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Cultivating a Name: Champelli

I was into music and skateboarding … all this stuff, so I was always kind of immersed in just the evolving culture.

Photo by Josh Monthei

“She only sees me with Champelli trees
She only sees me having hella Gs
She only sees me with European keys …”

–  Mac Dre, “Davin Rims”

Fashion, music and Cannabis all breathe the same smoke-filled air, and for the past four decades, Champelli’s been blowing the primo clouds.

A soft-spoken, quietly confident icon, Pelli came up fast in the ‘80s and ‘90s – sharing a similar trajectory to hip-hop, San Francisco and Cannabis itself.  

Rising from middle school grows at his mom’s house to being name-dropped by the biggest names in hip-hop, Champelli has methodically built an empire around his greatest passions: street fashion, Cannabis culture and music.

Leaf Magazines spoke with Champelli for the Culture Issue to learn about the genesis of the Champelli name and to hear what he has planned for the future.

Popping Seeds

As a young buck coming up in the Bernal Heights neighborhood in 1980s San Francisco, young Joe Rutherford drew inspiration and influence from his surroundings. The neighborhood itself was a vibrant, rustic borough ripe with hippies and weed smoke – a hilltop rising up among the surrounding neighborhoods.

“It was this unique vantage point. It had all these quirky characters who lived up there,” he said. “Santana’s conga player lived up there. It was very old-school ’80s San Francisco working class, musicians and hippies.”

He recalls some of the people who molded him at that early age, perhaps the most influential of which was his brother.

“I got to see my brother growing in the pantry that we had off of the kitchen,” he said of his mom’s house in Bernal Heights. “It was next to the cats and the dishes and stuff like that. He was growing there when I was in elementary school, and I ended up snagging some leaves and rolling them up with some friends, trying to figure out how to roll it up or do something with it. Rolling it in binder paper. Then later on in middle school was when I started to grow there myself.”

The Come Up

Rutherford immersed himself in the culture of his city, staying as close to the heartbeat as possible. He cultivated Cannabis through middle and high school, developing his creative side as a graffiti artist and skateboarder, catching shows at a venue down the hill called The Farm.

He watched the Cannabis culture grow, and with it, the quality and price of the weed.

“I watched it go from $20 an eighth to $25-$30, to $35, and then there was this huge jump in ’89 to $50 an eighth,” he said. “I went to my one buddy’s house, this one dealer, and he rolled up this huge joint and we smoked it. He was like, ‘This is the super Indo,’ and it just totally got me obliterated. It was amazing. He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s $50 an eighth.’ I was like, ‘$50 an eighth? Holy shit!’ Yeah, that was the hype.”

In 1991, Rutherford dropped out of high school, and got his own apartment, where he continued to hone his craft as a breeder and cultivator, buying lights and setting up a solid indoor grow. This is when Rutherford truly started on the path to becoming Champelli.

“I was into music and skateboarding, and I used to do graffiti … breakdance and all this stuff, so I was always kind of immersed in just the evolving culture,” he said. “I gravitated toward those scenes, being in touch with professional skaters and musicians, going to shows, and eventually getting little small clothing companies emerging at that time and trading them weed for clothes.”

In ’92-’93, he dabbled in making music with his friend Aris Voulkous, and released an album. Then, around the same mid-’90s timeframe, he got his hands on a cut of the Kush. That was when everything took off.

Earning His Name

The Kush cut served as a jumping off point for Rutherford’s transformation to Champelli.

“I always had the Kush, but got my name and fame from another strain, the Champagne,” he said. “The Kush and Champagne complemented each other nicely, both being completely different spectrums and flavor profiles. They were calling me the Champagne Cowboy and all this different stuff. The linguistics here in the Bay Area are very innovative with taking words and putting a twist on ’em, so Champagne just kind of evolved into Champelli and became my moniker. Then the weed also turned into Champelli. They were like, ‘Yo, I need that Champelli.’” 

By ’95-’96, he dove deeper into producing music, becoming the executive producer of his own record label, Champelli Entertainment, which went on to release multiple projects independently. 

On the quality of his flower and his chill demeanor, Champelli started hanging with the biggest names in the hip-hop and reggae communities, blessing them with his trademark Champelli heat.

“I always had really good luck at getting backstage,” he said. “I’d always end up in the back somehow, even if I didn’t have the hookup – I would just walk back there. I was meant to be there or something. Just be invisible for a moment and end up in these places.”

Champelli became a trap household name, getting props from Snoop Dogg, Mac Dre, B-Real, Beanie Sigel, Yukmouth, Memphis Bleek and other rappers in the scene. Recently, B-Real even told a story on Instagram about 2Pac rolling up with some Champelli.

“The weed kind of made its way into the culture, into the music and the songs that are still etched into history and time, in urban mythology and lore,” Champelli said, “from Mac Dre to Snoop Dogg to all these Bay Area artists that mentioned the strain. It also made it all the way from L.A. to the East Coast, so artists on the East Coast started to name drop it in songs as well.”

The Future

Now, Champelli runs a legal Cannabis brand in California and designs his own fashion line that serves customers all over the world. He stays quietly humble about it.

“I’m always looking for different ways to express myself creatively,” he said, “whether it’s musically or design or through cuisine, through creating new strains or doing art design for the brand, doing photography.”

He’s currently working through 500-600 new phenotypes to pick new winners to release this year and will be doing a seed drop with Sensi Seeds for Spannabis in Barcelona this March.

“This year I am really looking to expand the brand and kind of take things to new heights,” he said. “As a small brand that hasn’t really taken on any investors or anything like that, trying to get the right pieces of the puzzle and the right ingredients to catapult the brand to the next level – I’m working on doing all that myself slowly but surely. But as an entrepreneur, it takes being patient and diligent, and just sticking with your vision and your dream and trying to see it through to the end.”

No matter what, Champelli doesn’t plan to lose sight of what inspired young Joe Rutherford all those years ago atop Bernal Heights.

“It’s a very magical plant,” he said, “and I feel like it has to be respected as such and treated as such.”

Photos by @capturecannabis

About Tom Bowers

Tom Bowers is in this with all of you.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of California Leaf.

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