Most globally recognized superstars start their careers nameless. Not everyone, but a majority are penniless, undiscovered, and uncertain of their future. J. Cole, one of the most significant, celebrated giants in hip-hop, checked two of those three boxes once upon a time.
Before signing a record deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation in 2009, the North Carolina transplant lived in Queens, New York, where he attended St. John University. Jermaine Lamarr Cole had mounting college debt, a handful of dollars, and one ambitious dream. It’s almost hard to believe now, but 10 years ago, before earning five straight number one albums on Billboard, J. Cole was just another aspiring rapper with a mixtape on a college campus.
In 2009, a mixtape was a rite of passage. Before Cole signed his first record deal or crafted his studio debut, he released The Warm Up, his formal introduction as an exciting new rapper. “Goodbye to the bottom, hello to the top,” Cole said on “Grown Simba,” a verbal prophecy of the future he foresaw.
The gears to the top didn’t turn overnight, though. Few people know this better than Cole’s friend, business partner, and manager, Ibrahim “IB” Hamad. When they first met at St. John University, IB didn’t know that Jermaine—well known for playing basketball—had a passion for making rap music. It wasn’t something Cole broadcasted.
Hamad was the one who encouraged Cole to make a mixtape and build momentum around his name, seeds that blossomed into Cole’s 2007 debut mixtape, The Come Up. At the time, Hamad wasn’t officially Cole’s manager and he had little to no knowledge of the music industry. He was merely a friend who believed. IB brought no money to the table, no connections; nothing but his faith and intuition.
IB and Cole held the same job working at Queens Courier and Tritium, a now-defunct collection agency. It’s where the idea for their label Dreamville was born. Together, they witnessed that dream became a reality.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of The Warm Up, released on June 15, 2009, IB spoke with DJBooth by phone about the history and making of the tape, and his relationship with the friend he knew would become a superstar. Our interview, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
On Discovering J. Cole, the Rapper
In late 2005, 2006, Cole and I started kicking it. I didn’t know he rapped like that. I saw him around school [St. John’s University Queens Campus], just freestyling and shit, playing around, but I didn’t know he was a rapper, or that [rapping] was his goal. I found out, probably in 2007, he was serious about [rapping]. I found out when I got in his car and he had a freestyle on The Come Up over [Kanye’s] the “Grammy Family” beat... He was playing it and then quickly tried to turn it off. I asked him, “Who is that?” and he said, “My shit.” I was like, “Oh? You record rap? You don’t rap on some bullshit?” That’s still one of my favorite freestyles he has ever done, I was like… I was blown away.
Even then, I was like, “Damn, you nice. Why doesn’t anyone know you rap?” Anybody who knows Cole, they know he likes to move in silence until it’s time to strike. He would be like, “I don’t need to tell people until I get signed and then they’ll see.” I told him, “Yeah, but it doesn’t work like that.” You’re not gonna magically get signed. You have to create some type of energy and get some music out.
On Their Music Relationship in 2009
It started with me being in Queens. If I was drinking or smoking with one of my homies, I would be like, “Let me play you one of my niggas,” and they would be like, “Jermaine who be hooping? He’s kinda nice.” From there, I told him lets do a mixtape, let’s do The Come Up. That was all before 2009, obviously, but, by the time 2009 came, I knew there was something here for me. I just didn’t know what.
I wasn’t managing [Cole] in 2009. I was like an A&R who gave him input. I would be like “Yo, retake that [verse] or do that verse on this beat,” and he would be like, “Oh shit, that’s a good idea.” I knew I had an ear for music, but I wasn’t someone who planned on being in the music industry. I didn’t have the confidence to say what I thought in the correct way. The fact Cole was my homie, that helped build my confidence. My position was someone who he trusted.
On the Start of Dreamville
In 2007, the conversation was, we will start this label Dreamville. That’s how Dreamville started. We were all in Muhammad’s crib. We had a house full of people that were there, and we were like, “This will be Dreamville.” It wasn’t like we had artists or any real paperwork. But I was always there, in the studio. I was always giving him pointers and helping with sequencing.
On the Inspiration Behind The Warm Up
The way The Warm Up came about is crazy. We started taking meetings after The Come Up. Around that time is when we met [record executive] Mark Pitts. I want to say… March of 2008. We already had “Lights Please,” we had “Lost Ones,” we had “Wet Dreams.” We had these classic songs we knew were for the album. We played Mark Pitts the songs, Mark Pitts goes crazy—and then nothing happens for a few months.
At the time, we were all at the ultimate broke level, but now a deal seems a little more realistic. We had met with a bunch of people… We went to 50’s crib and played music for Tony Yayo and Sha Money… We met with Paul Rosenberg from Shady… All these people... So, at this point, a deal was something that was real.
But now when we would go to the studio, there was almost like this pressure… I think we all wanted [to make] music that would get him signed. We were all trying to push him to make music like… Man, is this song going to connect with the label? That fucked up the vibe.
One night, we were in the studio and Cole kind of snapped on homie. I don’t remember who was in the studio, but someone said, “You should do it like this,” and Cole was like, “Don’t tell me what to do, y’all are not the ones making this music.” Basically, don’t pressure me to make a song I don’t want to make. He knew early he wasn’t going to make music just to get a deal. Cole was pissed, and he left. Not like left the session, but he stopped coming to the studio. He wanted to take some time off.
He went to Elite’s house, who at the time was living in Winchester, Connecticut. Somewhere over there. That’s where he started working on The Warm Up. To him, The Warm Up would be freestyles. He wanted to get back to grassroots. That’s when The Warm Up started. When he came back with the freestyles, I was like, “Oh shit!”
On the Evolution of The Warm Up
I don’t know a hit or what will get us signed sounds like, I just know what gets me excited. I’m reacting to the freestyles like we’re on to something. I can tell he’s having fun. He’s inspired. He’s not worried about deals or being signed or whatever.
As he’s making The Warm Up, Mark Pitts reached out again. We had a second meeting. Mark was quiet at first, but then Mark took [the music] to Jay [Z]. So while we’re making The Warm Up, that’s when Cole got signed. Going into the deal, we were already working on The Warm Up, and we had a lot of those freestyles. He had the “Dead Presidents II” freestyle, he had the “Last Call” freestyle, and we added some of that stuff later.
And then Drake dropped So Far Gone. After that, we knew we couldn’t drop a mixtape full of freestyles. The bar had changed. Mixtapes were like albums now. Okay, let’s adjust. That’s when we started to put real songs on there. The last song added was “Lights Please,” which we didn’t want to put on there. We were saving that [for the album]. I remember Mark Pitts said we should put it on there. “Come with your best foot forward,” he said. Cole had already done the freestyle on Green Lantern and they had announced that he was the first signee to Roc Nation. So now it’s eyeballs on him. Once you have a lot of eyeballs on you, you gotta adjust. The project took on a different shape.
On Hearing “Lights Please” for the First Time
Now, remember, we had to rerecord “Lights Please.” He did, like, 20 takes to try and get the same feeling because we lost the original file. He recorded [the original] in his bedroom so there was a particular feeling to it. When we were rerecording it, it was just me, him, and Mez. We started hating that song. Like, fuck, nothing feels right. That’s when I learned no matter how much better you make it, you still think it’s worse because of how long you sat with it. That went on with “Lights Please” for a while.
I remember hearing [the final version] and being blown away. No one had made me feel that understanding of right where they were at; that’s who he was at that time. The hook was catchy; the beat was hitting, simple yet spacious. That one was a moment of understanding, you’re making songs.
On the Most Memorable Material from The Warm Up
To me, The Warm Up was two separate albums. I remember hearing “Last Call” and being like, “Oh, my God!” I remember that feeling. And then you had the songs, like “Can I Live.” “Grown Simba,” we sat with it for so long. Originally, it just had one verse and one hook on it. He hadn’t finished it. I knew it was special, it sounded special. But “Can I Live”… it was just so well done. The beat was polished and his story pulls at your heartstrings. You feel something when you listen.
“Dreams” is another [song] we were riding around to. It was really those two that, to me, he was making songs that told stories in an interesting way. There are rappers good at telling stories, but the songs aren’t interesting enough to hear again. Those two are Cole finding that sweet spot [between] telling stories and making songs you can replay.
“Dreams” is Cole’s imagination. His first song, when he was like 15, “The Storm,” was a whole story. It was a very intricate story. Naturally, as a writer, he has an imagination. I know Cole. In other songs, [he] will take real life things that happened to him or that happened to people around him, and then exaggerate it for [the song]. I don’t know where he pulled “Dreams” from, but that shit was fire.
On Dealing with Doubt
When The Warm Up dropped, we did shows. I’m DJing, I don’t know how to DJ, I’m just standing there. We’re just trying to make shit happen. I never saw another rapper’s come up, so in my mind this is crazy. Certain shows we’re doing, it’s like 1,500 people there. I remember the night we did SOBs [in New York]. People were lined up so early.
There was this idea you couldn’t cut through unless you had a hit single. That’s where we started to get confused. We see people, they’re coming up to the shows and they know all the words. But we’re being told we need a hit single to get our music out. Something’s not adding up. That will make you doubt yourself. You also have to remember, this is the earliest levels of trolling. I don’t understand this shit. I’m just watching. This is the era of seeing comments like, “Cole’s never going to make a hit” and “Cole’s albums never going to come out” and “Jay doesn’t even know Cole, they have no pictures together.”
In the beginning, it’s funny, but… the more you read those comments, the more they creep into your head. Then you doubt yourself. I know Cole went through it. I don’t know to what extent cause it’s not something we talked about. I just know for me, you think like, What’s going on? I thought something was there, but, was I wrong? Is he just going to be an underground artist? Is he going to cut through? You just don’t know. Not because the music isn’t good, but everyone else is saying, basically, that’s not the way.
I remember the label wanting a hit. Drake had a hit. Wiz caught a hit. Yeah, Cole had a bunch of fans, but I don’t think the game had seen an artist build a real core fan base and take that to mainstream superstardom. It was always a hit that took you there. I remember people in the industry telling me people were taking bets on him flopping.
That’s why I give Cole all the credit in the world. Even when the conversation was, “We need a hit” and he would try to appease people, he quickly realized this isn’t me. That’s really why we are where we are now because he sticks to his guns no matter what. It takes a lot of self-confidence.
On How to Keep the Industry from Changing You
Cole was 24, and I was 25 when we entered the game. We established early on that we would not do just anything to get to the next level. We knew our morals. Another big part is, if you look at our team, it’s the same people. Everybody changes. You change because you’ve grown up as a person. But if you look around, we’ve grown with all the same people.
I went to college with Cole; Adam [Roy], our other partner, was Cole’s freshmen roommate. Felton [Brown], we knew since 2008, or something like that. Mike and RJ, who also work with us, went to high school with Cole. I’ve known Matty [P] and Derick [Okolie] since they were 14. If you’re around the same people, it’s hard to change on 'em. You can’t change on me, I know you!
On Making a “Mixtape” in 2019
There’s no “mixtape” title anymore. Look at J.I.D’s Dicaprio 2. You got [DJ] Drama on there, but musically, that’s not a mixtape. That’s an album. You can put that up against any album.
The wording is over. I don’t know if I have any advice for someone working on a mixtape, specifically, but I will say, be true to who you are. Don’t make the music you think will get you on.
If you get on making some music that’s not really you, at some point, if it works, you’ll have to keep that facade up. The reason Cole is still here, and why he can go as long as he wants, is because it’s always him. It’s him in those different moments. If he were making somebody else’s music, he would’ve fizzled out by now. Get on by being you, make the music that excites you, and excites the people around you. It’s the only way to be here for a long time.