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J. Cole’s Watchful Eye, All-Nighters and Weed: Inside Dreamville’s ‘Revenge’ Doc

Having the No. 1 project in the country is old hat for J. Cole, but the instant success of Dreamville’s highly-anticipated “Revenge of the Dreamers III” collection, which features collaborations with more than 25 artists, writers and producers (among them: Cozz, Omen, Bas, J.I.D., EarthGang and Ari Lennox), took many by surprise.

The first installment of the series arrived in 2014, followed by “Revenge of the Dreamers II” one year later. Both had buzz, but didn’t set the charts on fire like “ROTD3,” the result of a by-invitation-only 10-day studio session held at Tree Sounds Studios in Norcross, Georgia.

Three days before “ROTD3” dropped, Dreamville released the official documentary for the album. Directed by David Peters and produced by Scott Lazer, over 100 hours of footage were edited down into 30 minutes. Currently, the film boasts over 2.3 million views on YouTube.

In the documentary, Cole talks of trying to reach outside of what he came to believe was too insular an inner circle — saying, “Bro, I don’t wanna look back 20 years from now and be like, ‘Yo, I never worked with nobody. I never had no fun, etc.’ I had this idea, let’s go somewhere, lock in, invite a bunch of outside producers and artists: Come f— with it. Just make this album.”

Variety chatted with Peters, a photographer and videographer born and raised in a small town in Maine. Peters weaved his way into the Dreamville scene through a working relationship/friendship with J.I.D and EarthGang, and it’s been “nonstop for the past 2 years or so.” He defines himself as a “creative utility,” doing whatever needs to be done.

How did you get connected with J.I.D. and EarthGang initially?
In 2016 or 2017, I was shooting a Joey Bada$$ show in New York, and J.I.D was on the bill. They were trying to get in the venue and I recognized J.I.D. Ended up chilling with him and his manager for the day, kept in touch. Six months later, ended up going on tour with them. It was definitely a life-changing experience. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that.

Talk about how you landed at the “ROTD3” sessions.
I have this working relationship with J.I.D and Earthgang. Through that, Cole and the Dreamville team saw my work. Cole ended up bringing me out on his KOD Tour this past summer to do content for him. Been nurturing and building that organic relationship with him and the whole Dreamville team. Scott, who produced the doc, hit me a couple weeks before the sessions, like, “Hey, would you be available to go to Atlanta to document this?”

Give us a peek into the creative process and putting it all together. 
The sessions were 10 days; we were filming nonstop. Matt (Carter, the editor) and I were combing through 120 hours of footage, maybe more. At the end of the sessions, we just threw everything on a hard drive. It sat untouched for most of spring; a bunch of artists were touring. I ended up going on some EarthGang tours. Top of June, we started chipping away and carving out a story with all the footage. Trying to find a story to tell within all these crazy moments. The entire month of June was spent putting that together.

Ten days, 100 hours of footage into 30 minutes. How’d you manage to do that?
To be honest, reaching the 30-minute mark was a little tough because as a team, something we really wanted to make sure we got across was a cohesive narrative. It would’ve been really easy to drop in a ton of behind-the-scenes footage and have a two-hour video, but it wouldn’t make sense. We wanted to make sure there’s an actual narrative structure to the piece. Ten years down the line, this would still hold up for someone who has no clue what this was, goes back and watches it. They’ll have a clear understanding of what went down. It really was about finding sound bites and piecing together this story of how the sessions came about, what happened, the larger picture of everything, then filling in the gaps with some of those fun moments.

J. Cole is listed as executive producer. How much of a role did he have with the doc?
He definitely was watching. When we were up into 40 or 50 revisions, he’d watch everything we sent him and give his notes — what he felt wasn’t necessary, stuff he really wanted to make sure we included. As the people who documented it, we have a bigger sense of what was going on because we’re really jumping around between all the rooms. Because an artist like Cole would be in his room, some of the stuff was new to him as well. It was cool for him to be able to see never-before-seen footage. He played a big role in what he wanted to be seen to the public.

How often were artists sleeping in the studio?
Every night, somebody from the camp had to spend the night. I know Johnny Venus (Olu) from Earthgang spent three or four nights in the studio. I personally slept there two times. You’d find a couch or an empty studio and tuck away, grab a couple hours of sleep before the sun comes up.

[A PR rep chimes in: “Cozz slept over every single day.”]
[Laughs] That’s something I’d miss. It was hard to keep tabs on everybody. We had sprinters taking people to and from their various sleeping locations. One day, the last sprinter had left. There had to have been 30 people still there, either kept making music or sleeping through the night.

How was your sleep at the studio?
Pretty nonexistent to be honest. [chuckles] If we could take the sprinters back to where we’re resting, I’d go to bed at 6 a.m. and be up by 11 a.m. You head to the studio to get there before everyone so you don’t miss capturing any moments.

David Peters
CREDIT: Courtesy of Mike "Waboosh" Kelly

What was it like waking up to the engineer’s knock?
It’s one of those things where you’re startled. You wake up instantly. You’re like “Oh, shoot, someone actually needs this space — not for sleeping.” You force yourself to get up and get through it. … You’re meeting tons of people, shaking a bunch of hands. You’re in close proximity with everyone, and nobody’s getting any sleep. It was day 7 or 8 I felt something coming on. I had a 103-degree fever, and just had to tuck away. There’s this little couch upstairs, I’d lay down for 30 minutes at a time to get some composure.

What was your fondest memory from the sessions?
To be honest, just all the people in there. The relationships that have been fostered because of that, it’s something I’ll never forget. As far as a particular moment: that sequence at the end of the documentary when they’re performing the song “Wells Fargo.” I was actually physically in the booth filming them as they recorded it — the energy really comes through in the video. I was stoked to be there.

How much weed was consumed during the sessions?
Oh man, I don’t mess with that too much, but it was definitely around. There were large quantities. I can’t even put a number on it, but a lot.

Drank?
You know, good vibes for sure. At one point, Buddy was mixing Jameson and tequila in a bottle. Everybody was having a good time; there was no shortage of that either. But there were also times where it’s time to get to work, none of that was around and everyone was just locked in. It was a good balance.

Was there any concern about having enough women involved?  It looks pretty male-heavy.
No, I don’t think so. There were definitely a lot of women contributors: Yung Baby Tate, Dreezy, Ari [Lennox]. A lot of producers and connections were made behind the scenes. That’s another thing: we were limited by what footage we had. It’s one of those things where if we didn’t have the footage, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t represented.

Who was the MVP of the sessions, besides Cole?
Personally, I have to either say Olu from EarthGang or Buddy. Both of them just had a tenacious attitude, but that’s from my perspective. Everyone was putting their best foot forward and making some incredible music.

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