It’s been almost 10 years since we heard J. Cole release his first mixtape, The Come Up. Since then he has become a household name. His journey in the industry began when he chose to attend St. John’s University in Queens, New York. J. Cole chose to attend college in New York to take advantage of the music scene. But St. John's is also where he met his friend, manager, and business partner Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad. I had a chance to catch up with Ibrahim the morning before he had to take a train down to D.C for a party at the White House. The conversation was interesting to say the least.
At 9:30 AM, we met in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in New York. Ibrahim is the President of Dreamville Records, and he is also J. Cole’s manager. He came out of the elevator dressed in sweats with a hat on. He had just woken up, but you could also tell this was someone accustomed to dressing for comfort. We exchanged pleasantries, but decided to get to the topic at hand because I did not know how much time he had to speak.
Only weeks before our conversation J. Cole released his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. It came out on December 9th, 2016. It debuted as the third largest album of the year with 492,000 equivalent album units during its first week. It was beat by only Drake’s Views (1.04 million) and Beyonce’s Lemonade (653,000).
The album came out of nowhere. And that is how it was, even for many people involved. Ibrahim told me that not even the label knew they would be releasing an album until very late. By the time it actually came out there were seven people who had heard it in its entirety. They kept it that way because they wanted to block out everyone. J. Cole has gotten to the point in his career where he has the freedom to put music out without needing approval. So that is exactly what they did. That is very different than the J. Cole who moved to New York at 18 years old.
J. Cole was an out of towner when he came to New York. A native of Queens, Ibrahim knew the locals, and was already connected with a lot of people by the time he got to school. He is also a friendly person so he also had friends in all types of cliques. The two actually became close senior year. At the time J. Cole was the president of the black student union.
Most people consider college essential for success. But while Ibrahim did attend from college, he believes the personal growth from that period was more important than the classroom experiences. In college he learned to communicate with different types of people, adjust to varying personalities, and took steps to being the man he is today. He believes if their success had come sooner things might have played out very differently. J. Cole was 25 and Ibrahim was almost 26 years old when Cole got signed to Roc Nation. By then they already knew who they were as people. The two knew what they were and were not willing to do to achieve success. They had also established a solid friendship that has always come before business.
The music business is a tough one to navigate. There is no guidebook on how to do things, and because of that many people make major missteps in their careers. Looking back Ibrahim would say he feels there were some missteps they made, but they was better for each one. The main thing he is proud of is that they trusted themselves throughout. He admits that it stems from J. Cole, who more than anyone he knows is willing to bet on himself. Over the years they developed the attitude that win or lose, they were fine with results as long as they trusted their instincts.
Funny enough, for someone who runs a company today, Ibrahim did not start out being on the business side of things at all. When it started he was more so involved on the music side. He has an ear for what connects to the people, and so he would give suggestions and help with putting the project together. At the time he saw himself as a friend who was also a fan trying to help in any capacity. Over time that meant he ended up wearing every hat possible. From doing promotions by going around and telling people to listen, to learning how to DJ on the road when they were on tour, he did what was necessary. At the time J. Cole's manager was the legendary Mark Pitts. Ibrahim was sure to credit Mark because he was able to get the opportunity to see how management worked for so long before having to take the role on.
On his role as a manager, he said that there is no specific approach that always works. Each artist needs a unique approach. Some need you to help with booking travel, but others may need someone to talk to about real life things. And according to Ibrahim, that nuance is the most important aspect of being a good manager. The other major aspect was helping artists achieve their own visions instead of pushing your own beliefs onto them.
Dreamville’s approach to artist development is rare in music today. The concept of signing an artist, helping them grow, and putting them in a position to have a career seems like a relic of the past. These days artists get signed based on hit records. But artist development is the core of how Dreamville Records runs their label. When they signed their label deal with Interscope Records they made it very clear they did not plan to sign artists who would make pop hits. Instead they would be signing artists who may take two to three years to develop. Not every artist is going to be J. Cole. Ibrahim said that if he was able to help an artist live a happily and fulfilled as an artist then he had done his job.
One of the major things that changed during J. Cole’s career was how much technology changed music. In the past 10 years we have seen streaming take over. When people in the music industry talk about streaming they always point out the negative. But Ibrahim made sure to note that music discovery has become easier from streaming. These days almost everyone has some sort of streaming app. The barrier to discovering new music went is gone. It went from having to pay $10 or more to buy an album to something as simple as downloading it onto your phone. He believes that alone made the music industry a better place. Despite increased competition more artists can now thrive.
As of now Ibrahim did not want to share any grand plans for Dreamville Records. The plan is to continue putting out music, and to take things day by day. He is thankful that he gets to be part of an industry he loves so much. Each day he reminds himself that he never imagined being able to be where he is now. And the main goal he can imagine is to always be better than who he was the previous day.