They don’t make rap crews like they used to. They don’t really make as many as they used to either. The days when majors handed a vanity to imprint to every marquee hip-hopper they decided to sign have gone the same way as million dollar video budgets and multiplatinum sales expectations. In the era of the 360 deal, rap labels that double as crews of friends built on camaraderie and shared dreams of shiny suit stardom are a dying breed — but they’re not extinct.
There are a few turn-of-the-millennium-style crews left — namely, Top Dawg Entertainment, home of superstars like Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and SZA, and GOOD Music, where Kanye West and Pusha T reign supreme. But there is one label that stands out among its endangered brethren as a place where creativity and camaraderie are still the orders of the day — yet it’s also a label that has surprisingly flown under the radar since its inception, and hasn’t yet received the recognition it deserves.
But, thanks to the recent successes of newly minted misfits like JID, Earthgang, Ari Lennox and the indefatigable independence of its founder and team captain, J. Cole, Dreamville Records is no longer quietly building its reputation on the underground circuit. They’re flying higher than ever and 2019 is the year they wake up the rest of the world to the fact that they might just be the most important up-and-coming rap crew in hip-hop.
It shouldn’t be a controversial take, but there’s almost sure to be some pushback. After all, I mentioned two other rap crews — incidentally, the only two other really high profile ones that could match Dreamville for notoriety and commercial success — but neither of those two other crews really display the same level of group cohesion as Dreamville. Top Dawg has been established for at least as long — Dreamville dates back to 2007, while TDE was established in 2004 but really came together around its core of Black Hippy (Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy, and Jay Rock) in ’07 — but has experienced their fair share of public infighting.
Ab-Soul previously expressed frustration with his role on the team, while SZA even professed a desire to quit the game at one point. Newcomers, such as Isaiah Rashad, Lance Skiiiwalker, and Reason, are added at a rapid clip, but sometimes take a while to truly assimilate into the group or endear themselves to core fans, even when they deserve to, and some of the hype for projects from the group’s all-stars tends to overshadow the success of their rookies and role players.
Meanwhile, GOOD Music has experienced the highest level of turnover of any of these labels, with a list of former artists at least as long as one of the current artists. Those current artists also deem disparate and disconnected — although they all ostensibly work with Kanye, their leader’s highest-profile collaborations recently have included unaffiliated, controversial upstarts like Lil Pump and XXXTentacion and not rising stars such as 070 Shake, Desiigner, or Sheck Wes. By the way, is Big Sean even still on the label anymore?
By contrast, Dreamville has moved as a unit ever since J. Cole first received his first glimmers of fame, shouting out Elite, Omen, and Bas on his earliest Roc Nation recordings and stepping out of their way whenever it comes time for them to release a new project. As he’s scaled up the roster through the years, each new artist has actually drawn even more acclaim, with JID, one of the most recent signees, landing his first NBA commercial and television appearance within 18 months of signing to the label. Earthgang figures to add to the label’s profile as well, with a trilogy of EPs, Rags, Robots, and Royalty, generating buzzy anticipation for the label’s upcoming Dreamville debut, Mirrorland.
And while GOOD Music’s five-projects-in-five-weeks publicity stunt in the summer of 2018 generated publicity, very few of the albums turned out to be all that buzzworthy — in fact, two of them featured principals that weren’t even on GOOD Music. Dreamville’s spate of 2018 albums included gems from Cozz (Effected), J. Cole (KOD), Bas (Milky Way), and JID (DiCaprio 2), which all generated positive reviews and did well on the charts despite relatively little promotion. Dreamville was a well-oiled machine last year, while projects from each of its artists, from Ari Lennox to Lute to Omen, have been enjoyable fan favorites.
The artists on the label are as diverse as they are complex. Ari Lennox is a DC-area singer with a soulful, heady vibe, while Cozz is an introspective yet clear-eyed spitter from South Central LA whose streetwise sensibilities contrast with the rootsy vibes of other Dreamvillians like the Funkadelic-influenced ATLiens Earthgang. One thing each MC in the crew shares is a penchant for eloquent rhymes and intricate flows, something for which the group as a whole has become known and loved for incorporating.
Their fans are so passionate and numerous that Dreamville has done what no other big rap crew has accomplished — planned out their own music festival. While Tyler The Creator has Camp Flog Gnaw and Travis Scott created the Astroworld Festival, their crews, Odd Future and Cactus Jack, are defunct or relatively unknown, respectively.
While “Odd Future Wolf Gang” is still a battle cry among Flog Gnaw performers, the vast majority of the acts haven’t been drawn from the rabble-rousing rap rebels, and Cactus Jack Records basically only consists of Travis, Sheck Wes, and newcomer Don Toliver. The Dreamville Festival is stocked mainly with Dreamville’s roster with only a few ringers like Young Thug, YBN Cordae, Big Sean, and Nelly — along with an assist from SZA and fellow North Carolinian Rapsody (a part of 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records, who’ve likewise flown way under the radar for the past few years).
With J. Cole maintaining the “platinum with no features” meme off the success of KOD, it seems he’s extended that philosophy to his self-contained, self-sufficient label family, albeit not as strictly. The group is more than willing to share its fans with TDE and YSL, as evidenced by their frequent collaborations with members of both “competitors.” It’s just that they know what works for them. They don’t really need to reach outside of their family for help, because they help each other. They’ve quietly built a movement that is now poised to make plenty of noise in the coming year. JID, Bas, and J. Cole are all on tour latest well-received projects while fans impatiently await Ari’s debut and Earthgang’s Mirrorland. Dreamville is no longer “the best-kept secret” in rap — they’re ready to annex the rest of the rap game and welcome us all to experience their dream.