November 19, 2019
Coach K, the titan behind Atlanta’s blooming hip hop community
Quality Control, the label behind hip hop icons like Lil Baby, Migos, and City Girls, was co-founded by Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who carries with him a large presence. He has a deep, restrained voice, and a stark white beard. He doesn’t come across as particularly emotive, apart from a warm smile that will overtake his face every so often. Nor is he outwardly animated, unlike the notorious Duke University basketball coach with whom Coach K shares his name; but his athletic, dexterous, and planned approach to the music industry resembles a basketball game plan. It’s a skillset he’s been developing since his early life in Indianapolis, admiring his uncle and namesake, an all-American basketball player who instilled in Coach K a competitive drive. “[He] literally put the basketball in my crib,” Coach said during a panel at Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta earlier this month. Now an undisputed titan in hip hop, he’s determined to impart this drive to artists on his label.
Coach’s involvement in the music industry did not begin with the rise of Quality Control, however; it has been a part of his life since his youth. During Coach’s childhood, both his mother and grandmother worked at RCA Records’ now-defunct pressing plant in Indianapolis. As a child Coach loved listening to the various records his family brought home from the plant. In the mid ’90s he uprooted to Atlanta after seeing its blooming music and cultural scene; now, almost two decades after the move, Coach K is a gatekeeper to the city, largely because of the sustainable hip hop scene he has fostered and his community-first approach to building a business.
“We’ve built our company brick by brick—grab your fans, build this fan base, and then let’s just grow it out, out, out,” Coach told me backstage of Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theater following the exclusive panel, hosted by Red Bull Music, which gave fans a rare glimpse into the rap industry. Under the guidance of Coach K and his partner Pierre “Pee” Thomas, artists like Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, and Migos have skyrocketed to the top of billboard charts through series of individual albums and two volumes of the compilation album, Control the Streets. The success behind the QC label is thanks to a combination of the label’s savvy business and publicity moves and Coach and Pee’s ability to nurture their artists, encouraging them to be their authentic selves. “What I always tell artists is to be true to themselves. In hip hop it’s all about storytelling. Say for instance, Lil Baby, working on his album. He’s had some pop success, but the reason that he’s had that success is because he’s stayed so real to himself,” Coach explained. “He has a gift in keeping it real and keeping it authentic to himself, and giving it to his fans in a way where it can sustain in these different genres.”