Jonny Shipes and the company he founded in 2007, Cinematic Music Group, have spent the better part of the past decade breaking rappers into the underground with a low-key approach and a consistently excellent ear for talented MCs, with Nipsey Hu$$le, Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA and Sean Kingston all benefiting from the label and management company’s support over the years. But in 2012, Shipes signed Joey Bada$$ and his clothing line Pro Era (which shares a name with Bada$$’ Brooklyn-based crew), giving Cinematic a true signature artist with which to build around. The deal has also, it turns out, given Shipes a business partner.
Over the past three years, Jonny and Joey have been simultaneously building Cinematic, Pro Era and lifestyle brand/website The Smokers Club (known mostly for its annual tour headlined by Method Man, Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and more over the years), diversifying and growing each division with an independent mindset and an eye towards the future.
This past year has been the biggest yet for the duo. Joey Bada$$ released his debut album B4.Da.$$ on his 20th birthday this past January, debuting at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 moving 58,000 copies in its first week. He then spent much of the summer on his first world tour, with 31 dates in North America, Europe and Japan through July. At the same time, Shipes spent a lot of time on the administrative side of things. The 35-year-old founded Cinematic as a management company before expanding into label services and touring, with The Smokers Club Tour becoming an annual hip-hop staple over the years selling out clubs and theaters across the country.
Early in 2015, Shipes? picked up a funding partner for the first time — a major investor and hedge fund manager whose involvement allowed Shipes to move Cinematic’s operations from his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to an actual office, located on Canal Street in Manhattan. He also used the new capital to boost his team to more than 20 employees, hiring senior staff to help streamline his operation, to sign artists like G Herbo and Mick Jenkins and to expand Cinematic’s scope into the rock world, striking deals with Caveman and Public Access T.V. “Me and [Joey] might really be able to make this whole run independent, because of this [partner],” Shipes says in his office on a recent rainy December afternoon. “Not that I would do it any other way, but I would be struggling right now as opposed to having new artists that we’re working on and staff members that are really teaching me.”
But Joey’s album and tour and Cinematic’s growth are just two slices of a larger picture; Joey Bada$$ officially launched Pro Era as a functioning record label with the release of Kirk Knight‘s Late Knight Special album via Pro Era/Cinematic in October. And, despite The Smokers Club Tour taking a one-year hiatus, that brand has debuted its own line of rolling papers, in addition to its clothing line (one of several that Jonny and Joey run), and is promoting a special holiday show tonight (Dec. 22) in New York City headlined by Joey Bada$$, Father, G Herbo, Smoke DZA and more. The two have visions of a clothing empire along the lines of Iconix, which runs streetwear brands like Rocawear, Starter, Ecko and Ed Hardy, among a slew of others. “We wanna be [Dr.] Dre and Jimmy [Iovine] if you will, but Jonny and Joey and on our own shit in our own way, you know what I mean?” Shipes says.
Ahead of tonight’s Smokers Club Holiday show, Joey Bada$$ and Jonny Shipes sat down with Billboard at the Cinematic offices to discuss the highlights and growth of the past year, the evolution of Pro Era, Cinematic and Smokers Club and the possibility of new projects (like a final Cam’ron album?) in 2016.
The Highlights of 2015
Joey Bada$$: Definitely moving into this office, ’cause this has helped a lot of things. Dropped my debut album, I went on my first world tour. Kirk Knight, we dropped his first project; that was the first project that me and Shipes partnered on, so that was a highlight for us. Just road, I was on the road a lot.
Jonny Shipes: For me, the first big thing of the year was Joey’s album. That’s the biggest success I’ve had in the music industry to date, because it was really me and him, prior to me getting a partner in Cinematic. You know, now we have office space, 20 employees. Me and Joey are deeper partners than how it would seem. We work on artists together; this office is his and mine.
JB: We’re brothers.
JS: Yeah, literally. But that was the first time that I saw, not just me — him, Pro Era, Junior — everybody that was down with us put in so much work to get it to this point, and then me and him literally just spent our own money. People really thought we were gonna sell 20-30,000 records, and now 150,000 records later he’s here, and we’re still independent. So that was probably the biggest highlight. Hiring real, senior executives so that I can learn from them too is pretty challenging for me. I’m comfortable enough to say this in front of Joey: I don’t know everything. I didn’t come up in the industry in the proper way, so some stuff I’m still learning. Now I’m able to kind of take the fast track because I have smarter people around me, too.
JB: Dre and Jimmy Iovine.
JS: Dre and Jimmy, literally. I’m 35 so I’ve clearly dealt with a lot of artists, so to finally find someone who has the same respect for you that you do — you know, not every artist treats you with full respect. And I’m in the service business, so I have to cater to them and make sure they’re happy even if they’re not respecting me, and then it’s my choice to step away if that’s the case. But it feels good to just know that I’m in business with someone where all my time and energy can go and it’s appreciated.
Growing Into the CEO Role at Pro Era
JB: Over the last three years, I’ve learned a lot. I sound like DJ Khaled, “I changed a lot.” [Laughs] I’ve made so many mistakes that I’ve learned from. And now three years later, those same mistakes have transformed into wisdom that I have now. And now the same wisdom that I have, I can share with my guys. I can help them out and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes. As far as playing the CEO position and the executive role, entrepreneurship — being a businessman was something that I was always into as a kid. I had business cards when I was in the 5th grade. JV Shoeshine, and I was cleaning shoes. That’s how I used to pay for my video games. [Laughs] I’ve always been a hustler — never sold a drug though. Never in my life had to sell a drug. I just always thought about something else to sell that wouldn’t get me in so much trouble and shit.
2015 was the first year for Joey Bada$$ where I felt like an established artist within the music industry. Like, “Okay, this is my team, this is that, this is that, I got these relationships, I gotta maintain ’em, I gotta build ’em.” That’s something that when I was 17 years old I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know that when I went to Germany for the first time, maybe I should keep in contact with this dude for the next time that I’m out here. Just little things like that that I know now, and I’ve grown, and it’s taught me so much. It’s definitely a coming of age. I feel really comfortable in this position and all my guys trust me.
It’s also a growth. You know, the key to longevity is opening up those different revenue streams — not even revenue streams, but those different pathways that you can take to remain relevant. How can people talk about you aside from music? So it was all those things, a combination of them, coming together that put me where I’m at right now.
On Building Cinematic
JS: What’s really amazing is that me and [Joey] and whatever we do build, we might really be able to make this whole run independent, because of this [partner]. And that, to me, is very powerful, because I’m pro-artist. I really want the artist to get everything they want out of their career and life, and I would like to make some money along with them, but I’ve never been the person that’s tried to take the publishing, or do this, or the fuck shit. And this guy and this whole situation is allowing me to [be independent]. Not that I would do it any other way, but I would be struggling right now as opposed to having new artists that we’re working on and staff members that are really teaching me.
We took on a lot of employees to work the rest of the projects. My primary focus is Joey and his brand and how we’re both gonna get to the top together and help each other, you know what I mean? I also work very heavily on Herb, for sure. You know, I try to only sign stuff I love. But I have other great people who can work on those projects and it doesn’t take my attention away from Joey. It’s really allowed me to expand the roster and the administrative side. So I really feel like, give it another year or two and Cinematic should be one of the heaviest brands out. We’re doing rock, we’re doing hip-hop, we’re doing alternative; I just love music. We have two rock bands signed now, which is a shock to me. We signed Public Access T.V. and Caveman
On Re-Tooling Smokers Club
JS: This year was kind of quiet for Smokers Club. I had to get Cinematic right this year. My number one priority is [Joey] and it’s not because he’s sitting in front of me; everyone in the office knows it, probably everyone in the industry knows it. Until I could get him and the Pro Era stuff right and Cinematic in general moving properly… Smokers Club is more of a lifestyle for me more than anything else. It’s literally something that we just do. We started it by chilling at my crib and coming up with the name, to throwing a SXSW party [in 2008] when we didn’t even know what the fuck we were doing, and then it became the tour [in 2010], and the clothing. I just don’t think I would have been doing myself or any of the acts that I’ve signed justice by focusing my attention as much as I had been in the past on Smokers. So we didn’t do the tour this year because of that, but the tour is going out next summer and it’s gonna be ridiculous, all the dope youth and then Cam[‘ron] is gonna be the headliner. We just had to take a step back to take a bunch forward.
JB: Perfect way to put it.
JS: [Joey] being a partner in it, the quicker Joey gets to the real level that we know he’s gonna be at, the quicker that when he says, “Here are the Smokers Club [rolling] papers,” it will make that easier. I definitely understand that the brand took a step back, but it was for the right reasons. It’s not like we were not into it, it just needed to take a step back in order for us next year to really do it properly. You can put this on record: I know I’m the one who’s like a stoner and shit, but I do not smoke like how I used to. I’m dead sober all day long until the end of the day. But yeah, it’ll be better next year. The re-launch is gonna include a hemp drink called VitaHemp.
On Balancing Business With Being an Artist
JB: You know, over the next two years I’ll get even way better at time management, but right now everything is just going hand in hand for me. Me just being so young and feeling so ambitious and so inspired… It’s funny, because throughout my day I’m constantly putting on different hats. I gotta be an artist, I gotta be almost a manager in a sense, like I’m managing different things, and then I gotta be a designer. So to me, it’s just cool. It’s fun as fuck; it’s everything I wanted to do. I love the fact that I have multiple responsibilities, multiple jobs. It can get stressful, and that’s why I said in the next two years I will definitely be getting better at time management — compartmentalizing and that stuff better.
JS: He also hired a staff though, he has a staff at Pro Era. He has literally a general manager, his clothing line has a head designer, other designers too. He’s building his staff just like how I’m building mine.
JB: And even that, it all goes hand in hand, ’cause we’re all here at the office bouncing ideas back and forth. My staff works with this staff and this staff, you know? It’s just a brotherly type of relationship with all the different areas. My music brain is like, “Yo, design brain, think about this idea!”
JS: I have never met a harder worker. This kid lands from Australia and is hitting his design team like, “Yo, I just got back from Australia, you wanna have a meeting?” I’m like, “Yo, this kid is bonkers, he’s trying to take a meeting at the office the same day he came home, no rest, no breaks, no nothing.” So if anybody deserves it, you know what I mean? It’s about talent, timing, a little bit of luck, persistency and hard work, and he’s got it. So I think that’s kind of special. And definitely the fact that he’s 20 — he’ll be 21 shortly — but he’s 20 years old and he staffed himself up. We wanna be, like he said, Dre and Jimmy if you will, but Jonny and Joey and on our own shit in our own way, you know what I mean?
On New Joey Bada$$ Music
JB: Any scientist who goes into a lab always experiments, you know what I mean? That’s how I look at it. I’m always working up something. I’m never trying to create the same product, the same experience. But right now, you know, I’m just creating. I learned so much from B4.Da.$$. My biggest lesson that I probably learned from that album was never give your title away so far in advance. I had fans down my neck for over a year. Now I know just shut the fuck up until like two weeks before. [Laughs] And also, the way the music industry is going, it’s turned into a really innovative type of race. Everybody who’s winning is coming up with new ways to go about things. So this year I’m really just waiting for that to come to me, that one innovative thing that I try to take my next approach with.
JS: Yeah, we have some shit up our sleeve, and definitely a lot of brand support, which is amazing, being independent. I don’t want to speak too much on the music but it’s so good. It’s growth, and that doesn’t mean it’s growth away from hip-hop or the type of music he’s known for. Or maybe it is; we don’t even know where it’s gonna land. But even the stuff that, let’s just say, is in the lane of dope hip-hop, pure hip-hop, it sounds like 2016 on steroids, crack, just nuts. I’m just excited.
JB: He said it, not me. [Laughs] That’s another thing I learned, too, I just don’t even talk about the shit I’m coming out with.
Plans for 2016
JB: Like I said, 2015 was the first time that I as Joey Bada$$ felt established. I feel like now 2016 will be the first year that Pro Era — as a whole, a brand, a collective, a label — will feel established and will be perceived that way by the public. This year we put out two projects, being mine and Kirk’s. Next year I want to put out four. Why can’t we drop a project every quarter? We can. And we’re about to. [Laughs]
JS: My biggest, biggest thing that I’m pushing myself to learn is, I want to learn how to take an artist from how I got Joey to here, to here. From Joey’s level to Kendrick, to Cole, to whoever, in an independent way. Literally, if there was a school to go to, I’d be going to it. I’m great at breaking artists. That’s the easy part; I could do that shit with my eyes closed. You could bring an artist in here and as long as they have talent, he or she is getting broken. But now how do I get to this level where we can sell half a million records in today’s climate and also really just turn an artist who’s a star into a superstar? So that’s really my number one priority.
Obviously right behind that is the acts that I signed. And yeah, just trying to push myself to really be the biggest businessman that I can be and make all my staff happy, all my artists happy. I really just want to break as many acts as I can.
JB: We really wanna take the clothing to the next level; even in this office alone we’ve got like five, six brands coming out of here.
JS: We’re trying to build our own version of Iconix. We have a very, very, very strong design team; the head of our design team is the head of the Kith design team. So that’s a huge priority for us; there’s so much money in that, Russell’s made money off that, Puff’s made money off that, it’s a proven formula. So we’re definitely trying to take the clothing very seriously.
Touring we’re very good at already, it’s just about tightening things up even more. I feel like that’s the main focus for next year.
JB: I’m just excited for these next two years, ready to grow as a businessman.
JS: You keep saying two years, is that the…
JB: Oh yeah, that’s the new thing, that’s another thing I learned this year. Basically, back in 2014, I made this goal list, like this overview of everything I wanted to complete in the next year. But what I learned is that where a lot of my stress came from is that I put so much on myself and I didn’t give myself enough time. So while I sold 58,000 records and that’s amazing, me in my head, I’m unsatisfied.
JS: He was mad at his first-week numbers. He legitimately hit me, and I was like celebrating wherever, and he was like, “Yo, this is FUCKIN’ whack,” and I was like, “Bro, this shit is crazy!”
JB: Just because I felt like the label under-shipped my album, just because people were saying there’s no more copies in stores, whatever, but just little shit like that where I realized, “Yo, I have to give myself more time to complete my goals.” ‘Cause that’s what was adding to my stress, that’s what was driving me crazy. When a year passes and I didn’t complete this goal, I’m like, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” So that’s why the goal is two years. I’m looking at from 2016-2017 and not just 2016.