How Coach K built an indie hip-hop empire with Quality Control label
On 2017, the Atlanta hip-hop label Quality Control released their first label-wide project, Quality Control: Control the Streets Volume 1, a sprawling, 30-track record mixing and matching the boutique label’s roster of artists.
It’s a massive, impressive, if not slightly overwhelming, project with guest appearances from Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Kodak Black. More interestingly, Control the Streets is the tangible culmination of the work of Quality Control (Q.C.) and label head Kevin “Coach K” Lee, who has created an indie hip-hop empire.
Coach K’s mother and grandmother worked pressing records at the RCA Records factory in Indianapolis and he’s always been surrounded by music. Early Motown records informed his taste, but it was Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” that changed his idea of music. Coach K says on his website:
“I was hooked on rap immediately. Me and one of my best friends, his parents had bought him two turntables, so we just started spending our money buying records.Then my cousin, he DJ’d so I got engulfed in buying records.”
In search of a career in music management, Coach K moved to Atlanta from Indianapolis in the mid-90s, just as Outkast was blowing up and putting Atlanta hip-hop on the map. By the turn of the century, artists like T.I. and Young Jeezy were changing the perception of Atlanta hip-hop and shaping the sound of what has become the most ubiquitous genre of music in America.
What separates Quality Control from its competitors is that it’s an Atlanta company by and for its community. Most of the musicians on the official roster are from Atlanta and when Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker recently caught up with Coach K, he was handing out free Thanksgiving turkeys with Migos members Quavo and Takeoff.
Coach K told Sanneh about his idea of Atlanta as a hub of Black business:
“There’s no feeling like when I’m coming back to Atlanta, I’m in that airport and I see all those black people with jobs. When I travel to Phoenix or to Chicago, or even Indianapolis or Cleveland, Orlando—when you walk into those airports, it’s a few of us. But when you come to Atlanta it’s like, Whoa!”
The first artist Coach K successfully linked up with in Atlanta was the hard-hustling Pastor Troy, whose discography is a never-ending collection of mixtapes and studio albums. Then, Coach met Young Jeezy, who was on the rise, buoyed by his connections to B.M.F., a combination drug cartel and music studio that helped promote Jeezy throughout the city.
After a fallout with B.M.F., Jeezy released two mixtapes, Tha Streetz Iz Watchin and Trap or Die in 2004 and 2005 alongside DJ Drama and soon became one of the hottest rappers in the game.
Coach K has an obvious ear and eye for talent. He also managed Gucci Mane (despite his violent beef with Young Jeezy) and Q.C.’s current roster boasts Migos and Lil Yachty, whose names have permeated popular culture far beyond Atlanta hip-hop.
Migos are a hip-hop superteam and while Yachty’s debut album Teenage Emotions may have been somewhat of a flop on the charts, he’s been tipped by brands like Nautica and Sprite in ad campaigns.
Sanneh wrote for The New Yorker that while Yachty is frustrated with his numbers and thinks he has something to prove right now, Coach K isn’t as worried:
“Lee says that Yachty shouldn’t worry about old-fashioned hits, because his big and loyal online audience doesn’t worry about them, either.”
Coach K, who is 46, clearly has an understanding of the current landscape of music, specifically hip-hop, and its relationship with the internet and what that means for fandom.
His salt and pepper beard may give him an authority, as he told The New Yorker,
“With this gray beard, I’m a O.G. When I say something, they listen—like, ‘Oh, the O.G. must have been through it.'”
But Coach K is also completely fluent in contemporary music,
“When I visit my friends, I sit with their kids, and we talk about music. 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.'”
Coach K, who got his name from Jeezy for the label head’s proclivity to give instructions in the studio, is advised by his right hand man Pierre “Pee” Thomas, who he met through Gucci Mane. Thomas is 10 years younger than Coach K and took a slightly different route to become a record executive.
The combination of Coach K and Pee is the ideal duo to run a boutique hip-hop label. Tamika Howard, general manager of Quality Control, told The New York Times, “Pee is the street one, Coach is the suave one. Yin and yang, but it’s the perfect match.”
Pee acts as a sort of guiding force to the young artists Q.C. works with.
Sometimes these artists are in various stages of extricating themselves from their “previous careers” or involved in legal proceedings that could hamper their rise. Lil Baby, a recent Q.C. signee who has dotted rap blogs since he started rapping in February, told The New York Times that Pee is a “police-dad, but in a good way.”
To that end, Pee Thomas told the Times that he understands where these artists are coming from:
“I know what it’s like trying to get out the hood, trying not to make the same mistakes and put yourself in the position to go back to prison. It’s hard getting money out here, especially for young black men with no education, coming from low-income areas.”
Pee went on to explain that it’s Quality Control’s connection to the local neighborhoods, the streets, that has allowed their tiny label (Q.C. has less than 10 employees) to thrive in such a cutthroat and hegemonic industry:
“Other labels have these A & Rs and C.E.O.s and chairmen, sitting in an office looking on the internet at numbers on SoundCloud and Spotify — they’re just into the analytics. That’s part of it. But if I’m being honest — and it might sound ignorant — I don’t own a computer. I’m really out here in it.”
Despite their differences from, and independence of, other labels, Quality Control is aided by distribution and promotion deals with Capitol Records and Motown, a record label that Coach K sees as an “antecedent” to his business. Motown is clearly an influence on Quality Control’s business and artistic strategies, and the label’s recent success makes the comparison even more apt.
Things don’t appear to be slowing down for Coach K and Q.C. anytime soon. After Control the Streets, a new Yachty project is slated for late December.
Migos are dropping a new album in January. In the meantime, Quality Control is laying down the blueprint on how an independent hip-hop label can thrive in 2017.