Hip-Hop Artist Berner on Collaborating With DMX, Future, Bob Weir and … the Late John Gotti?

The San Francisco rapper talks about his cancer diagnosis, his cannabis line, his just-released single with Future and how he hooked up with the titular figure's family for his forthcoming "Gotti" album.

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John Russo

San Francisco native rapper Berner has been making his way through self-produced hardcore hip-hop since 2006, with the release of his first mixtape, “Dirty Sneakers … Plenty Ways to Get It,” and debut album “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Since then, along with opening a successful cannabis company and store, Cookies, that produces everything from bold weed strains to clothing, Berner has dropped 43 albums, to say nothing of singles and collabs. It is, however, through his most recent trio of albums – the Mob-themed “Russ Bufalino: The Quiet Don,” “Paulie Cicero” and the upcoming Dec. 3 release, “Gotti” – where Berner believes his lifetime goals as a lyricist and as a boss have joined and achieved fruition.

That an achievement like “Gotti” – one where the rapper got permission from the late John Gotti’s family to sample never-before-heard federal trial tapes of the Mafia don – comes after Berner’s colon cancer diagnosis makes the new album’s success all the sweeter. Berner collaborated with Nas, Jadakiss, Rod Wave and Future, the latter of whom appears on the first “Gotti” single, “Draped Up,” released Friday — along with the new album’s titular gangster. These following a tradition of big name features that includes the late great DMX on 2019’s “Russ Bufalino.”

Variety spoke with Berner on the “Draped Up” single’s release day to discuss all of this, as well as an upcoming collaboration with his “neighbor,” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, with whom he freestyled during a 2021 Wolf Bros show, performing the Dead’s “Liberty.”

Across your 40-plus albums, is there an arc, a driving lyrical force?

My albums are one long journal. I can listen to 2008’s “Drought Season,” and recall being hungry, having to survive. Or “The White Album” (2011), remembering my mom dying of cancer, and me focusing on my daughter. Or the B-Real “Prohibition” collaboration, recalling my business shit coming together. The message across all of my albums is: be transparent. Be yourself. I’ve never been afraid of revealing what I’m going through, positive and negative. That’s why I believe I have a real core fan base, a support system.

Ending at “Gotti,” why have your last three albums focused on the Mafia’s most legendarily silent Dons? Why focus on the Italian mob at all?

Thanks for paying attention. Before that, I had the Latin history trio. Now, and I say this with all humbleness, I feel like I am truly a boss. Everything runs through me in one way or another. Now, I’m a positive guy, but I felt as if I was on my Mafia shit right now. In a positive way. So I did my Mob trio and ended it with “Gotti.”

You identify with bosses running familial businesses who are quiet and play things close to the vest?

It’s a plus when you can do that. Look at artists today flashing piles of money and Instragramming their goods. Nah, bro. I could show people stuff that’d make them shake, but I don’t. Longevity is the game plan. Look, at my music. I’ve been doing it since 2006, and it’s rising steadily. My streams, my sales and my presence have never gone down. Only up.

Can you say when the obsession with the Mafia started?

I’ll get personal with you. When I was young, my father had a Mexican restaurant that we had a studio apartment above. The feds raided my dad’s spot because he was friends with an Italian guy in the Mafia. They thought my dad was part of “the business,” because of “Uncle Bob.” Suddenly, I got obsessed, and followed the culture: “Goodfellas.” “Casino.”

You worked with DMX on the “Russ Bufalino” album. How was the experience?

That was special. We reached out to him multiple times. Never gave up. One day we got a FaceTime from him saying he was doing the song, and he bodied it. Just like with ‘”Gotti,” my guests do some of their best work on my records. I have an ear for beats. My production is on-point – I’m probably better at A&R-ing than rapping. DMX sounded dynamic on that track, and I believe it was one of the last verses he cut.

You’re right about featured guests and making them sound urgent. Future has rarely sounded so in-your-face as he does on “Draped Up.” How did that happen?

I had a beat that I knew I couldn’t do justice. We got in touch with Future, and in the snap of a finger, he was in. The track sounds so urgent because that is what I wanted to get done. We don’t take no for an answer, and move stealthily. When Future told me what he needed to do to get the record done as he felt it, we efficiently made it happen. I move so mean that my guests come back with a similar energy. Future bodied that record.

Speaking of making things happen, how did you hook up the Gotti tapes that you use throughout the album? How did you get together with the family, a notoriously secretive lot?

I knew nothing about John Gotti’s trial tapes. I only got in contact with John Gotti Jr. so to get his blessing to call the album “Gotti.” Like a true gentleman, he asked to sit down with me. This was when I first got the cancer verdict, and he wanted me to fly to meet him in NYC the next day. I wasn’t ready. My friends, though, reminded me that I live for this, so I went and had a sit-down. Lunch in a restaurant, a very Mafia setting. He asked questions. We caught a vibe. Then after lunch he asked if I wanted to have dinner and hear some never-before-heard audio of his dad that the Feds recorded. Fuck, yeah. A week later, he got in touch and we discussed the use of the tapes. It was all his decision. When he came back to me, he visited me in L.A., told me his research into me was positive, and said that not only could I use his dad’s name for my title, but that I could pull some of his dad’s audio for the album. Holy shit. That made the album what it was supposed to be. Pretty powerful stuff. I’m ending the Mafia trilogy as strong as you could.

Did Gotti’s audio clips guide the tracks who had you produced the songs before you got the Gottis involved?

The clips guided the rest of the tracks after we got them. In fact, when I found out about my cancer, I told my friend and best producer to give me his best stuff. Once we got their blessing, everything changed. It was like jumping on a trampoline. We got Future on the album 15 minutes after I got that blessing. No sooner that, when we were in the studio, Nas was next door and got him involved.

You’re closing out the Mafia trilogy with “Gotti.” What theme is next?

Me and my boys were getting high the other day when I came out of surgery, and one of them said my next record should be called “Gandhi,” and that I should go on a spiritual ride. I laughed. Don’t know if that title works, but the spiritual vibe might be Mafia in its own way. Very tight. Me and Bob Weir are also working on some shit. He’s my neighbor, and we’re talking about doing an unplugged EP for the top of the year.

What does this Weir collab entail, and how did this happen? You hooked up with his Wolf Trap band last March to freestyle.

Mutual friends introduced us, and Bob had me as his guest for St. Patrick’s Day this year. He had me come out and rap to this record. It was crazy. I wrote my verse to the YouTube of the original song, but, in person, he told me to “Slow this shit down.” He slowed it down a lot. So I had to re-formulate my verse. We held a vibe. He dug it, the band did too, and Bob told me that I had to come back to do three to six songs like that. We’re talking about it a lot. Doing live music, and even doing Grateful Dead remixes with raps on it. It blended really well. His studio is close to me, and we’ve built a good friendship. He shot me a “Get well’ text when I got out of surgery. He’s a real friend.

Cookies and you have the same type of devoted core fan base as the Dead and Weir.

Absolutely. They show up for anything we do. The same vibe. And we’re both San Francisco brands – just different generations. Same approach to legacy. We’re gonna turn that shit up. Bob’s a talented, quality guy, and his fans – his kids – showed up and had a great reaction to what we did together.

You’ve mentioned it a few times here: before you announced “Draped Up,” “Future” and “Gotti,” word leaked that you had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and were dealing with it quickly. How are you feeling?

I feel great right now.  We caught it at a time where we still had to get surgery. It was fully removed and we’ll find out in ten days whether we have to do chemo. I’m optimistic that I won’t need to.

With cannabis having been a longtime business of yours, how have you made it part of your cancer’s therapy?

Cannabis connects the dots with everything. Just like music. Cannabis plays a major role in people’s days, whether it is grieving, healing or celebrating. Again, just like music. Cannabis and music have very similar effects. No matter how recreational, cannabis has always been a medicine that everyone should utilize.

The challenge being that some of the brick-and-mortar places and new-school cannabis entrepreneurs have no vision.

Yes. No vision. No purpose. No direction. They’re just in it to franchise. That scares the shit out of me, my friend.

Since your time in the cannabis business, especially in California, much has changed. You’re renowned for interacting directly with cannabis geneticists. Where does Cookies stand going into 2022?

We’ve accomplished so much so fast. I’m now focused on creating a 100-year brand. Battling cancer makes you realize how short time is. I think of myself like a curator with great chefs around me, so we’re creating a cannabis menu that will evolve. With our in-house breeding projects and breeders I have partnered with, we’re menu-planning for the future. The California market – the market in general – is a challenge. We’re just making sure that our menus’ flavors are unique.

You’re talking cannabis menus. Is there a flavor you’re particularly fond of, presently?

There’s about 70. There is one, though, that’s sitting in my thumb now, that I’m lighting up as we speak. It’s light green. I’m trying to bring that back. The whole market is focused on purple tints, but the light green stuff is a palate-pleaser. Look, people’s perspective on the market is often small, but, I’ve been selling cannabis legally for over 20 years, and I can say, honestly, that people should open up their palates more. Different flavors. Different looks.

Considering you have over 40 albums to your name, including “Gotti,” the 100-year plan you say you have for cannabis menus must extend to your music.

Absolutely. Music is therapy. My medicine. My passion. As long as I’m having a good time doing it with no pressure – that’s what I love about me being independent; I can record and drop what I want when I want – I’ll never stop.