Why the Rap Veterans Behind Atlanta Indie Label Quality Control Music Are the Smartest Guys in Hip-Hop

Chris Stanford

Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas photographed by Chris Stanford on December 10, 2014 at Auto Spa Bistro in Atlanta. 

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."

"There's no question in my mind they'll become one of the most important independent labels in the urban genre," says 300's Moscowitz. "They'll be an independent with a national view."

During the last two decades, Atlanta has become hip-hop's "Third Coast," a black-music mecca fueled by acts like Outkast, Goodie Mob and Lil Jon that rivaled -- and later, arguably, eclipsed -- New York and Los Angeles as rap's most influential breeding ground. From this perch, Quality Control isn't aiming to be a niche local operation, but a nimble national one -- an indie with the power and reach of a major.

"We have potential to be the next Roc-a-Fella or Cash Money," says Pee. "It's a different time for album sales, but as far as status and influence, we could be one of the biggest labels in the country."

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Coach grew up in Indianapolis and moved to Atlanta to run a record label with then-Atlanta Hawks forward Alan Henderson in 1996. Later, on Coach's watch, Young Jeezy scored two No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 (2006's The Inspiration and 2008's The Recession), and Gucci Mane peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Rap Albums chart with 2011's The Return of Mr. Zone 6. Meanwhile, Pee was recovering from a dispiriting experience running a small money-pit label called Dirty Dolla Entertainment when his conversations began with Coach, who had stopped working with Gucci and started courting Migos. ("Pee wanted to do the label thing," recalls Coach. "I was like, 'I'll manage them.'")

With Migos onboard, Coach and Pee signed a handful of local artists (Skippa Da Flippa, Rich the Kid, Johnny Cinco) to 360 deals that split revenue from touring, merchandise, publishing, licensing, music sales -- pretty much everything. Moving forward, they started treating music -- mostly mixtapes and digital singles -- more like advertisements for tours, merch, endorsements and licensing than a direct revenue source. "You can't just depend on the music," says Pee. "You've got to have seven different hustles. Most of the money is coming from touring, so my artists are doing hella shows."

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Migos' de facto frontman, Quavo, sometimes feels the brunt of the hustle. Last December, after his group hopscotched around the country, from Hawaii to New York and then Cincinnati, the 23-year-old arrived in Atlanta so tired he fell asleep on the train from the baggage claim to the terminal, riding it around three times before waking up. Even then he couldn't fully relax: Quavo and his fellow Migos -- nephew Takeoff, 20, and cousin Offset, 23 -- were leaving for Europe and Dubai in two days. (Migos is so hot internationally that it just got an invitation to perform in Equatorial Guinea, a show that would've paid the group $45,000 per day, plus expenses. It declined.)

"It's tiring," says Quavo. "It'll wear you out, but I love it. At the end of the day, that's the way we make money."

Major labels -- Def Jam, RCA, Atlantic -- saw money in Migos too. "$1 million isn't hard to get when you've got the hottest group in the country," says Pee. Plus, a major wasn't as major as it once was, so Quality Control declined their offers. "You don't really need a label for distribution [anymore]," says Coach. "Physical sales are obsolete. Everything is digital. We can go straight to the distributors ourselves."

As with other indies, Coach and Pee recognized that to take viral hits global, they would need help. Since 300 has a data-accessing agreement with Twitter, Quality Control's partnership with the company enables nearly all of its artists better positioning on the platform. By monitoring activity on social networks and streaming sites, the label can allocate resources more effectively: If one region doesn't respond to a single, the area can be targeted with radio promotion or advertising; if the song is trending in another city, tour dates can be added there.

"If you look at Google Trends, you'll see the size of Migos' [reach] has doubled or tripled since we started working with them," says Moscowitz. Migos also charted three singles on the Hot 100 ("Versace," "Fight Night," "Handsome and Wealthy"), sold more than 600,000 singles through iTunes and averages between 1.5 million and 2 million daily streams on Pandora -- all without a proper album.

Analytics aside, some of Quality Control's success owes to good old-fashioned A&R. OG Maco, a 22-year-old whose spare, unhinged, thoroughly bizarre "U Guessed It" accrued more than 15 million YouTube views, says the song's viral success and No. 95 peak on the Hot 100 occasioned offers from major labels, but Quality Control understood him better.

"Everybody else heard 'U Guessed It' and wanted to make me the 'U Guessed It' rapper," says Maco. "That was something I made drunk, and they wanted to make my entire career off that. QC never tried to mold me into anything but a better me."

Quavo vouches for Coach and Pee's strength as mentors too. "We're genuine, and the loyalty is going to always stay there," he says. He can't imagine it differently: "I really feel like CEO and artist should have a strong relationship. We eat off the same plate, so there shouldn't be no glass on the plate."

Maco, who Pee calls "a black punk-rock star," and the label's latest in-progress signing, Miloh Smith -- a young Atlanta Lauryn Hill/Janelle Monae-type singer-rapper -- represent another Quality Control priority: diversifying its portfolio. "I don't want just to be known as 'the trap label,' " says Coach. "I want to be a mainstream label." He mentions a 14-year-old with a big voice -- "like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys" -- who's on his radar, and an upcoming meeting with some Swedish producers. (Quavo, for his part, says he wants to record with bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line.)

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Quality Control also reflects the duality of the city that birthed it. Although the streets and strip clubs have been the main incubator for the crunk, snap and trap music that dominated the last 15 years here, artists like Maco and Smith (and non-Quality Control acts like ILoveMakonnen and Father) represent what Coach calls a "popping, hipster underground scene" that has sprung largely from a neighborhood called Edgewood. The area is filled with new bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as more racially and economically diverse clientele.

Despite the label's intimacy with Atlanta -- its whole roster hails from the city -- Quality Control's ambitions lie beyond the Southern capital. Coach says he wants the brand to be a "world label" -- recognizing that in today's industry climate, agility is more essential than global growth. He would still like to apply its new model to some old-model accomplishments: "Five years from now, hopefully, we'll have some plaques on these walls."

But in the meantime, they're reinventing the business out of necessity. As Pee notes, "It takes some people 15 years to get in this position."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.