Dreams Come True: My Night With J. Cole & Dreamville

J. Cole told me that he reads my work. You really never know who is watching, appreciating all that you do.
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J. Cole told me that he reads my work. You really never know who is watching, appreciating all that you do.

“I'm going through the changes, I'm still the same”—Bas (“Penthouse”)

The stage for J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only World Tourwas positioned in the center of the arena. I watched as he stood in the middle of over 10,000 eyes all gazing with fixated admiration. Intimacy was created by a sense of proximity that doesn’t translate when an artist performs at the far end of an arena. There were no flashy effects or intricate stage models—Cole stood before us with nothing to offer but music. From the moment he first spoke to his final goodbye, J. Cole was the center of our universe.

A D’USSÉ band was wrapped around my wrist, my V.I.P. ticket granting me access to the D’USSÉ lounge backstage with an open bar. It's the closest I'll ever get to heaven. Each sip of JAY-Z's cognac took me back to 2013 when I was shooting J. Cole in the photo pit of a much smaller venue. D'USSÉ needed a photographer for the Dollar & A Dream Tour, and while I didn’t have a dollar to enter the show, a recommendation from a friend and my camera made my dream of attending possible.

Cole’s entire appearance was different back then: younger, far less hair. I can recall the glow from his timepiece embroidered with dancing diamonds, a luxury item likely to now be seen on the wrist of a Migo and not J. Cole―he's no longer Mr. Nice Watch. For the original Dollar & A Dream Tour, Cole performed at a string of more compact venues, the kind of intimate shows fit for only a few. Access wasn't granted to all.

Four years later, Cole has created the same intimacy but in a much larger space, and this time no one is excluded. Four years later, instead of needing to work my way into the show, Cole's manager and Dreamville president Ibrahim "IB" Hamad met me at the backdoor of the venue with a warm welcome. 

“I remember when DJBooth was a site only for music posts,” he said with a laugh. Ibrahim witnessed the golden oldie days of DJBooth when the site was solely focused on artist discovery and mixtape premieres, the basis of all music blogs during the old, New Music Cartel era. I tried to imagine what it was like for IB seven or eight years ago when he first became acquainted with our editor-in-chief Z and DJBooth; what it was like managing the early career of J. Cole and being Dreamville's head honcho. He’s traveled the country in packed cars and spacious tour buses, experienced the starvation of trying to make it and the glowing glory of seeing his artist and friend reach superstardom.

Yet, despite experiencing almost a decade worth of change since he and Cole began their pursuit of the dream, he was the exact same person that Z described meeting years ago: kind, humble, and welcoming. Watching IB move backstage, there was never a sense of panic or worry, and the show went on without a single bead of sweat being broken. Always calm, always wearing a smile. Being in IB's company was like being in the presence of a veteran captain who has mastered sailing the seven seas and still enjoys steering the ship.   

Our conversation was held in the catering room of Infinite Energy Arena, the latest stop on Cole's five-month, 62-date tour. Soft chatter, light laughter and the sweet aroma of food filled the air. Relaxed. Serene. It felt like a family reunion. An undeniable sense of warm familiarity could be felt in the way everyone interacted.

I saw it most in the artists, though. When Bas offered to cut a song from his set so EarthGang could perform “D/Vision” with J.I.D in their home state, it was a brotherly gesture. The openers only had a minimal amount of time to be onstage, and he extended the offer with no hesitation. Sadly, Doctur Dot was still in route, but the offer stuck with me—an unselfishness to allow others their moment in the spotlight. Bas is no stranger to EarthGang; they lived on the road together and made tour life sound like building a brotherhood. When I asked about their 2013 tour with Ab-Soul, he and Johnny Venus both laughed.

Living so closely with strangers for so long will either make you kin or want to kill one another. Dreamville is where kinship is built, where family is formed. Later, while standing in the hallway with Bas and Anderson .Paak, the same brotherly warmth was felt. The energy never felt cold as daps were given, drinks were shared, and smiles were shown when anyone crossed paths. 

Talking with Bas later in his dressing room, he is every bit a genuine heart. He was vocal about how proud he is of J.I.D’s success and how he roots for Cozz, Ari, and the rest of the team with the same passion. Cozz echoed a similar sentiment; they’re solo artists, but a win for the home team is a win for everyone. Both Dreamville artists carried a sense of patience, quietly working and getting their next releases ready for the world. If there was any anxiety, it wasn’t felt in the room. Everyone was excited and ready to continue the momentum. Being around them was the first time seeing Dreamville’s roster and realizing the well-roundedness that’s been cultivated. No one sounds the same; no two styles alike.

What everyone in Dreamville shares is a connection with their fans. "People either have to believe you or want to be you," read a text from veteran brand architect and industry executive Amir Abbassy when I told him about this story. The quote, told to Abbassy by Roc Nation Senior VP Lenny S, perfectly summed up what I saw that evening: Everyone in the arena believes in Dreamville and believes in J. Cole. They cherish that belief and he cherishes them for believing. This connection to his fans has turned J. Cole into the artist he is today—a man of the people—and it will be what makes each and every Dreamville artist cultivate their own followings of loyal supporters. 

There wasn't a weak performance throughout the night. I watched as one young man flawlessly matched J.I.D rhyme for rhyme, reciting every word of “NEVER” and “Underwear.” I first saw Anderson .Paak during Earl Sweatshirt’s Ready To Leave Now Tour, just him and Knxwledge onstage performing songs from Venice and Link Up & Suede. Anderson has entered a new stratosphere since then and seeing him perform with a band and play the drums only heightened the experience. Ari Lennox's voice is so beautiful live that watching her will surely send you home to download the Pho EP. Bas brought out the Fiends—last year's Too High to Riot is still resonating, and they're ready for what's next. There wasn't a moment where the show dragged or felt long-winded. There were no chants for Cole. For Your Eyez Only is a tour where you want to arrive early and stay late.  

After J. Cole put on one of the most engaging performances I've ever witnessed, the show ended. I didn't expect his slowest album to be so lively. The D'USSÉ lounge became a mini-party backstage as the venue was being cleared. More drinks, more music, and more mingling. The concert became a celebration, house party-esque. It was fun, almost too much fun. By my fourth cup of D'USSÉ, it was time for my hour-long trip home. I spoke to IB before leaving; it was only meant to be a quick thank you, but it’s never easy to end a pleasant conversation with someone who knows music and the industry. So we talked and talked, and when Cole entered the hallway from his dressing room he offered to introduce me.

Four years ago, I would’ve told J. Cole how much his music meant to me coming out of high school. He was a rapper who made me feel like chasing a dream wasn’t impossible. It was the way he vocalized taking risks, doing the work, and telling your story to inspire others that made him an inspiration of mine. Watching Young Simba grow into Mufasa made you want to conquer your own personal jungle. I didn’t know chasing my dream would lead to him praising my work and the work DJBooth's collective writing staff has done over the last few years. I never saw this future when typing articles in my bedroom. We talked about media, music journalism, and how he appreciates our approach to reporting what’s going on in hip-hop.

Speaking with J. Cole was one of the most reaffirming conversations I have had this year. When you have MTV News layoffs and countless publications pivoting to video and moving further away from long-form writing, it’s easy to question whether this is the right path. Fighting the good fight isn’t always the most lucrative, and it isn’t always rewarding, but knowing it matters to people is priceless. Cole was just in front of a crowd performing his heart out, moving people with words from the biggest hits to the deepest album cuts. He reminded me on that stage and then later in person that words still matter, that words will always matter. 

That’s what people love about Cole, how human he feels. We talked about “False Prophets,” The GRAMMYS, and The Boondocks. Our discussion was filled with interesting perspective and thoughtful observation. In another life he would’ve made an excellent journalist; the same attention to detail in his music is apparent when speaking with him. It wasn’t an interview, but a casual conversation. I hope one day we can sit down and have a proper Q&A, but if it never comes to fruition, I’m happy I had the chance to confirm he is every bit as kind, intelligent, humble, and welcoming as I expected.

In an industry of false images and curated personalities, J. Cole is real. It's one of hip-hop’s most overused words, but it's a fitting description. I didn’t meet a persona—I met a man. I don’t think I met J. Cole, it felt like meeting Jermaine. If he makes everyone feel this way, I understand why each person who crosses his path speaks so highly of him.

With so many horror stories surrounding rappers and their teams, it was refreshing to be around a collective of creatives who didn’t make you feel suffocated by egos and entitlement. Everyone I met that night reminded me of how necessary it is to be around passionate people who love music, hip-hop, and the fans who support them. Growth is beautiful to witness. Dreamville's, DJBooth's, and my own growth have been slow, but rewarding. From sneaking backstage for a picture to candid conversations with Cole and crew, it’s fitting my first time meeting the people who make up Dreamville would feel like a dream.

Change is slow—always has been, always will be—but don't stop working toward the dream. You never know who is watching, appreciating all that you do.

By Yoh, aka Yohville aka @Yoh31