2012, and has been managing Joey’s career ever since. And so far he’s had a solid year. He dropped his debut album, B4.Da.$$, in January, which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Independent Album charts, and also won praise from critics for his agile wordplay as well as the album’s heady beats—all of it harking back to vintage ’90s New York rap but also updating it with a more current style and production quality.
Of course, rap history is paved with stories of executives exploiting their most promising talent, but Joey says he and Shipes have a strong, fraternal partnership. “He’s like a big brother to me,” Bada$$ says. “It’s awesome working with Jonny. We’ve got the family bond.”
Shipes says he wants Cinematic Music Group to be on par with Def Jam or Interscope—only independently, without help from the “assholes” and “cocksuckers” of the major label system, as he calls them. But that leads to an important and perfectly reasonable quandary. In 2013, researchers in the U.K. released a study showing evidence that heavy, long-term marijuana smokers tended to produce lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in their brains, suggesting that their feelings of motivation and reward-based behavior were diminished.
Considering such scientific research, you have to wonder: How does a guy who’s been evicted nearly half a dozen times because he smokes so much damn weed—indeed, who promises to get you “high as giraffe pussy” if you ever sit down and have a smoking sesh with him—maintain the creative vision and organizational skills necessary to run a growing business in the high-pressure, radically-evolving music industry?
Joey Bada$$ says it’s all about scheduling. The two of them have been working together since Bada$$ released his debut 1999 mixtape in 2012, and as his manager, Shipes handles all of the young rapper’s business, from shows to interviews to photo shoots to studio time. Their days are filled with meetings and they both often have to travel, so to stay focused they abstain from puffing during working hours.
“He doesn’t even smoke that much weed anymore,” Bada$$ says. “He only smokes in the night. We’re both the same way.”
Shipes considers himself a connoisseur of OG Kush and Fire OG—extra-potent sativa/indica hybrid strains that are known to induce deep, anxiety-lifting body highs and bring out feelings of creativity. He prefers smoking joints, and is always happy to spend a night on the couch watching Hot Tub Time Machine 2. But the buds also help him settle in and listen to music—either potential beats for upcoming releases, or tracks by artists he’s thinking about signing to the label.
In these moments he’ll be in the studio or at his house, seated at a long, solid oak table, his phone switched off, ready to focus—and eager to inhale the green muse. And this is when it really makes sense why he’s kept smoking all these years.
“When I’m listening to an artist, my phone is not on. I’m not concerned about shit that’s going on in the outside world,” he says. “I think that weed allows me to just zone in on that and really hear what that artist has to say. And you know, I can tell right away if it’s important enough for me to be fucking with.”