Most CEOs might not pepper their conversation with adjectives like “dope” and “fire,” but most CEOs aren’t like Jonny Shipes, who is at the helm of the rising independent hip-hop label Cinematic Music Group.
Shipes tells Variety that what “turned this sh– around” was discovering Sean Kingston, who after signing with CMG in its founding year of 2007, reeled off four Billboard Hot 100 singles. Since then, CMG has backed rising stars like like Joey Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, and Flipp Dinero (pictured above, right, with Shipes), whose gold-certified September track “Leave Me Alone” helped CMG score its biggest year yet, Shipes says.
The Manhattan native has been attuned to hip-hop since he was eight years old, and fell in love with the genre “from the moment I heard it.” He’s been in the industry since he was a 19-year-old promoter. He says he can gauge an artist’s promise within 20 or 30 seconds.
“I know really quick. You either got it or you don’t,” Shipes says. “I don’t care if you have one follower or 100,000. The music just has to be fire. And then you have to look at the artists and be like … ‘What is their star quality?’ If you can find both, you could find yourself working with an artist for their whole career.”
Although Shipes wants to keep the “sauce” of his success secret, he does say he prides New York-based CMG on maintaining a “family type of environment” that offers better deals than many major labels. He also says that “smarter people” than him take care of business, marketing, and other departments in his 30-plus-team, while he primarily focuses on the music. It took several iterations to assemble the right mix and match of people, but Shipes says the tight-knit crew has been instrumental in establishing CMG’s vision.
Shipes is hoping CMG will launch offices in Los Angeles by the end of next year, there are podcasts and a cooking show on the horizon, and he even wants to break into comedy films shortly. “I do sh– that I like, you know what I’m saying?” he says. “I don’t set out.”
But Shipes admits “he’d be fooling himself” to think these ambitions won’t throw a wrench into the family atmosphere that’s helped CMG become the powerhouse it is now.
“When you have a bunch of artists, then certain artists won’t get paid attention to,” he says. “I’m going to do the best I can to just keep it [the way it is]. As it gets bigger, I’m sure it’ll probably become more of a headache,” he laughs. Still, 11 years after he launched the company with a few friends, CMG staffers recently gathered for a Friendsgiving celebration and took a picture to commemorate the occasion (below).
“I looked at it over the weekend, and I was like, ‘That’s a lot of good people in one picture, a lot of positive energy — people that are excited and young and want to win,” he says. “I look back and I’m like, ‘Damn, I built this from a dream.’”