Jonny Shipes calls me while cooking. It’s his new thing during quarantine—helps keep him sane. His dish sounds amazing; it involves cilantro-lime brown rice. I’m pretty jealous. Calling from New York, Shipes’ humor leads our talk. A week prior, we had our first introduction, speaking about Big K.R.I.T. and K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, one of his label’s—Cinematic Music Group—most important releases. Today, Shipes, 40, rings me to tell me the full Cinematic story, starting with falling in love with music at a very young age.
“I was six years old, and the reason why I know it was six, is because my parents had sent me away to sports camp,” Shipes recalls with a laugh. “I was the youngest kid in the whole camp. The older kids took me in, and the first hip-hop music I ever heard was Geto Boys, Run-DMC, and the Beastie Boys. I heard specific songs all that summer, and then I came home and fell in love with music. My dad used to play Roy Orbison, and my mom would be listening to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. I loved everything, took a liking to it, and that was it.”
Though Shipes initially thought he was going to the NBA—another admission he shares with a laugh—it was after his high school graduation that he realized outside of music, there was nothing else for him. Fast forward to 2000, and Shipes finds himself brushing shoulders with Harlem rapper Smoke DZA, who would go on to be the first of many Cinematic Music Group artists.
As Jonny Shipes tells it, the reason for the company name and the way you can pick out a Cinematic Music Group artist starts with closing your eyes. Can you see their block in your head when they’re spitting? Do you feel their pain? Can you feel the pulse of their love songs? If yes, that’s a Cinematic artist, because they’re providing that cinematic experience. Get it?
“People started giving me my recognition in 2007 because that’s when I found Sean Kingston, but the first artist was [Smoke] DZA,” Shipes explains. “I already had a studio—I was producing and engineering, and trying to make my name [heard]. [DZA’s] brother brought me to him. They were like, ‘Yo, my brother’s dead nice. His name’s Smoke DZA, from Harlem.’ [DZA] came by the studio, he was nasty, and I just signed him! We just started grinding.”
“Until I figured out how to balance this whole game, being in the industry almost made me hate music, because it was so draining, dealing with the politics and the bullshit. At first, I was like, ‘Damn, did I fuck up by making this my career?’ Basically, I was always driven.” —Jonny Shipes
While we know Cinematic as a home for Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA, the late Nipsey Hussle, and more gigantic voices in hip-hop, Shipes was not always the titan he appears to be today. His early hurdles included being so broke he had to decide between meals for himself and his artists, subway fare to get to label meetings, or studio time. Sometimes, he would be on the precipice of a life-changing record deal, and it would fall through in the 11th hour. Getting knocked down became a part of his DNA, as it does for any music executive, but it did not rattle him. As Shipes tells me repeatedly, he’s a tough guy to break.
“The only difference between the people that didn’t make it and me—I’m sure you’ve heard this before—is the drive to keep going when you get knocked down,” he says. “You get knocked down a lot. But the drive to keep going when everyone else is gonna quit, that is the only difference between me and the person who [didn’t become] successful.”
Humble, but what Shipes neglects to say is that his incredible ear for talent has also been a catalyst for his two-decade-long career.
“Jonny Shipes is important to hip-hop for the simple fact that he’s one of the only guys that actually still breeds and incubates raw talent from the ground up,” Smoke DZA tells me via email. “He’s rap’s gold-miner, his ear is impeccable!”
Shipes’ golden ear and his passion for upcoming talent have not only kept him relevant but taught him lessons about the business along the way. He surrounds himself with winners—from his staff to the artists—because he has a sixth sense for these things. Though he puts the wrong ingredient in the pot during our call, his focus otherwise is laser-sharp.
“It starts with the artist—how good are they?” Shipes muses. “How strong do they sound on the record? Any artist that’s ever blown up, when they didn’t even have a demo made yet, and I was just listening to them spit on the corner, I could tell they’re one of the greats. From there, you just have to bring it out of them. You let them lead because it’s their career and their vision, but I wrap my hands around the project and make sure their vision gets executed to a T. I help work on the music and make the music and the tracklist. I’m in the studio finishing, producing, and working on these albums.”
When I ask Jonny what the most pivotal year for Cinematic has been thus far, he pauses and shares the following story:
“I had a year where I had a falling out with an artist that was very close to me. Since then, we’ve amended things. Sometimes you don’t see eye to eye, and it happened. I had dedicated so much time and energy in my career to this one artist, and he was the biggest artist I had at the label at that time. When we had our falling out, there was nothing else going on at Cinematic, it was just him. That year was a hard year for me. Basically, that year of having nobody calling me… The phone stops ringing when you’re not hot. I’ll be the first to tell you. For a year, nobody was hitting me. When you’re not in the mix, you get forgotten about. “I had to go and find myself and start signing acts. I signed everything you see breaking currently, which is Yungeen Ace, Flipp Dinero, Luh Kel, all the younger kids starting to break now. It was pivotal, because I don’t know how many people could’ve endured that type of situation and also push forward like, ‘I’m just gonna start from scratch.’ In general, all my mistakes helped me to be right where I’m at, you know?” —Jonny Shipes
Jonny Shipes’ hustle and grind, his endless resilience, serve as the bedrock for his abilities as a label head.
“What makes Jonny Shipes so essential to hip-hop is his ability to discover pain in artists who have never had a chance, and his ability to display their talent on large platforms,” New York’s Flipp Dinero, who was signed back in 2016, shares over email. “Jonny has not only given me a chance, but he’s also been a mentor to me and has assisted me in ways that will benefit me in the long run. He is not only an essential person to music but my life. Shout out, big bro.”
Meaning, Cinematic Music Group is a family. Shipes estimates he is “incredibly close” with about 95 percent of his signings. That doesn’t include the staff and business partners who he notes help keep his wits about him.
“Jonny and I have spent years as both business partners and friends,” Cam’ron shares via email. “His ear for discovering new talent, his understanding of how success in music can be applied to other industries, and sense of humor have always differentiated him in the game.”
“The reason Shipes is so important to hip-hop is because of two things: his ear and his heart. He has a great ear that helped him find and develop Nipsey Hussle, Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T., Luh Kel, and more. His heart allows him to chase his dreams and be unflappable in his belief that music comes first, also his heart is why he helps so many and gives so many opportunities to artists and employees alike.” —Hovain Hylton, Partner, Cinematic MGMT.
“I’ve had ups, downs,” Shipes admits. “Rich. Broke. Artists! No artists! No one believes in me. I’m the best. I suck. I just keep it moving.”
When I ask Jonny what he considers to be Cinematic’s most special accomplishment, he pauses and takes a deep breath before invoking Nipsey Hussle’s name.
“Off the top of my head, discovering Nip, because of how legendary he is,” Shipes says, a downturn in his mood. “The legacy he left… I hate to even talk about it, so I don’t. I do always think about that, ‘Oh, yo, you found Nip!’”
The memory of Nipsey is something Shipes pulls out on a rainy day, which he’s having less and less of as he looks towards the future.
Outside of music, Shipes has big plans for himself: “I wanna do film and TV. I just partnered on a donut shop out in the Hamptons. I’m heading into the food space. Obviously, clothing. And the marijuana stuff with Smoker’s Club. I just love anything entrepreneurial. I came up looking up to Puff and looking up to Rick Rubin on the producer side. I blend it all, and out comes my vision… I wanna hone in on my producer stuff, working on beats with artists. I wanna find more opportunities to build my legacy.”
“Music is a piece of me,” Shipes tells me before our call ends. “I’ll always be Cinematic because that’s me and my platform. I want Cinematic to be the number one label for artists to come to, to execute their creative visions.”