Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad speaks with Boardroom about building new musical worlds at Dreamville with longtime friend and business partner J. Cole
The whole saga started with a party of two: The MC and the exec.
“He has great instincts and that started from just being a friend that was rocking with his man to the studio,” the MC said of his partner. “And over the years, that time was able to unlock all the shit inside of him. He’s the guy that has high-level ideas and can help arrange the structure of a song or an album.”
The MC is J. Cole, creator of six No. 1 albums and one of the most popular and decorated rappers of our current era. And the exec? The President and Co-founder of hip-hop label Dreamville, Ibrahim Hamad, whose understated air stands in contrast to his ironclad influence on both the sound and the business of an irresistible hip-hop success story.
To friends, fans, and longtime followers, Hamad is known as “Ib” or “El Presidente.” These days, Ib and the rest of the Dreamville family are in the process of planning the second Dreamville Fest, which will take place in Raleigh, North Carolina in April.
This year’s edition is doubling its duration, growing from a one-day event to two. As for tickets, the only ones left on the festival’s website are general admission. And for the record, the turnout for Dreamville Fest in 2019 rivaled the first day of North Carolina’s State Fair.
Before the Dreamville family could gather over 40,000 people at Dorothea Dix Park, Ib and Cole were just two guys who played basketball together on the campus of St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
“I had seen him around campus at talent shows, where he would host or rap here and there, but I didn’t see it [as] anything serious,” Ib said of J. Cole in a phone interview with Boardroom. “It wasn’t until I got in his car one day after hanging out and one of his freestyles on the “Grammy Family” beat was just playing in the car, and I was like, ‘Who is that?’ And he was like, ‘That’s my shit,’ and he tried to turn it off. And I was like, ‘Oh, you rap rap?'”
That was the beginning. But Ib said Cole didn’t want the stigma that came with being a guy who rapped just because hip-hop music was what was hot and hype-worthy on the airwaves.
That mindset resonated.
“We all grew up with people who said they rapped or acted like they rapped or dressed like they rapped, but none of them really did. And he didn’t want that,” he said. “I knew from then [on] he was wired a little differently because he didn’t really tell anybody; this was a goal that he plotted his life around. And from that point, it was just playing my role to do whatever I can to help.”
Hamad’s inclination toward aiding and lifting up those around him comes from his Sudanese heritage. The people in the neighborhood surrounding his home were like family; the doors of many of the houses he grew up around stayed open. As he’d walk through the community, he’d often see adults preparing food and drinks and sharing whatever it was they had.
The Hamad family moved around like a traveling circus because of Ib’s father, who worked for the United Nations. When they finally set up camp in Queens, it was more of the same. Neighbors he had never met would refer to him and his family as “cousins” simply because they could trace their blood back to the same country.
Those experiences imbued Ib with a grounded sense of family and loyalty. So when he heard Cole’s early raps, his goal was to sharpen the up-and-coming MC’s focus.
Ib told Cole that it was unrealistic to think he would ever get signed, but at the same time, no one had been given a chance to see if he could really rap. Thanks in no small part to Ib’s early encouragement came a mixtape called The Come Up, a project that features some of Cole’s earliest records to date.
He had helped jump-start the Dreamville engine, but critically, Ib wasn’t a manager yet. With no experience in a corporate setting, he could not simply step into a role where his feet did not yet fit.
“It’s not like you can go to school for being a manager or take a class,” said Rob Gibbs, head of contemporary music at ICM Partners and an agent for over 20 years.
“You have to find your way,” Gibbs continued. “What makes great managers a lot of times is who they are as people. If they’re staying true to not skipping steps and knowing what the goals are, those are normally your great managers.”
As he chased that goal, Ib sat behind Mark Pitts and Wayne Barrow, longtime managers of such artists like The Notorious BIG, Faith Evans, and Nas and the CEO and President, respectively, of ByStorm Entertainment.
“All I knew was the music,” Ib explains. “I knew I had a good ear for that and I knew how to come up with ideas to connect with people, but I didn’t understand the business of it. Mark is an extremely passionate person, and that resonated with me because that’s all I ever really had, which was working off my passion for things — that’s still who I am today. Being with Wayne on the day-to-day showed me things I had never even thought of, like [sample] clearances and splits. That whole ByStorm team really helped me understand the industry from a business perspective.”
Obstacles & Opportunity
Being a student and learning the game wasn’t always easy, and despite their wins, the finer details of the music business at times irked Ib and his partner, and the road to finding the right way to balance success and staying true was a long one.
On Cole’s first two albums, 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013’s Born Sinner, the duo had to thread the needle on a bevy of issues they had never dealt with before, and principal among them was making a hit single. When Cole would hit the studio, he meant for the records that he made to be organic. His tracks did not manifest with the purpose of popping on radio, but now, his label was holding his album until hit records were assured.
“There was a disconnect between what they were seeing and what we were seeing,” Ib recalls. “’Work Out” wasn’t a hit by the time the album was released. It didn’t work until after it dropped, so clearly we didn’t need a hit to put out the album; what we needed was to learn what a cold hit sounded like. It was frustrating because I had never seen Cole so depressed making music.”
Still learning the business of it all, Ib was on the proverbial sideline, but he wasn’t calling the plays. Those feelings of frustration didn’t dissipate after Sideline Story; they leaked into J. Cole’s sophomore album, Born Sinner, which followed two years later. The energy that was being pushed into the music was from a place of dissatisfaction. Even the opening words on the album lay it all bare:
“It’s way darker this time.”
What was ironic through it all was that it wasn’t as if Ib and Cole weren’t succeeding. After The Sideline Story sold 218,000 copies in its first week, Born Sinner stepped up and did 270,000 in its first seven days. And after searching for hits on his debut album, 2013 singles “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile” spent five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
But the success wasn’t as sweet because they weren’t cooking with the recipe they had first envisioned. The recipe that was meant to be the essence of what Ib and his partner were all about.
“It’s okay to take on great advice and great ideas, but you can’t get scared of those moments. Those first two albums, we gave in a lot to how the game was and how the industry wanted it to be,” Ib recalled.
They needed to take back their narrative with a spirited response. They decided on one fueled by equal parts creativity and defiance.
Shortly after he finished touring on Born Sinner in early 2014, Cole announced the formation of Dreamville Records, which he and Ib strengthened with a distribution deal with Interscope. Along the way, they worked to remove the unnecessary cooks from their kitchen that had insisted on giving a few too many pointers about the dish they were making.
Instead of releasing singles, Cole elected to announce the album 2014 Forest Hills Drive three weeks before its Dec. 9 release date — not a single track would drop prior to the LP hitting retail.
The strategy was risky; Ib recalls a label executive saying, “Y’all think Cole is Beyoncé?! We can’t do that!”
But even with the sort of pushback the two had come to expect from the conventional wisdom crew, they proceeded with their plan. The result was their biggest project to date, one that boasted 361,000 sales in its first week.
The success of 2014 Forest Hills Drive served as a signature moment for Cole, but was a breakthrough for Ib as well.
“At that time, it was big for me, because I remember having to go into Roc Nation and Columbia and tell them what we were doing. I was leading those conversations about that album,” he recalled. “If we were going to live by the fact that we want to do what we believe in, then we couldn’t budge.”
Budging had already taken too much of a toll on his partner, and Ib had seen enough.
“We had two No. 1 albums and I can’t sit here and tell you Cole was happy. That moment told me that if I believe in him, I have to go and fight for what he and I believe in. If I didn’t agree with what we were doing, then I’d tell him.”
The album is still a fan favorite and has increasingly come to be considered a modern classic in the genre. And even after touring across the world, 2014 Forest Hills Drive’s shelf life perpetuated itself through internet meme culture. Fans then and now will reliably know the project went triple-platinum with not just zero pre-release singles, but zero featured artists to boot.
The ability to grind through moments of adversity gave Ib the necessary experience he would need in the future.
“Initially, it started with me being in the studio trying not to overstep my boundaries on someone else’s art. Over time, as we started getting into a groove, he’d ask me and I would tell him,” Ib said. “Now, I can have conversations where he may agree or disagree — and that all started on Forest Hills Drive. [That] was when I had to be comfortable telling him stuff, because if I didn’t at that point, who else was going to do be able to do that?”
Ib the Exec
Those lessons from Ib’s personal and professional come-up now have Dreamville boasting a roster eight artists deep and growing.
The talent has come to the label in waves. It began with Ib’s little brother, Bas, and LA-based rapper Cozz. The second included Cole’s longtime friend Omen, the Charlotte, North Carolina native Lute, and the Washington, DC R&B singer Ari Lennox. The latest happened in 2017 when Dreamville signed Atlanta artists JID and Earthgang. The Atlantean duo Earthgang just released their sophomore album Ghetto Gods. Ib doesn’t serve as the day-to-day manager for any of the artists but oversees things like album rollouts, touring and the overall wellbeing of each artist.
“We always knew we wanted to build a place where people could fully be themselves and create the music they want, and then we could see how we could amplify that,” he said.
Ib had known Cole for a decade, but the relationship needed to prove it could stand a further test of time and the obstacles of the music industry.
Cole had succeeded in the decade he had worked with Ib, but he was one artist. And as each wave of artists hit the company’s shore, Ib’s responsibility for the artists increased. The signing of more artists meant dealing with different personalities and new, unfamiliar creative processes.
“I realized I couldn’t use the Cole blueprint because everybody has their own,” Ib said. “So I had to understand that we have to play to who our artists are and maximize that. It’s not an easy route at all, but it’s a satisfying one when you win — for both the artist and me.”
And that freeform approach to letting artists flow and create at their own pace is something they welcome.
“He’s smart enough to know artists are gonna be artists,” attested Bas, who currently sports the second-most Dreamville projects on the team. “The last thing he wants to be is some overbearing label head. Everything he went through with Cole, it helps him stay sane and be understanding [because] we do have eight artists all with their own needs, insecurities, and freakouts. That’s what has kept the relationship so pure between him and the artists and why we all lean on him for creative direction and music advice — because it’s natural and organic.”
A perfect example of this dynamic played out on Twitter over the weekend. Bas is preparing the release of an untitled upcoming album, but told his fans he was feeling uneasy as to how he should go about it. As he tweeted, “I have an 11 song version of my next album. Very cohesive, minimal features. Emotional. Vulnerable. An all-time vibe. Then there’s a 17 song version. With the “hits”. Big features. “ algorithm friendly “ But a break in cohesion. A sacrifice in direction.”
Typically, a label head or an artist representative would root for the 17-song version of Bas’ album. The hits and big-name features could propel him into a popular airspace that he may have not yet reached.
Ib even noted this. But of course, he’d long since made up his mind about budging.
Those notions are not just reserved for his little brother, either. The delay of Dreamville duo EarthGang’s second studio album could have sparked frustration or anger. Instead, all you see are tweets voicing constant support for the pair and their broader team:
The road that Ib and Cole traveled on was not always smooth. But forcing themselves to face the sternest challenges that came with it allowed them to establish Dreamville’s system of values honestly and authentically.
Two tenets at Dreamville’s core? A hyper-focus on fan engagement and touring, and each artist is empowered to cultivate and celebrate their fanbases in a way that truly resonates. Some post music snippets online, live-stream on Instagram, or emphasize merchandise. But each member of the roster meets in the middle with the idea that Dreamvillians will never feel out of reach.
Touring provides the biggest, loudest path to achieving that goal. JID is a particular testament to this — in 2017, the Dreamville rapper put on a show in Washington, DC at the Songbyrd, a compact venue with a capacity of 200. Two years later, he’d host a DC show at the Fillmore, which hosts 2,000.
And as the artist roster continues to grow, Dreamville naturally follows its talent around with cameras to give its fans a consistent peek behind the curtain. Originally, they did this through Dreamville Films, Inc., but that has since evolved into Dreamville Ventures, a multi-disciplinary media company that houses Dreamville Studios. Since 2015 Dreamville Films Inc./Dreamville Studios has produced 14 projects, with films primarily appearing on HBO, Tidal, and YouTube. Outside of Cole, Bas, JID, Cozz, and Lute have all been the focus of individual productions.
Staying faithful to these values built momentum, which reached top speed for Dreamville in January of 2019 when the team assembled all of its artists and in-house producers at Tree Sound Studios in an attempt to record a compilation album (Revenge of the Dreamers III) in just 10 days. Things really coalesced when Cole had a simple epiphany: why not make invitations and send them out to artists and producers to come and create with Dreamville?
The invites, which were designed as golden tickets, flew through the virtual internet air creating mania as they breezed past the eyes of fans.
“I had people calling me [asking] how they get an invitation,” Gibbs recalls. “People wanted to be a part of it. They felt the energy and the music that was coming out of there inspired other producers and artists, causing those same people to want to pull up [to the studio].”
None of the buzz would have been possible without Ib laying out the blueprint and building up the ethos. With over 100 studio tracks in motion, Ib was responsible for siphoning from a hard drive that resembled more of a labyrinth than a piece of storage technology. “I made sure that for the most part, anybody that I cut that was there the whole time made the album,” Ib said. I wanted everybody that was there to feel like they were a part of something, [because] those sessions were probably the best thing we’ve ever done making music.”
By the end, 30 songs were released from those “Rap Camp” sessions, and the Revenge of the Dreamers III album was nominated for multiple Grammys.
The NBA, Puma, & Beyond
In 2022, Dreamville’s musical engine is revving as they ready themselves to headline their second namesake festival and release new music from multiple artists on the roster. Following EarthGang, both JID and Bas have committed to dropping new music before the end of the year.
It’s all running so well that Ib now has the freedom to think about venturing into a world Dreamville has not yet fully explored: sports.
“Sports are a passion of mine,” he explained. “Being able to be an extra ear, I love that. I’m not making any money off it right now and it’s not what I love it for. But I love being able to help people in whatever situation they’re in. If I see it turn into something where I can make a business out of it for a team and really do it the way we want to do it so it’s not a money grab, I would love to get to that point eventually. But I don’t want to rush anything.”
Notably, there is already a bridge connecting Dreamville to the athletic establishment.
J. Cole played in the NBA’s 2012 All-Star Celebrity Game, and seven years later, he performed at the event’s halftime show in his native North Carolina. In 2020, he announced a shoe deal with Puma that produced “The Dreamer,” a sneaker that now boasts two editions. Last year, he played for Rwanda Patriots BBC in the inaugural campaign of the NBA-backed Basketball Africa League.
Away from the hardwood, Dreamville Festival was the jersey sponsor for North Carolina Football Club, a soccer team based in Cary that plays in the USL League One. And around the recent announcement of Fanatics, Jay-Z, Meek Mill, and other big names buying 75% of Mitchell & Ness, Dreamville released NBA-style “Dreamer” jerseys on the iconic streetwear brand’s official site. All of them sold out in under two minutes.
One of Ib’s goals in the years to come is to mobilize Dreamville to expand on all that promise with a formalized, sustainable presence in sports. And while he and Cole have relationships with multiple top athletes throughout the NBA and beyond, they’re not rushing into things as it relates to rolling out an official venture in the world of sports.
For now, Dreamville is concentrating on the best possible present.
Being Where Your Feet Are
“My main focus is what’s in front of me, which is the artists that are here,” Ib said of what’s next. “There’s so much unfinished business with what’s here, I haven’t even thought of signing another artist. I know I’m still passionate about the music, and I know I’m still passionate about what we can do as Dreamville outside of this music.”
Indeed, there is still a lot to build. From mixtapes to EPs to albums, J. Cole has released 10 projects into the world, but outside of Bas, no other Dreamville artist has more than three. Still, the groundwork has been laid and the path to sustained success is clearer than it’s ever been.
Ib’s humble nature doesn’t find him thinking too hard about something as lofty as personal legacy. Still, that hasn’t stopped others around him from being in awe at what Dreamville has accomplished thus far.
“When you talk about leaving your imprint on the business side and creatively, people are going to say this is a guy that stayed true to himself, was a good guy, and really built something,” said Gibbs. “When we say 2009 to 2022, Ib has been instrumental to helping Dreamville and its artists grow.”
Bas seconded Gibbs’ view: “The way he deals with artists and their development, giving people the time and resources, I’d argue that there’s not a lot of people in our industry that care that much about people over the money and the bottom line.”
As J. Cole puts it, the guy who once was a friend who came along to rock with his man to the studio has since become an underrated producer with a keen sense of attack and release.
But just as ever, Ib himself captures the spirit best.
“While we’re speaking for us, we’re also speaking for a lot of people that are like-minded, but don’t know how to express it,” he said. “We’re still building, but what we’ve built is the core for a company that can tell the stories that feel authentic and organic [and] allow people to connect with them.”