Migos, Rich the Kid, OG Maco, and, most recently, Lil Yachty are some of the most celebrated artists to come out of Atlanta’s constantly refreshing young hip-hop industry in the past three years. All of those acts are linked by Quality Control, the label started in 2013 by Kevin Lee, better known as Coach K, and Pierre Thomas, or Pee. QC is an independent label, but thanks to its nimble approach to marketing and distribution, in these times it basically punches in the same weight class as the majors.
Coach K serves as the label’s A&R mastermind, and while he’s overseen the rise of plenty of successful recent acts, he made his name managing artists including Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and Pastor Troy. But Coach’s roots go even deeper that, and as he will tell you, he’s been around since the beginning. Given the flash in the pan realities of hip-hop, Coach’s track record for consistently finding and cultivating new talent remains a remarkable achievement. This is especially the case in Atlanta, a city known for a rap scene that’s mostly dominated by the tastes of teenagers, while Coach K is currently a fortysomething. Here he explains how he keeps up.
What do you look for in a new artist?
Originality is [number] one. When I’m looking at an artist, I take my time checking them out and getting into them. Because there’s so many of them out here, the ones that grab you, it’s the originality.
What’s the process for recruiting an artist for Quality Control?
I just take my time. I’m not gonna be in a rush to chase after these artists. At this point in my career, they’re gonna come. Sometimes you miss some, sometimes you don’t. I kinda take my time and watch them, and just establish a working relationship. I don’t want to be in business with nobody I can’t really work with. It’s terrible.
How have you managed to stay ahead of the curve in terms of new musical trends?
‘Cause I’m in it. I’m not one of those guys where I’ve gotten to a point where I’m so far away from the creative. I’m right there, close to it, like right at the pulse of it. I’m sitting there right with ‘em. Sometimes you get to a point in your career where you developed an artist and you kind of remove yourself away from him. I actually still walk the walk.
Are you just constantly listening to new music?
Constantly. I’m constantly listening to new stuff. And you know what it is? I put myself in a place where you can get to me. I meet people all the time when I’m out, and they’re like, “Yo, I got some music for you.” And I give them my real phone number. They bug out, like, “This is your real phone number?” I’m like, “Yeah. How else are we supposed to get in contact with each other?” I just make myself available.
Is it different when you’re looking for artists outside of Atlanta?
Nah, it’s not. I find artists all the time that are not from Atlanta. I’m a research guy. I love the culture so much I’m always researching the culture. I want to see where it’s going to go. Who’s got the next sound? Where is the sound going to go?
Atlanta has the strip club test to see if a song is going to be a hit, but how do you as an individual tell if a song is going to be big? Do you know instinctually?
I do, but even with Atlanta, it’s only certain records that can provide that strip club test. You have a whole ’nother scene of young kids that are really breaking the records in Atlanta. They’re on it before it even makes it to the strip clubs. Or it’s at the same time. Once it gets passed them, and they stamp it, that’s when it’s gonna go.
When we talked to OG Maco, he described the scene in Atlanta right now as having a renaissance. What’s your perspective on that?
It’s going through a change of the guards right now. It is a renaissance time. The youth took back the culture. Ten years ago, in Atlanta, you had the Jeezys, the T.I.s, the Guccis—they were the youth then. They took their fans and their fans went up with them, but then it got to a point where I don’t think they were relevant to what was really going on. They’re so removed from it. The only one that stayed relevant was Gucci, just because of all his ups and downs throughout the course of his life. In Atlanta there’s so many young thriving artists now. All the kids, that’s who they’re fucking with. They’re not checking for none of the old artists no more. And the older artists can’t really relate to them. It’s just going through a change. It reminds me of the mid- to late-’80s. Hip-hop was at a thriving point, when people started really paying attention to it. You had those artists out there that was breaking barriers, that wasn’t scared. That’s what’s going on.
Do kids in the newer generation still have any reverence for the older guard?
The youth, they fuck with ‘em, it’s just they’re doing their own thing now. Ten years ago, the big thing was to get on TRL or, like, 106 & Park. That shit don’t exist anymore. So the youth now, they’ve got everything in their hands. They’ve got their own cameras, we can shoot our own videos, we can produce our own record, and we’ve got a social network out here where we can go touch our fans. So we’re gonna do it ourselves.
Did the older generation have to fall away from the mainstream so that newer people could come up in Atlanta?
Kinda sorta. But what happened was, the mainstream got watered down. The younger generation, they want the essence. And when I say essence, it’s not the essence of, like, the hip-hop lyrical rap. It’s just the essence of what’s going on. When these artists got so big, it got watered down: you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t say that, you have to dress this way, videos have to look like this, the songs have to be this length. But now you do it yourself. I survived by those rules.
How does that affect the way that the business of music is done?
I don’t think it affects the way [it’s done] at all. It takes me back to the essence. I can actually say I was there when hip-hop started. And I stayed relevant from the time it started to where it is now. When it first started, it was an underground thing, and only the ones who knew, knew. And once they knew, they shared it, and that’s how it spread, until the mainstream came in and grabbed it and took it to another place. It basically took the music away from the people who really built the music. So now it’s back to that.
How did it get taken back from the mainstream?
The internet. You take an artist on SoundCloud who’s built a community. He feeds his community, and then that community goes and spreads it. Them kids aren’t listening to the radio now. They don’t care about the radio because it’s not accessible anymore. I mean everything’s accessible to your phone, but that’s how they operate, off your phone. But if they’re gonna hear something, they’re not waiting on radio stations, or for videos to play on a TV station. They’re going directly to it. “Oh, you heard this new song?” “Send me the link. Oh, that shit is dope. Let me spread the link.” Or if you want to see the video? They go directly to it.
So how does that affect what you’re doing, running a label?
I watched [the youth] and I learned from them. And I’m able to take that process and put it in my playbook for my label. It’s an unorthodox playbook. I have probably eight artists signed to QC. Only two of them really touch radio, but they’re all touring. Why is that? Because we put the network on and made sure that they can go out there and tour.
Do you feel like your approach with QC is setting a precedent?
We are building a model, but it’s really a model of watching Def Jam when they first started, and watching Jimmy Iovine at Interscope, and watching somebody like Chance the Rapper build his shit, where he doesn’t even sell his music, and blending it all together.
What Chance is doing is really interesting. What are your thoughts on his method? What would you tell an aspiring artist looking to use that model?
The pros are some artists might not ever make a radio record—or not a radio record, but what society has billed as a radio record—but they’re able to still feed their fans and community the music, so they can go tour and sell merch. And they might stream hella records, because streaming is the new radio station. These playlists are the new radio stations. You’ve got to make sure your artists are getting onto the playlists. I build them up so that they can get on the playlists.
Do your younger artists have the same work ethic that Gucci Mane and Jeezy used to have? Or has it changed?
Nah, it hasn’t. I’ve got an artist now, Lil Yachty. Dude doesn’t leave the studio. He works, he tours, then back to the studio. We’re on tour right now with Young Thug’s nationwide tour. We took our studio on the road. So as soon as he’s done, he’s back in the room recording. That’s where he’s comfortable.