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Cinematic Music Group's Jonny Shipes on Developing Artists and the Beauty of Staying Independent

Jonny Shipes and Cam'ron
Ashani Allick

Jonny Shipes (center) photographed with Cam’ron (right).

In 2007, the thought of being independent in the music business excited a then-27-year-old Jonny Shipes. So when the New York native launched a new record label, Cinematic Music Group, with Harlem rapper Smoke DZA serving as his flagship artist, he was aware of the obstacles in his path, that major label conglomerates often reveled in the thought of trouncing small-time indie companies.

So instead of delving into a full-fledged bout against these major label titans, he built momentum slowly. That same year, Shipes watched his label's stock crescendo when Sean Kingston inked a deal with Cinematic and blossomed into a mainstream darling with a slew of radio friendly hits, most notably his Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single "Beautiful Girls." A few years later in 2010, Shipes' eye for talent only grew stronger, when he added Nipsey Hu$$le, Big K.R.I.T. and a fresh-faced Joey Bada$$ to bolster his rap imprint.

Fast forward to 2016 and Shipes is no longer the guy with the small-time indie label. Last year, his prize signee Joey Bada$$ quashed all doubts about his abilities with an impressive debut album in B4.Da.$$, which bowed at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, moving 58,000 units in its opening week. Cinematic’s 2014 addition, Mick Jenkins, wowed rap junkies with his blistering mixtape The Water[s] and just released his debut album, The Healing Component, last week (Sept. 23). Shipes’ semi-annual Smokers Club Tour is considered a fan favorite, and has featured the likes of Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, Cam'ron, Method Man and more over the years. Earlier this year, he diversified his rap-centric roster by signing rock bands Public Access TV and Caveman. With the tide of the music industry shifting towards the beauty of independence, Jonny Shipes has beaten them all to the punch.

Billboard sat down with the CEO and founder of Cinematic Music Group to speak about his label's success, developing artists like Joey Bada$$ and Mick Jenkins, and what fans can expect from Cam'ron's new album.

It’s been nearly 10 years since you started Cinematic in 2007. What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment to date?

Jonny Shipes: Honestly, I think my biggest accomplishment to date would be what I’ve gone through this past year. I’m 36. I started doing this when I was 18. From 18 to 28, I really operated with maybe my assistant and like two of my homies that would help me out. I was working with a very small group of people that didn’t really have any music experience, besides from me.

Then in the past year, or maybe the last 18 months, I built a whole staff of 15 people that I deal with daily, because the company finally got to this level. We’re still fully independent, but we’ve gotten some success. Building a team and actually having to be the leader and [be] responsible for not only your clients, but how the ecosystem of your company works, and getting the right employees and staff, and treating everybody with respect and how you wanted to be treated, is my biggest accomplishment.

There’s a lot of good artists out there. The hardest thing for me isn’t developing the artists or finding the artists. It was really trying to build a team that could help me compete with the 300’s, the Def Jam’s, or whatever.

Are you surprised that Cinematic is being mentioned in the same breath as a Def Jam, or as an Atlantic, especially with you guys being an independent conglomerate?

I’m definitely not surprised. Humbly speaking, I feel like I’m one of the best at what I do. I think all the different people in the music industry that are playing at a certain level are good at certain things. I never went to school, so I might not be as good as whoever is book smart, but there’re other things that I’m better at than them. I feel like me, personally, and the team that I have, are ready to compete with anybody. So I’m not surprised on that tip.

You definitely have an eye for great lyricists, as you have both Joey Bada$$ and Mick Jenkins on your roster. What is it about those two artists that you love and how do you plan on helping them achieve longevity?

I just loved how good their music was when I found them, the potential and just what they represented. I like real music. I grew up on ’Pac, Biggie, Jay, OutKast, Nas, Geto Boys, Scarface, Snoop Dogg. The best, the prime. In my opinion, the real, real golden era of hip-hop. So I look for artists like that to sign. You know, things that I can relate to. I really lived those years. In ’94, ’95, ’96, I was 14, 15, 16. I was that kid who was literally entrenched in music. So it’s not really that hard to hear great music.

The harder part is how do I plan on making their careers 10-year careers, 15-year careers. And that really just comes with seeing the temperature of the artist once you put them out, and then kind of strategizing what lane they fit into, where the biggest fan bases are, and just being creative.

You played a huge part in jump-starting the career of Big K.R.I.T. Earlier this year, he left Def Jam to go indie. How do you feel he’ll transition from a major label artist to an independent one?

I’m super happy for him. I felt that he didn’t belong on a major because they don’t know what to do with artists that might not make a hit record, but make amazing bodies of work and have huge core fan bases. You know, those kinds of artists that aren’t necessarily interested in making a hit record or appeasing the executives -- and I lived this with K.R.I.T. -- that are down his throat to make X, Y, Z-sounding records. It’ll be better for him because he’ll be able to go his own way. He’ll probably get a great split and a great deal and be able to do exactly what he wants as an artist. That’s always what’s important. I know he was held over at Def Jam. 

This year, you’ve made some new acquisitions when you picked up Public Access TV and Caveman. How important is it to create diversity within your label?

Super. I grew up on all music. Obviously, hip-hop predominantly, and that’s my favorite music. Actually, it’s not even my favorite -- I love all music. Hip-hop is what’s in my soul, if you will, first and foremost. I live that culture. But in addition to that, growing up, I loved Guns N’ Roses. All music to me is important because I do this for the love of music. 

I think when you look at a label like Columbia or Interscope, that’s where I’d really love to be one day. They have Adele, Daft Punk, Pharrell, Dr. Dre, Snoop, all different kinds of amazing artists. I don’t feel like being pigeonholed to one [genre] was ever my game plan, you know what I mean? But I’ll start and always live in hip-hop.

We’ve seen a lot of artists like Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper and Travi$ Scott link up with Apple to release their albums exclusively through Apple Music. How long do you see that trend being successful?

I think that all new platforms to release music in new, innovative ways are dope. I think that as long as it makes sense for the industry in general, why not do it? I just read something today that said music revenues are up like 8 or 9 percent this year. So you know, the music industry is evolving and making a comeback in the sense of learning how to not cannibalize itself based on us just trying to sell records physically. That model is broken. I think people like [Apple Music Head of Content] Larry Jackson; he’s very into the culture. He’s providing opportunities for artists and I think it’s cool. There’re all different types of ways to premiere your music these days, but yeah, I’m into the Apple thing.

You have a playlist with Spotify set to come out titled 4 Eva Timeless, and from the looks of it, it’s pretty diverse. You have Tupac, Biggie, Joey Bada$$, OutKast, Kendrick Lamar. It’s a dope mix of artists.

I started off DJ’ing back in the day. So I always really understood music. How old are you? 27? So we’re kind of in the same range. You’re nine years younger than me, but we almost kind of grew up together in the golden era with Snoop, Biggie, Nas, Jay and so on and so forth. I think that to me, I’ve always been good at knowing what timeless music is because when I was maybe like 10 years old and on, I’ve been listening to things that are relevant and still hold true now, whether it was Nas, Big, whoever.

I just think that in this day in age where you’re able to share your love for music with the whole world way easier than five years ago, why not share what I feel will be forever timeless? So the concept of the playlist is all the shit that is already timeless, like Nas’ Illmatic, or Biggie’s “Juicy,” or whatever my joints were. But then, I really wanted to push myself to share with people what I think will be forever timeless. It might not be timeless in today’s day and age, meaning like, you might not think that a K.R.I.T. song from 2013 is timeless yet. But if my playlist stands true, and would stand the test of time, then maybe in 2020, people will look back and see a song from a few years ago that’s just undeniably timeless.

Mick Jenkins’ debut album, The Healing Component dropped last week. How do you feel about the release?

I mean, Mick is a great artist. I think he represents something that I feel super strongly about. Even that video, that visual he just shot for “Drowning,” it really says something. Mick is a great artist that embodies a lot of the same things that I feel. I know the album is great. I know he’s going to be a timeless artist.

You’ve been working with Cam’ron and putting the final touches on his new album under Cinematic. What can the fans expect from him his next go-around?

Cam just did a one-off [deal] for this album right here. He was my favorite artist growing up in New York. There was a bunch of great artists that came out around the same time, and he happened to really be my favorite artist. We all grew up looking up to him. So the past few years, [he and I] built a really good relationship. I’m just excited to put the music out. The music sounds great. It sounds like some vintage Cam sh--. It’s hard.

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