Sam is packing up a duffle bag behind the counter of his smoke shop in Northridge, California, like he’s filling it with cash. He’s about to make a transaction with the rapper Offset, one-third of Migos and husband of Cardi B. Offset is in L.A. from Atlanta for a few days and wants to buy weight. Sam’s store, Cig City, is one of the few places he can do so.
In particular, Offset is looking for rare sodas distributed by Exotic Pop. Their emphasis is on sodas from different regions or with an international flavor. You can order a lot of them online, but if you want the rarest shit, you have to know someone like Sam. A partial listing from just his display fridge alone: Old Tyme Blue Pop, Old Tyme Strawberry, Fanta Apple, Fanta Peach, Minute Maid Peach, Minute Maid Berry Punch, Minute Maid Watermelon Punch, Canada Dry Blackberry Ginger Ale, Canada Dry Pineapple, Grapico, Dr. Pepper Vanilla Float, Coca Cola Clear, Barq’s Red Creme Soda, Faygo Arctic Sun, Crush Cream Soda, Crush Peach, Solo Banana Soda, Sunkist Fruit Punch, Wildwood Piña Colada, Big Pineapple, Big Peach and Big Shot Red Cherry.
Some flavors, like Faygo Cotton Candy, are exotic for their size only. So while you might be able to find Faygo in a convenience store elsewhere in the U.S., it likely won’t be in the 24-ounce bottles Cig City sells. In other cases, the exoticism comes from being bottled instead of canned, or vice versa.
Offset is looking for Sunkist Peach, enough of it, in fact, that he’ll clear out Sam’s entire inventory of the Orange flavor’s more obsure cousin. As for myself, I’d come for a box of rare cereal from the Exotic Snax Collection — something like the Banana Creme Frosted Flakes I’d seen on their Instagram. Unfortunately, I was about a week too late. It turns out that the snacks usually sell out the day they arrive. Same for boxes of Reptar Cereal, which middle schoolers purchase with their parents, buying into a nostalgia they’re too young to remember. Either way, hypebeasts post their hauls on Instagram, tagging the Exotic Pop account for bragging rights.
Not that the hype is cheap. The Reptar Cereal retails for $20, and Sam can sell a single 18-ounce bottle of Fanta White Peach, which is only available in Japan, for $25 a bottle. Offset’s not the only one who will pay the price either. For dozens of rappers — from Drake to Travis Scott and Takeoff — these soda flavors are a status symbol. Case in point: Murda Beatz, one of the most popular rising producers, recently came in and left Sam his number, handwritten in pencil scribble on the back of a business card.
Though any of these rappers could send an assistant up into the Valley to get the soda and snacks for them — or probably call up the company and have them deliver the rarest items right to their door — they make a point of procuring the goods themselves. It’s a token of prestige for both the artists and the seller.
The store itself is completely unassuming. Tucked in a strip mall, it looks like a regular smoke shop — and not even a particularly good one. Most of the regular customers are older Russians, there to buy a carton of cigarettes, with the exception of one younger white man who bought nothing and said, “Aight, see you around, pimp,” before leaving.
The origins of Exotic Pop are equally subdued, the whole thing an accident. Two and a half years ago, Charleston Wilson, its owner, was working construction, commuting between Baton Rouge and Houston on a weekly basis. One weekend, however, a friend asked him if he could pick up some sodas in Louisiana and bring them back to Texas. Wilson spent about $100 on the soda at around $2 a bottle/can. He then sold them back to his friend for an extra dollar per pop. The friend, in turn, sold them for $5 each by posting photos of them on his personal Instagram account.
Eventually, though, Wilson’s friend became too busy for the soda resale business, leaving Wilson with a lot of product on his hands. And so, he began flipping his purchases himself, selling the sodas out of the back of his trunk in his (and legendary chopped and screwed mixer DJ Screw’s) stomping grounds of southwest Houston. Next, he graduated to a vending machine at a local grocery store. “I dedicated the machine to [DJ Screw],” Wilson says. “I put his first location on the front of the machine and his mixtapes on the side, and I made it a work of art to go with the mystique of the sodas. It had this whole nostalgia, DJ Screw vibe going on.”
After that, Wilson added another vending machine designed after Southern rapper Pimp C. But what really took Exotic Pop to the next level was the Houston Slab Fest car show, where a photo of Wilson’s booth was shared on Instagram by rapper Paul Wall. Soon, smoke shops across the country wanted to distribute Wilson’s inventory. Later, Drake gave a shoutout on Instagram, taking the brand international. (Exotic Pop now has 12 locations in the U.S., including Cig City, and ships globally as well.)
“Everybody wants to have something different. Everybody wants to have something exotic. Everybody wants to separate themselves from others with whatever they do — whether it’s the car they drive, the shoes they wear or the soda they drink,” Wilson says. “That’s pretty much what hip hop is about. It’s about bragging rights and what I have that you don’t. We’re laying right into that culture.”
Still, there’s an additional hip-hop-soda connection that Exotic Pop doesn’t make explicit mention of: lean, or the mixture of codeine and soda (typically Sprite). (Both DJ Screw and Pimp C died from codeine-promethazine overdoses.) That said, it frequently hints at it. For example, the Exotic Pop Instagram account plays a chopped and screwed repeat of the Migos’ lyric “Cotton candy, my cup tastes like the fair” on a montage of photos of Offset and the group’s other members with Old Tyme Cotton Candy soda. In another track, “Truck Loads,” Offset says, “Pop the seal, pour the Actavis in the Peach Crush.” Peach Crush is, of course, a rare flavor of Crush soda; Actavis, meanwhile, is a pharmaceutical company that manufactures promethazine/codeine syrup.
Lean or no lean, Offset might be the brand’s biggest backer. A couple of months ago on Instagram, Cardi B shared the video below of a few dozen boxes of cereal lining her kitchen counter, all belonging to him — “Why he got all these DAMN cereals?” she yells. (In a second video, she shows a closeup of a French flavor of Froot Loops. “He loves cereal so much. Where he get this Birthday Cake flavor fucking Froot Loops?” she asks.)
Due to this kind of demand — and the fact that liquor stores, smoke shops and convenience stores across the country constantly contact him about becoming a retailer — Wilson only sees the brand getting bigger. (Soon he’ll also begin making his own products, specifically an Exotic Pop styrofoam cup, a popular vessel for his budding empire.) He hopes, though, never to abandon the personal, DIY touch he started with. For him, this is as much the secret to his success as the sugar in his sodas. Or as he says, “We keep it all the way real.”