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.
Culture II proved that the phenomenal success of Migos’ 2017 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, “Bad and Boujee,” was no fluke. It became the trio’s second consecutive album to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with nearly 200,000 equivalent album units in its first week -- 69,000 more than its predecessor. And a little over a year after Donald Glover declared backstage at the Golden Globe Awards that Offset, Quavo and Takeoff were “the Beatles of this generation,” the trio tied The Fab Four’s record for most simultaneous entries on the Hot 100 by a duo or group: 14.
Quality Control artist Lil Yachty also showed year-to-year improvement: His Lil Boat 2 debuted at No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart in March, besting the No. 4 peak of his 2017 LP, Teenage Emotions.
He wasn't the only Lil to post big numbers for Thomas and Lee. Newcomer Lil Baby debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with his first album, Harder Than Ever, which has since generated 539,000 equivalent album units, helped by the Hot 100 top 10 hit “Yes Indeed,” featuring Drake.
“Five years,” says Lee into his snowy Philly beard, shaking his head. In that brief timespan, he and Thomas have built an empire that, in addition to Quality Control, has a management firm, Solid Foundation, with a roster that includes Yachty and star-in-the-making Trippie Redd, who debuted at No. 4 on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums in August with his first LP, Life’s a Trip.
NFL offensive rookie of the year (and Lee’s nephew) Alvin Kamara recently signed on as the first client of a newly established sports management division. And then there’s Cardi B, who Thomas describes as having a consulting arrangement with Quality Control, although that contradicts claims made by Cardi’s ex-manager, Klenord “Shaft” Raphael, in a $10 million breach-of-contract lawsuit he filed earlier in 2018. Raphael alleges the rapper signed a management deal with Quality Control in March.
Given the litigation, Thomas and Lee are wary of discussing the situation, save to deny Raphael’s claim.
“She’s Offset’s wife, so she’s automatic family,” says Thomas of his and Lee’s involvement in her career, adding, “Cardi’s very smart. She has seen what we do for artists. She’s got situations going on that we can’t speak on, and she came to us. We consult [for her], and she will continue to do good.”
Quality Control’s founders take pride in how, as Lee puts it, “we done made 10 millionaires” given the challenges they initially faced.
When he and Thomas founded the company in 2013, Lee was a manager whose résumé included Gucci Mane and Jeezy. Thomas’ previous rap label, Dirty Dolla Entertainment, had all but folded. They came together over a shared dream of emulating Master P’s No Limit and J. Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records and had already connected with the barely legal Migos. The executives say they personally spent millions funding every aspect of the act’s first year as signees, including the opulent 2013 music video for “Versace.” “We were so dedicated to making Migos push through, there was no budget,” says Thomas. “If we got to go broke for this, that’s what it’s going to take.”
That dedication would be tested in the coming years. When Migos’ 2015 debut album, Yung Rich Nation, was released, Offset was in jail for violating the probation he had received for burglary and theft convictions. Months later, Thomas and Lee spent a half-million dollars over 18 months of litigation wresting the act from a 2014 marketing/distribution deal with 300 Entertainment that had soured.
One dab dance craze and 8 billion career streams later -- 1.2 billion for “Bad and Boujee” alone -- success has not changed Quality Control’s ultra-lean operational strategy. With only a handful of day-to-day managers and receptionists on staff, Thomas and Lee rely largely on themselves and their social network to find and develop talent that exudes the kind of authenticity they saw in 23-year-old Lil Baby (given name Dominique Jones), a longtime friend of Thomas’ who attended Migos’ earliest club gigs, and who didn't start rapping until two months before releasing his debut mixtape, Perfect Timing, in 2017. “I used to tell Baby all the time: He has the swag,” says Lee of Jones, a high school dropout who was incarcerated for two years on marijuana-related charges. “He is the epitome of an Atlanta hustler. A lot of these kids rap about stuff they’re not even around. I’m like, ‘Man, they’re telling your story.’”
It’s instincts like that which led Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam to forge a co-venture with Quality Control in 2015. “They live and breathe the culture,” she says. ”Their taste in the music comes from an honest place -- that authenticity, coupled with an unparalleled work ethic, focus and passion, is what has helped to breed the success.”
Thomas and Lee hold their artists to a rigorous release schedule: Lil Baby arrived on the scene with four mixtapes in 2017. Culture II was released on the one-year anniversary of its predecessor. And the night before City Girls member JT turned herself in to authorities to serve a two-year jail sentence for credit card fraud, the duo recorded new material until 5 a.m., enabling Thomas and Lee to build on their newest act’s buzzy cameo on Drake’s “In My Feelings” while JT does her time.
But Quality Control’s artists might not be so inclined to -shout out their label in songs if Lee and Thomas didn't maintain their own breakneck pace -- and Quality Control’s enviable momentum. The urgency of their mission is not wasted on them. Nodding toward his partner, Thomas says, “I told him the other day: ‘Man, we’ve got to find the next artist to break.’”