(AllHipHop Features) The undeniable success of Atlanta’s Quality Control Music follows in the tradition of iconic imprints such as Death Row, Bad Boy, No Limit, Cash Money, and Roc-A-Fella; Hip Hop record companies that defined an era and provided the soundtrack for millions of people’s lives.
Quality Control co-founder Kevin "Coach K" Lee studied Roc-A-Fella’s moves prior to him and Pierre "Pee" Thomas launching the brand that would come to be known as QC The Label. After initially drawing business inspiration from the Roc’s Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter, Damon "Dame" Dash, and Kareem "Biggs" Burke, Coach K was ready to share some of his own jewels to the next generation.
On November 8, hundreds of music industry hopefuls packed into the Plaza Theatre for the Red Bull Music Festival Atlanta in order to receive a gameplan from Coach K. The Indianapolis, Indiana native sat down with moderator Christina Lee to reflect on his come up and career accomplishments.
“They hit me and said they were coming to Atlanta to do a whole experience in Atlanta. I feel like it was my duty - especially with everything we did here in the city - that I needed to go up there and represent for our company, Quality Control,” explained Coach K in a backstage interview with AllHipHop.
The Red Bull Music Fest Atlanta conversation began with Lee diving into his childhood which included having a mother and grandmother who both worked at an RCA pressing plant. That unique origin story molded his love for music. It was even the catalyst for a young Kevin to create his own “mixtapes of hits” by recording tunes off the radio.
According to Coach K, his official conversion from amateur deejay to music insider was the result of getting shot during his senior year at Saint Augustine's University. Lee, whose early devotion was to basketball, saw his hoop dreams be deferred. Following a months-long recovery in the hospital, the determined stalwart decided to unite with some of his buddies back in Indy to form a label called Universal Stars.
Eventually, Coach K would move to Atlanta to link with childhood friend Alan Henderson, the former Indiana University forward that was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1995. Lee worked with Henderson to establish the Hendu Entertainment record label based in the Georgia capital.
The Hendu situation didn’t pan out for Lee, but the then-A&R executive would recover by ultimately becoming a manager in the 2000s for two future Atlanta rap legends: Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane. Fast forward to 2019, Coach K and Pee are now domineering the charts and the streets thanks to Quality Control acts like Migos, Lil Baby, Lil Yachty, City Girls, and Stefflon Don.
Coach acknowledges that it wasn’t always a “kumbaya vibe” as he was climbing the ranks, and he sensed the urgency to take the reigns for himself in order to find success. The QC COO says, “When I was coming up in the game, it was very few people I could go to. It was very few. I was kind of stubborn, so I felt like I could do it myself. I was one of those guys that just go out there and do it.”
Now that he clearly has the knowhow to turn underground performers into Billboard regulars (the platinum-selling City Girls reportedly only had one song before signing to Quality Control), Coach K doesn’t want to just keep the strategic moves close to his chest. However, the economics major warns there aren’t any enchanted beans that will marvelously grow into a gigantic beanstalk towards the sky. Commitment is the key.
“I think a lot of these kids come in and they expect to hear something magical,” answered Coach K when I asked him if there was one piece of info he hoped people took from his Red Bull Music Fest discussion. “I’ve been in the game for 22 years. The best I can give them is to stick your head down and put the work in. It’s nothing that’s going to come easy, and you don’t know when it’s going to come. But if it’s a passion, if it’s something you believe in, then just don’t give up on it.”
To be clear, Coach K did offer more specific science at RBMF that night. For example, he broke down how popular strip club dancers are not just entertaining their customers but they are also helping to determine which songs are going to be next to break. So a local up-and-coming rapper who wants to see their name on festival lineups one day should probably build relationships with the topliners at Magic City, Follies, and Blue Flame.
Coach K called strippers “some of the dopest A&Rs” in the business. Inclusion on a particular exotic dancer’s playlist at the gentlemen's club could be the difference between an artist making music for their friends and making music for the masses. It also probably explains why QC-affiliated superstar Cardi B (a former New York City stripper) has an ear for smash records such as “Bodak Yellow,” “I Like It,” and “Money.”
There was also a section at RBMF where Coach K pointed out how - unlike modern major labels that are obviously playing a quick streaming numbers game - Quality Control doesn’t avoid investing in long-term artist development. In his view, QC is about forging individuals into brands that will last beyond the general public’s inevitable move on to the next hot new musician. As Coach puts it, every recording artist has an expiration date.
Quality Control’s takeover of the musical landscape is not nearly complete. The company is laying the groundwork for Layton Green, Marlo, Kollision, 24Heavy, and other roster members to come off the bench. Additionally, Coach K divulged his team’s scheme to construct a multi-media infrastructure in Atlanta. A forthcoming facility will be home to music, film, television, and podcast projects. Plus, QC hopes to employ a few hundred people at the site.
Before departing the Plaza Theatre on Friday, Coach K took questions from the audience. Christina Lee instructed the attendees to avoid using their time to solicit opportunities from the mogul, but of course, that did not stop would-be Kevin Lee mentees from taking their shots.
Instead of going Dikembe Mutombo on the rule-breakers, Coach K just referred them to his co-worker named Amber who was sitting in the middle section of the venue. Every time someone even veered in the direction of an unrequested proposition, both Lees on the stage started responding with “Amber alert.” Not to dismiss the person, but to genuinely present a potential alley-oop for both parties to score in the future.
“In this business, a lot of people are closed off in their own world. I actually care. I think that’s one of the blessings for why I’m able to stay in it,” professed Coach K as we conversed in a dressing room. The Culture Creators’ 2019 “Innovators and Leaders” award recipient continued, “If I connect with the youth, it keeps me young. I’m building allies. I can go get information from the young brothers. Cause I’m still learning. I don’t know it all. This music business is always in transition, so I’m constantly trying to learn.”