An Oral History of Dreamville’s ‘Revenge of the Dreamers III’ Recording Sessions
Looking For Revenge
Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers III quickly became one of the year’s most anticipated albums thanks to the already-mythical recording sessions that led to its creation. XXL compiles an oral history about how the dream became a reality.
Interviews: John Kennedy, C. Vernon Coleman II, Robby Seabrook III and Kairi Coe
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, coming soon.
To speak with those who were involved with the recording of Revenge of the Dreamers III—a high-profile, Dreamville and Friends-billed compilation—is to speak about ego. More specifically, an environment devoid of it. In January, Dreamville hunkered down in Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studios and invited a hodgepodge of musical talents to create, from music rookies to stars like Wale, Rick Ross, 6lack, Ski Mask The Slump God and Vince Staples. Those 10 days placed the rap camp sessions at the nucleus of hip-hop’s attention, as participants posted personalized invites online—part of an innovative social media strategy—and lore spread about the fire that was being made. XXL spoke with some of the people involved in Dreamville’s historic sessions for an inside look at how it all went down.
Ibrahim Hamad (President, Dreamville Records): [The idea for rap camp] came about some time in November [or] December. The way we did Revenge of the Dreamers II was me grabbing records and putting them together, maybe sending one to somebody to throw a verse on and then coming to Cole. I was like, “We got new energy, a whole new camp of people. Let’s try for the first time to really get in and work.”
J. Cole: We knew we wanted to do a Revenge album. We’ve been talking about that shit for mad long. Ib[rahim] had been putting together the songs that he had just from the camp. But my idea came from the fact that as individuals, we fuck with a lot of people. And people fuck with us. Whether it’s me, Bas, J.I.D, Cozz. We’re people persons. But to the outside world, especially ’cause of me and the reputation that I’ve gotten—to nobody’s fault but my own—is a perception that I don’t fuck with nobody and nobody don’t fuck with me. Really that’s not the case. Because I’m so secluded then it’s like Dreamville is so secluded. It’s not like that.
Felton Brown (Senior Art Director, Dreamville Records): This idea has been in the mix since the top of last year. It just didn’t come to fruition because everyone was moving. J.I.D or EarthGang were on tour, Cole was on tour coming off KOD. Ari [Lennox] is recording. Everyone’s been all over the place. So now we finally got to do it and bang it out.
Hamad: The idea of that [10-day] window was ’cause I knew Bas was coming back from Africa and it was before he went on tour on the West Coast. And I knew J.I.D was going on tour. It was the only window to get everybody together. We knew it was either going to be Atlanta or L.A. I’m glad we picked Atlanta because it just has a different culture. L.A. would’ve been real industry. [In] Atlanta, the energy was just right. A lot of producers were already there. We knew that Tree Sound was a spot that was big enough and had a lot of rooms that we always rock with.
Mali Hunter (Chief Operations Officer; Partner, Tree Sound Studios): I had done a couple camps but not like that. It was quiet; it wasn’t like, Let’s let the world know. It was a full-circle moment for my partner Groove Chambers [and I]. Cole did Friday Night Lights with us. He was so awesome; he gave Groove and I co-executive producer credits. That was about 10 years ago. He came up for the 21 Savage [I Am > I Was] sessions a couple of weeks before the camp was even discussed. Groove said, “You should come back and [bring] your whole team,” because they’d never had a whole Dreamville camp together at one time. Groove planted that seed and Cole ran with it. It was maybe three weeks before the camp.
Hamad: The logistics were a little crazy. We didn’t know what we were getting into. The people we were inviting—and obviously our artists and producers—were flown in [and] put in a hotel. If they asked to come through, it’s like, your publishing company could pay for this or whatever. The logistics was a little hectic at first, but we got through it.
Hunter: We had about seven to nine studios because we’d change out some of our rooms and make it a drum room or a recording room. We set up probably 10 to 12 extra studios. Even my kitchen and the game room had the setup where people were recording. The live room had about four setups. One of the drum rooms became a studio. Upstairs in the hang room was a setup. We had to set up speaker sets in different areas and figure out what mics Jermaine likes the most. It was pretty amazing.
WowGr8: The happiest thing about these recording sessions is we in Atlanta. It’s so much love and so many vibes here. To see everybody in one space—in a creative space—is a beautiful sight.
Hamad: Cole was like, “We should do invites.” Initially it was just going to be our guys. Then it was like, Oh, Cole’s been working with T-Minus. Aight, cool. Bring this person, bring that person.
J. Cole: The main thing is, let’s send out these invites to people that we fuck with and then if they want to put them up, they can. But, it’s going to show the world that this is all the people we fuck with and these are the people that fuck with us. Then we’ll make an album with them.
Brown: At first, we were thinking of doing a physical invite. We thought it was going to be not that many people, we were like, Everyone that comes down we’re going to leave a T-shirt or an invitation, like, “Thank you for coming,” in their hotel room. That would’ve been nuts ‘cause we made like 340 invites. We didn’t have a fucking silk screening or pressing plant in the basement of Tree Sound. We were making them on the fly. So it was like, we’re going to just go digital.
Hamad: A couple months before that, when I started talking about Revenge, Felton was like, “I’m working on this logo, what do you think?” I was like, “Man, that shit is hard.” Felton came up with the logo before we even had the idea for the invite or anything.
Brown: The Revenge III logo was in my head for a while, maybe a few weeks before conversations about the project. For all the projects, there was never really a statement logo. Usually, third time’s a charm. It was a combination of colors like Kill Bill, but design-wise, it was like that classic Star Wars intro, with the words going up into the sky. Like you’re beneath them. We’re trying to make this statement: Dreamville is stacked so strong and this is our coming-out year. We needed something that’s really strong from that standpoint. From an invite aspect, we wanted it to be almost wedding formal, like, “You’re cordially invited on this day.” Make it special. We had a couple of variations color-wise ’til we landed on yellow.
Hamad: We was all like, “Yo, that yellow—that’s the one.” It turned out perfect. We told everybody, “When y’all come through, just post these.” When we posted it, that’s when it kind of went crazy. Other artists were hitting us like, “Can I come through?” That’s when you started seeing the big wave of people. It was the impact of the invites and who was in there. You had people that just wanted to be a part of it. We ended up sending out a new batch of invites and that shit just took off.
Deanté Hitchcock (Artist): The first day, everybody was surprised as hell when the shit first started popping up. Everybody started seeing folks posting golden tickets and invites. I peeped the location, like, “Yo, it’s in Atlanta? Right here in our backyard.” I ain’t get an invite on the first day. I was feeling some type of way. But I was like, “That just mean I’ve got to work harder.” That next morning, I got my invite from Mark Pitts. He sent me and [Young] Nudy. I was there every day I could be.
Brown: We’ve always wanted to do some kind of Willy Wonka thing and this kind of ended up being that. The first wave might’ve been 30 invites but by the second day, it probably tripled. We started remembering people, we knew certain people were in town. No one would associate most of these people with Dreamville, as in recording together, [although] behind the scenes there’s relationships. That’s what made it special. Even if you had a schedule conflict and you couldn’t make it, because of the moment that it made on social, [artists would post it]. It’s social currency—yes, my talent is requested. I made one for myself! People online started making their own.
Dreezy (Artist): [Interscope Records EVP] Joie [Manda] hit me, like, “You just got invited to the J. Cole [rap camp].” I’m like, “I need that flyer, though, because everybody got the flyer.” He’s like, “They making you a flyer right now.”
J. Cole: I knew it would be a moment, but I didn’t think it would be, like, the talk of the town. It feels good ’cause it instantly propelled Dreamville into a place where I’ve been wanting them to be. A respected place where its like, Oh shit, it’s something serious happening over there. I didn’t know that would be the move. It came out even crazier than I would’ve thought.
Hamad: It wasn’t much thought to [the guest list]. It was like, “You want to come through? Cool, we fuck with your shit. [Or,] I’m not that familiar but somebody vouching for you that we fuck with.” It was just in the moment. It was two people that were doing a lot of legwork of inviting outside people: Cozz’s manager, Matt [McNeal] and Maine [Maxwell], a kid that Cole ran into in the studio and linked with. He has a network of producers. He’s hungry. Matt been with the team for a while, so he kind of knew what we were looking for. Maine was bringing in a different energy than what we were used to. It worked well because we needed the outside people or people we weren’t necessarily aware of to mix in with our ideas and add to that. That’s what made the whole experience dope.
Hunter: I hit T.I., of course. I hit Ludacris. There were a few people that I hit personally. I’d go over to Jermaine and say, “What do you think about me hitting Metro Boomin?” and he was like, “Yeah, tell him to pull up.” I want people to come together as a community, like Motown. It was really beautiful. It felt like everyone was welcome.
Hamad: There was this girl, her voice wowed everybody there. That was Baby Rose. She’s from Fayetteville, so Cole was so hyped. She did joints with Ari and Bas. Her voice is like, Oh my God. Deanté Hitchcock wowed people—he came in rapping. He was doing his thing, too.
Deanté Hitchcock: Initially I was nervous about walking into there. This can be intimidating in a sense. Some of us felt like the lesser-known artists there trying to build our stuff up but coming in basically unknown, like, I gotta prove myself to the vets. But within the first 15 minutes, that feeling broke down because nobody came in there with an ego, like, “I’m better than you. I know I got a spot on the album.” Nobody was on some shit where you couldn’t just hop on a song. It might be Tay Keith in one room producing and you’ll go in there, like, “Yo, I got something.” And niggas ain’t hit you with none of the usual politics, like, “Nah, Cole finna get on this shit” or whoever. It was like, “Yeah, go ahead.” That was a crazy feeling. It felt good. Within 20 minutes, Cole came across the room and dapped me up.
J. Cole: If you’re in the room, I don’t really care how you got here—you deserve to be here. If you’ve got something to offer, you’ve got an idea, give.
Hunter: I didn’t have any idea how big it was going to be. It was like an event every damn night. There’s been nothing like it. The closest thing—but it wasn’t even close because it was a more closed situation—was What a Time to Be Alive, with Drake and Future. It was different because each producer had a room and that was more calculated. I was thinking, Damn, I’m gonna have to cook for all these people, ’cause that’s what I do. I didn’t cook every day; we outsourced to some other chefs.
Buddy (Artist): When I landed it was like the fifth day already and it was five days left. We in the Sprinter headed to the studio and Omen giving a little debrief, like, “Man, this shit is hella crowded. It’s hella muthfuckas. It’s kind of hard to find somewhere to record.” I’m already formulating my own plans for total domination. It was super competitive. Wasn’t nobody trying to do no weak shit. But it wasn’t no egos, no divas.
Bas: You might walk into one room because you forgot your charger and you’ll hear something playing and be like, “I got a verse for it,” sit down and knock it out. You’ll go to the kitchen to get a Gatorade and some producer you’ve never heard of is playing something crazy. You’re like, “I’m going to grab 10 beats from you and go back to writing over there.”
Cozz: I wasn’t comfortable the first couple of days. That ain’t my zone. I like to do shit by myself. But that shit’s been amazing, man. This is playing a big role in the evolution of me as an artist. I get to watch so many artists that I look up to and so many that are new that I still fuck with. I’m learning shit from them. It’s helping me grow.
Hamad: Nobody was used to working in that environment. It becomes a personality thing. I remember the first couple days, Omen had to find his footing, like, “Okay, what should I do?” Then he realized, “I just gotta go.” Cozz told me, “After I left, I got like a whole new inspiration being around all these super dope rappers. You gotta be on your shit.” It was songs with like eight people on it. And you know that four of them might get cut. Even Ari, it was her first time working with other writers. There was so many girls there that Ari got to work with: Van Jess, St. Beauty, Ravyn Lenae, Njomza, Baby Rose. You had to get out of your comfort zone.
Brown: You pull up with your equipment, find your space and rock out, which was fire. It wasn’t some super chateau. You literally came there to work, to flex how nice you are.
Hunter: Our job was the logistics and to make sure the music is impeccable and award-winning, sonically. Our other job was to make sure the atmosphere remained peaceful and conducive to creating. At some point it became a little busy. We had the upstairs locked off for Jermaine and his family in Groove’s personal room. Very few people get to record in Groove’s room. It started with André 3000 and Whitney Houston. [Our engineers] probably slept four to five hours a night. There were times where I had to come in at 6 in the morning and go, “My guys need to sleep. Jermaine went home at 3. Y’all still going? Sorry, we got to shut it down.”
Brown: One morning, it was like 6, maybe 7, I went in a back studio room. WowGr8 and Bas made this crazy-ass record, but they were half awake. You know when your brain goes into that point where maybe your sentences aren’t as clear because you’re fucking tired? They were up that long. And they made a fire-ass song. I was like, “Damn, these dudes are just going with the energy right now. They’re not overly thinking. They’re just having fun.”
Bas: We sat there, half delirious. He would record, like, four bars, get up, I’d go sit down and record four. We did that just messing around, half sleepy drunk. The next day we were like, “Oh, this record is fire.”
Hamad: [Former NBA player] Chris Bosh hit Cole, like, “You mind if I come through for a couple of days?” I didn’t know he produced—he’s been producing for, like, four years. He came through. He had a beat and T-Minus was like, “Oh, this is actually hard! Let me get those drums, add a little music to it.” Cole grabbed the beat, like, “I fuck with this.” Chris Bosh was there for two days soaking up game, playing his beats and adding his two cents.
WowGr8: Chris Bosh had that heat.
J. Cole: I’ve been training for this. I get to be just a rapper, flex my rapper chops. Go jump in every room. If they’re doing something that’s hard, write a verse for that shit on the spot or just listen.
Brown: It was dope to see T.I. come in with his son [Messiah]. His son does production. He came in with a crazy-ass board. He was being a shadow, going through the rooms with Tip, who laid a crazy record. The next day, his son came through dolo with his equipment, [ready] to rock out in the session. That’s fire to see that generational thing happen, like, My dad is who he is, but I’m trying to get my own chops.
Dreezy: It was like summer camp for music. You could just go in any room and start writing to whatever’s going on. It might be an R&B room or a trap room, whatever. Cole was coming in, getting feedback, listening to the records. It was just hella new artists coming in and out, writing, trying to get their verse on the song. I was trying to get as many songs done as I could. People was writing they stuff kind of fast. But it wasn’t no cypher-type shit. We just having fun.
Olu: It’s like Scooby-Doo—you go in one room, come out the other. People switching rooms, like, you got something in there. He in the other room over here but they playing his verse over there.
WowGr8: People be having more than one session going on at a time. Niggas playing a little something. If you vibe with it and somebody start writing to it, then whoever start recording first. Whoever wants to add on, add on.
Hamad: Guapdad  laid some fire hooks and verses. Buddy was like a tornado in that shit, just running around, giving crazy energy. Reason was there in the beginning. He was on everything.
Buddy: I just was bouncing around. I wasn’t never sitting down. Wasn’t no dull moment. I’m popping up in every studio. “Is y’all making a beat? That sounds tight, put it in Pro Tools. Where’s the engineer? I got something.” I ain’t gonna say that I was, but I keep hearing that everybody been calling me the MVP.
Masego (Artist): I was the golden child there. I was like, “I can make all y’all records smack because music is my thing.” Buddy was on everybody’s track ‘cause he ain’t scared to ask. He’s like, “Yo, let me get four bars!” I was walking around with my sax like, “I want all the smoke!” I’m just hopping on records left and right, spitting haikus on records and leaving the room. I kept bumping into people that I don’t got no business knowing, like, Is this Rick Ross? Why is Young M.A passing next to me? We are not in the same circles. J. Cole was wearing his hip-hop capris and holding something educational in his hand. He’s like, “Yeah, this is hard.” And then disappeared. And I’m like, Nigga, you’re way too famous to be just giving compliments like this.
Cozz: It’s an artist’s Disney Land. I’ve never been in an environment where it’s a bunch of rappers, different types of artists in one area bouncing around and being able to see how they record. You don’t know who you gon’ see. One day you see Rick Ross, one day you see Akon. Every artist should experience something like this. I was just telling Bas, we should do this shit every month or two.
Brown: This kid pulled up, he was waiting in the fucking parking lot. He was just a fan. He figured out where it was, drove down and waited outside. Cole let him come in and chill in the green room area with the pool table. He probably made it into a few rooms.
Hamad: It was actually a super fan, so Cole recognized him. He once rapped for Cole outside of the Dollar and a Dream [tour in] Baltimore. And I’ll never forget it because one, he was nice, and two, he ended up on YouTube in our recap video. He drove from Baltimore and was just posted up. I think Cole recognized him. He was like, “Come through, catch a vibe. Just don’t pull your phone out.” He got to spend a day there. He was super happy. That was a super cool moment.
Brown: That speaks to what Dreamville has always been. We are fan-inclusive. We try to make them be a part of things.
Buddy: Swizz Beatz walked in and he’s just an eternal vibe in itself. They had like some live instrumentation they was doing, the mic was on and niggas started freestyling with Swizz Beatz singing the hook. It was like some organic, on-the-spot, legendary vibes.
Brown: There was a funny-ass session in a room upstairs. They were having, like, a gospel hour. Olu was on drums like a church drummer. Somebody was playing organs. Luke James and J.I.D was singing. Buddy was leading like a church praise-and-worship hour. Everybody was singing this gospel song that is definitely not going to come out because I’m pretty sure somebody owns it. It was an interpolation about smoking weed.
Deanté Hitchcock: Niggas remixed [gospel singer Tamela Mann’s] “Take Me to the King.” I don’t know what it’s going to drop on, but it’s going to drop. Every weed smoker in the world is going to have that shit on repeat forever. Buddy might be the funniest nigga alive.
Buddy: I just got closest to the mic and orchestrated the whole choir because everybody was all over the place. Pastor PassTheBlunt. I already knew I could get everybody’s attention. It came out nice.
Brown: I don’t know if that would see the project, but that moment was the epitome of that weekend. Dudes would just come in rooms and freestyle the wildest things. I came out with a newfound respect for a bunch of people.
Hamad: I was looking for [Revenge of the Dreamers III to be] a good representation of not just what our team is, but what that those 10 days were like. What it felt [like] to walk into a room and hear niggas on a trapped-out Pyrex beat killing it, then walk into another room and see Ari and Baby Rose doing a soulful, beautiful song. Or hearing a song with Omen, King Mez and Lute speaking real shit. Then you go to another room and you got J.I.D, Olu, Buddy and Guapdad all in the booth at once, screaming, talking about robbing the bank and just wilding out. There were so many different energies. The hardest part was finding how to bring those energies together and still make it feel like an album, like something that represents us. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. But the music is so good.
Buddy: It’s hella songs with no Dreamville artists. Some straggler music that’s just fire. I’m like, “Damn, what y’all gon’ do with these?”
J. Cole: We going to get in the room and play all of them. It’s a voting process. We speak honestly with each other. But 90 percent of these songs are going to see the light of day.
Buddy: Rap camp was the perfect kick start to rap for 2019. Nobody feels shorted, used or drained. The whole experience is empowering and fueling. Aside from all of the tight-ass music that’s coming out, I gained a whole lot of new friends. We can go eat breakfast, smoke weed, go on vacation, whatever. Music is just a bonus at this point. I started a group text—a bunch of memes and sending each other songs on the road.
Brown: I’m sure we’ll do it again. We’ve had whispers about how we would make this something that’s not done too much. But it’s definitely needed to foster new energy and ideas. We’re not going to do it like every six months ’cause we don’t want to kill the energy. We’re seeing other ones happen and it’s fine. People come together and do stuff like that all the time. The difference is there’s a specific project to wave the flag around that people care to be about—10 days to try to bang out a classic. A lot of times, writer’s camps are open-ended. That much talent usually doesn’t come together to work on one specific thing.
Dreezy: What I took away is just being sharper with my pen game. I get comfortable in the studio sometimes and I’ll take my time writing my verses. It just reminded me that it’s not so serious. Just have fun with it. You’ll hear a beat one way and then you’ll watch another rapper go up and he’ll have a flow that you wouldn’t even think of. It’s just watching how people work.
Deanté Hitchcock: [Rap camp] is going to be something that we gonna be talking about for a long time.
Hunter: The energy in the building is still crazy. We’re all on such a high to do something that was so historical at the top of the year. Where do we go from here?
See 106 Artists Who Were Invited to Dreamville's Revenge of the Dreamers III Recording Sessions in Atlanta