Visionaries is a conversation series with key players in the music industry who work behind the scenes to make our favorite genres the rich wells they are today.
Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad didn’t have any of this planned out.
Before becoming best friends and business partners with J. Cole after meeting at St. John’s University, the music executive and Dreamville co-founder went to college thinking he would be studying sports management. Instead of rigidly staying on the course he started, Ib let life unfold on its own, which led him to the music industry.
“I always feel like you learn more in college through the college experience than you do in the books. So for me, I got to learn who I was and what I wanted to do in real life,” he tells Complex. “I was in school figuring it out because at the end of the day, I feel like the college experience guides you through who you’re going to be as a person.”
After years of being an early supporter of J. Cole’s music career in college, Ib officially became his manager in 2013 just before the North Carolina rapper released his critically acclaimed album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The executive never needed a title to support his friend, though, and his absence of ego is one of the reasons why Dreamville has authenticity woven into its DNA. “I don’t have an ego in this,” he tells Complex. “To this day, whatever it takes to get the job done right, I’m going to figure it out. I think that’s how our team was built.”
Everything that Dreamville does as a label, brand, and multimedia company, is intentional. Cole, Ib, and company, sign artists they believe in, which has cultivated them an impressive roster of artists like JID, Ari Lennox, Bas, and EarthGang. They created the lineup for their music festival, Dreamville Fest—which this year included artists like Drake, Burna Boy, and Summer Walker—by reaching out to acts they are actually fans of, not just the hottest artists at the time.
Westward expansion is neither a part of Dreamville nor Ib’s master plan. Their goal isn’t to grow the company as large as possible and then sell their stakes to a larger company to make a massive profit. Instead, Ib hopes that he can carry out the vision he, Cole, and the company had when they started the label over a decade ago, even when the Off-Season rapper hangs up his jersey for good.
"To this day, whatever it takes to get the job done right, I’m going to figure it out. I think that’s how our team was built.”
“Do I want to get bigger? Yes, but on the terms of us doing things that we’re passionate about,” Hamad explains. “I don’t want to set a goal of how we can scale this company up, I think about how we can do the best work on the things that we love and hope it makes the company bigger and have more impact around the world.”
Ahead of Dreamville Fest 2024, Complex spoke with Dreamville co-founder, J. Cole’s manager, and longtime friend Ibrahim Hamad about building Dreamville from the ground up, how he developed the brand while simultaneously growing Cole’s career, and where he sees the label going in the future.
Let’s take it all the way back to ‘06 at Saint John's. What did you go to school for, and at what point did you realize that it wasn't for you?
That’s a good question. When I was in high school, I was playing basketball and taking trips to some D2 and D3 schools. I really was trying to go to Georgia State. They were a low D1 and I felt like I could maybe walk-on over there. And I kinda was just bullshitting, I didn't really take it super serious in terms of applying to schools and stuff. My brother had graduated from St. John's, and he had such a great relationship there, and so last minute I was just like, “Let me go to St. John’s.” I wouldn’t have gotten in if it wasn't for my brother’s relationship because it was so late when I applied. I damn near applied when kids were doing their orientation. So my brother got me through the door because he was so smart and sharp, [DJ] Moma, that I think his dean thought, “Oh, well you’re Moma’s brother so you must be smart too.” My brother majored in electrical engineering and he had a good job, so I was trying to do whatever he was doing. But really early on in my St. John's days, probably my first test, because they put me in a junior physics class, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a smart kid who did good on tests, but I realized this wasn’t for me.
So I started by taking early classes in electrical engineering, but I always knew in my mind that I was going to follow my passion, which was sports. At that point I knew I wasn’t going to try out for the team, even though I felt like I could have made it, I understood enough to know that I didn’t want to spend my college years sitting on the bench, so I really wanted to do sports management and I thought that I would be an agent or working in the front office for a team. That’s where my mind was because I knew that the only two things that I loved were sports, mainly basketball, and music. But music more as just a fan, and I never thought of working in music. I didn’t come into school knowing that. I kind of figured it out in my first year.
Yeah, I went to Syracuse University as a political science major because I wanted to be in the United Nations as a diplomat.
I always feel like you learn more in college through the college experience than you do in the books, so for me, I got to learn who I was and what I wanted to do in real life. I was in school figuring it out because at the end of the day, I feel like the experience of college guides you through who you’re going to be as a person. It’s easy to come into college not knowing what you’re going to do and then figure it out. I think that’s a part of life and growing up.
Fast forward, you meet J. Cole at St. John’s, and he wasn’t very open about sharing his music. How did you work with Cole to feel more comfortable sharing his work with the world early on?
I don’t know if I got him to do it because it was an accident how I found out [he made music]. He didn’t ask me to play anything, it was playing in the car when I got in the car and I was like, “Yo, what’s this?” type of thing. I think with us, we were very like-minded in the way we consumed music, so when I’m giving an honest opinion on an artist I like, or one of his songs, it would be easier to talk about. I also never approached it as work, I just saw it as “How could I help my friend?” I grew up with four siblings and a lot of friends, so I was always the kid who tried to make sure that everybody was good and see how I could help. Even playing basketball, I was always the point guard because I liked to pass, it was a personality thing. That was the approach I took with Cole, but not as a business, but more so, “Yo this is my friend and I think you’re talented so let me tell this person and that person.” I think that might have helped give him the confidence to share his music because he could see my response.
As a young artist, all of that confidence is important because it’s your art and it's so scary to share it with people. I think all artists have a fear of judgment, and that’s what makes them great. They’re so good that they’re afraid of bad judgment. I think all of those things helped, but I can’t tell you that I know how I did it because I don’t. Nothing I was doing was on purpose, the only thing I did was tell him that he’s fire, but keeping [your music] a secret and then showing up and getting signed one day isn’t realistic. I told him he should show people he’s fire and put out a mixtape, but I wasn’t saying it like I was planning that, I was just being honest with him, and it led to The Come Up which was dope. But for the most part, I think Cole was going to be Cole regardless. I think him being around me and other people in our circle was just an extra boost in confidence because we would give him a reaction to his music that he can’t get from himself.
The point guard analogy makes sense for you as well because it reminded me of you talking about DJing for some of Cole’s sets early in his career. How have you adapted to all the hats you’ve had to wear in the company as you and Cole grew it?
I think that just comes from me wanting to get to the finish line. I just want to get the job done, and to me it didn’t matter if it was me doing it or somebody else. It was out of survival. If Cole didn’t have a DJ it's like, “OK, I don’t know how to DJ, but I know the music. I’m probably the most familiar with the music outside of you. I know the drops and the setlist, so I can press play and do all of that.” It was out of necessity. And then when we didn’t have security, ain’t no way, shape, or form am I security but we had to walk Cole to the bus and make sure people let him walk through. When we didn’t have enough money to hire a lot of people on tour, I would help the band pack their stuff up. We have to get the job done, and at the end of the day, whatever is needed is my job to do.
"I didn’t look at it like I was wearing multiple hats. I just looked at it like we have to get this done. That’s how it always was and it’s still like that."
In those moments early on, it wasn’t like I had a title, and even after I had a title. Yeah, I’m Cole’s manager and partner, but if we’re on the road and he needs something before the show, it would be hard for him to ask me for favors. But to me, I don’t care, I don’t have an ego in this. To this day, whatever it takes to get the job done right, I’m going to figure it out. I think that’s how our team was built. Everybody had to do a little bit of everything because that’s just how we were built, so I didn’t look at it like I was wearing multiple hats. I just looked at it like we have to get this done. That’s how it always was and it’s still like that.
We’re touching the 10-year anniversary of the Dollar and a Dream tour. How important was doing that tour and only charging a dollar in building the loyal fanbase Dreamville has today?
I think it was super important, but again it wasn’t planned to build the fanbase. All of these ideas that we were coming up with were for survival. Dollar and a Dream, other than the first show which was around the album release because that was a big thing in Cole’s theme, that tour that we did before Born Sinner was literally out of survival. We were worried because we had to build hype around Born Sinner, and one thing Cole and I always did was underplay how big he was. We never took anything for granted like, “The fans are just going to show up.” We felt like we had to work to make our fans show up, we had to work to get people excited. To this day I’m still like, “Man, I wonder if people are going to show up.” To me, Dollar and a Dream was survival because we wanted to get fans excited and promote this album. So we did these shows for a dollar just to get closer to our fans, it wasn’t like we did it to build a long-term fanbase. It was just like, “Let's do this to get people to come and hear this album,” and I think the reason it builds a long-term fanbase is because all of these moves that we did came from a really genuine and pure place. Cole loved the idea of doing a show for a dollar because he understands that maybe some of his fans can’t afford to buy a $50 ticket. It wasn’t planned but I think it did make our fanbase stronger because I think they connected with the idea that these were moves made from an authentic place.
Is that authenticity how Dreamville has remained true to its roots despite ballooning into a massive company that now has several artists, a music festival, a film branch, and more?
It really starts with Cole. Once he turned the switch and said, “I’m only doing what’s true to me and what excites me,” is when his career really started skyrocketing with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. And off of that, because he only made moves that were true to him, you’re now offering something that no one else offers. So for us and Dreamville, it was very intentional to do what’s true to us and what we love, because then we can never really go out of style. The people that are coming to us for what we give are going to keep showing up. If we start doing what everyone else is doing, then what really separates us? For example, when we booked the festival, we booked it as a team. It will start with literally what I’m a fan of and then we’ll add names to that and figure out what makes sense. I always say, if we book our festival like one of those mainstream festivals that go with whoever the hot name is as the headliner, then we’re not booking it from what actually connects with us. What would make us different from Coachella or Lollapalooza, all these great festivals, what makes us different if we’re just booking the same headliners and lineups? We have to book what's true to us because if we love it, the fans who are like-minded like us will hopefully love it too. And if they don’t love it, they will trust us enough to be like, “Alright, I’ll give it a chance.” That’s been how we look at it as the brand too, we’re not going to do things just to do it. We’re going to do things because we’re passionate about it and people keep coming back to that because they feel like we’re offering something that someone else isn't. I also never want to work on something that I’m not passionate about and love.
As we reach what might be Cole’s imminent retirement with The Fall Off era that he keeps hinting at, where do you see Dreamville going from there since he’s the heart and soul?
I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m looking at Dreamville like I want it to grow into this big conglomerate and we want to keep building up and up. Everybody loves the ability to be compensated for the work you put in, but to me, I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I feel like I only want to work on things that I feel passionate about and that excite me, and not just chase how to expand and get bigger. Do I want to get bigger? Yes, but on the terms of us doing things that we’re passionate about.
"Do I want to get bigger? Yes, but on the terms of us doing things that we’re passionate about."
I don’t want to set a goal of how we can scale this company up, I think about how we can do the best work on the things that we love and hope it makes the company bigger and have more impact around the world. It’s not like five years ago where maybe I was like, “I want to do film and start a sports agency.” Now I want to scale from what is deserved from the work we put in. I don't want to scale up just to scale up, I don’t think that’s true to who we are. We’re going to do things, sometimes move on from things, and recognize when things have run their course and do something else. At the end of the day, it has to come from a true place of love.