J. Cole’s talent-packed Dreamville crew has had its biggest year yet. The label launched its inaugural Dreamville Festival with an estimated 40,000 fans flocking to North Carolina. Ari Lennox has become a star with her soothing, personable debut Shea Butter Baby, and EarthGang, JID, and Bas have all embarked on multi-city tours around the world. But the spark that changed the tide for Dreamville this year took place for 10 days in January. Shortly after gathering for a label retreat, the crew convened at Tree Sounds Studios in Atlanta, Ga. with over 100 vocalists and producers to create Revenge of the Dreamers 3, the third of a series of compilations designed to showcase the Dreamville roster. In line with the constant “platinum with no features” talking point used for J. Cole, Dreamville has developed a reputation of creating their music from within instead of relying on outside producers and guest appearances. But social media sightings of bright yellow flyers with names of industry elite showed that this was much different from the previous two Revenge of the Dreamers albums that were released in 2014 and 2015.
As details of what was affectionately referred to as “Rap Camp” surfaced, outsiders knew it was music heaven. Dreamville’s roster, rising stars (Guapdad4000, Saba, Smino, Dreezy, REASON, Young Nudy, Baby Rose), renowned veterans (Big K.R.I.T., Wale), legends (Rick Ross, T.I., Ludacris, Swizz Beatz), the hottest producers (Tay Keith, Pyrex, Mike WiLL Made It), and even members of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team were sharing music, breaking bread, making memories and building friendships that would last long after the studio doors were shut.
In celebration of the release of ROTD3, VIBE spoke to artists, producers, and execs who attended the sessions about their fondest memories and final takeaways from the sessions.
Zeke Nicholson (Co-Founder of Since The 80s, Manager of JID and EarthGang)
It was an idea that (Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad) and Cole had to do. They originally wanted it in LA, and me and my partner Barry Johnson wanted to emphasize it being in Atlanta. We’ve been to writing camps in LA, and you have a bunch of publishers and industry folk that influence how the music is made. Cole is from the south, we manage (Atlanta artists) JID and EarthGang, and Atlanta, in terms of energy and hip-hop history, especially in the last two or three decades, has been very influential. Also, it was cheaper. There were a lot more pros bringing it to Atlanta. I think Cole chose Tree Sounds because it’s a little secluded, very peaceful, very calming. I think because it was outside of the city, it would allow people to come and focus on music, not a lot of in and out.
Dreamville’s self-containment is part of their success, but we knew the moment they were willing to open their ears and hearts to different artists that it would be a vessel to a crazy moment. Usually, when you get a lot of artists in the room, you expect a lot of egos. But when you came in here, it felt like a creative haven where people could just create without ego. Just a bunch of creative people who aren’t worrying about the splits on a song, or whose record this is, but creating from a very pure place. I didn’t expect people to work together so seamlessly.
There were five to seven different rooms. Cole was in between two rooms, one he was producing and another he was ducked off in the back. But unless you knew the layout you didn’t know where Cole was. He was walking around a lot, popping into rooms. The good thing about Cole being ducked off is that he put all the other artists in the forefront. You had to go see them first. You had to hear what other people were working on. It was a discovery process among peers. ... I’ve never seen Cole have a supernova process like that. He’d come in a room and say “I’m hopping on this,” and people would go, “what the f**k?” Because it’s not expected. I know a lot of people thought, “Oh, this is just for Dreamville, we won’t get a record from Cole,” and I kind of wanted people to think that. But Cole being open and friendly and walking around and leading people, I’m sure there are people super impacted. His presence was welcoming and you could tell he was having fun with it.
Cozz (Dreamville Artist)
I just thought it was going to be the Dreamville camp and some outside producers we hadn’t worked with before. For Revenge of the Dreamers 2, we were making songs and submitting them. Ib and Cole went through their favorites and chose, but we weren’t weren’t making music together. It was deeper on Revenge of the Dreamers 3. It was just connecting artists and having a bunch of minds together to collaborate.
That sh*t felt like school to me. Even when I got signed, I wasn’t really around artists like that to expand my mind on artistry and develop myself. It was amazing to see how other artists work on a higher scale. I soaked up a lot of game, and I came back home way more sharp, faster than I would’ve if I would’ve just stayed on my route and done it myself. … It’s like every man for himself. There’s a bunch of rooms, but it’s only like three rooms you can actually record out of. If somebody lock that shit down and they’re recording, you just gotta wait or just bounce around. If you want to be on a song, you gotta be quick because motherf***as are waiting to get on the mic. It was like the wild wild west. You can put something down, but you better kill that sh*t because you’re gonna get cut if it ain’t up to par. Then some songs it’s like six ni**as on it, but it made sense because it’s like eight bars each. … It felt like a dream. You know you belong there, but it’s like, goddamn, I’m really here in this room with all these people I look up to.
I realized I used my brain more than my heart sometimes when I write. Ari Lennox mentioned that to me, because I was trying to do a song with her. The sh*t I was doing was tight, don’t get me wrong. I ain’t wack, ni**a. [laughs] But she could tell that I was trying. She texted me because in the booth, like, ‘you’re thinking too much, go from the heart.’ That’s the biggest lesson for me. Two, play with my tone, play with my voice. Cole told me before the camp to play with my tones and sh*t, and then when I got to the camp I seen how other artists talk to me different, then they get on the mic and have a whole new voice. I feel like I had two tones: the aggressive Cozz, and the melodic Cozz. I wanted to combine those two, so I learned how to do that. Your voice is an instrument, and your heart should lead the way.
Guapdad 4000 (Artist)
My manager got hit up through a good friend of mine, my old A&R Ryan Fletcher. Ryan knows a lot of the Dreamville cats on the business side. I’m like “yeah, I’m down to f**k with them.” Then I see the buzz on the Internet, and I’m like, what’s going on? I call Buddy and tell him I’m going, and he’s like ‘oh sh*t, I’m going too.’ He went the day before me because I had a show in Arizona. I was just like, ‘look, I’m assuming it’s gon’ be hella muf***in’ ni**as in there, all the heavy hitters, all the talented ni**as that don’t nobody know about. Let’s go in there and hit the ground running and be hella aggressive.’ Buddy was like–you know Buddy got that valley accent–”‘I don’t know man. I think I’m just gonna make cool music with the people I know, you know?” Man, I get down there, Buddy’s already been down there a day, and this ni**a is beast mode. “Man, I’m going crazy, I’ve already done six songs today.” I’m like f*ck, what happened to your plan?
...I just know that I’m hella tight, bro. I’m raw as f**k, and I actually feel like I’m one of the best young ni**as doing it, and I wanted to express that. I felt that I wasn’t going to go down there and outrap the super rap rap ni**as, even though talent-wise, I am a super rap rap ni**a. Then my sh*t would be hella weak because I’d be Cassidy on every song. My plan was to just be true to myself, let my tone carry. Every song I’m on is a moment because that’s what I was aiming for.
All the people who weren’t ready – because there really wasn’t any weak ni**as there, just ni**as that weren’t ready – to compete at higher levels and create in rooms with people who can vibrate at that high of a rate. Those people either got eliminated or eliminated themselves. That process of elimination could come through them just not coming, them being in the room and not getting on the mic, them not having any input, or them doubting themselves and feeling like they don’t have any input. Honestly, a couple ni**as approached me and was asking me where did I get my confidence from with ruts they’d been in. I was able to help some of those people out. At the end of the day, if we’re in a karate tournament or a basketball tournament, I still gotta win, but you can pull me aside after the game and I can tell you what my regimen is. But at the end of the day, we still came to play.
Ari Lennox (Dreamville Artist)
I feel like we been killing it, all of us in different ways. It's about time for other people to want to be excited to be involved in something like this. I don't know if this is shady, but I feel like it's easy for people not to realize the greatness of Dreamville and all that we possess. I feel like people are finally realizing that for whatever reason. Or I don't know, maybe they always did, but it just seems like it's a thing now. Something's different in the air. But it's a good thing, it's about time.
Cole, I saw working with all different types of producers and he came up with some of the most amazing songs. Even me, I never thought I would work so effortlessly with other songwriters. I took a step back with my own songwriting in this situation. And it was so natural, I made some of the most beautiful records with Christelle, Vincent and Yung Baby Tate, and a girl named Joy. We were all just open to doing things differently than we've ever done before. It kind of just forced me to just try new things, like let me see if I find melodies on someone else's stuff.
...There was somebody that pulled up that I didn't care for, and there were people that had my back. Ib had my back, just a lot of different people had my back to make sure that situation was handled in a very positive way. It was just a person that didn't have to be there. They don't even do music. So, it was pretty amazing to see like oh, these people really are my big brothers, they handled the situation. Honestly, that was the most exciting part for me to know. My manager Justin was doing work in New York, my other co-management situation Paris was in LA doing work, and so I felt like they weren't there to combat that situation head-on. And they would've. To know that Dreamville really stepped in to protect me, it makes me feel like I really am the baby sis, baby girl, you know. Off some personal sh*t, it meant a lot to know like they really have my back.
Never judge an artist by how you initially meet them. It’s so easy for you to meet everyone during festivals as an artist. I perceived certain people as fake like, "Oh you a fake as ni**a because I said hi and you didn't even look at me in my eyes, we didn't even make contact." But rap camp made me realize hell nah. Festivals in general are a lot. When you first get off stage after singing your heart out, there's a million things that might be going on in an artist's head. … You never know what somebody's going through and that can affect your first encounter with them. Rap camp made me realize, never judge somebody off of like the first encounter because you never know they could be the coolest, closest person eventually to you one day. … That, and get your tenacity up. Really start f*cking grinding. You could be talented all day but if you're not f*cking working, it's not gonna add up.
I got off the plane, I ran into King Mez. We hop in the Sprinter and then we go to pick up Omen and Cozz before we go to the stu’. Omen is breaking it down for us in the car. “Oh it's a lot going on, it's hard to record. It's a lot." And I'm just smacking my lips like, "I don't care. I'm about to do something. I'm about to get in the booth or get as close as I can to a mic and tell somebody to press record.” We get there and it's a bunch of people, a big ol' studio. Tree Sounds in Atlanta, you can tell that they've already been making a bunch of music in there. As soon as you walk in, it's like go time, energy. So I'm just running around, just kind of listening around at all the studios. Going upstairs, downstairs, seeing what's actually accessible because some rooms you couldn't really go in. I kept finding rooms, honestly.
I learned to just not overthink sh*t. It wasn't that much time but I stayed two extra days. I was only supposed to be there for three days, so I was really trying to get the most out of the space and contribute as much as I could. A lot of people came on the last day and were sad, because you feel like you missed out on the time to just be there creating. Just to be there and not have that much time to think things through, living in the moment, saying the first thing that comes to my mind and recording it and keeping the first take. Not having the time to try it over and over again because it's 30 rappers, 100 producers, you know? Everything happened really fast. I was probably making like three different songs in three different rooms, bouncing around trying to wait for other people to make beats so that I can rap on those too.
When we did the "Roll Up" song that was amazing because the beat was so tight and we was all faded and it was around that time of night where we just like "man let's just make a high song, a song about weed." We was all smoking all day and rapping all day. And like we just all real friends, I feel like that was the best part about it. Everybody grew up in different parts of the world, in America, you know, make different types of music and just like actually homies kicking it. Literally sitting in a circle with our phones out like a boy band. Everybody writing a verse like it was magical. I was on mushrooms that night too, so like I'm tripping. ... The room 222, it was just like something going on in there. I don't know about the angel numbers that deep but 222 was one of them and it was angelic in there. And then I walked in the hallway and it's like another specially reserved room.
J. Cole is walking in, and I'm like, "Hey J. Cole, can I come in there with you?" I'm thinking this is like a secret, big ass room, the biggest room in the stu’. I walk in, it's literally like closet size. As soon as I walk in my shoulders hits the other wall. It's two chairs in there, it can fit like three people max. It was just him and the engineer, some speakers set up, a tall ass microphone stand, that ni**a tall too. He was just rapping in there by himself. There was so much more going on, all in the other big studios, and he had like literally the smallest room. It was called the Rasta Room. Pictures of Bob Marley, green, yellow and red everywhere. It was a crazy vibe especially coming from all that other energy in room 222. … [Cole] told me that I was his new favorite rapper. On God. I was rapping and sh*t and then he heard my part and he was like “who is this, this is my new favorite rapper.”
Henry Daher (Producer)
The day I got there, they opened the door and they were like, “all right, you’re in. Get out and about.” At first, I was shook. I’m a respectful person, I’m not trying to barge in some people’s sessions and make artists uncomfortable who I don’t already know. I was lost at first, but thankfully, as soon as (Dreamville producer) Christo was freed up, he grabbed me and created more of a comfort zone. A lot of the people that got invited had their Christo, the person that’s helping them get heard. Typically, it was someone from Dreamville.
During the day there was a lot of creative cook-up stuff, but later in the day, it was the create a song stuff. As a producer, I believe you’ve gotta be there for both. You gotta go nonstop. There were people who were there before I got there and left after I got there, and I was staying till 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. … There was a session where Ski dropped a verse on this track that Buddy, Bas, King Mez, the dude Rei from Louisiana, and a few other people. It was a banger, something I’ll remember for a long time. I didn’t produce it. We had damn near 30 or 40 people in the studio, it looked like a local rapper show but with all your favorite rappers.
When I was first invited, I ain't know if I wanted to go, ‘cause I'm not really like a being in a studio with a thousand ni**as type of person. I like to work by myself. But I guess I was just trying to step outside my comfort zone, and they was flying us out so I was like bet. I slid out mainly off the strength of J.I.D. and EarthGang, but after I got there … Everybody actually cool. We got this funny a** Rap Camp group chat, everybody in this bi**h. Saba, me, Cole, Kenny Beats, all the producers, Guapdad, Buddy. We just be playing with each other all the time and sending songs, dropping beats in here, like, "Aye, who wanna hop on this?" … Cole is crazy cause I was with Buddy in LA right after Rap Camp was over, Cole FaceTimed that ni**a and Buddy was like, "Look bro, look who I'm with." Cole was like, "Man that's what the f**k I like to see, y'all are actually friends." They just brought the gang together.
There was a lot of girls out there doing their thing and they brought them together too. There was a moment where it was just like...It's crazy cause I'm the only nigga on that song, but it was a moment when all the girls they was in the room in the cut making a song together type shit, I hopped on that bitch though. It was Ari, Ravyn Lenae, Van Jess, these girls called St. Beauty I think. It was a bunch of different girls out there. Dreezy was in everything. she hopped on this nasty ass song with JID and somebody else, sh*t freaky as hell but it's tight.
JID (Dreamville Artist)
I’m weird with working with artists. I gotta meet them first and establish some type of relationship. Even with some of the people who came through, I’d have a conversation with them for a day and the next day I’d work with them. Just to feel it out. I’m super specific with how I want my energy to be squared.
I had an inclination that people would be professional, but I was shocked about how humble everybody was with shifting their egos and being cool with working together … Every single person I came in contact with was humble and prepared to work. That was an indicator: I can open up and do something that I don’t do that much. It turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
“It was like an X-Men summer camp. Everybody has different powers and does different things and we all came together, it was almost like a school. J. Cole went through the studios giving feedback and listening to what we were doing. It would be 20 people in one room, 10 producers, 10 rappers and you gotta find the right beat for you. A song is only four minutes long and only so many people can get on a song, so everyone is in that one studio writing trying to get on a song. Every room I went in I made sure I got my verse on the song. I was just trying to write fast and have some good bars at the same time. Every room had a different vibe and it was almost like survival of the fittest. … Sometimes it’s like a show-off moment for me. I’ll let everybody do their verse and then I’ll come through. It’s like, I know I can go bar-for-bar with these people. The rap industry [can feel like] a male industry. I’m always ‘the girl’ in the group, but I’m happy there are more female rappers coming out. There’s a lot of dope people I like right now—especially Kash Doll.”
“I remember there was one song where I wanted Cole to hear my verse so bad, but he came in for a minute while I was writing. By the time I laid my verse, he had walked out. But I told him, ‘Go back in there and listen to my verse.’”
Omen (Dreamville Artist)
One of the biggest things I thought was smart was they didn't encourage Dreamville artists to work with each other at all, because it's a comfort zone. I can work with Bas any time, I can work with JID, I can work with EarthGang. They didn't want Elite in a room with Ari. They wanted Elite in a room with Mike Will, whoever. The first day it started as a joke but it turned into a real thing. It's me, Cole, Bas, like two other artists. Elite's at his computer and Cole's like, "You got five rappers in here right now, what you got?" He put him on spot. All we can say is thumbs up or thumbs down. It was kind of harsh but that's why I called it a gauntlet. … It was a bunch of people in the room and Cole would ask the producer, "when you played that beat could you feel the energy in the room? Could you feel that people was f**king with it or not?" It started off how the vibe was going to be.
It was tough, 'cause I found out I had a kid on the way two days after I got there. So, it was just a lot. Mental space, it was tough for me. 'Cause it wasn't a planned thing. It was really just me on some, "how can I not show this sh*t is bothering me" to everyone, 'cause I'm around a bunch of strangers dealing with something real in my head right now. And I gotta be on point, my pen. So I'm like "okay, how can you just focus on what you need to focus on right now?" I'm kind of good at blocking things out. This is what you gotta deal with right now, deal with this. So that's really what I did. ... But now that there's been some time to really process it, it has affected me a lot. I feel way more focus, way more of a sense of purpose. Before it was like I wake up and I want people to think I'm dope, I want to inspire people. But now it's like, I got a kid to raise. I'ma have bills. I ain't ever had no responsibility outside of myself like that. It's totally different. This sh*t I make gotta be fire really for real because not just for me but what kind of life I want to provide. In order for us to all live the way I really wanna live, I gotta put in a different type of work and I make sure the sh*t is something that's going to connect with people. Which I knew, but it's just an added sense of importance.
I got my invite on the 25th hour. Lute's manager Dho and our friend Jermaine gave us the word. It was a huge scramble trying to get there. My laptop crashed and the day I got the invite, I'm turning my laptop in. Turns out it was not even fixable. Shoutout to my manager Soko, he helped calm me down because I was hot. I was getting good news and super bad news at the same time. We buckled down, got myself a new laptop, flew out there and the rest is history. … When I first seen that ticket my name on that ticket, it alleviated every bad mood that I had. This is like the Willy Wonka golden ticket of rap.
A lot of people were making bouncy music and it's Atlanta, I don't blame them. But that beat that I made that everybody cut the record to, it was straight boom bap. … When everybody was going right, I was going left. I went that route, and Ari Lennox cut a record to one of my songs. I was making a beat in the lounge, food was being made and then everyone starts walking down. I make this beat in 10, 15 minutes and then all of a sudden I hear Ari Lennox singing. Everybody else is jumping in. I hear Buddy jump in, Smino's there, Doc from EarthGang is there, I'm having a good conversation with that guy talking about how I made this beat and all kinds of music questions. Hours later we're cutting a record to the song. It was a great feeling. … There was a back and forth (in the song) between Ari Lennox and Buddy. It's a real petty record, it's like a breakup record. But their back and forth on that record is crazy and hilarious at the same time.
Additional reporting by Desire Thompson.