Possibly the only person who can unlock all the mysteries of J. Cole is Ibrahim “IB” Hamad, the rapper’s label co-owner, business partner, manager and pal since the two attended St. John University in Queens together as young students. And there’s no shortage of secrets that the two share, like exactly what’s in store for the Dreamville label.
When J. Cole (pictured above in the studio) uploaded his 2011 “Can’t Get Enough” music video to his YouTube page last Friday, you got the feeling that the North Carolina rapper/producer/label owner was up to something. Could it be the rumors are true, and that the third Dreamville label compilation — th much anticipated “Revenge of the Dreamers III,” with signees Ari Lennox, Bas, Cozz, Omen, Lute, J.I.D, EarthGang and Cole himself — would drop the same weekend he’s playing the Day Party at The Brooklyn Mirage on July 4?
After two singles were dropped two weeks ago (“Down Bad” with JID, Bas, EarthGang, J.Cole and Young Nudy and “Got Me” with Ari Lennox, Omen, Ty Dolla $ign and Dreezy), the imminent release of “Revenge III” looks bloody likely.
After releasing the debut album from passionate R&B songstress Ari Lennox (“Shea Butter Baby”) in May, “Revenge of the Dreamers III” fits in nicely before Dreamville’s next full artist album, EarthGang’s wonky “Mirrorland,” due out later this year.
“I wasn’t sure Cole liked me, because he kept talking about other people on the label, like EarthGang, who are amazing,” said Lennox, Dreamville’s lone female voice. “But, once I got to how him a little bit, Cole and IB were like older brothers.”
Of course, there’s the fact that Cole, after being quiet since the release of February’s moody “Middle Child,” is featured on two new singles, Ty’s “Purple Emoji,” and Young Thug’s “The London.” There’s rumblings that his next album, either “Fall Off” or his “Kill Edward” project, would drop in 2019. Plus, there’s the fresh announcement that he’ll co-headline the inaugural Day N Vegas with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott Nov. 1-3 in Las Vegas. (Tickets go on sale June 28 at noon PT, but fans can register for a pre-sale and early access here.)
Refreshingly frank and emotional, Hamad (pictured below) talked about his label charges as family and Cole as he would a brother in a conversation with Variety.
You guys are in the closing stages of “Revenge of the Dreamers III,” which you did it hard and fast in 10 days at Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta.
It was just a way to get all of the artists we have now together under one roof. That’s not how we did the last two compilations, which was just us pulling songs together. This “Revenge” was also a platform for Cole and me to introduce some of our newer artists to the world. As we started to record it in Atlanta, it took on a life of its own, something like a family gathering a party. It started feeling like what we have now where they’re all able to showcase who they are individually, as well being about the team. It’s not just about our label, it is about the community of people that is Dreamville.
How are you two, and all of this, so different from when you guys first hooked up in 2007?
Back then, we were always trying to design what we were thinking, and making that a reality. The whole Dreamville thing? We were taking our tips from the RocAFella and the Bad Boy crews. But the more we got in the game, figured out the industry and how labels worked, we wanted to offer our artists something different than what we had seen. Our key was caring. Seriously, these people are part of our lives, and I really care about them. I can’t be around somebody on that level unless I really care about them. You want to make sure that you can know each artist as much as possible. I didn’t foresee that when we started, that I would make this so personal. I love making sure that I put these artists I care about in a position where they can have a long term career, that they can making a living from this. Cole feels the same way, too.
Though Dreamville formed in 2007, you wound up partnering with Interscope at the end of 2013. How is it that you finally wound up going with them, and how has that relationship changed since the deal started?
That’s Joie Manda (then Interscope president of urban music) who believed in us. We waited, as we wanted to be in a position where we were sure of Cole’s career. That came first. The relationship with Interscope came down to Manda. We wanted to be with someone who knew that our vision was long term — not momentary, not based on a trend — and someone who understood that our artists were about careers, and not just pumping out hits. For someone who was willing to be patient, the pay-off would last longer. Joie, Interscope, they knew it would take a minute for our vision to come to fruition, and they were willing to wait with us. Since we signed, a lot of things have changed, and they have been cool. Streaming was hardly a thing then. Spotify was like the only service. Apple Music didn’t exist. Tidal didn’t exist. I think that changed our relationship with Interscope because that changed everybody’s relationship with everybody else.
You talked about Dreamville having the feel of a family. Can you put a sonic fingerprint on how your label is different from any other imprint?
I think that what makes us different is that is that all of our artists sound different, and come from different places. OVO Is that Toronto thing. JID and EarthGang is from Atlanta, Bas is from Queens, Ari is from Washington, D.C. There is no one unifying sound. The only thing they have in common is this sense of reality in their music. Something you can feel, something that is real, not made up by a company or committee, not fictional. Good emotions, bad or sad emotions. That’s what I think connects them with Cole. He has a thing for real stories. I think the hardest thing in music… you can be a super talented producer and songwriter and you can do the very best raps. But what you can’t always describe is real feeling.
But you know it when you hear it.
And there’s no checklist or checkout for that; you just feel connected. All you can do then is put the songs in front of an audience and hope that they connect to it too.
How much input do you have in Cole’s output?
The reason that we have such a good rapport is because he trusts me. There’s no situation where I’m telling him what we’re doing or what he should be doing. That’s not how Cole works. But we will have conversations. With “Middle Child,“ I knew that the label people had to hear it right away. The same with the compilation — you have to keep the team connected, so he’ll do that with this small group of people that we both trust. At the end of the day, there’s nothing coming out of Cole that we haven’t had a discussion about. We run everything by each other. I’m part of every decision. If I come with a good point or a good argument; he’s always keen to listen and act accordingly. We go back and forth.
In the last several years, people have good-naturedly ribbed Cole about having no features on his songs. Do you think he’s had enough of that talk?
It is interesting that people thought that it was being done on purpose. Living in North Carolina, he’s in his own world. He wasn’t around his peers that much. At least not for a minute. He wasn’t in New York. He wasn’t in L.A. He just didn’t feel the need to reach out. So by now, he wasn’t happy that it became a thing — so yeah, he had a chip on his shoulder. I think he thinks that the work he’s doing with other people on their songs now… that just comes now from being out there more, not being only in North Carolina. He’s enjoying it. Bu none of it was done on purpose. He just felt comfortable being at home, going into his studio, recording when he wanted. It’s more natural for him now if you hear features. Before this, it would have felt forced.
Along with the compilation, you guys just dropped the Ari Lennox artist album, and are gearing up to release the EarthGang record. Is this all happening according to plan?
Yeah, the Ari album came out before the compilation because she had put up a tour and sold that out. Ari is going to take off; she’s a superstar in her own lane. When people catch up with EarthGang, that’s going to be something because they are so different — the way they dress, the way their videos look.
What is your personal ambition for Dreamville? And what do you want for yourself?
We’re getting into the documentary world and collaborating with HBO on some ideas. I think there is a Dreamville brand that we’re only now just touching on beyond the music. Me and Cole talked about the sports market, and the sports management area as well, as we have a lot of great relationships there. But the music is the foundation; we’re just working to expand it. My first priority is getting all of the artists to a comfortable place. Personally, on my own, though, I don’t ever see myself necessarily managing someone else. I look at management as a 24-hour job. I never understood how a manager could have a stable of artists. That would make me crazy — too many people to deal with. At this point, I’m just so passionate seeing Cole take off to the next level, as well as the new artists we have building their own foundations, with us reinforcing that.