Jonathan Mannion for Dreamville
How Dreamville, One of Hip-Hop’s Biggest Families, is Surviving Quarantine
We spoke with a few members of the Dreamville family to learn how they are staying connected, grounded, and inspired, during COVID-19-related quarantine.
Back in April, Dreamville Records rapper Bas expressed candid thoughts about the music industry post-COVID-19. "I’ve been thinking a lot about the world after this all passes. The social implications,” Bas wrote in an Instagram post that accompanied a video recounting his vacation to Ethiopia earlier this year.“We’re all going to carry this trauma and fear. I do hope though, that after it’s been deemed safe, and ONLY then, we can get close again. I hope we learn to conquer this fear. I would hate for it to hover above us like some dark cloud constantly pissing on our parade."
Weeks prior to that post, Dreamville rescheduled its second annual Dreamville Music Festival to August. By May, the festival would be canceled. Like the rest of the music industry — which has been rocked by COVID-19 — Dreamville must reimagine life without tour dates, concerts, and festivals.
Dreamville was birthed in 2007 by J. Cole and his college friend and manager Ibrahim Hamad. Over the last 10 plus years, they've proven the ability to remain relevant regardless of project cadence or climate. Their power is found in a body of work grounded in reality. It’s what has garnered Dreamville's prized storytellers, Ari Lennox, Bas, Cozz, Earthgang, Lute, and J.I.D, so much success. That success culminated in 2019, with the release of Revenge of The Dreamers III, a collaboration album that became a rap game blueprint for collaboration, earning a Grammy nomination and platinum certification by the RIAA.
While traditional roadmaps that have long measured an artist's success have disappeared this year, Dreamville continues to move forward. Lute has been consistently putting out material. In May he released Gold Mouf Chronicles, a brilliant 8-part mini-series meant to promote his “GED (Gettin Every Dolla)” single. The series unveils his everyday life and the quirks of his personality. Ari’s vulnerability and honesty about her mental health amidst her success have made the topic less taboo for other artists in the music industry. Despite highs and lows, the R&B singer released a music video for “BUSSIT” — featuring her and her girls getting glammed up and taking over a salon — while under quarantine. Cozz joined forces with fellow West Coast rapper Reason and Atlanta’s Childish Major to release visuals to "LamboTruck" off of ROTD III in April. Bas dropped visuals to “Don’t Hit Me Right Now,” also off of ROTD III, and the single “Risk,” ahead of his upcoming project. And J. Cole dropped the controversial "Snow on Tha Bluff," which led to a week's worth of Twitter chatter and a response from Noname.
Despite a chapter of uncertainty and a slew of cancellations brought on by the novel Coronavirus, Dreamville is maintaining and trying to find ways to adjust to a changing music industry. We spoke with a few members of the Dreamville family over the phone to learn how they are staying connected, grounded and inspired, during this wild time, as well as their thoughts on a post quarantine music industry.
( Members of Dreamville not included in this story declined to talk at this time.)
Thoughts on staying connected and the role social media.
Photo Credit: Bas for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig
Bas: We have a Dreamvillle NBA 2K league and, weirdly, it’s less about the game and more so a way for all of us to chat everyday through the league. It's 15 of the homies and one voice track, so staying connected is based around this game.
Omen: Before all of this happened I’m not sure the same demographic would have been excited. Like my mom and her friends would have been excited, but I don’t know if my friends would have been excited. I think this moment has really allowed us to start to appreciate things we didn’t grow up on and understand why this was important whether sports or music. All these different people that were impactful to the culture are just getting their flower and I think that’s been a real positive.
Thoughts on staying grounded.
Photo Credit: Omen for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
Omen: I’m pretty consistent with meditating every day at least 10 to 15 minutes a day. I personally feel like when I do that I’m in control of the day. It’s easy to get swept up by seeing something on Twitter or on the news. It just instantly puts you in a mood and that mood can trickle down into your work. I try to start my day in a meditative process. I feel calm and I feel in control. Obviously I can’t control every circumstance, but I can control how I feel.
Lute:I have a little sketchbook that I draw in when my anxiety starts to kick in. Alot of people don’t know that I was painting before I was doing music. It was a way when I started having anxiety to express myself or releasing something. I also started writing in my journal more.
Cozz: I’ve been working out and that’s been helping. I’ve been riding my bike around the neighborhood and listening to old projects that used to inspire me like Overly Dedicated by Kendrick Lamar. I think that mental stimulation helps a little bit.
J.I.D: I’ve been smoking a lot of weed. Nothing has been keeping me grounded. I’m just able to focus on making music, that’s the good thing about this time. I’m more so a homebody, so I’ve been focused on working on my craft so when the world is back in motion I’m ready.
Omen: The people that succeed the most in life are the people who know who they are. They know what they stand for, and who they are translates to their work. I feel like this time has given us the opportunity to be still, get a little bit more introspective, and question what it is that we actually care about.
Thoughts on creating.
Photo Credit: J.I.D for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
J.I.D: I write early in the morning, so I feed off of my dreams. I wake up at like 4 or 5 AM everyday. There’s always an idea in my head. This time is just giving me the time to focus on music. It’s harder for me as a creative. I feed off of people, but I feel like I’m in a good space to create right now.
I’ve been working on a few projects. I have a project I'm working on with this collective called Spillage Village (the collective includes Earthgang, J.I.D., and Mereba). We’ve been working on that all quarantine, and I’ve been working on my next album.
Photo Credit: Lute for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
Lute: Honestly for like a month I wasn’t inspired to make new music. I had to find other ways to get inspired.
When I came out to LA, literally right before the city was put on lockdown, I had a whole plan. I was going to work on new music and work on visuals for the album, and I was also working on tapping more into myself more, whether that means working out or having different types of routines. I was supposed to be out here for three or four months, which is a longtime to get into a habit of something.
Photo Credit: Cozz for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
Cozz: With the quarantine I haven’t been living too much life, and I feel like as an artist I have to live some life to get inspiration and have to do certain things. With quarantine it's been hard to find inspiration, so the first two weeks of being back in the studio I wasn’t coming up with anything worth even playing for anybody. I had a bunch of brain blockages, but I’ve finally found a path, so I’m excited to keep going.
Bas: I already had this time scheduled to record. I would have been self quarantining in a sense, so I’m trying to make the most of it.I have my studio here at home. We’ll send vocals back and forth if it’s a singer. Communicating is key. Whatever emotions you are trying to convey, you have to be a little bit more specific about those. You have to communicate everything extra well since we aren’t able to communicate in person working on this project.
Omen: I try to sit back and find the positive in things. I’ve been learning random things. Even if I’m not working, I don’t want to feel like I’m just on social media all day. I want to feel like I’m doing something productive. I’ve picked up a lot more momentum with work and being creative. I’m in a different world when I’m working.
I’ve been picking up a lot of marketing skills online through this marketing guy, Seth Godin. I used to have an interest in marketing while I was in school, but never really dove into it. I’m not sure how I landed on him, but I like his perspective on things. I hope to use a lot of the techniques I’ve learned from him when I get ready to put out some new music.
Other than that I’ve just been working on my solo project during this time, but it has sort of put a wrench in things because we are touring artists and it’s like if I put out music and I can’t tour it until a year or two from now then it’s a weird situation and I’m still sort of thinking about that, and how to navigate that in this new system. Other than that, I’ve just been really in producer mode. I’ve been doing like four or five beats a day.
Thoughts on the music people need to hear during this time.
Photo Credit: Ibrahim Hamad for Dreamville Graphic: Teneille Craig for Okayplayer.com
Ibrahim Hamad: When there is a lot going on around you in the world you want to hear a particular type of music. You might be going through anxiety, fear, you might be going through difficult financial times. You are going through a lot, you are losing people around you. You want to hear the music you can connect with and go to and feel. Music is an escape for a lot of people. Of course, you want these happy times where you can get your mind off of things, but a lot of times you want to feel like you aren’t the only one going through certain things. It's not like you want to write about quarantine, but when you have emotional music people connect with that and gravitate towards that. People need to feel something right now.
It’s been hard for me to find new music to listen to because everyone is rolling out their pre-quarantine music. But I’ve been able to lean in on a lot of older music and a lot of R&B. I listen to the Brent Faiyaz' album a lot. There are certain things that I'm going back and listening to like old mixtapes just to get reinspired by things that I fell in love with and then see what we can do to get to the point where we are making the kind of music that will connect with people when they need it.
Thoughts on how the music industry will evolve post quarantine…
Bas: I wonder the same thing because I'm more of the type to travel, experience various cultures and build with people, and understand how the movers and shakers help to build the local culture of various cities.
I’m probably not as content-based as a lot of my peers are. It just hasn’t been my main focus or how I get across my message. A lot of it is human interaction and shows. So I’ve been wondering the same thing. I’m seeing that a lot of technology whether it’s something like Houseparty or Zoom is getting a lot of traction. I think we are always going to want to connect with people. I don’t know if the best version of that has happened for our industry. I’m just curious to see how it all goes because I do feel like when this is all over there are still going to be a lot of reservations.
Omen: I think there is going to be a monumental shift just in culture in general. I think it’s bigger than what we can fathom right now. I don’t know how it is going to specifically change or how, but the world. I look at someone like Erykah Badu as a good example of you really taking ownership of this moment whether it’s doing the live concerts, her merch brand, how she has marketed that. Even with the battle between her and Jill Scott, she had merch ready for even then. They are really on top of things. It’s cool to see an artist just take control of the situation and make a positive out of it.
I think the world was already shifting. The artist is the label, the artist is marketing, the artist is basically everything. It’s direct to the consumer. The artist obviously has a team obviously to help come up with those ideas and execute them, but I just feel like there is a power shift happening.
It’s like the Spiderman quote, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Hamad: There might not be tours for a while. How do you release a project when you can’t even go out and tour it? How do you release music when touring isn’t a reality? How do you go about making money? I think it’s going to take a lot of time and be a huge adjustment for us to get back to what it used to be. It’s going to take time to understand how we can succeed and how we can work.
I do think that whenever things are changing or when there is a time when people are going through things, there’s always a gem that comes out of it. There is always someone who figures out new ways of connecting with people. I think that’s going to happen and it’s already happening. I think it’s the way that people have been using Instagram, TikTok, but now the Live Stream Shows where people are tuning into the streams all these things take time to adjust to and will keep getting better and better.
Priscilla Ward is a celebrated writer whose work has been featured in Essence, Salon and is also the creator of #BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting about bell hooks, sandwiches and art shows @MacaroniFRO.