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Dreamville details the making of J. Cole's 'The Warm Up' and his grind before signing to JAY-Z

Keith Nelson Jr

 // Jun 15, 2019

Felton Brown

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


"It was a mixtape, but we treated it like an album because, for us, it was the real first body of work we were putting out to the world, especially [with] having the hype of being JAY-Z's first artist signed," Mike Rooney, J. Cole's former manager, told REVOLT TV.

One person's greatness is never achieved solely by them alone. The Warm Up mixtape was Cole's vision. But, without others seeing it and helping it become actualized, it would've merely been a delusion. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the project, REVOLT TV discussed the making of the classic mixtape with Cole's former manager, Dreamville artists Bas and Omen, Cole's longtime engineer Juro "Mez" Davis, Dreamville's Head of Strategy and Marketing Derick Okolie, and longtime Cole producer Anthony "Elite" Parrino.

For all intents and purposes, the seminal mixtape we know and love now started in 2006 on Myspace with Mike, the nephew of mega producer Cory Rooney. Mike was J. Cole's manager before and during The Warm Up and instrumental in helping the artist get signed to JAY-Z's Roc Nation. He says he linked with Cole after the aspiring rapper saw him as a well-connected person in the industry during a session at the infamous Baseline Recording studios in New York City. Afterward, Cole messaged the producer on the once-popular social media site.



Mike remembers the first record of Cole's that he ever heard was "School Daze," which ended up on The Come Up, the mixtape before The Warm Up. He saw something special in the rapper and wanted to show this diamond in the rough that he could help him shine brighter.

"That was my pitch. [Drove] him to my uncle's mansion, show him a bunch of plaques. The mansion was in upper Brookville, New York. It's literally down the street from where Marc Anthony and J. Lo lived."

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J. Cole In The Mansion

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But, before The Warm Up or The Come Up came out, Cole was alreadypreparing for his upcoming stardom. The St. John's University basketball team walk-on was treating his future as a rapper the way one of the best basketball players ever treated his own craft.

"Before the project came out, he was just really focused. I've known Cole since he was 15, so I knew him well," Dreamville artist Omen told REVOLT TV. "I remember at a point when he was in St. John's and I hadn't spoken to him in a while. He hit me like, 'I've been really focused. I've been hitting the gym. I'm treating this music shit like Kobe. I'm shooting shots every day. I'm putting up this many shots.'"

Mike remembers Cole going from recording songs in his bedroom to making music in actual recording facilities like 333 Studios and KMA Music studios in Manhattan, where the rapper linked him with Mez, his now-engineer. "We would get to the studio at night time and be in there until six or seven in the morning. Everybody had to get up. Cole had a telemarketing job and classes. I had a job and just had a son. It was the entire Dreamville, at the time, in there thugging it out," the former manager said.

Mike worked with publishing companies to bring in writers and producers to studios, and traded in financial compensation for free studio time for the MC to work on The Warm Up. Without his connections, Cole probably wouldn't have been able to complete the mixtape on a telemarketer salary.

"We would do at least 10-12 hours per session. If we were doing $1,000 a lockout rate, we probably pushed $20,000 - $30,000 in studio time. Honestly, it was probably more. But, I'm going to lowball it."



Some of the records on The Warm Up were done years before the world heard the project. "Can I Live" was done in '08. "Grown Simba" was probably done in '07. "Hold It Down" was done in 2007-2008. "My son was in [the 'Hold It Down' session]. He was three years old. He's 14 years old now," Mike recollected.

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J. Cole, Mez and Mike Rooney Working On "Hold It Down"

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Before future Dreamville mainstays Bas and Okolie became close with Cole, they had no idea he rapped. To Bas, Jermaine was the guy "always hanging out with Ib." To Okolie, he was "the nigga that be at [Bas'] crib." That all changed when they got a taste of a rare sampler of the mixtape that was referred to as The Warm Up Before The Warm Up.

"One day [Ib] told me, 'Yo, Jermaine raps,'" Bas told REVOLT TV. "He played me some shit and it was fire. It was a lot of songs from The Warm Up To The Warm Up and I was like, 'Oh shit, he's special. He raps raps.' It feels like a blur. I can't believe it's been 10 years."

The Warm Up sessions spanned over years, but only 22 tracks made it on the final project. Naturally, that meant that there were songs left off. But, The Warm Up was a meticulous vision, and those unreleased songs were more than merely leftovers, but missing pieces to a Cole puzzle that we have yet to see -- or hear.

"We had a project before The Warm Up where 'Lights Please' was supposed to go into 'Lost Ones,' which was supposed to go into 'Confessions,' which went into another record. It was supposed to be a four-part thing and they all tied into each other's story," Mike revealed. "The girl from 'Lights Please' that wants to fuck and doesn't care about any political issues then becomes pregnant in 'Lost Ones.' Then, 'Confessions' was J. Cole fucking around thinking how she's fucking around and her being pregnant, and that kid not being his. We were going to shoot a mini-film and tie everything together."

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J. Cole Recording Hold It Down verse

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Mez even attests that "there are still songs that aren't out that were recorded around The Warm Up time that are, honestly, just as good and better than some of the stuff that [have] come out." Mike says a few months ago, he reminded Cole of one of the forgotten songs from the mixtape's sessions titled "Pro Black." What was the response from the multi-platinum artist? "Bro, please tell me you still got this!"

Cole's former manager, then, confidently proclaimed, "I have everything." One other song he most likely has in the vault is one that many The Warm Up fans love. In March 2009, months before the mixtape dropped, Cole freestyled on DJ Green Lantern's Invasion Radio show for the DJ's "On Da Spot" segment. The freestyle was later included on The Warm Up and titled "Water Break (Interlude)." But, it was originally a verse recorded over the instrumental of Kanye West's "We Major."

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J. Cole rapping over Kanye West's "We Major"

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The Warm Up was homegrown with each song being imbued with the youthful excitement of someone on the brink of reaching their dreams. With youth often comes sentimentality, as everything means that much more because it's your first time. Your first kiss at 12 probably occupies a more indelible place in your memory than your 100th at 21. These songs had similar meaning.

During that March 2009 radio visit, Green Lantern also gave Cole his first major radio spin when he played The Warm Up standout "Grown Simba." Cole has heard himself on the radio countless times since then. But, that time will live on forever in his mind.

"That was a big moment for us and a big night for us. I think the fact that it was such a moment is why we put that on there," Elite remembered. "And he killed the verse. So, we were like, 'Yeah, let's put that on there, so we can have that special moment live on.'"

Before The Warm Up was being formally created, Cole had 10-20 records that weren't put into a body of work, and that he and Mike played for JAY in their first meeting. Mike estimates they probably played 60%-70% of the songs that ended up on the project for the mogul. The Syience-produced "Can I Live" was the first record the former manager remembers Cole recording on a beat not self-produced, and it was one of JAY's favorites.

"I wanted to hear Cole around that time with other producers, and bigger producers, just to see how far we could go. He's an amazing producer now. But, back then, my mentality was, 'We got to get to it, so any push we can get from any bigger name producers, let's do it," Mike said.



Mez remembers the deal with JAY-Z wasn't done yet and the team began feeling as if they had to make more songs to get it finalized. Elite remembers similarly, recounting how stifling the expectations may have been on Cole's creative process. "I think there may have been a time when he was feeling pressure from people within the team to make certain types of songs, as opposed to him just being in his room creating freely," the producer said.

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J. Cole Recording "I Get Up"

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As a solution, Cole would drive from Queens to Elite's place outside of the city to record in the beat-maker's bedroom -- away from the grand expectations that filled the big-budget studios -- for roughly two weeks. That's why on the intro of "Heartache," you hear Cole yelling out, "Elite! Elite! Elite!" He was the main person helping turn Cole's thoughts into music. "That's why he was shouting me out on those songs. I was just recording him in my bedroom, letting him get away [from] the big studios at that time, and [I] let him get back to that bedroom recording feeling."

The expectations may have been big, but the team that decided the final tracklist for The Warm Up remained small. Ibrahim Hamad, Mez, Elite, Mike and Cole chose the final order of the songs. Yet, in the end, the final say on what The Warm Up would be was left to the architect of it all: Cole, himself.

Once The Warm Up was released on June 15, 2009, it spread across college campuses quicker than a wildfire. Okolie helped spread the gospel of the mixtape at New York University functions by commandeering the aux chord or handing out CDs to whomever was in charge the festivities' music. For him, like so many others, The Warm Up was a precedent of the golden era of Do-It-Yourself music that was central to the blog era.

"After The Warm Up, I was tuned in and then I found Drake. Then, I found [Kid] Cudi," Okolie told REVOLT TV. "It made me want to start checking for new niggas because if this dude is that dope and he was right under my nose, who else is out there? It really speaks to the blog era. The blog era's legacy is Kendrick [Lamar], Cole and Drake. Those are the niggas that carried that whole era."



Before The Warm Up was even a thought, Cole rapped on The Come Up song "School Daze" that he and his friends were dreaming of "tryna be the next JAY-Z and Dame Dashes." That was the first song that caught the ear of Mike, who then hooked the rapper up with that free studio time and help with The Warm Up. It was also one of the songs that they played for JAY-Z in their first meeting. When that lyric came on, "JAY stopped the song and looked at us and said, 'Could you have imagined this back then?'" Mike recalled.

The thought manifested, the vision was seen, and The Warm Up was Cole's catalyst to success.


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