j cole dreamville label j. cole
Getty Images / Scott Dudelson

Since its evolution into an internationally recognized art form, there has been an unparalleled desire for company ownership in hip-hop. Ranging from vanity projects and vocational status symbols to ventures that launched fruitful careers, the aspirational ‘mogul status’ of figures such as Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, and Master P has refused to subside over time.

The catalyst for over 130 record labels, this by-product of the genre’s rags to riches narrative may make some CEOs in name only, but it enables others to advance hip-hop in their own image. In the vein of Aftermath, Maybach Music Group, and G.O.O.D Music, one prominent figure that has relished the self-imposed onus of responsibility is rapper and producer J. Cole.

Not content to bask in a slew of critically and commercially revered albums or embarking on fully fledged arena tours, the man behind this year’s KOD presides over a label that has blossomed into an inspiring outlier within today’s landscape. Founded alongside manager Ibrahim Hamid in 2007, the imprint was dubbed Dreamville, and came complete with an ethos that remained at the forefront even as Cole’s fame blossomed:

“We are the label of the connected age. The creators of stories. Keeping a pulse on our community while exploring new sounds, new visuals and new ways to authentically and genuinely connect with all people, around the world.”

Succinct yet insightful, their mission statement hinges on the desire to foster tangible relationships with a global audience in a way that supersedes the flash-in-the-pan notoriety that is so coveted in the viral era in favor of building a legacy. With his longevity intact, this motto shares ideological ground with a now infamous speech from Cole at Montreal’s Bell Center. One of the biggest talking points from his KOD tour, Cole voiced his distaste for the current fixation with momentary hype trains that’ll soon grind to a halt:

“It ain’t no overnight sensations, that shit don’t exist. That thing that you’re looking at that looks like an overnight success, it’s not real. It’s going to go away real fucking fast because it ain’t got no foundation to stand on.”

After discussing the pivotal nature of “the journey,” Cole soon brought the discourse back to hip-hop to take aim at “Twitter A&R’s” that use their unvetted social media accounts to act as self-appointed tastemakers.

The product of dissatisfaction with a gauge of industry success, it would be easy to discredit this tirade as bitterness had it came from a more miserly MC. Yet in the case of a man that is striving to enact change with Dreamville, this sermon registers as an extension of the ingenuity-led manifesto that he and his artists adhere to.

Throughout his career, Cole has taken a hands-on approach to everything he releases or lends his endorsement to. After all, this is a man who went without any features on his last three projects as to prevent breaching of his “self-contained” working method. As a result, it’s unsurprising that this meticulousness bleeds into his role as CEO, and each Dreamville signing is the product of more than prospective upside potential. When quizzed about his acquisition of talent by Sway in 2015, his openness in highlighting their unique attributes provided insight that is seldom given by others in his position.

j cole dreamville label j. cole
Omen performing in Austin, Texas, 2005
Getty Images / Gary Miller

On the subject of Chicago’s Omen and South Central’s Cozz, Cole declared the former a “poet” that’s “as impactful without curse words” before comparing the tenacity of the latter to his younger self attempting to outshine JAY-Z on 2007’s “A Star Is Born.” However, the most interesting revelation came in how Sudanese-American artist Bas attained his spot on the Interscope-backed roster.

“He was still raw talent but the fact that I knew him, I wasn’t going to be like, ‘Come on Bas,’” conceded Cole. “He worked for years, he had to prove it to me.”

In this excerpt, we learn that nepotism isn’t a factor in assessing merit. Being in Cole World’s orbit won’t get you that co-sign, you need to be demonstrably working to better yourself. Three years on, Bas has found that elusive success with new project Milky Way. A fundamentally inventive project, the record comes complete with hits such as the Cole and A$AP Ferg-assisted “Tribe” and “Boca Raton.” Although it took time to come to fruition, the intangible that Cole identified has finally translated to widespread acclaim and reaffirms his willingness to nurture rather than cynically profiteer.

Speaking of which, one young upstart on the label who seems earmarked for greatness is Atlanta’s J.I.D. Active in the rap game since 2010, J.I.D’s rise was facilitated by the abundance of talent that he displayed on Dreamville debut The Never Story and his inclusion on 2018’s XXL Freshman list alongside Ski Mask the Slump God, YBN Nahmir & Stefflon Don. Just as he did with label signees during its embryonic stages, Cole was happy to divulge exactly what led him to enlist the talents of the Spillage Village member in a lengthy text message:

“The first thing is how gifted he was with putting his words together. The thing that solidified it was when I saw his worth ethic and his hunger. A lot of people want it, but they not willing to put in the work. He’s not one of those people. His potential is GOAT status.”

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J.I.D. at Billboard Hot 100 Festival 2018, Wantagh, New York
Getty Images / Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Billboard

With expectations at an all-time high, J.I.D prefaced the release of DiCaprio 2  by dropping “151 Rum before heightening his presence with the Cole-assisted “Off Deez.” The lyrical equivalent of two warring lions showing off their prowess, this braggadocious number served as an enticing taste of what was to come on his breakout project. Far more than just an exercise in aimless verbosity, Dicaprio 2 is an unflinching hip-hop tour-de-force that aligns a wide array of  production motifs and guest spots from across generations in order to display the sheer scope of his talents. A cohesive statement of intent that hostilely demands your attention it has already accrued widespread praise and served as the confidence-boosting launch pad for J.I.D. to declare that Dreamville is now looking to compete with TDE in terms of acclaim. While it’s way too early to tell if Cole’s “GOAT status” prophecy will come to pass, the positive effect that your mentor having such pronounced faith in you has is clear for to see as well as the unbreachable devotion to their shared cause that it breeds.

Another Dreamville artist on an upward trajectory is R&B songstress Ari Lennox. Fresh off the back of sumptuous slow-jam “Whipped Cream,” an interview with Zane Lowe revealed that belief he’d instilled in J.I.D had been similarly pivotal to her development:

“He’s just an amazing big bro who’s always encouraging me to just write deeply and whatever comes from my heart. He’s always pushing me to just believe in me more than I naturally believe in myself. I feel lucky that he cares so much about soul music but it just makes sense, he’s such a soulful guy.”

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Ari Lennox performing in Atlanta, Georgia, 2016
Getty Images / Prince Williams

As encouraging as these sentiments were, to see this chemistry realised on “Shea Butter Baby” attested to all that Ari had cited. Devised for Creed II, Cole’s intermingling with Lennox’s enchanting vocals and embodiment of the the mood registers as no contractually obligated feature but a genuine labor of love.

Through these case studies, it’s clear that the central concern of the Dreamville artist roster and its team of in-house producers such as Elite, Ron Gilmore, and Cedric Brown is to enrich the world with their uniquely devised output. By focusing on art rather than making a fast buck, J.I.D and Bas can be held in the same esteem as their more underground co-conspirators such as Lute, Omen, and Cozz.

Boasting talent that Cole recently proclaimed to be “stacked like the warriors,” this commitment to diversity shows that they place the highest premium on music that invokes emotion or challenges listeners no matter where it falls on the spectrum. Although its inaugural edition was shelved due to the toll of Hurricane Florence, one look at the bill for Dreamville Festival shows that the label’s core principles had been transplanted to this new venture.

A “thoughtfully curated” event in North Carolina, the line-up aligned renowned artists with prospects that may follow in their footsteps. Featuring SZA, Young Thug, and Rapsody alongside burgeoning talent such as Davido and Saba, the most galling inclusion on the line-up came in brash young upstart YBN Cordae. An artist that provided the most coherent retort to J. Cole’s “1985” with “Old Niggas,” the Dreamville figurehead could’ve easily blackballed him from the event, but he clearly valued his formidable skills over any animosity. Promoted by Live Nation, next year’s bill remains under wraps, but this appears to be another example of Dreamville sidelining pragmatic corporatism to emphasise innovative artists.

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Bas in Los Angeles, California, 2016
Getty Images / Timothy Norris

Far from a profit-driven endeavor masquerading as a celebration of art, there is a typically admirable facet to their plans for 2019. Rather than benefiting the label, Dreamville Festival’s cancellation coincided with news that the rescheduled event in April shall “serve as a benefit to hurricane victims in the Carolinas.” No stranger to philanthropy, this comes in conjunction with Cole’s Dreamville Foundation raising money for victims of Florence and its ensuing aftermath. Founded in 2011 and run by his wife Melissa Heholt, its objective is to teach inner-city youths that “there are other options besides what’s on the screen. They don’t have to be a rapper or an athlete; there are people who manage the rappers, who book the shows. This is about expanding their minds to those possibilities.”

When you examine this portfolio and its subversion from hip-hop’s preordained route, a common thread between all of Cole’s enterprises reveals itself. Maybe not everything that drops on Dreamville will set the world alight, but there’s an inescapable sense that’s alright. Maybe some of its artists won’t break that nigh impenetrable glass ceiling to greater success, but it appears that’s okay too. Nothing is make-or-break in Dreamville, what matters is that you create honestly. By nurturing this atmosphere, Cole hasn’t just outlined an idealistic concept but has visibly taken steps towards the formation of his own hip-hop utopia. Where his passion project will reside in the history of rapper-owned labels remains to be seen but in the prophetic words of their producer Elite, “you can feel the momentum building over here.”

For more of our deep dives, kick it old school and read how Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ redefined West Coast rap

Words by Robert Blair