Cinematic Music Group C.E.O. Jonny Shipes Talks Major Labels Blues, Signing Joey Bada$$, and Sony RED Partnership


Let’s face it: Independent labels are arguably the new majors—minus all the politics and big names.

Indy labels are giving artists the creative freedom that they long for, and in the process making dope music that would’ve gone criminally ignored by the big name major labels that we know. That’s where Cinematic Music Group comes in.

As president of CMG, Jonny Shipes is considered “The Man Behind The Man.” Discovering talents like Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA, Nipsey Hussle, and now the burgeoning 17-year old rap prodigy Joey Bada$$, it’s pretty clear that this dude knows good rap music.

Now, with a new partnership with Sony RED, Shipes took time out to talk to us at VIBE about everything from his beginnings in the game, the difference between major labels and independent labels, how he goes about finding dope talent like K.R.I.T. and DZA, and just what stood out about Joey Bada$$ to make him take a chance as his newest signee.

VIBE: As a quick introduction, who are you as a businessperson? How did you get started?
Jonny Shipes: I used to throw parties, and I was DJ’ing and stuff like that. I went from doing that to actually managing DJ’s—which led me to managing artists. My first artist got me a label deal, and then one thing just leads to the next in the music industry. If you can continuously create success stories out of different artists, a lot of opportunities will come your way. I started like everybody else—just grinding, hustling, and doing what I can to be in the mix of shit.

One of the artists, whether it was DJ Spinbad or DJ Kay Slay back in the day, took a chance on me, and I started doing management. I was representing people like Foxy Brown and Nappy Roots—all while I was like 22 or 23 years old. Then, I found Sean Kingston with J.R. Rotem, got a label deal that allowed me to sign Nipsey Hussle, and from there found [Big] K.R.I.T. from the ground up in Mississippi. Now [I ‘m working with] Joey Bada$$ and Smoke DZA. Me and Smokey actually started Cinematic [Music Group] together back in the day. Smoke’s been around from jump. It’s not like I found him recently.

Speaking of Cinematic Music Group, when you look for an artist, how do you go about selecting them? Is it based on if they’re hot at the moment?
Nah, I don’t even do that. I feel like, growing up in my time was a gift and a curse. You’re never gonna do the same numbers, or same money, as some of the moguls did back in the day. Growing up in that time period, the 90s, I got to listen to Nas, Jay-Z in his prime, Outkast, Geto Boys, Scarface, UGK, Snoop [Dogg]—anything you can think of [involving] hip-hop literally was at it’s best when I was growing up from the time I was 10 to 20 or so years old. I feel like that molded my sound and what my tastes are. If you listen to Smoke DZA from Harlem, Joey Bada$$ from Brooklyn, K.R.I.T. from Mississippi, Nipsey from L.A., or Fat Trel who’s from D.C., they’re all represent something that I grew up off of. There are the Kendrick Lamars and K.R.I.T.s of today, so you do still have really good hip-hop, but I also think it’s a little skewed and it’s more hip-pop than the dope shit. My thing about signing artists is their music just has to resonate with me. If I can close my eyes and listen to it, and you’re painting a picture like Nas, Jay, B.I.G., or Scarface did back in the day, that’s “cinematic” music. I don’t care if anybody knows you or if you’re from the smallest town in Mississippi.

To be real with you, when I was working with Nipsey, it was before the whole West coast craze and new artists coming out of the area. I went out there, and people thought I was crazy signing someone out of the streets of Cali. To me, it’s all about the music. I just listen. If the shit is amazing, the way I think a lot of the stuff that I signed is, it stands through. That’s how I make my decisions. It’s got to be all about the vibe of the music.

CMG is still independent, correct?
Yeah. We are a true independent label. All the shit you see going on with us is us doing it by ourselves. We don’t answer to any system. Fuck the majors. They can kiss my ass and suck my dick all at the same time.*Kenny Powers voice* [Laughs]

It’s funny, because right now independent labels kind of have that advantage because of the associated “cool factor.” Do you guys feel like, as an independent label, you have that advantage?
I think artists are getting smarter due to the fact they know they can stay independent and keep creative freedoms in the long run as opposed to getting caught up in these fucked up major labels, unless you get yourself a good deal. Me, personally, and all my artists will tell you, it’s like a big family at Cinematic. I make sure all my artists are in the best deals they can possibly be in. Any artist that works with me will tell you that they’re beyond happy. In general, at Cinematic we put on our own shit.

I founded the Smokers Club Tour with my business parter Steve-O. It’s in it’s third year. The first year was Curre$y, Big K.R.I.T. and Smoke DZA, the second year was Curre$y, Method Man, Big K.R.I.T. and Smoke DZA, and this year it’s Juicy J, Smoke DZA, Joey Bada$$ and Fat Trel. I started this big ass tour completely independent & out of pocket. To make a long story short, it’s huge at this point. The advantage to the way I operate as opposed to a major label is they’re stuck in this whole way where you can’t even move around the way you need to as an artist. For example, me and Fat Trel just got into business with each other. Instead of him sitting in a major label and him signing a deal, we went on tour, he was in front of 35 markets, and we just moved differently. We have a true independent spirit where hip-hop started. We’re embracing our fans, having fun, getting fucked up, and making moves at the same time. That’s what it’s about. It not, “Oh, I got the biggest” or “Oh, I got the most money.” People got to remember where hip-hop started. It was fun, and that’s what we’re trying to bring back to the game. It’s not a “cool-or-not-cool” sort of thing. Not to sound like that, but we know we’re cool. We’re gonna continue to. It’s a matter of connecting the dots.

That Smokers Club line-up sounds crazy.
That’s the thing with the touring aspect. The majors are coming to me to put on tours! I don’t do it because I don’t fuck with them. I don’t need anything from them. They turned down enough dope ass artists that I tried to sign in the past. I don’t want to have anything to do with a major label ever again.

With that said though, how does your new partnership with Sony RED work?
The partnership between Cinematic & RED means CInematic is about to be one of the most legendary and innovative labels to ever do this shit. It is exactly what I have been waiting for my entire life. I’ve had to be at majors for so long and was always told “no” by them as to what I could and couldn’t sign, what the right single is or isn’t, and just having to be around all those wack people all my life. Not only does this [new deal] symbolize the last time I will ever have to deal with people like that, again it more importantly has made me my own boss. I now can sign what I want, work it the way I want to work it and hopefully do some more cool shit with great artists. I am gonna be signing a lot of stuff I personally like, which hopefully will translate into sales. If it doesn’t, I definitely will have a good time working on the projects.

Now let’s talk about Joey Bada$$. This kid is 17-years old, yet he’s flowing like somebody who’s been in the game for well over a decade. What was it like when you first heard him and what made you say, “I got to sign this kid right now.”
Yo, the kid is phenomenal. He’s amazing. That’s self-explanatory. He’s just dead nice. Funny enough, I don’t really go on the blogs or Worldstar. My homies will tell you, it’s crazy how I’m able to sign artists because I don’t do any of the blogging and that shit. I just happened to be on Worldstar one day, and it was like, “15 Year Old MC Spits Crazy Bars.” This was around the time everybody from New York recently coming out couldn’t spit or had this stupid fuckery that didn’t sound like it was from New York [Laughs], so I was like, “Let me see this shit.” I clicked on it, and he was dead nice and 15! More so than anything though, it was his swag. If you look at the video, you’ll see what I’m talking about. He had the ‘It factor’ from jump. I reached out, and we started working and talking. He got to know what type of person I was. I don’t do paperwork with anyone I work with at first because I want people to get comfortable with me and vice versa. You may not be able to work with everybody.

It was the same situation like K.R.I.T. We didn’t do any paperwork at first, we got comfortable with each other, and he’s like my little brother now. We worked out a deal, as he was going and doing his deal. The joke with me is that I’m the least talented. That’s my nickname because I am the least talented out of all my homies. I’m not the producer, I just know good music when I hear it. He had this flow, and it was just about giving it to the public.

We heard that over at Cinematic, humor is a big deal for you guys. What’s the funniest thing that’s happened within your CMG camp?
I got mad funny stories I could share. My fuckin life is like the hip hop version of Larry David [Laughs]. The one that is standing out to me the most right now, because it happened recently, is on The Smokers Club tour this year. We were all on the tour bus—me, Fat Trel, DZA, Joey Bada$$, SHortstop, Cj FLy , Steez, Steve-O & about 10 other people—and everything is going smooth. We were on our way from Oklahoma City to Dallas. Mind you, it’s 107 degress outside, but we’re on a beautiful tour bus with the AC blowing—it’s prob 68 degrees on the bus.

It’s perfect day, we’re playin video games & smoking, & joking—just havin a good time. All of a sudden, I start feeling it get a little hot on the bus. I’m like, “What the fuck?!” [Laughs]. I thought i was just too high, then a bead of sweat starts dripping down my forehead. I’m like, “What the fuck! It’s getting hot in here!” I look over at Trel & he’s hot as fuck, sweating & looking like hes going through it. I then look over at DZA and he looks like he just played a game of ball. He’s sweating like a fucking wrestler! [Laughs]

I say to everyone out loud, “Yo, is anyone else hot? What the fuck is going on in here?!” Everyone obviously agreed, so we go & look at the AC unit and it says its 86 degrees on the bus. I go to the bus driver and start complaining that the AC is broken. Now imagine Stone Cold Steve Austin as your bus driver—that was our bus driver. As soon as I tell him the AC is broke, he hits me with this,—in a Hillbilly accent—“Well, what you want me to do? Pull over & fix it in 107 degree heat? That won’t help you guys very much, now will it? Unless you wanna bake on the bus while I fix it, you should just sit down & let me get you to Dallas. Thank you.”

After being thugged out by the bus driver, I sat back down. This is when shit got serious [Laughs]! At this point, everyone is sweating like a motherfucker. CJ comes staggering out of the back area of the bus & is like, “I think imma faint! I feel mad weak. I need a bun & cheese!” He is sweating like a base head [Laughs]! A few seconds later, Joey comes stumbling out from the back with a fucking San Francisco Ski Hat on & is like, “It’s mad hot on this bus!” We all started laughing because he had on the ski hat in the boiling hot heat. Now we’re stuck in traffic & the AC isn’t working. No lie, the bus temperature read 102 degress on the bus! Trel, Shortstop, me, Joey, and CJ all had ice packs on our heads & necks. [We were] literally dying. I felt likethe fucking movie Lord of The Flies. I think we literally got so delirious from the heat that we started playing a fucking spelling bee on the bus. We were sitting on the bus, frying to death, having a spelling bee—going delusional! I didn’t know if we were gonna make it to Dallas. That shit was scary, but looking back it was hysterical.

Wow! That story was too epic for words [Laughs]. With all that said, let’s wrap this up. What’s the biggest thing you want to accomplish with Cinematic Music Group with the artist roster and the music you guys are creating?
Not to sound cliché, but it’s bigger than music. Music is a platform for all of us, and the artists understand that. After that, it’s the touring, the merchandising, doing our clothing line, and just preserving the cool from where we come from. It’s about not allowing the majors to tell us how we got to do this hit record or how to dress. You’ll become corny, as opposed to keeping it 100 with your stuff and in return having a long career. Cinematic Music Group in general is about making the best hip-hop music. It’s always been my mission to make cinematic music. When you think cinematic, you think movies. When you think movies, you want to watch them. If you’re listening to something called “cinematic,” it better paint a picture. It’s just a way of continuing to take chances on dope hip-hop artists when nobody else will, and maintaining our integrity. I’m looking for 20 years instead of three. 20 years from now, I want to be Def Jam.