J Cole’s album 2014 Forest Hills Drive just went double platinum with no features and Villains everywhere are in a frenzy.
It’s a great time to be a Dreamville fan. I remember the very first time I heard J. Cole. I was 19 years old with a musical crush on rising R&B star Brandon Hines. MySpace’s popularity was on the decline, but I still used it to follow the musings of my favorite talents, as my love for independent artists always outranked that of mainstream radio. To me- you always find better music online. Between classes, I logged in and noticed Brandon had new music- he was featured on the track of a rapper whom I hadn’t heard of at the time.
“Seems like I always had crushes on chicks I couldn’t have, and then I end up f**king with someone I shouldn’t have.”
The new voice spit a tale of dangerous infatuation, with a flow that grabbed my attention in under 30 seconds. I could tell he wasn’t from New York, but something about his aggressive, yet charming tone told me that New York was every bit a part of what influenced his style. There was something in the way he told this story that demanded attention. Something about his cadence that hooked you. He was a beast and the song that made me a fan was “Dreams” from his 1st mixtape under the Roc Nation imprint, “The Warm Up”.
Fast forward to seven years later, that mixtape is still one of my favorite records from the Fayetteville emcee; and I pressed pause on that very song as I sat across from Ibrahim “El Presidente” Hamad, J. Cole’s right hand man and the President/Co-Founder of Dreamville Records. They’re the Batman and Robin of Hip Hop. The savior and the one he doesn’t move without.
The Queens native was a Communications major at St. Johns University when he started Dreamville with J. Cole. “That’s the major of ‘I don’t know what I wanna do.’ [laughs] But I thought I was gonna work in Sports. As an agent or management or the front office at a team. Sports was my first love, but the music thing happened and I loved it just as much,” says Hamad.
“When I started, I had no prior experience in the music industry. I worked at Radio Shack and sh*t like that. But it was just me helping out a friend in the beginning. Like, ‘yo you’re dope we should do something.’ Let me get your CD- and I’m running around Queens… spreading the word just because that’s my friend. Then we decided to put whatever little money we had together and press up The Come Up. It was never like, ‘I’m gonna become your manager…’ he just trusted me. He doesn’t trust many people but he trusted me and we kinda have the same vision and idea of what we want. We’re cut from the same cloth I guess, in the way we think- and what’s important to us. We knew we wanted to impact the culture.”
It was never like, ‘I’m gonna get into this game.’ It was kinda like I was here, and now I know what my purpose is. Now, I know WHY I’m here and what I’m supposed to be doing.
“We had the idea for Dreamville since 2007- but it wasn’t real until 2011 or ’12. Bas was the first person that made it feel real to us. We were building a little team with him and Omen. But even Omen was like an affiliate. Him and Elite were affiliates and then they became a part of the family. I never planned it or knew I wanted to get into it, I was just doing what I love and I’m enjoying it and now I feel like I’m building enough clout to be able to affect it [the culture]. That’s all you want, to be able to change a fan’s life through words or give an artist a chance to change his life.”
The “music thing” worked out well. From their college hallways, Cole and Hamad developed this impending dynasty of a brand that is changing the way the world looks at new artists by following their own rules. Working against the traditional music label model which is built on metrics and marketability, the Dreamville team keeps its ears peeled to the streets and seeks out those that have insurmountable potential- not who has the hottest new trap record- a move that’s seemingly dangerous amongst a musical climate where trap reigns supreme.
Since inking a distribution deal with Interscope two years ago, Dreamville has grown to include a few incredible artists on their roster- beyond J. Cole. Their first official signee Bas, has taken off in an unprecedented way, with his sophomore project Too High To Riot generating a sold out 26-city tour. In good company, also on the team are Omen, Cozz, and the latest two, Lute and Ari Lennox.
Thanks to the instant access of the internet, we’ve been taught that numbers matter; especially as an artist. Your talent is dictated by your Twitter followers, Soundcloud plays and overall visibility. You’re not hot until a noteworthy DJ plays your song on the radio- albeit at 3 a.m. Or so they say.
“They” doesn’t include Hamad and Cole; when they signed Lute and Ari each of the artists had less than five thousand Twitter followers, and had everyone wondering who they were. Looking past their lack of internet presence was surprising to the masses, but to Ibrahim- it was business as usual.
“It doesn’t matter. Not to me. Not to us. It’s the MUSIC. If the music is great we will figure the rest out. Let’s figure out how we can get this out to people. I never looked at the numbers. We found Lute because Cole was on 2DopeBoyz and heard his project West1996. Even then we didn’t sign him. We reached out. It took time, but it wasn’t about the numbers it was just the music. If we can use our platform to give new artists an opportunity to share music that’s going to touch others because it touched us, that’s all that matters. Omen found Ari. He found her online and put her on a song and we were like, ‘Damn who’s that?’ We spent months listening to her Soundcloud before we decided to do anything.”
Ari Lennox, who we first discovered from her project Ariography, gives classic soul ad-libs and a tone that makes you melt. A frequent collaborator of Omen’s, she is also featured alongside her label mates on their compilation Revenge of the Dreamers II and for now exists as the only songstress on the Dreamville roster.
“Ari’s a genius.” Hamad boasts. “She gets a beat, writes to it real quick and just lays it on her laptop. It’s not professionally recorded and it still sounds great because her voice is that good. But it was never about the numbers. It’s literally just like, ‘yo you’re dope, you feel what we’re doing so we can stand behind this and feel comfortable standing behind this because we like this.’ We’re fans and we just feel like it’s going to affect other people.”
Not only is that a rarity, but it’s an admirable stance to take when the rest of the music industry wants a pre-packaged musician that already comes with fans and a cosign.
“That’s true because people go off metrics. But metrics don’t really mean nothing that’s why you see labels sign a bunch of people- they have 1 great song and then they just disappear – ‘cuz that one song caught a million Soundcloud plays, but so what? Is it timeless? What’s the body of work like? I got to hear Cozz’s whole Cozz n Effect before we signed him. “Dreams” was the only song we’d heard at first and me and Cole were like, ‘Whoa, this is incredible,” but then we got to hear “Knock Tha Hustle” and “I’m the Man” and all these songs to be like this is a REAL artist. Lute- we heard his whole project. So no, it’s never about the numbers. It’s really about the music. As a team we’re gonna figure it out together.”
That sentiment is the very picture of hope that J. Cole paints for his fans and rising artists everywhere. The idea that if the music is good enough, you’re good enough. “I was the one that had to go through it to show everybody that yo this is not the way no more. You don’t have to have the features, you don’t have to drop the single, you don’t have to have the radio record before they put your album out, you don’t have to follow the rules. You can put out what you love and still sell records.” J. Cole said in an interview with Sway Calloway. He’s done it the traditional way. Now, his team gets to do it on their terms.
As for Hamad and Dreamville’s growing success; it’s not easy building a label in a way that’s considered unorthodox, and he credits four people as the big influences to the Dreamville team.
“NO I.D.- We call him Yoda. Joey IE who brought us to Interscope is ahead of the curve and he’s allowing us to take our time to build these artists. It takes a lot of trust from a label to be like ok we’re gonna do this and spend the money, knowing it’s not an immediate return. We’ve had labels that didn’t understand, so having these people around is really important. And the MOST important person I would call a mentor or someone I could really talk to is Chaka Pilgrim (of Roc Nation). She’s like the best thing to ever happen in the world. You need people that who will be super honest with you and Chaka is very honest.”
Lastly, Mark Pitts.
“I remember Mark telling Cole, ‘Play the game to change the game” (A line noted in “Let Nas Down” off Born Sinner) which is kinda where we got [now]. Like we kinda had to play the game a little bit and now we don’t have to play the game with Cole – we’re changing the game. Like he’s actually changing it.”
Changing it- they are. Dreamville is the future of what music as an entirety can be if you just let it happen. They’ve made it cool to be real again and they deserve all of the acknowledgment for remaining authentic- when everyone else says they should follow a blueprint.
Me: I have one question. About Wet Dreams… I need to know the real story because back in ’10 on “Too Deep for the Intro” Cole said a “slutty b*tch” was his first smash.
IB: [Laughs hysterically] ‘Wet Dreams’ is a fictional story. I don’t know who Cole’s first smash was.
I guess we’ll have to ask him.
The BluePrint is a series of interviews with Hip-Hops most behind the scenes contributors, sharing how they made it, and how you can too. Only on TheTakeOvah.com