November 21, 2017
ATLANTA — Unless you catch a glimpse of the eggplant Mercedes-Maybach S600 or the various young men with clusters of diamonds on choker-short chains coming and going at all hours, there is nothing too flashy about the headquarters of Quality Control Music, a record label here in the world’s de facto hip-hop capital.
As the birthplace of the chart-topping, trendsetting careers of Migos and Lil Yachty, this studio and office compound, northwest of downtown, is the latest nondescript landmark to help alter the course of rap music, a near-constant occurrence in Atlanta over the last two decades. But despite its pedigree as a center of luxury and innovation, the space — tucked behind a Goodwill and a full-service dog care facility — is light on bacchanalia and heavy on rules and expectations.
“DO NOT come to the studio UNLESS you are working,” reads a weathered printout taped to a bare wall amid four recording studios. “BE RESPONSIBLE for the company you bring … DO NOT have anyone dropping off or picking up drugs at the studio … This is not your home, this is not a hangout, this is a place of business. PLEASE conduct yourself accordingly and in a professional manner.” (Also: “ANY gambling, all parties involved must pay the house 30%!”)
December 11, 2017
Seven hundred turkeys, two rappers, and an intermediate number of onlookers had assembled in the parking lot of a Kroger supermarket on Cleveland Avenue, on the scrappy south side of Atlanta. The rappers were Quavo and Takeoff, two of the three members of Migos, the dominant hip-hop group of the moment—known for exuberant, off-kilter tracks, like “Bad and Boujee,” that seem to consist of nothing but interjections. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, and the two were standing in the back of a U-Haul truck, facing a growing crowd of people who wanted turkeys or pictures or both. Takeoff grabbed a carton and opened it. “We shipping them boxes out,” he barked—Migos can turn just about any handful of words into a memorable refrain.
The turkey supply had already begun to dwindle when one of the event’s organizers arrived, pulling up in an elegant but inconspicuous Range Rover. His name is Kevin Lee, but everyone calls him Coach K, and, in the world of hip-hop, he may be better known than the Duke basketball impresario from whom he took his nickname. In the aughts, Lee managed two of the city’s most important rappers—Young Jeezy and then, a few years later, Gucci Mane—undaunted by the fact that the men had engaged in a bitter and apparently bloody feud. Nowadays, he is both a manager and a record executive, guiding the careers of Migos and a clutch of other young hip-hop stars, including Lil Yachty, who is twenty and calls himself the King of the Youth. Lee is forty-six, an age that offers some advantages of its own. “With this gray beard, I’m a O.G.,” he says. “When I say something, they listen—like, ‘Oh, the O.G. must have been through it.’ ” But he prides himself on being open to whatever musical mania is currently seizing the young people who tend to be his clients, and his customers. “When I visit my friends, I sit with their kids, and we talk about music,” he says. “And my friends be like, ‘How the hell do you understand that shit?’ I’m like, ‘This is what I love, and this is what I do.’ ”
February 2018 Cover Story
It’s the day after the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, and the members of Quality Control Music have to put their tuxedos back on. We’re awaiting the arrival of label heads Coach K and Pee, the Grammy-nominated Migos, and Lil Yachty at a spacious Brooklyn warehouse for a cover shoot and interview. I’m anxiously pacing. I’ve met them all—before Yachty’s breakout and the meteoric rise of Migos—but their most recent interaction with Complex launched a thousand memes. I’d like to avoid that.
As I march about, I imagine an exuberant caravan of rappers, managers and friends, all making an elaborate entrance—something like a hip-hop presidential motorcade. These are superstars, after all. QC is, at this moment, one of the most respected (and lucrative) collectives in rap and, in Migos and Yachty, genuine celebrities. But my expectations of everyone materializing in a single post-party, weed-scented, well-choreographed tornado are dashed. Instead, this close-knit family’s arrivals are staggered, separate.
Quality Control’s founders, COO Kevin “Coach K” Lee and CEO Pierre “Pee” Thomas, are the first to arrive. The pair are all business, scanning the room in search of the decision-maker. Coach K is a towering figure whose grey beard, direct eye-contact, and tranquil demeanor elicit respect. Pee, a man who looks younger than he likely is, keeps his shades on indoors for much, much longer than someone whose day job isn’t finding, signing, and managing superstar rappers.
January 20, 2015
Why the Rap Veterans Behind Atlanta Indie Label Quality Control Music Are the Smartest Guys in Hip-Hop
Two middle-aged guys in hoodies named Coach and Pee run what may be the most important hip-hop label in America. This spring, they'll release 2015's most anticipated rap debut, a Lil Wayne-featuring full-length from trap-rap trio Migos, who have already collaborated with Justin Bieber and reached the Billboard Hot 100 on three occasions. They have an innovative deal with 300 Entertainment -- the New York music company founded by former Warner Bros. executives Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz and Kevin Liles -- for distribution and marketing of nearly all the acts on their label, Quality Control Music. By behaving like managers and studio owners as well as execs, Coach and Pee are drawing a road map for other upstart indies in the 21st century.
Formed in March 2013, Quality Control is the shared vision of Kevin "Coach" Lee, a 40-something dad who used to manage Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and Pierre "Pee" Thomas, a 35-year-old Atlanta native who "used to wear a lot of jewelry" and grew up idolizing No Limit entrepreneur Master P. Together, they invested deeply in a carefully curated roster of young rap talents -- as influential local producer Zaytoven puts it, "They've got all the hottest artists in Atlanta" -- the most successful of whom is Migos, who command roughly $40,000 a performance.
Envisioning a digital-age hybrid company, Coach and Pee hired a radio and promotions staff. They started their own publishing and management ventures. They spent 12 months and $1 million to build a bunker-like headquarters on Atlanta's West Side, which houses office space and four recording studios. "Everything we do is in-house," says Pee. "We got our own producers, our own engineers."
September 27, 2018
Pierre 'Pee' Thomas and Kevin 'Coach K' Lee on Quality Control's Takeover of Hip-Hop
Dressed for work in a white T-shirt and black pants, Pierre “Pee” Thomas hunches over his cellphone in the bunker-like Atlanta headquarters of Quality Control Music. “We’re into something real deep right now,” he says as he scrolls through Apple Music’s list of top 100 songs while Kevin “Coach K” Lee, fresh from the barber, reclines in his office chair.
Thomas is searching for a song on the list that doesn't qualify as hip-hop. He names two, Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” and Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” but both feature rappers associated with the homegrown label they founded and run, Thomas as CEO and Lee as COO. “Girls Like You” guest stars Cardi B, whom the two say is the first client of a new consulting company they have formed, and a remix of “Boo’d Up” with a cameo by Quavo of Quality Control flagship act Migos helped propel Mai to the top of Billboard’s Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in July.
“How is hip-hop running the world right now?” asks a poker-faced Thomas, evoking a chuckle from Lee. They are fully aware that Quality Control and its major-label partner, Capitol Records, are on the front lines of that takeover.
If hip-hop is Atlanta’s biggest cultural export, Quality Control has been a critical wholesaler in the streaming age, most notably with Migos’ aptly named smash, Culture, in early 2017 and, exactly one year later, its sequel.
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.”