Because Mothers’ Day is nearly here and because scented candles are still enjoying a pandemic flex, please enjoy the following information: you can buy a candle that smells like Drake. It was developed by the Better World Fragrance House, a company founded by Drake, the humongously successful Canadian rapper (51 Grammy nominations, 170 million albums sold).
The candle, called Carby Musk for unpredictable reasons you’ll understand soon, is more expensive than Williamsburg Sleepover, another BWFH candle. Williamsburg Sleepover, according to a product description, is “a genderless and luminous floral-woody fragrance that captures the essence of an urban garden under shaded lights.” Whereas the candle that smells like Drake “actually smells like Drake – it’s the personal fragrance he wears, which inspired BWFH.” It presents notes of musk, amber, cashmere, suede and velvet, and is “introspective as in an interpretation of your beautiful self, yet extrovertive as how you would want others to see your bold and brilliant self.”
Compared to most “celebrity candles,” as the category is known in the candle marketing trade, Drake’s candles have sold a bundle. To put it another way, the candle that smells like Drake is a minor triumph of both scent creation and “mass specialty” marketing aimed at bringing luxury to people who don’t usually have many chances to experience it – much the way Charles Heidsieck introduced (cheaper) champagne to New York’s middle class in the late 1800s.
The story of how the candle that smells like Drake came to be is a similarly radical tale. It is a story of hard-working immigrants, entrepreneurial dash in a wildly competitive business, upward class mobility, smashed racial stereotypes, the extreme balderdash of scent marketing, fellow feeling, and a massive whack of luck.
William Cheng owns the company that manufactures the candle that smells like Drake. He is an omni-enthusiast – of basketball, of fine food (his hobby is starting restaurants), of travel, of friendship, of karaoke (especially of karaoke), of making money. It was his enthusiasm for sushi, for instance, that led Mr. Cheng, 43, to hire Masaki Saito, head chef at Saito Masaki Sushi, an eight-seat restaurant Mr. Cheng owns in downtown Toronto where dinner for one runs almost $700. Chef Saito is now the only chef in Canada to have two Michelin stars. Shoushin, another restaurant Mr. Cheng owns, has a star of its own.
Mr. Cheng lives in a large but unshowy house in an upper middle class neighbourhood in north Toronto. His children’s swing set sits in the front yard. But he makes no secret of his good fortune. He is especially enthusiastic about showing his friends a good time. It is not unheard of for Mr. Cheng, in the course of doing business, to fly half a dozen friends to New York for the weekend, put them up at the Baccarat Hotel (where Mr. Cheng owns an apartment) in midtown Manhattan, and treat everyone to a five course meal at the legendary restaurant Carbone. Following that, he’ll chauffeur them to Tao, a club where flights of Dom Perignon arrive with flaring sparklers in the corks, and then on to distant Queens for more drinking and karaoke. I was invited on such an evening; I estimate it set him back as much as a pharmacist makes in a year. “But if you’re worth $500-million,” an acquaintance of Mr. Cheng’s explained afterwards – and that’s an unconfirmed guess – ”even if you have it invested in a very ordinary ETF, that still produces a per diem of about $50,000.”
Mr. Cheng’s company, Premier Candle Corp., of which he’s chairman, is the largest private label candle manufacturer in Canada, and one of the five largest in North America. Born in Hong Kong, he emigrated as a high school student to Vancouver in 1994. There he met his wife, Stephanie Sek, Vancouver-born but also Chinese. She helped him with his English, and later worked in Premier’s sales and marketing department. She now runs KandL Artistique, an artisanal candle boutique in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood; in addition to selling Drake’s candles and Premier’s new proprietary line of wares, she runs “Lab,” classes where customers can create candles with a scent of their own invention.
Mr. Cheng learned the candle business at the foot of his father, Jackie Cheng, who in 1978 founded Universal Candle, based in Hong Kong, China and Vietnam. Universal invented the runneled swirl pattern on birthday candles. “His dad had the global patent on the birthday swirl for 25 years,” Ms. Sek points out. By some estimates, Universal manufactures half the candles the world burns.
Back in Canada, the younger Mr. Cheng graduated in 2002 with a degree in commerce from the University of British Columbia. He went to work right away as a management trainee at Premier, Universal’s Canadian operation – albeit a trainee who started out as a packer and mopping floors.
Twelve years later, he took over the Canadian operation, having hired Joanne Lee, a former Bayer Pharmaceutical executive, as his chief operating officer. By then he had built Premier’s vast manufacturing plant in Mississauga, Ont. The fastest of its robotic production lines can spit out thousands of scented, polished, wicked, glassed, scanned and boxed gift candles an hour, for the likes of Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren, Indigo, Martha Stewart and any number of other universally-known brands that sell scented candles as if they were their own creations.
It’s a business of endless testing and countless details: there are, for instance, more than 1000 kinds of candle wick. The firm completed its pumpkin-spice Thanksgiving rush at the end of last summer and its all-important Christmas rush before Thanksgiving – churning out tens of thousands of candles that smelled like pine and cinnamon and had names such as Under the Christmas Tree and Snickerdoodle. The plant is now wrapping up its Mothers’ Day run, which means florals and cleaner, summery scents (linen, sea salt, ozone) for what is known as the slow season in the candle business.
Needless to say, the marketing of scents is almost ludicrously subjective. The Memory Box Candle Co. of California produces a scented candle called Saturday Morning Cartoons, a combination of lemon, sandalwood and vanilla. The Seawick Candle Co. of Maine offers Ferry Ride, which wafts not of diesel and vomit but of “sea and weathered wood.” It’s a mere $26 for the 9-ounce glass version, a lower price point than Premier’s output, most of which starts just under $50.
The path that led Mr. Cheng to make a candle that smells like Drake was a winding one. It was through his enthusiasm for basketball (multiple signed Raptors game balls and jerseys are on display in his house) that he met Niko Carino, a brand consultant and co-founder of OVO (October’s Very Own), Drake’s clothing line, in 2016. It was through Mr. Carino, two years later, that he then met Drake: Mr. Carino has been one of Drake’s closest friends and business partners since they were getting into trouble together at high school. (Drake chose not to comment for this story, the reporting for which took place over a year and a half.)
The three men got along well. Mr. Cheng has a few qualities Mr. Carino admires above all others: “He has guts. He does things out of love and passion, which I could kind of relate to. And he’s a very loyal guy.” They all also come from racialized communities, and no matter how successful they are, they all remember, Mr. Cheng insists, what it’s like to be “the underdog.”
Mr. Cheng soon discovered scent was important to Drake: the musician had been burning the same 500-hour scented candle backstage at every performance on his tours, to set the mood. “He really believes that it changes his performance,” Mr. Cheng says.
It’s not a modern fetish: human beings have been burning candles, for light and devotion and focus and scent, since the Romans and then the Chinese started doing it 3,000 years ago. A chandler’s guild existed as early as the 13th century. The materials from which candles have been made track the history of capitalism, starting with tallow (the rise of slaughterhouses), spermaceti (whale oil), paraffin (petroleum) and now soy-based wax. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s, with the mass commodification of human mood and feeling, that scented candles really took off. The pandemic – everyone stuck at home, longing to “refresh” their surroundings – boosted them even more.
Celebrity candles are a subgenre of scented ones, and a cousin of travel candles, which allegedly evoke place. (The smell of Hawaii? Of New York City? Of a kitchen on the Amalfi Coast? All those candles exist.) But unlike those perennial destinations, celebrity homages go out of style. “It’s just whoever is popular at the time,” says Ms. Sek. “And yes, they are very lucrative. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been doing it.”
Premier has created candles for Martha Stewart and Celine Dion, among many others – a trend Ms. Sek dates to the original celebrity candle inspiration, Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of Sex and the City. But the roots of the genre go back to at least 1936, when the French nose Jean Carles (“the Beethoven of perfumers”) created Shocking for the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
By 2019, Mr. Carino and Mr. Cheng were talking to Drake about creating a line of scented candles. “The process is very tricky,” Mr. Cheng admits. “You try to get him to say specifically, what do you like? What don’t you like? Then you do the next round, until it becomes perfect. And the process can take a year and a half.” Drake is a busy man, and the project could easily have fallen by the wayside. In fact, the candle that smells like Drake might never have happened, had it not been for Michael Carby.
Michael Carby is a professional nose – a perfumer who combines chemical compounds and botanical essences to create scents and fragrances at the Manhattan office of Givaudan International SA, the world’s largest fragrance company. Beyond fine perfumes, Givaudan (founded in Zurich in 1895) manufactures essences that make up the smells, and sometimes tastes, of everything from household disinfectants and urinal pucks to toothpaste, ginger ale and cheese. Givaudan sold $10-billion worth of smells and tastes last year. The company estimates the average human being on Earth encounters a Givaudan scent or taste a mind-boggling 10 times a day.
But Michael Carby is nothing like Jean Carles or the rich, well-coiffed perfumer in the TV series Emily in Paris. For starters, Michael Carby is Black, and Jamaican – rare traits in his business. “I’ve met many perfumers in my career,” Mr. Cheng says. “He is the most special one. First of all, he’s one of the very few Black perfumers. Traditionally, they are white, usually very privileged. It’s a very snobbish world.”
Mr. Carby’s parents emigrated from Jamaica to England. His mother, a nurse, then emigrated again to the U.S. to help run an AIDS ward in the Bronx. She wanted her sons to be doctors, which is how Michael Carby ended up with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. He could read a spectrometry analysis of a compound, and went to work at a geriatric skin care company, hoping to save money for medical school. But he had another gift as well: his sensitive nose. Or, as he puts it: “I can smell.”
He eventually landed at Givaudan, where he displayed a talent for catching mistakes in the formulation of the fragrances the company sells to the likes of William Cheng. He worked his way from quality control through technical perfumery to creative perfumery, but his ascent was hardly assured. As he moved up, he attended the company’s legendary perfumery school in Europe, but since he had to pay out of pocket, he could only afford to go for a month. “I found out after the fact that people go to the perfume school for four or five years,” he recalls.
Still, his nose was unerring. The first time I met Mr. Carby was in his office on 57th Street in Manhattan. It was Sunday: his wife and two daughters were at home in New Jersey, awaiting his return. In his brown flowered shirt and white pants, he was pacing one of the company’s hermetically sealed and glassed-in burn rooms, in which rows and rows of identical test candles were slowly burning down. He was trying to figure out what had gone wrong in a batch of candles made from a cinnamon and clove fragrance Givaudan had been selling for two decades. (The problem turned out to be preservatives in a compound supplied to Givaudan.)
Formulation mistakes can cost a fortune. For instance, Givaudan uses ScentTrek, a technology that captures the chemical makeup of smells from living plants. Givaudan then manufactures an artificial version of the scent in the lab, under the guidance of a senior perfumer such as Mr. Carby. A single final product – say, Givaudan’s jasmin sambac fragrance – runs $400 an ounce, wholesale. A single drum of many compounds can cost as much as $50,000. “The fragrance is only a relatively small proportion of the product,” Mr. Carby says – about 12 per cent, in the case of a candle. “But it makes all the difference. The fragrance is what sells.”
William Cheng and Niko Carino first approached Givaudan about creating a couple of scents for Drake in the summer of 2019. Karen Elliot, a Givaudan executive, suggested they work with Michael Carby. “I was the only Black creative perfumer at Givaudan at the time, and am one of the few Black perfumers in the history of the industry, from a creative standpoint,” Mr. Carby notes.
It was an effective move. “I thought it would be the perfect match to utilize him,” Mr. Carino says today. “Obviously his being a person of colour made me feel most comfortable, and kind of kicked it off.” The only guidance the clients gave Mr. Carby was a small vial of body oil that Drake wore.
Mr. Carby had the oil spectrometrically analyzed, and recreated it. “I got the duplication done,” he remembers, “but it didn’t smell quite like the oil, so I had to do other things, too.”
Months passed. In January of 2020, Ms. Elliott phoned Mr. Carby to say they were heading to Toronto – the next day, to visit Drake and William Cheng and Niko Carino at Drake’s mansion with the sample Mr. Carby had prepared. Mr. Carino warned the pair again ahead of time: Drake was a busy man. If he gave them three minutes of his time, that was not unusual. If he gave them twenty minutes, their project was a go.
This is where the story gets wild and touched by whatever force it is that makes life seem fated and destined to happen: please follow along. Two months earlier, a young woman in the Whitney Hotel bar near Mr. Carby’s office had begged him to tell her what scent he was wearing. He was drinking with a pal and tried to ignore her but she persisted. Michael Carby was wearing the only scent he ever wears, a musk body oil of his own creation. It’s noticeable but subtle, hard to pin down: a musky, amberish, leathery base with spicy and even tropical high notes. Mr. Carby always has a few samples in miniature roll-on containers in his pocket, a perfumer’s version of a business card, so he finally gave her one.
And then, the day before the presentation of the reconstituted body oil to Drake in Toronto, the enthralled young woman from the bar showed up in the lobby of Givaudan’s Manhattan headquarters.
She desperately wanted more of Mr. Carby’s personal scent. She’d given the sample to her father, Victor, as a birthday present. Victor lived in Toronto, and worked as a waiter in a high-end restaurant near Yorkville called Sotto Sotto, one of Drake’s favourites. One night as Victor served him, Drake noticed the musky body oil’s scent, loved it, and asked Victor where he got it. Victor said he’d get him some more. Hence the desperate young woman in the lobby.
“You should sell this to Drake,” she asserted.
“As it turns out,” Mr. Carby replied, “I’m going to meet Drake in Toronto tomorrow.”
Now we know how the meeting turned out. Mr. Carby put aside the formulated body oil. (It later became the basis of another BWFH candle, Good Thoughts.) Instead, he remembers, “I take out my roll-on. Drake rolls it on. Smells it. ‘Hold on,’ he says, ‘how do you know Victor?’” They talked for three hours, about scent and music and life. The Better World Fragrance Company was off and running. The company more recently inked a partnership with Parlux Ltd., a New York-based global licensing company that lists singer Billie Eilish among its clients. As of last month, thanks to Parlux, the candle that is said to smell like Drake is for sale at Harrods in London.
“He wants the young girl out there in Omaha, Nebraska, or the middle of the country, to be able to experience a lush, luxurious candle without her having to sell her car,” Mr. Carby says. “They get the ability, without Drake actually being there, to have Drake in their bedroom or their living room or their dining room.”
For William Cheng, the enthusiast of all things, the strange story of Drake and Michael Carby is a reminder of why he is in the candle business: it’s entertaining, unpredictable, and gives people something they can think of as their own.
Despite all his wealth and privilege, Mr. Cheng himself has built something he too can claim. He has taken on the old but still common biases against Chinese manufacturers. “We can make really high quality,” he says. “Our price is not the cheapest, but we have the most value. That’s what’s keeping us in the business. We work a little bit extra and try to prove a point.”
Meanwhile, Drake decided to name the candle that smells like him Carby Musk, in honour of its inspiration. It sells for as much as $100.