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Cinematic's Jonny Shipes & Smoke DZA on Turning Smokers Club Tour Into a Premier Stoner Brand

Smoke DZA and Jonny Shipes
Ashani Allick

Smoke DZA and Jonny Shipes.

On June 1, Cam’ron, The Underachievers, Nyck CautionG Herbo and Mobsquad Nard congregated in Portland’s Crystal Ballroom for the second stop of the Smokers Club Tour. Inside the modest theater (which houses 875 people at capacity), the city's hip-hop heads got their fix as G Herbo and The Underachievers performed extended sets to make up for headliner Smoke DZA’s absence (he was unable to perform due to flight issues), receiving loud pops from the crowd during the Chicago rapper’s cover of Bobby Shmurda’s “Computers” and the pair’s “Gangland” collaboration.

Cinematic Music Group founder Jonny Shipes and Smoke DZA, who co-founded the Smokers Club and Smokers Club Records with Shipes, runs through the brand goals for this year. In a phone call with Billboard, the business partners said they're working toward becoming the premier marijuana brand, blending weed culture with indie acts to create a unique experience apart from the kush-inspired tours of the West. “If it crosses over to growing marijuana, you know, that’s awesome," Shipes said during a call from California following their Northwest tour stops (the tour hits Salt Lake City on Wednesday). "If it means we sell clothing, papers and whatever other opportunities come our way that we feel aren’t compromising our cool or selves, we’ll entertain. Marijuana is a real viable business at this point."

Since they first linked up in 2002, Shipes and DZA, a working relationship that DZA compares to World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon and Triple H, have opened the doors for other artists to create massive hip-hop tours. Following 2014’s Smokers Club with Method Man, Redman, B-Real of Cypress Hill and Berner as the main attractions, the duo took a break in 2015 to come back stronger this year with Cam’ron as the headliner. "We grew up on Cam'ron. He’s for sure both of our favorite artists,” Shipes says about getting the Harlem legend for a 27-date trek across the country. Two stops in, Shipes and DZA agree this stint is the smoothest tour they’ve embarked on so far, probably because they have five-plus years of experience to pull from, including their inaugural show at SXSW in 2009.

Here, the pair discusses the formation of the Smokers Club, the tour’s biggest moments, and how they plan to create a brand that resonates with hip-hop heads and pot smokers alike.

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Can you tell me the origin story of the Smokers Club? How did it all start?

Jonny Shipes: We used to all hang out at my crib. I had a house on 23rd Street [in Manhattan]. The neighbors fully remembered us. They hated us so much. To say that we burnt that crib down is an understatement. The crib wasn’t even that big and we would have 10 motherf---ers in there, steaming. This was like when we were at our worst -- disrespectful, young, not giving a f--- motherf---ers.

We were sitting at the crib and Steven “Steve-O” Brown -- he founded the Smokers Club with me and DZA -- had told me about this thing called SXSW. Me and DZA never heard of it, saying, "What the f--- is that?" He was like, "Yo, we should do this party down in South By [Southwest]." Me and DZA looked at each other. I feel like Spitta was there too that day and I was like, "All right, let’s do this."

Smoke DZA: He came later on that day, but he was there.

Shipes: So Spitta came later. We ran the idea by him. We were like, "Yo, there’s this thing called SXSW. This sh-- is dope. Let’s do it." We were literally the first hip-hop thing to go on at South By. The show called the Smokers Club at the Fire Engine House and it was DZA, Devin the Dude, Big K.R.I.T. and Wiz [Khalifa]. It was so early on that if you look at the T-shirt we did with Diamond Supply, the last names on the flyer are ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar. They were so small at that point. It was that long ago.

DZA: Jay Rock brought Kendrick out and the whole thing got smoked out.

Shipes: Literally. Jay Rock was the big one at that point, and he brought out Kendrick. So that night, Wiz performed, Spitta performed. Devin the Dude was our headliner. That’s actually the weekend that “Glass House” got made, the song with Wiz, K.R.I.T. and Spitta. We were all staying in the same crib.

DZA: For a cool point, I was supposed to be on “Glass House” but I left a day early.

DZA, What is your involvement with Smokers Club?

DZA: The best way I can explain it for everybody that know me is they know I am a wrestling head. I’m like Triple H. Jonny is Vince McMahon. He’s pretty much the guy that does all the business. I would flunk even trying to attempt what he does. Basically, I get to go and carry the flag and do the epic sh-- that I can do being a veteran on the tour.

I took a little three-year hiatus from being on the Smokers Club Tour. To be back now seems like a real feeling because I’m bringing all my new tricks that I’ve learned from not being on the road and get to bring old friends when I go to these cities. I got so many friends in this sh--. Like last night [at Club Nokia in Los Angeles], I brought out Wiz. That was the second time he was on Smokers Club other than [the show] we did at SXSW. It meant a lot to me being really stapled into the brand. To have him come out with the stature he has right now and take time out of his busy day to come rock the Smokers Club’s stage and embrace our fans, that sh-- was surreal.

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Shipes, you guys started the Smokers Tour officially in 2010. What do you remember about that experience? Anything you would do differently?

Shipes: I wish I would have taken sh-- a little bit more seriously in the beginning. Honestly, I like to get high and get f---ed up and just have a good time with my friends and sh--. That’s probably what I was doing for the first four years of the Smokers Club Tour. Not even looking at it as any type of business or "I’m gonna turn this into this and that and a clothing line." I was literally looking forward to going every year on the road with DZA and friends and whoever I was homies with and having a good time. I wish I would have focused a little more on the business side early on, but it is all good because the business is extremely successful.

When did you guys feel you had something?

Shipes: We both could probably answer that differently. I’m pretty sure it is fair to say that we both knew right after South By, because people were hitting us left and right, like, "Yo, what’s up with Smokers Club?" I was like, "Whoa, these are crazy. Nothing is up with Smokers Club. We don’t have anything planned. I don’t know what to tell you." And honestly, I can say that this year is our biggest moment, because me and DZA are clicking like we haven’t really clicked ever before. We are both in such good places in our lives and we have this great platform, like Cam’ron’s a client. I work with him, but he’s also the homie. Nyck Caution’s a client but he’s a homie. DZA's a client but he’s a homie. Same with Herb. This tour feels the most fun. Aside from that first tour with Curren$y and K.R.I.T., this feels the most synergistic.

DZA: I definitely feel good about where the brand is going. Our biggest year? Like Jonny says, we both was going to answer it differently. I don’t even think we had our biggest year yet. I think every year, it gets bigger and bigger. Right now, with the lineup that we got and me and Jonny being true Cam’ron fans before all this sh--, I don’t even think we envisioned Cam’ron headlining Smokers Club. If you had asked us that four years ago, we would have been like, "F--- outta here." For us to have that, that’s like a milestone. That would probably be our biggest [moment] just based on that.

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You both took a break in 2015 and re-launched The Smokers Club again this year. What did you focus on?

DZA: We didn’t want to take a break. It just didn’t form in line when we were supposed to at the time. We all had a lot of things going on, so the timing just wasn’t right. It also made us focus on other things.

Shipes: For me, with Cinematic taking some important steps in its growth, I just personally didn’t have the time to dedicate to really getting the right lineup together, and DZA was working on his album. There’s just a lot of sh-- going on. This tour is running super smooth. We took a good 18-month hiatus to grow from it and learn and reflect from any mistakes.

DZA: Logistically, it’s definitely the smoothest. It’s definitely not one of those tours where we are scurrying. It’s definitely a better-oiled machine than before.

As the tour continues to grow, what do you want the Smokers Club brand to be known for?

DZA: Well, the premier f---ing stoner brand tour. Similar to the [Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg’s] Up in Smoke Tour [but] even bigger. We want to turn this sh-- into festivals. We got a big vision for it.

Shipes: To DZA’s point, we are East Coast heads. Much respect to the West Coast on all levels, from growers to homies to whatever it might be, but at the end of the day, we are from New York. Shiest Bubz's another founder and owner of the Club. He’s from Harlem, Purple City. It’s just a different type of movement compared to the bigger West Coast movements. Unfortunately, weed isn’t legalized here, but I feel our brand is a little different because it's just like we grew up on a certain type of culture and look seen on the East Coast. I think that’s a cool part of it too. All these other brands that we are vying for position with are mostly West Coast brands.

With Joey Bada$$’ show canceled following the Irving Plaza shooting and the Kanye pop-up show attempt failing, what are your thoughts on the situation surrounding hip-hop shows in New York? The Smokers Club will come in July.

Shipes: I want to say one thing, 'cause I only have one thing to say about this: Don’t pass Trump the blunt. That’s what I think of it. I think do not pass Trump the blunt or we are even more f---ed than what you see going on right now in New York and across the country.


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