Fronto. Fronto leaf. Whatever you call it, the raw, natural tobacco is Brooklyn drill’s favorite blunt wrap. Maybe you heard about it from Rowdy Rebel when he rapped that he was “Smoking fronto / bitch no Phillies” on “Computers,” his 2014 collab with Bobby Shmurda. Or perhaps you saw it on YouTube in the intro skit from Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow’s “Flows” video.
Or, if you happen to live in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, you might’ve seen fronto at a deli, the owner pulling it out from behind the counter — a large, brown tobacco leaf folded inside a plain, unmarked plastic bag, handed to a customer for inspection before purchase. For some people in West Indian Brooklyn, fronto is as integral to their community as beef patties, callaloo, or goat curry, beloved for its purity, flavor, and strong punch.
Unlike Backwoods or Dutch’s, fronto leaf isn’t sold out in the open. It’s not hung up, displayed behind deli or smoke shop counters for customers to see. To buy fronto, you need to know how to ask — and where to ask. With no branding on its bags and no overt advertising, fronto leaf remains either unknown or mysterious to outsiders, a special slice of West Indian Brooklyn life that hasn’t yet bowed to gentrification.
But living in a world where New York City recently decriminalized marijuana and the state of Colorado made more than $247 million in revenue from legal weed in 2017, it seems that fronto’s days as Caribbean Brooklyn’s secret might be numbered. That’s why the real story should be out there, from the perspective of its original users and sellers, before corporate blunt wrap makers attempt to take over the market.
An outsider myself, I started at the source: a smoke shop on Franklin Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Walking in, I asked the proprietor if he sold fronto. Which he did. And when I asked him where he got his fronto, he handed me a card and explained, “Somebody gave it to me. The company gave me this card.” The card said “Buzz Wraps” and had some Arabic on it, next to a phone number. But when I called the number, the man who answered said he had “no idea” what I was asking about and hung up.
Luckily, I’d anticipated this response and also had Google at my disposal. When I Googled “Buzz Wraps,” I got a hit, leading me to NYC Tobacco Leaf LLC., which also sells “BuzzWraps.” Here, the spelling was different and the website also listed a different phone number than the one on the deli cardi. Curious, I emailed NYC Tobacco Leaf and got a prompt response. “You can contact Sammy,” it said, along with a phone number. But when I rang, Sammy didn’t pick up. Still, about 20 minutes later, he texted. “Can I call you later? Who is this?” Sammy asked. When I told him I was working on a story about fronto for Highsnobiety, Sammy stopped responding.
The fronto plugs, it seemed, didn’t want to talk. So I turned my attention to other potential sources from around the way, including Kush, owner of hand-printed cult clothing label Kash and Kush, and fronto-touting Brooklyn drill rapper Scrappy Doo, who introduced the world to the Lbop dance last year. Both of them seemed excited to share.
“We smoke fronto in New York,” Scrappy Doo says. “Mainly in low-income areas, in the hood. I don’t usually find fronto in the City or white neighborhoods.” Guess you’re out of luck, Williamsburg.
When I speak to Kush, a Trinidadian who has lived in Brooklyn since he was a child, he has a more historical perspective. “Crown Heights is populated by people from the islands,” he says. “The islanders brought that type of smoking here because we smoke like that back home as well.” Pressing him for more info, Kush also explains: “In some people’s yard in my country, they will just be growing tobacco trees and we call it grabba, hot grabba.”
According to Kush, different Brooklyn neighborhoods have different tastes in fronto, too. He tells me Crown Heights likes its fronto “dark, not too thick,” while Brownsville and Canarsie prefer their leaf “thick, extremely dark.” That’s due to population variations, he thinks. Though most Brooklyn neighborhoods are diverse, Crown Heights has an overarching Trini culture, where “most people in Canarsie, they are like hardcore Jamaicans,” Kush clarifies.
Neighborhood variations aside, it’s clear that fronto has its roots in the Caribbean, starting out as home-grown tobacco for personal consumption. But that doesn’t explain who is selling all this fronto. Kush put me in touch with his friend, musician and Brooklyn fronto magnate Jah Myhrakle, who everyone calls Natty.
When I get Natty on the phone, he tells me he sells fronto under the Ragga Grabba name and points out that, “The word fronto comes from Rasta talk,” referring to the Rastafarian practice of replacing negative or death-related words with positive counterparts. “We choose to keep an idea of progression and going-forward,” Natty says. “So instead of saying ‘to-back-co,’ we say ‘front-o.’ So it’s a forward movement.”
Forward movement or not, fronto has a history that goes way back, according to Natty. “This crop has been cultivated for ages, more than just what we call smoking consumption,” he says. “It was also used for spiritual cleansing.”
Health and creating a clean product are a big concern for Natty and his Ragga Grabba fronto company, especially as corporate blunt wrap makers hover around the margins of his business. Although he acknowledges that “tobacco can also cause ill health if it’s not properly consumed or overdone without proper cleansing,” Natty also saw fronto as a cleaner alternative to Backwoods and other Big Tobacco blunt wraps. “All these processed chemical products out there are creating nothing more than destruction to human health,” he tells me. For Natty, it was Ragga Grabba’s “obligated duty” to provide customers with “one of cleanest, most organic, purest tobacco leaf.”
Kush backs that up, explaining how Natty ensured purity by overseeing every aspect of his business himself. He purchases his raw Ragga Grabba fronto from America’s tobacco belt, processing, cleaning, and steaming the leaves in his own apartment to guarantee quality and consistency.
In the fronto market, however, I learn that duty extends beyond the product, with Kush seeing raw tobacco leaf profits as something he’d like to keep within his own community. “We’re the top users of fronto,” he says. “And as far as being black, I’d just like to own stuff that we use every day. Everything is already taken up by the majors, toothpaste and so on. At least we can get some fronto going.”
That’s why he’s teaming up with his friend, Jahroe — a fellow entrepreneur who owns three successful Veggies Natural Juice Bars throughout Brooklyn — to form a Ragga Grabba spinoff fronto company. “I’m going to call it Natty Fronto,” Kush says.
Because Jahroe also worked as a distributor for Natty at Ragga Grabba, “[walking] around with pounds of fronto on him,” they saw an opportunity to have their own “little in-house” brand. “What we decided to do is package the fronto, just like how everybody is packaging marijuana,” Kush clarifies, referring to using the graphic design skills and printing chops he’d honed through years grinding on his Kash and Kush label. “I want every deli in this neighborhood to have that shit,” Kush says. “I want it to be available. I’m going to make T-shirts, I’m going to make stickers, I’m just going to go full-on.” And with that, a new era for fronto is well under way.