“I’m just a pure example of the cannabis fuckery coming from New York, from the 90s to today,” says Steph.V, founder and CEO of the powerhouse brand Certz. A legend of hip hop culture, Steph.V is well known for his work producing hits for artists including Jim Jones, The LOX, Lumidee, Yung LB and more. But over the years, he’s been able to speak more openly about his innovations within the legacy cannabis space, building Certz into a multimillion-dollar enterprise recognized worldwide for premium strains, unique merchandise, and the company’s notable Midtown event space.
Watch highlights of Honeysuckle's interview with Certz founder and CEO Steph.V:
Steph.V Before Certz: The War On Drugs In New York's Spanish Harlem Neighborhood
For the first time ever, the industry veteran opened up about his trauma from the War on Drugs in an exclusive interview with Honeysuckle. A native of Spanish Harlem, Steph.V endured poverty in an area beset by substance abuse. “The scent of crack was normal where we was at,” he remembers, and children regularly grew up seeing broken crack bottles litter the floors. Noting that “I come from the struggle for real,” he explains taking it upon himself to be the family breadwinner at a young age. He recalls working at the supermarket as a bag boy from just 10 years old in the early 1990s, making around $30 a day to bring home to his mother – which he viewed as “a lot back then.”
The entrepreneur claims that young men in his neighborhood saw drug dealing as an avenue for wealth. “That’s what the system first showed us: ‘This is your way out,’” Steph.V observes. “You could’ve been a doctor, a lawyer… anything else. But the way they portrayed it to us minorities was either be a dope-ass drug dealer who got the jewelry and the cars but lived with his mother, or you nice in basketball. [I] broke out of that early as a teenager, started selling weed [because I saw] the profit margin… the coolness you get from it… I was drawn to the weed and I never sold anything else.”
Steph.V's Journey Into Cannabis And Hip Hop
It was a short trip from groceries to grass; the ambitious hustler dropped his first job and entered the legacy cannabis scene at age 14. Quickly he became ensconced in the heart of the market, working himself into an organization run by Jamaicans in the neighborhood who were cooperating with an Italian group from Harlem to funnel West Coast greenery to East Coast pockets.
“They were smuggling weed from Tijuana, flying it to San Diego,” Steph.V describes the operation. “Drive it to the borderline near Tijuana, drive it back. Saran Wrap it from all these combos, put it in bins. I was responsible for [shipping] ‘em out. I had to do 25 boxes in two days in multiple towns to ship to come here, and then I had to pick ‘em all up with my team in New York. That was my job and I was [a teenager] and I organized it all. Not everybody’s that fortunate, you know what I’m saying?”
On one hand, the young businessman was certainly fortunate. He prospered financially in this new track, and his savvy for understanding both quality strains and brand-building allowed him to parlay his skills into the hip hop space. Just as the underground music market intertwined with cannabis, Steph.V created a name for himself as a producer with PIFF Unit Productions. Making hit records with some of the era’s most enduring artists such as N.O.R.E. (Noreaga), Juelz Santana and the late Black Rob, he believed this was living the dream.
“I got to smoke with people I was actually a fan of, growing up, seeing [them] on TV,” the mogul comments. These smoke sessions cemented his friendships with myriad artists and entertainment bigwigs. Redman trusted Steph.V so much that when the rapper was arrested on cannabis possession charges, he left the flower expert in charge of moving his vehicle to avoid parking tickets. “When he got out of jail, he immediately bought five bags off me,” the CEO grins. “I’d given him a free one, he smoked two right off with me.”
Troubles In New York's Legacy Cannabis Market
But even if a certain reverence for the plant helped Steph.V to distinguish himself mentally from the drug dealers he’d seen as a kid, he realized the law still considered them the same. “There was no glorifying that shit,” he states succinctly. “We were like straight drug dealers at the time. If you want to say a drug dealer for cannabis, whatever, [but our purpose] wasn’t to be showing off.”
Though he gained a reputation as a cultural impresario, he still had to deal with repeated arrests and incarceration. Initially, as a nouveau-riche operator, “I didn’t give a fuck about if I was locked up for it or not. I was ready to get rich off of it. I was rich before, got locked up and went to jail, got out, did it again. Went to jail before, got out and did it again.” Reflecting on why he kept up with cannabis despite these risks, the innovator goes back to the simple fact of his love for the product: “It was weed. Even though I lost years of my life in prison all through it, it didn’t come down on me to stop. Like [the idea of] ‘This is illegal. You’re a fucking criminal for doing this shit with flower.’ I couldn’t understand that. That’s why I kept doing it.”
Yet the underground life took its toll. Steph.V got used to hiding from the authorities and developed a stoic shell so that he could get by without showing emotion. Run-ins with police were a regular occurrence, to the point that when he once got caught with ten pounds of illegal cannabis, he asked police to let him go quickly, fearing that he might be late to fill an even bigger order. His seeming nonchalance was the mask for a man suffering from intense PTSD.
Steph.V And The Certz Empire
After several years of putting his nose to the grindstone in New York, the producer traveled to California and learned all the trade secrets from that major market that he could eventually bring back East. In 2017, he launched the independent music label Certz Entertainment, signing major talent including Fivio Foreign, Sauce Walka, Lil TJay and of course his old friend Redman. The Certz brand exploded in Steph.V’s hometown with the 2019 launch of a clothing store in NYC. Upon New York’s legalization of cannabis in 2021, it was finally time for Certz to expand that side of the business in the Empire State and for its leader to be king of the cannabis capital yet again.
This should feel like a happy ending, but the story’s far from over. The Certz team has plans for multiple cannabis-related projects in the works. New York’s complex and slow rollout of cannabis licensure, however, has Steph.V in a frustrating holding pattern. He criticizes the state’s touting of social equity and licenses for those impacted by the War on Drugs as “bullshit. I didn’t even get accepted [into] the first group [of license holders]. Everybody who got accepted caught a case one time 10, 15 years ago for some minor shit and right away got accepted under social equity. That’s not fair to people really suffering through cannabis. That’s what I thought it was for, people who suffered. So these people who have these little bougie slaps on the wrists, they got these licenses and then they come running to people like me.”
He continues, “I want to open my first dispensary in New York, where I’m from. And then I’m going to do a dope-ass deal where I have multiple dispensaries in different states at once. That’s for sure happening. Unless I don’t wake up tomorrow, that’s the only way it’s not happening. Contracts is done, everybody’s waiting on me, and I’m waiting on New York.”
A new day will dawn for the Certz Empire, for the man who has reinvented and perfected his craft so many times. Steph.V may not be the first to get a dispensary license, but he is a testament to the opportunities the plant offers to change one’s life. He’s no gangster, he says, but the ultimate soldier for cannabis – “always ready to go to war and die for what I love.” We say, thank you for your service.
A version of this article was originally published in Honeysuckle's 16th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
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Featured image: Founder/CEO Steph.V on a Certz T-shirt (C) Certz