Dreamville Records has done something incredibly rare within music and even more rare within hip-hop: they've won their way, on their terms.
After a legendary year that included J. Cole becoming the first rapper in over 25 years to go platinum without any major collaborations and his 2014 Forest Hills Drive tour, which sold over 570,000 tickets worldwide, the Dreamville team is gearing up for another busy 365.
In just a few months, Dreamville already has a HBO documentary under their belt and a mixtape release from LA's own, Cozz. Now comes Bas' highly-touted debut album, Too High To Riot, arriving today (March 4) and a special J.Cole performance alongside the President of the United States. It looks like Dreamville is swinging for the fences in 2016.
With all of this happening, REVOLT sat down with Dreamville executive and Bas' business partner, Derick Okolie, to discuss all things Dreamville and beyond.
(The below Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What is your role and responsibilities with Dreamville?
Officially, my title is Strategist & Operations Manager. Pretty much my role entails keeping the label on track from a business perspective. I need to have a clear vision of what our partners and upper management are trying to accomplish while understanding where our artists are and what kind of zone they are in.
At the core, the most important thing we do at Dreamville is let our artists create art that is going to connect with people. Can’t let business step in front of that and dictate how we move. Also can’t let us lose focus of what we are trying to accomplish as a company. Gotta keep our ideas fresh, gotta keep our artists motivated and gotta keep telling our culture’s stories.
What did you do before Dreamville and SMFiends?
I graduated from NYU in 2009. That’s honestly when I first even thought of the music business as a feasible life option. We started really camping out in the studio while Cole was finishing The Warm Up. Bas’s close family friend, Ogee Handz, was out in Paris and sending us some fire instrumentals. Being the New Yorkers that we are, we decided we were gonna start selling these instrumentals and possibly managing some producers.
Meanwhile in the real world, I transitioned from interning at New York magazine to working for a huge law firm, K & L Gates. I was dead set on going to law school and becoming a powerhouse in the entertainment law world. Those aspirations lasted about six months. I was fired for listening to music at my desk against company rules. That job was rough on my soul. A week later I got an internship at a small boutique ad agency, Project 2050. Bas’s older brother, DJ Moma, hooked me up with a reference after I noticed that he knew the owners on Facebook. The advertising industry really opened my eyes up to a lot of things wrong with our society. I worked as a strategist at a few agencies 'til about 2012 when I moved onto music full time.
How did you meet Cole and what was your role in his rise?
I'm not even gonna front like I remember meeting Cole for the first time, but I’m pretty sure it may have been my freshmen year of college. Bas’s parents were out of the country and we threw one of Bas's legendary house parties.
It really wasn’t until 2008-ish when I realized that Cole’s claim that he was gonna be remembered as one of the greats was low-key a real thing. I remember hearing parts of The Come Up to The Warm Up and being blown away. Like, Yo, what the fuck was that? Who was that? After hearing that full project, I was all in. I wanted to help in any way possible.
My role slowly started to grow within the team. Then once I really got into advertising and became confident in my vision, I started talking ridiculous amounts of shit about rollout ideas, marketing plans, music videos. Basically anything I thought I could help with. Our creative director, Adam Rodney, really pushed my thoughts to the forefront of the conversation. Ibrahim Hamad, our president, then started including me on every call and meeting. The team really empowered me once I expressed my desires to help. Until this day it's been the most meaningful shit to me, that my brothers believed in me being more than a homie.
What is it like managing Bas?
I really hate the phrase managing, cause it’s not indicative of what I really do. Yes, I manage Bas's day-to-day, as well as long-term business but we’re more business partners than me being his manager. I’ve known Bas since I was like 13 and I’ve always known that if he’s in the room, that I’m probably not the smartest in the room. Bas really is pretty hands on with everything we do. From our clothing to his music to the visuals we shoot to our overall aesthetic and vibes. It’s not easy working with friends, but building something that started as drunk ideas on a roof is really amazing. Those drunk ideas turned into three companies that bring in revenue in different ways. I wouldn’t trade it for the fucking world.
What makes the Dreamville brand stand out among the rest?
Humility? Realness? Maturity? I don’t know. I just know that my Dreamville family has made me a better man by educating me, loving me and always being there for me. I don’t know if that translates properly but it’s really what makes us different. Genuine. That’s a good word to describe us, I think.
Can you tell the story around how the HBO deal came to fruition?
Since the first day I went on tour, I’ve been screaming that we need to change the fucking game and get off the disposable content wave. We literally live a movie every day and I always thought the world deserved to see our perspective. You won’t see a lot of Vlogs or lifestyle videos from us because that’s just not in our identity. But I always thought we needed the world to hear our story and see what we do everyday.
My homegirl Emily worked at HBO in the PR department like three years ago and she told me that HBO was looking for documentaries and music-driven content. I ran back to Ib and Adam and started preaching the HBO wave. You gotta understand that sometimes I’m looked at like a crack head when I come through with ideas, because my theory is you shoot for Mars with ideas and slowly work your way back to reality. Like why would I not try and shoot for HBO, maybe if we don't get HBO we get Netflix and if we don't get Netflix maybe MTV and so on.
When Scott started shooting the doc, people would ask what he was shooting for and he would joke about it being for HBO. That shit used to get me tight. I really wanted it on HBO. I think the team did too, but me coming from the media world and seeing how brands and networks react to shitty content and terrible stories, I really knew that we were primed to share the screen with Game of Thrones and The Wire reruns.
Finally, my favorite part about that HBO documentary series are the crowds. Look at those fucking crowds. All ages and races. Stoners and hoopers. Trappers and teachers. I loved seeing that shit every night and I hope everyone goes back and peeps how crazy that is.
What are your thoughts on content, digital and social strategy for artists and the approach Dreamville takes with Cole, Bas, Cozz and Omen?
We let our artists do whatever they want to do.
We share insight with them but we let them rock. That’s the beauty of having Cole as our team captain. I have had drunk shouting matches with Cole where I told him he needs to Tweet and post on Instagram. And you know what? He was right. He doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to. Before I realized that I hated social media, Cole told us that it was toxic. He was right. But in 2016 it’s almost a necessary evil and a gift. Only thing I hate more than the over-sharing of shitty ideas and ego-driven thought-casting on social media is the fetishizing and poisoning of our culture by the media.
We’re in a really weird place with digital and social. My number one thought, though, is don’t let the art be out-shined by the marketing. Don’t spend 25 hours on SnapChat and not in the studio. Make your music, talk to your fans, share what you want to share with the world. just don’t let your ego consume you.
How do you see brand partnerships evolving with the rise of branded content?
Man this is tricky, tricky waters. It’s the obvious next step. Brands sometimes offer more money and freedom than the labels at this point. And brands just want to tap into the organic love that is generated between an artist and their fans. But at what price? For the bigger artists it may not mean much, but for a younger artist, what is the price you’re paying? Where does that content live? If Dreamville would have brokered a sponsorship deal with a brand to pay for our tour bus, would we have got our documentary on HBO? We probably would have been forced to include some video content in that deal. Would they have owned those rights?
Involving brands in the creative process is tricky but it can be done properly. If you are an artist, be clear with yourself and your team on what you are willing to do. Make sure your team is on the same level as you and on point. Be willing to walk away if you don’t get exactly what you want. If you don't want to be represented in a certain way don't sign a contract for a bag of money. Money comes and goes. Whatever you film or record or take pictures of is probably going to live forever.
And if you’re a brand, fall the fuck back. Let the artists you love cook up something dope and create something organic. Don't try and exploit them for some likes. Nothing worse than seeing through a not-slick-at-all attempt at a money grab. Everyone looks crazy. So tell Jim the Account Manager, who swears he’s the coolest dude in Park Slope, to shut up.
How has the relationship between artists and labels changed? And where do you see it going with the growth of direct-to-fan communication via SoundCloud, personal websites, Twitter, Apple Music Connect, etc.?
I think you’re going to see hedge funds start signing artists to deals that are way better than the current format. I think Mark Cuban is gonna start signing artists. I'm curious to see how this.... I don't even know what to call it but almost entrepreneurial digital wave era of music is going to continue to be crazy. We're gonna see some artists get large amounts of money from investors and then probably still flop cause they don't understand the business. We're gonna see some artists get little amounts of money from investors and kill it cause all they need was cash to flourish.
I honestly don't know right now. I know this. The name of your label doesn't matter as much as the people at your label. If they believe in you and you believe in them. And everyone communicates and is on the same page. Then it's up to the vision and the music.
REVOLT C-Suite is a twice-a-month Q&A where we will interview cultural movers and shakers who have displayed incredible business leadership, acumen and strategy. We will discuss branded content, partnership deals, social media strategy and much more. For the last column click, here.