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Dreamville hasn’t looked the same for more than a decade. It started in 2007 as an idea between J. Cole and Dreamville Records President Ibrahim Hamad. By 2011, it expanded into the Dreamville Foundation that helped students. In 2014, the label grew even more by signing a distribution deal with Interscope Records. But, everyone from the die-hard fans, who traveled from Alaska to North Carolina this past weekend, to the artists who have been with the label for the better part of a decade, never saw Dreamville in its latest incarnation: a destination.
“Dreamville has never really been about a place. It’s always been a mindset, an idea, a dream, a journey shared among individuals. I think what’s beautiful about the Dreamville Festival is it’s the first time outside of a Cole or Bas concert where Dreamville is going to be a place,” Dreamville Records' Strategist and Operation Manager Derick Okolie told REVOLT TV.
Longtime Dreamville Records artist Omen told REVOLT TV before the festival, "The first time I heard about the festival was five or six years ago." The Dreamville Festival is the corporeal embodiment of the familial and honest principles that make it loved by millions of fans. Dreamville Records is predicated on transparency, bucking conventions and -- above all else -- quality over quantity. These principles were on display from the moment the 40,000 fans who attended the festival walked into the partly muddy grounds of Dorothea Dix Park.
Instead of the enclosed selfie stations that have become standard at almost every music festival, there were beautiful eight-foot murals of fallen MCs Mac Miller and Nipsey Hussle -- created by artists Nik Soupè and Paul Garson -- that attracted long lines of fans eagerly waiting to take photos in front of them. Instead of walking into the festival grounds and being greeted by branded tech activations that have taken over music festivals, you saw the do-it-yourself philosophy Dreamville is known for on display with two men building a replica of the Dreamville Festival logo out of sand.
The festival was also transparent to a fault. When an 11-year-old black girl went missing at the festival, the promoters didn’t hide that fact in order to protect the inaugural Dreamville Fest from controversy. They employed the same transparency that Dreamville is known for by announcing the news, letting the family that is their fanbase band together to find her. The Dreamville Festival was a heartwarming example of the community that can be developed through music.
“I've been watching online, the Dreamville fans who built a community amongst themselves. They’re like, ‘Yo, we going to be in Raleigh. We’re going to meet up.’ I’ve seen a girl talk, describing, ‘I can be a little pushy, guys. Don’t worry.’ These people met through Cole’s music and they looking at Dreamville Festival like a family reunion,” Hamad said at a panel discussion at William Peace University one day before the festival.
The spontaneity that characterizes so many of Cole's releases was integral to the festival's success. One moment you could be gazing at the myriad of classic hip hop memorabilia at the Mini Hip-Hop Museum station and the next you could be purchasing a few pre-rolled joints of CBD-rich Lefty Lucy strain from Oak City Cannabis’ station. One moment you could be missing performances because the line to purchase merchandise is long and then, the next moment you could be in the middle of an impromptu performance from The Helping Hand Marching Band that's too gloriously black to ignore.
The biggest takeaway from the layout of the festival is that with the absence of conventional music festival attractions, the main draw remained the music and Dreamville lived up to the anticipation for the most part. Making a ranking of the best performances at Dreamville Festival is an act of futility because they were all exceptional. But, Bas and Earthgang had the best performances to embody everything that Dreamville is. EarthGang was uproarious from the start. But, it wasn't until the pair bought fans onstage to dance and later performed their song "Up" that the best of what Dreamville Festival could be was realized.
The song "Up" has not been formally released and only exists on the group's COLORS episode on YouTube, yet it got the loudest reaction from the crowd. Then, bringing a number of fans onstage to dance made the performance a family affair. That's what Dreamville represents -- music and artists so relatable fans feel as if they are part of the Dreamville family.
"Fans we've had [over the years] have been so die-hard, almost like when a movie becomes a cult classic. That's the kind of fanbase we've organically developed," Omen told REVOLT TV. "It's fans and supporters that we know by name. We've known them for years. After 10, 12, 30 shows on tour, you get to know these people. You've seen them damn near grow up."
That connection is the reason why Bas taking Cole's absence during his set as an opportunity to bring someone onstage to perform Cole's verse on "It's Lit" was tied with Cole and Teyana Taylor's tributes to the late Nipsey Hussle for the best moments of the festival.
That sort of love was definitely in the air with every artist who touched that stage paying tribute to Nipsey, who was murdered the week before the festival. Instead of Nipsey's passing being a sorrowful cloud over the event, it was a call to action for every artist to show appreciation for the time one earth. Rapsody even told REVOLT TV after her performance that “it’s great to support your brothers, while they’re here and give them their flowers."
Hamad also stood off-stage and watched nearly every Dreamville artist's performance like both a proud father and an analytical boss. Seeing his genuine joy watching one of the newest artists to the Dreamville roster command a crowd like a veteran reinforced the idea that Dreamville is more of a family than a record label.
As crowd-pleasing as the live performances were, the ghost of Dreamville’s past was part of what made this year's festival a blueprint instead of a finished product. For a festival meant to feel more like a family reunion, it often felt like a J. Cole concert with a litany of opening acts. Earthgang came out on J.I.D’s set to do their “Meditate” and “Never” collaborations. But, outside of that, no Dreamville artists performed onstage together, even though they have two compilation albums and a bunch of other songs together. When Ari Lennox performed Revenge of the Dreamers II standout “Backseat,” Cozz was nowhere to be found. Before Cozz did his Bas-featured song “Tabs” from Revenge of the Dreamers II, he told the crowd, “I wish my nigga Bas was joining me. But, he has his own set.”
Then, there was the night’s biggest highlight, and oddly enough, also its biggest disappointment: J. Cole. Cole structuring his live performance to be a re-telling of his career, with each song representing pivotal eras, was a great way to cap off a festival celebrating the label and it was in-line with Cole's penchant for conceptual presentations. But, for some reason, he skipped over the era where he signed the artists who made up the heart of the festival. There was no 'Shea Butter Baby' with Ari Lennox, or 'Off Deez' with J.I.D, or 'Can't Knock The Hustle' with Cozz. When you add in the fact that nearly every Dreamville artist performed their Cole-featured song without him, Cole not including them in his set is a glaring omission that is in stark contrast with the familial vibe of the festival.
Most of Cole's set featured songs released within the last five years with the exception of surprise renditions of 'Grown Simba' and 'Back To The Topic' from The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights mixtapes, respectively. His Dreamville Festival set felt like a typical Cole set on tour, which by itself is some of the best times you can have at a live show. But, due to the rapper attaching his label and artists to a festival, longtime fans expected to see Cole perform the songs that made Dreamville what it is today, even though the hits are fun to watch.
Luckily, Dreamville is a label that prides itself on constructive criticism. Okolie told REVOLT TV before the event that he wants to make sure everyone involved with its production is happy. But, his number one job is to go to the festival as a consumer and “hate on everything I don’t think was done right.” It's that action that will ensure this festival remains great.
“My strategy is to come through, experience the festival and go, ‘This is fucking wack. That looks terrible. This needs to be fixed.’ If it was a one and done thing, then cool. We’re never going to do this again. But, we’re trying to do it next year, the year after that and maybe take it to other places. Who knows? It really [depends] on how this goes, and what my thoughts are when I sit down with Cole and [Ibrahim].”
With the City of Raleigh's analysts predicting the festival was one of the most successful events in the history of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, it's safe to say there will be future attempts from Cole and the Dreamville camp to turn their dream fully into reality.
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