Independent rap bulwark and Cookies cannabis kingpin Berner works harder than just about anyone in either industry. Amid his ever-prolific release streak through the Bern One Entertainment imprint and running one of the biggest legal weed empires today, the entrepreneur recently revealed his cancer diagnosis to the world. His latest album is called GOTTI, which features previously unheard audio recordings of the late Gambino family patriarch John Gotti.
First and foremost, I just wanted to just check in to see how you're feeling, with the diagnosis, the loss of Young Dolph–to which, my condolences to you–there's a lot happening.
Yeah. I feel like the world just threw everyone a big curve ball, with COVID and, obviously, with my situation with cancer, and then losing Dolph. Then you look at the Bay Area where I'm based at with all these robberies and smash-and-grabs and killings. It's like the world is in a very, very, very sensitive place right now. But at the end of the day, I'm blessed to still be here. I'm blessed to be doing this interview. I have a whole different look on life right now. If you listen to my music, I always kind of talked about the unfortunate circumstances of people dying young, but [I'm] just trying to redirect my energy and just try to be here for a little longer.
How did that diagnosis lead you to make this GOTTI record?
When I first got the call, I heard it in my doctor's voice. He called me and was like, yo, you have a second to chat? And my doctor, just to rewind a little bit, he's the only doctor in the country that administers this test, this pre-screening cancer tests. So when he told me about it, I took it. A few weeks went by and then he called me. And I knew what it was. As soon as he hung up the phone, the first thing I did was called my best friend and my producer Cozmo and I told him like, look: I'm about to book the best studio in LA for you. I want you to go out there. We'd never really produced the album like this. Usually he sends me a beat folder. I get a bunch of beats from people and we'd do our thing. I told him, let's book the studio. I'm gonna give you free creative range to build this motherfucker from scratch, but just know it's gotta be our most powerful shit. I don't even think I told him at the time; I told him a couple of days later. I went into full work mode, you know, from booking that studio, going down there to produce everything from scratch. I've never done that. I'm such an anxious guy. Usually I go cut records real quick.
While we were producing the album, I decided I wanted to call it GOTTI. I reached out to some of the family members through some mutual friends. I got the word. They wanted me to fly out the next day to sit down, flew out to New York, sat down with John Jr., kinda plead why I wanted to call the album GOTTI, bonded with him, and just came back. I worked all the way until the day before surgery, which is really crazy. I didn't come home. I didn't want to come home. I couldn't look at my kids. I couldn't look at the family. I didn't really know what the hell was going to happen, you know what I mean? So it was like a crazy rollercoaster, from being diagnosed from the blood test and going to get a colonoscopy, hoping they would remove whatever they found, to finding out they couldn't do that, to getting a CT scan to see if it spread, and to finding out that we have to do surgery ASAP. If I wasn't doing this album during all that, I don't know where I would have been mentally.
It gave you sort of something to focus on other than your illness. And not just that, but also your legacy and where you stand in the world.
Yeah, because if you look at my projects, I do everything kind of in trilogies. You had the Drought Season trilogy with The Jacka, rest in peace. You had had like La Plaza, El Chivo, The Big Pescado, that kind of theme. And this one was like, Russ Bufalino, Paulie Cicero, and then this one. So I was like, if I'm going to end this shit, and this might the last time I could actually be in the studio moving around... That's where my mind was, like, let me end this trilogy as strong as possible. Let me go get the craziest situation. Let me go get the Gotti family's permission. We winded up getting audio of John Gotti Sr. throughout the album, which is iconic. I don't think we could have ended the trilogy in a stronger way. If you look at some of the records, like the one with Rick Ross, Jadakiss, and Nas, I mean, those are crazy lineups, as artists that we all dream about doing. I just went all out, man, and it was cool.
I actually listened back to the album. I don't even remember making this shit, because my mind was in such a weird place. Now that I'm out of surgery and I still have a nice little battle ahead of me, now I want to go cut the deluxe so I could do more solo records and like really talk my shit. Because in those sessions, I don't remember. We were smoking a couple of ounces of weed a day. I was just trying to keep my mind off, you know, whatever. I don't even remember writing these songs at all. It's crazy as hell. I feel like it's a great album, don't get me wrong. It sounds great sonically and musically. My friends are saying it's some of our best work. But now I got to go in. I'm clear headed a little bit now. I want to go in there and bang out the deluxe.
A big presence on the record is someone that you mentioned it before, Cozmo. What is that relationship you guys have like? Because to do a project like this, and under the circumstances that you did it, like, it's pretty extraordinary. You have to have a certain amount of faith and trust with somebody to really do this type of record justice.
Not only is he my favorite producer and one of my favorite rappers–he's featured throughout the whole album–he's my best friend. So it only made sense. In a situation like this, you want to be around people that you know you really could be around. I really could be around the guy. He's someone we take family trips with. I've been working with them since 2007 or 2008. And I also wanted to give him his flowers too. Like I said, he's produced so many for me, but I'd never put him in the studio and said, do whatever the fuck you want, call whoever you want, fly whoever you want, produce this however you want. I wanted him to feel that, yo, I'm about to get a Nas verse, I'm about to throw Jadakiss on this. Oh, Rick Ross is jumping on this. He's like, what the fuck?! I want him to feel that win with me too, because he's been a solid guy with me. The Future record, do you know what I mean? I even reached out to Jay-Z to get on the album. He didn't get on the album, but he heard the record, it was put in front of him. And there was a rollercoaster for like a week where we thought he was going to do a verse to the project. Shit like that just doesn't happen. So I wanted to kind of give him that good energy too.
Going back to the trilogies, you have this fascination with mobsters and crime bosses. What is it that draws you to these types of figures in your music?
I've always been a fan of mafia movies and had some encounters when I was a little kid, you know. My dad had the Feds fuck with him because one of his mafia buddies back in the days with his restaurant. I think what it really boils down, where I'm at in life right now, I feel like a lot of shit runs through my hands. It's not like I'm running anything, but in the weed business that I'm in right now, everyone wants to do a deal or wants to figure out this or wants to get asked if they could do this. They want to run something. When I did the Paulie Cicero album, I felt like I was fucking Paulie from Goodfellas. I'm like, yo, everyone comes to me in one way, shape, or form, whether they're friends or enemies or they want to make a move.
The cannabis business is fucking cutthroat. It has been for a long time. But I think the corporate side of cannabis is even more cutthroats than the streets. And it's crazy because everyone's in a rush to be the number one brand and everyone's fucking each other and trying to side bust on each other, trying to build around each other, trying to drown each other out. It's crazy as hell to watch this every day. So when I did the Paulie album, I felt like Paulie. I'm a very humble guy. And if you look at that movie, he's a humble guy. He's a boss; he wanted peace. At the end of the day, I'm kinda at the top of my game in the cannabis space. And me being a fan of the movies and me seeing the way the world works and me being in some of the conversations I'm in, high powered conversations with people from all over the world, this shit to me is pretty fucking fascinating.
I've been infatuated with the mafia's loyalty and pecking order and all that stuff since a kid. I've just kind of been feeling like that lately–not like I'm a crime boss or anything like that, not like I'm a violent guy or nothing like that. But man, a lot of shit comes through this phone. A lot of people hit me for a lot of different things from all over the world. So it, it just made me feel like, damn I'm a pretty powerful guy. I never really soaked that shit in.
You run this incredibly successful legal cannabis empire and this tremendous Cookies brand that's hugely recognizable, even in places where people don't have access to it. What do you think your time in hip-hop has taught you that you've applied to the cannabis game?
A lot of my organic marketing and the reason why Cookies is where it is, is because of music. Hip-hop has been like my therapist; it's been like my journal. If you go listen to the albums, you could hear where I was at in certain times of my life through music. I just feel like it's a legacy play. It's all part of the legacy play. The first thing people do when an artist dies is they go listen to all the work, read all their tweets. They go look at all their YouTube interviews. I'm kind of obsessed with that. All that you have is what you leave behind when you go. So I'm trying to live forever through the brand and through the music.
I think hip-hop's taught me a lot about telling my story, you know what I mean? It's cool because I own all my own masters. I'm independent. I fund everything myself. I take all these gambles on myself and it's never let me down. I may not be the biggest artist, and I may not really get my flowers as an artist from other artists, but I've done some incredible shit when you really sit back and think about it. Yesterday, for me, it was an incredible day. A lot of things happened yesterday, and I recap with my wife when I was laying down. I was like, yo, think about this right here, this was my day today. How could I not be positive about it? And I feel like none of that shit would've really been happening if it wasn't for music.
You talk about the cannabis industry being so much more competitive and cutthroat than hip-hop even, which I think is absolutely fair given what's happening right now. There's the issue of legalization both on the state level as well as the federal level, and we have some recent stuff coming through with Republicans that was unexpected, putting some of this in the hands of the states to make decisions. What's your view on where things are at on the legislation side of things?
I'm a conspiracy guy. So I feel like my answer might not be the most straight forward, but I'm going to give it to you the way I see it. I've been doing it for about 20 years now, a little over 20 years legally. And I feel like what the government's doing right now is they're trying to figure out every single possible way to tax every single part of the business. They're trying to make sure they can earn on every single part of the business. So by them letting states open up with different laws, they're seeing what works, what doesn't work. I feel like they're also studying the game, so by the time they do decide to legalize it, they're going to have this in a chokehold, just like alcohol and tobacco. You can't just pop up a new alcohol company. Maybe you can, but it ain't going to be everywhere. Like certain ones are and tobacco, I mean that shit's regulated like a motherfucker. By the way that they're slow rolling it and being like gray in certain areas, I feel like they're just trying to learn the game and figure it out so when they are ready to make it fully legal, it benefits them a hundred percent, in every way possible.
I hope that's not the case. I would love for them to legalize and leave it up to the states. That would be everyone's ultimate goal. But look at what happened to Seattle on the medical. It was legal medically out there, and then when the state legalized it for adult use, everyone with the medical license got wiped out and you had to start from scratch again. I hope that's not what happens is when it comes to legalization federally. I talked to the government in Canada about the way things work over there, and they asked us for advice on how things work over here. I think that's powerful, but just seeing the way that they've done it over there, at least my mind kind of opened, like, why we haven't done it here yet? So I'm very curious to see what happens. I personally don't think it's going to happen in the next two or three years. Everyone else does. If it does happen in that time, I'll be a happy man. I'll be very happy. But I think it's more of a five-to-ten year play, in my opinion.
I listen to some of these people who are on the investor side of this thing and are trying to be bullish about it because they have positions and holdings that make them want to be bullish about it. But I think what a lot of those folks lack that you have is time in the game and an understanding of how slow rolling it's been all this time. So I think your realism is founded. It makes sense to approach each of these developments with a cautious eye.
It's weird too to think this, but I think that the Republicans would be the ones to legalize it before the Democrats. I'm not really a political guy. I don't really fuck with politics like that, but I always thought that the Democrats were more liberal and so they would be the ones who introduced these laws and put them out. I ain't seen that shit with Biden, and especially with Kamala. I'm not really seeing that happening under their watch.
I think a different person, someone other than you who hypothetically had the success that you've had in the cannabis space, would probably have given up on music. But you managed to drop like seven or eight new projects just in the past two years. Given the growth of Cookies, how do you balance those two and maintain a family life and a social life as well?
You know, days are rough. Yesterday I jumped on the phone at 7:00AM. I didn't get off to around 8:00PM. I worked all fucking day, turned my phone off, got high and watched King Richard with the wife–great movie. What I do is I just allow myself certain time. The actual audio for GOTTI was recorded in a week. I put time limits on everything. Maybe that's part of the reason why Jay-Z didn't do the verse. I sent him an incredible record and I told him I needed by this day. And my boy was joking with me, like, did you just try to on-demand Jay-Z? I only have X amount of time to work on the music, like with Cookies being what it is, with the clothing, the apparel side of the business, being what it is, I don't have much time to work on music. For me, music's kind of like therapy. I'll go book a week. I typically already have a beat folder that I go through when I get there. I'll book a week to ten days and that's the album. That's how I do it. I see some people go in there and work for a year in a project. Me, I go live life and I go deal with a bunch of shit and I go let it all out. And then that's what my album is. I've actually heard a couple of artists say that if you can't bang out an album in X amount of time, it ain't it.
I don't really leave too much time for overthinking. I'll go do all my parts and I'll wait for certain things to come in. We have to wait for vocals from other artists and stuff like that. But I go rap all my shit in seven-to-ten days. That's how I've been doing it ever since 2006. I don't write music at the house and think about song titles. Nah. When I'm at the house or when I'm not moving, I'm thinking business. I'm doing business. When I get to the studio, I write everything right there on the spot. I don't know if that's the best way. Maybe that's why I never became a huge, huge artist, but shit works for me and that's how I'm able to knock out all this music as well as like maintain the business.
And look, I mean, since you're talking about doing a deluxe edition of GOTTI, then maybe that gives Jay-Z enough time to get on it.
I don't think he's gonna do it. You know, that's a rare thing. But, shout out to Memphis Bleek, the fact I was actually able to put the record in his hands is a life goal on its own, to even entertain that conversation. But I also look at artists that sit in the studio all day and that create every day. Three things I've noticed. One, they don't put out hardly any music, right? Two, they're burnt out. You can't rap every single day or sing every single day or create every single day. For me, you have to have life experiences. You have to go work, you have to go experience things, you have to feel shit. You have to be going through ups and downs and then you go let that shit out and you go back to doing what you're doing. To me, that's more powerful than sitting in the studio every single day. You'll get burnt out. What are you going to talk about? Then you start over-critiquing what you have and you have people on your mix saying, this is cool and this ain't cool. That's just my two cents on it.
Listen to Berner's GOTTI wherever music is streamed or sold.