Originally published April 22, 2016
“Martin Luther King would have been on Dreamville!” J. Cole claims to end his introductory verse on “No Role Modelz.”
For Cole and his team of college friends-turned-business partners, Dreamville Records (a name borrowed from their dwellings at St. John’s University in the “City of Dreams,” paired with Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina) represents an imprint determined to modify the traditional business plans and marketing strategies of its major label partners.
In January 2014, Cole announced that Dreamville inked a distribution deal with Interscope Records. “We provide the artist, the direction, the guidance, the music, the new ideas, and they [Interscope] provide muscle and years of experiences of really giving artists the proper push,” he told Forbes.
In 2009, Cole signed on as the first act with Jay Z’s Roc Nation label. Though undeniably regarded as a talented wordsmith, his marketability to the masses was questionable. The label’s uncertainty was evidenced by a series of release date push backs that resulted in a batch of songs - originally intended to be Cole’s debut - to be released as a free mixtape.
However, Cole’s debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, went on to almost triple the label’s first-week projections, selling over 200,000 units and peaking at No. 1 on Billboard’s charts.
“Thanks to y’all, we shook the game up,” he tweeted in October 2011. “No chart-topping single, just 2 years of hard work, great music and real ass fans. #1 album.”
Three years later, Cole set another precedent unseen to the mainstream. His third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, not only moved over 350,000 units in its first week without a lead single but was also announced to the public just two weeks before its scheduled release. For Cole, it seemed as though the best marketing plan was, to some extent, no marketing plan.
In 2014, Forbes listed the Carolina rapper’s earnings at $7 million and $11 million in 2015. With a steady stream of income from touring and merchandise, why invest in a venture that rarely yields a promising return given the music industry's current climate?“I feel like Cole’s voice is stronger now than ever,” said Ibrahim Hamad, Cole’s manager, and Dreamville Records president. “To me, he has the strongest voice in hip-hop. We have a brand that is really realistic and understands people [...] If there were zero dollars available for Dreamville, we would still have artists doing what they do because they believe in their dreams and what they want to say.”
To date, the Dreamville roster includes Cole, Cozz, Bas, Omen, Lute and Ari Lennox - all of which contributed to their 2015 collaborative album Revenge of the Dreamers 2. Each artist was sought after by Cole and Hamad for their promising catalog rather than their chart-topping ability.
An artist first, Cole is all too familiar with the stresses of creating a Billboard-worthy single to combat a label's skepticism.
“When we signed the deal, we walked into the Interscope boardroom with Cole and he laid out the plan for them,” said Bas, the first artist signed to Dreamville. “Cole said, ‘Look, I’m not putting any pressure on my artists to chase radio singles. It’ll take longer for them to break, but they’ll have long sustainable careers.’”
Bas’ debut album, Last Winter, was the first release on Dreamville. He unashamedly admitted the album was released to a fan base that was still in its infancy. Nonetheless, following a rigorous touring schedule - and numerous pop-up shops to promote his Fiends clothing line - his sophomore effort, Too High To Riot, peaked at No. 49 on the Billboard 200 chart and prompted a 26-date national headlining tour with his Dreamville cohorts.
Akin to Jay Z’s grooming of Cole in 2009, Dreamville placed their 23-year-old signee, Cozz, as the opener for a number of Cole’s tour dates - most of which were sold out amphitheaters or arenas. The grassroots promotion resulted in more notoriety for his two mixtapes Cozz & Effect and Nothin’ Personal and pushed him to #1 status on Billboard's Twitter Emerging Artists list in 2015 and 2016.
“My first time performing in front of a crowd was on the Dollar and a Dream tour,” Cozz admitted after a headlining appearance at New York’s SOBs. “I was screaming into the mic. But after the show, Cole told me that he’d rather me be over-hype than shy and have no stage presence.”
As an artist from Los Angeles, Cozz’s feat of controlling an east coast crowd prompted a 35-minute private discussion with Hamad in the greenroom recapping the performance. Cozz also credits Hamad and Cole's acumen for the advancement of his own label, Tha Committee.
At the time Cole signed with Roc Nation in 2009, 360 deals (a recording agreement in which the record label receives a percentage of all revenue streams an artist generates rather than just record sales) were a new concept that had been introduced to combat declining sales. For Dreamville, the 360 model exists but “in a minimal sense. The bigger the artist grows, the less my percentage is going to be...To me, a label is about staying afloat, not about exploitation,” Hamad explained.
Though its acts may not be as sultry as Drake’s OVO Sound roster or have rejuvenated a coastal influence in hip-hop like Top Dawg Entertainment, Dreamville Records’ significance rests in its influence as a major label-backed imprint that values creativity over the bottom line.
“It’s a blessing to have someone like Cole and [Hamad] tell me ‘nobody believed in us when we were doing it,’” Bas said. “‘But we believe in our guys and this is how we’re going to do it.’”