J. Cole Plans to Build Dreamville Into Music’s Next Dynasty
Dreamville Records is done watching the throne. With an undeniable momentum, J. Cole's clan is staking its claim as hip-hop's No. 1 collective. Sleep at your own peril.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of XXL magazine, on stands now.
From its sterile brown brick exterior and retro beige wooden paneling, Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studios—tucked behind a thicket of trees off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard—could pass for a post office. Or a governmental administrative building. Or maybe even a retirement home. But on this cold early Tuesday morning in January, the unassuming recording complex is home base for J. Cole’s Dreamville Records. It’s the final day of what’s been affectionately dubbed “rap camp”: 10 consecutive days, or 240 straight hours, of recording sessions that have placed Cole’s crew (made up of Bas, Cozz, J.I.D, EarthGang, Lute, Omen and singer Ari Lennox) and their lengthy guestlist of music’s elites at the center of hip-hop’s consciousness. The Super Friends-like union is primarily for the purpose of creating Revenge of the Dreamers III, a Dreamville compilation that became hotly anticipated upon its formal announcement just a week earlier.
Behind the one-way mirrored doors, is a modern, homely, sprawling studio that houses a legion of music creatives, industry folks and other notables that run the gamut of celebrity. Rappers with SoundCloud play counts in the hundreds rub shoulders with certified stars like Ski Mask The Slump God. Two days earlier, NBA all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo and members of his Milwaukee Bucks team lounged in a hangout area adjacent to the studio kitchen, watching highlights from their 133-144 victory over the hometown Hawks. Meanwhile, FOMO-stricken fans across social media have tuned into Instagram broadcasts and Twitter threads from those in attendance, desperate for an inside-look at hip-hop’s first thrilling moment of the new year.
J. Cole has been long-awaiting this kind of attention for the record label that he conceptualized more than a decade ago—before his platinum plaques became a meme, before signing with Jay-Z, before the dreads. For the most part, his Dreamville recruits aren’t what you’d expect from a collective looking to become hip-hop’s supreme team. They aren’t overly flashy or egotistical. They don’t fit into trite archetypes like trap king or sexualized femme fatale. Instead, J. Cole assembled a label keen on everyman lyrics (Bas), heartwarming soul (Ari Lennox) or eccentric musical aesthetics (EarthGang). While its members hail from different corners of the country, they’re bonded by a standard of artistic quality and authenticity seen across Cole’s own solid solo catalog
“We just a new and unique incarnation.” Cole says. “Hopefully we add to the great lineage of rap labels.” He’s reclined on a soft brown leather sofa, sporting a blue denim jacket over a black T-shirt, with gray sweats and retro Air Jordan 1 sneakers on his feet. The sound of an eerie, flute-accented, Cole-produced beat wafts in from the neighboring room. It’s unclear whether his eyes are red due to his repeated rubbing, or simply because it’s 4:30 a.m. and the lanky rap star is hitting a wall. Still, when J.I.D pops in to share news of an in-progress collaboration (“Me and Vince [Staples] making some crazy shit,” he reports), Cole insists he’ll stop by the room to drop some vocals. “It’s the second to last night so I’m just going to take it to the [limit].”
J. Cole’s momentum is perhaps as powerful as it’s ever been. Last year, his fifth solo album, KOD, broke first-day streaming records on both Apple Music and Spotify platforms (he was overtaken by Drake’s Scorpion months later). Cole continued to make his presence felt with a series of sterling guest contributions to tracks by the likes of 6lack, Anderson .Paak and 21 Savage, each verse topping the previous cameo. A week after these sessions, he’ll drop his much-hyped single “Middle Child,” on which Cole contemplates his place in an artform where his prophytes (Jay-Z) and neophytes (Lil Pump) are both thriving.
Cole aside, Dreamville has been making waves of its own. Last year, Cozz and Bas dropped well-received albums (Effected and Milky Way, respectively) while J.I.D accepted XXL Freshman honors before dropping his own heater (DiCaprio 2). Dreamville Festival, set to take place in April in Raleigh, N.C., will anchor releases by the label’s rising stars, including the aforementioned compilation album. “Dreamville the squad—we going up this year,” Cozz says confidently. “Best believe it.”
Get to know the members of Dreamville, hip-hop’s next juggernaut.
Reppin’: Fayetteville, N.C.
Founded Dreamville Records: 2007
XXL: Not every artist has the ambition to start a label. Why was it important for you to launch Dreamville Records?
J. Cole: This is something I wanted before I was even signed. I had the whole label name: Dreamville. I remember when I came up with it I told R.J., I told Ib[rahim Hamad]. We were walking through Manhattan. I had the concept back then and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it was because that’s how Jay[-Z] did it, how Ruff Ryders did it. Then me being 22, 23 years old saying, “I want to do that, too.”
Having your own label was a mark of success.
Exactly. The past fucking five or six years, it’s become like, I’m responsible—I owe it to these artists, to the fans of these artists. I’ve got to pop this shit off to give them the best shot to have sustainable careers doing this shit because this is my family now. I love these people and I’m a big fan of them. I really believe in their talent.
The entire roster has been put in the spotlight thanks to the recording sessions for the compilation album, Revenge of the Dreamers III, which brought together music creatives both well-known and still-rising.
Yes. Hell yeah. It’s like a super-collaborative environment—inviting, welcoming. That’s taken me time to learn. I’ve just started learning that lesson about four years ago [with 2014] Forest Hills Drive. Let me listen more. Let me allow people into this world. That came from Bas. Watching Bas work on his first couple albums was inspiring to me ’cause he’s a super-collaborative artist. He’s a nigga that needs people—the producer, the musician, ideas. I was always from a position like, I don’t need nobody. But that way was only good for so long. It got boring after a while for me. So, watching Bas was really inspiring. It allowed me to be a person that could foster this type of environment for myself and for others, where it’s like, “You got an idea, nigga? Hell yeah, throw that shit on there.”
You’ve been known to be hands on with your production. Was it an adjustment to relinquish some of that control during these sessions?
Me and T-Minus been locked in for months. I don’t even want to make beats no more unless I’m working with T-Minus and I just want to add some shit or help. But, for at least the next month or two, I don’t even want to make no beats. I just want to rap. For the first time I’ve been able to focus on that for the most part.
You had a memorable streak of guest verses in 2018. It felt similar to the way people talked about some of those mid-2000s Lil Wayne runs.
I don’t think it’s at that level, but I had fun. Last year, I set an intention to say yes way more than I say no. Say yes to features. Step outside of my comfort zone. And it’s still going. I’m trying to level up this year on the features. Last year was like a preview. I don’t want to be done with rap years from now and look back like, Damn, I didn’t even work with nobody. I don’t want to have no regrets. The year that I’m going to have is all coming from a place of when this shit is all said and done, I want to know that I left no stone unturned. I fucking did everything I wanted to do. Even shit I didn’t want to do but ended up being glad that I did it in the end. The BET Awards performance—I did not want to do that at all but it turned out really good. I was happy that I did it. I was kind of dreading it.
Why do you think your mentality has shifted in that way?
Just getting older, bro. Music’s been the only thing I’ve been doing for so long. Even before I had a deal, my focus was, how can I get on? Sometimes I love this shit; Sometimes it’s like, Damn, am I ever going to be able to do anything else if I keep fucking being addicted to this shit? So, thoughts of that. Just planning the rest of my life. There’s going to come a day when I’m not in this seat. I’m not even in the seat I was in four years ago. So while I’m here, am I doing everything that I could be doing with my life and with my opportunities?
Do you feel that people look at you like a big brother in hip-hop?
When did you notice that?
Maybe Forest Hills Drive, when I took YG [and] Big Sean on tour. I was touring in amphitheaters—it’s big if you make it to amphitheaters. I found myself a lot of times just listening to artists, asking them the right questions to try to help them find answers for themselves, or give my two cents. I found myself doing that a lot. I look at myself—no bullshit—as like the middle child, meaning, I’m a big brother to these [younger] dudes and a little brother to these [older] dudes. I still have OGs in the game that are legends, people I still look up to who have been where I am at, who have been at this level for mad long and are still relevant. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in rap where there was three relevant generations like this. It’s stretched. [Jay-Z] had a lot to do with that. So, yes, I feel like an OG to a lot of young rappers. In a good way. I also feel like a little brother to some of these older dudes.
After Mac Miller died, you tweeted an invite for any of your peers to reach out to you if they need to vent about anything they may be going through. What made you want to do that?
Because it’s not a lot of people that can relate to being in this situation. Even if you’re a young-and-upcoming SoundCloud rapper, you just got a song that kind of went viral and you’ve got your first little bit of money from a record deal or your first publishing deal, everything’s amazing for however long that goes. Six months. Then shit starts cooling off and you’re only fucking 19, 20 years old. You feel it cooling down subconsciously and now you’re worried that you’ll never get it back to that level again. I’m just talking about one hypothetical situation. None of his friends can relate to what he’s going through.
To everybody in the world, he’s so lucky and so blessed. And in his mind, he’s fucking terrified. He’s scared that he’s about to be irrelevant. Scared the little bit of money that he thought was so much ain’t going to last. Or, he don’t know how to handle his homeboys around him who are just along for the ride. Who’s he going to talk to about that? Every person in the game has a unique set of circumstances that probably very few people can relate to.
That was just me realizing that and letting it be known, I’m deadass serious, hit my phone. I’ve done that with people where they just spill they fucking hearts out. I’ll listen and ask the right questions and give any guidance where I can. It’s just understanding, bro. People in the game, people in general, we don’t do that for each other.
In some ways, you’ve come to represent hip-hop’s empathy. You embraced XXXTentacion and have shown support for 6ix9ine and Kodak Black on songs, despite their criminal pasts. And you’ve faced some backlash for that. Does that response from the public make you want to be less empathetic—at least publicly?
I don’t know what it does to me, man. It makes me sad. It’s not just sad, ’cause I even understand that. I understand outrage. So I don’t know. If anything, it kind of makes me want to be even more empathetic to people that the world considers to be undesirable. Because we live in a world where everybody wants to be so quick to cancel somebody. But at the same time, people condemn the criminal justice system, which is entirely the cancellation system. To me, both of those ideas are fucked up, like, “We’re throwing you away.” Both of those mentalities miss the mark, which is, people need to be healed. You’re looking to punish me—and don’t get it twisted, what I did was a punishable offense—but where are you talking about healing me? Where are you going to show me some compassion and some fucking love?
And I get it, there’s some people out there that do things that a person can’t fathom loving anybody that can do that. But nobody becomes that way overnight. Nobody is born that way. That shit is a product of unfortunate circumstances and mishaps in the person’s life, too many to count. Shit that they may not even remember that, in my opinion, causes someone to be as sick as they would be to be a fucking murderer, to be dumb enough to just take a life.
Nigga, I know many murderers. I still speak to them. These dudes have committed the ultimate crime in God’s eyes, or whatever, where they’ve taken a life. These people I still speak to, love and have compassion for. I see how in their life that happened, how you became a murderer. Maybe some of them don’t even know, don’t even have a chance to process why they become the monsters that they are.
Even if I [initially] knew what [XXXTentacion] did, I wouldn’t have cut him off, like, “Hey, man, why are you putting your hands on women or why the fuck did you do these sick things to this girl?” I would’ve asked a series of questions that hopefully would’ve sparked something in his mind. It would’ve been towards the direction of healing. It wouldn’t have been in the direction of punishment, judgment, cancellation. Because he deserves healing. Especially the girl that he did all that shit to—she absolutely needs healing. It’s like, I’m just going to discard you and throw you in the trash and forget about you? That’s what they doing in the prison system. That’s what we’re actually fighting to stop. We’re trying to fight the fact that prisons offer no rehabilitation and that people come out even worse off than they went in.
That’s the problem with cancel culture: It deems someone all good or all bad, which isn’t true of anyone.
Yes, forever. You can’t grow from it. I’m down for accountability culture. I’m cool with that. Even for myself. Everyone needs to be accountable. I don’t mind if someone got something to say about me or what I said or did. That’s all good. But cancel culture? I don’t cancel nobody.
J.I.D recently said that Dreamville and Top Dawg Entertainment are in a friendly competition. Is that label’s success any motivation for you?
One hundred percent. They murder the game, honestly. They really set a high bar for a label’s success. We look up to what they did, what Top [Dawg] did. Hell yeah. But of course, we want our time, too. That’s what this year is about, the beginning of that. We’ve been bubbling, we damn-near been underground. We signed Bas in January 2014. That was only five years ago. That was our underground period, and we coming out of that right now…We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for [Bas’] Too High to Riot, [Cozz’s] Cozz & Effect, [Omen’s] Elephant Eyes, Ari [Lennox’s] Pho, Lute’s West1996 Pt.2, [J.I.D’s] The Never Story, EarthGang’s Rags. All of these keep laying the foundation. At a certain point it’s going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. This [rap camp] was a major first step in being pushed to the mainstream. Now, all the clips is loaded with music. It’s not even fair.
What does the rest of 2019 look like for you and for Dreamville?
A lot of music, period. Me personally, I’m working on a few things. I’m trying to focus on them one at a time, but sometimes they spill over. I don’t know if they all going to come out in 2019, but I’m working. I just plan on being more active. More features. More music. Whether it’s an album or loosies. I plan on having a really good year. That’s what I’m looking forward to. This will probably be my most fun year.
See All Photos From Dreamville's Spring 2019 XXL Magazine Cover Story