There’s been a revolution in hip-hop, and the people have spoken: Hip Hop/R&B is now the dominant genre in the U.S. for the very first time. While it’s not surprising that factors like streaming altered the music business, it is also true this genre has a power like never.
And Nielsen saw all that was made, and said “let there be Quality Control Records.” And the culture on the streets listened, and saw it was good.
Yes, at the forefront of this culture is one breakthrough, visionary record label: Quality Control Music. By keeping their ear to the streets rather than merely counting algorithm stats, Quality Control brings back the spirit that first spawned trail-blazing scenes when the fans are heard and the dog is not wagged by the industry tail.
Just as punk erupted out of New York City and Motown from Detroit, the new wave of the most successful and acclaimed music comes out of a specific city at a specific moment—this time it’s Atlanta, home to QC. Founded in 2013 by CEO Pierre “Pee” Thomas and COO Kevin “Coach K” Lee, Quality Control Music nurtures such groundbreaking acts as Migos, Lil’ Yachty, and Rich the Kid. Acting as managers, studio owners, and digital strategists as well as label executives, Coach and Pee and have created a new blueprint for success at a time when the fans have the biggest voice in the industry.
The results are undeniable. Migos’ Culture was one of only five albums certified platinum in 2017. Between the Teenage Emotions album and the Lil’ Boat and Summer Songs 2 mixtapes, plus his various feature collaborations, Lil’ Yachty had 2.5 billion global streams. Even the dance sensation the dab, as performed by everyone from Cam Newton to Hillary Clinton, was originated by QC’s Skippada Flippa and popularized by Migos’ “Look At My Dab.” Danny Glover even gave a shout out to Atlanta and Migos in particular on the Golden Globes stage, saying “I really wanna thank the Migos, not for being in the show, but for making “Bad and Boujee.” That’s the best song ever.”
“We’re real particular in what we sign,” says Coach K. “They have to be authentic, whether it’s a street artist or an artist like Yachty, who’s very artistic in what he does. As a label, we don’t want to be pigeonholed to any one sound, but we are into building brands, so they have to have a story where we only need to take their very authenticity, wrap it up and sell it.”
Bottom line – QC exists to creatively support the artists’ vision.
“You can’t just depend on the music alone,” says Pee. “Too many talented artists have gone unnoticed. You’ve got to have seven different hustles.” In addition, the label took control of its own publishing, promotion, and management divisions. “Everything we do is in-house,” says Pee. “We even got our own producers, our own engineers.”
Coach grew up in Indianapolis and moved to Atlanta—already hip-hop’s “Third Coast,” becoming the world’s leading city for street rap—in 1996 to start a record label with Atlanta Hawks forward Alan Henderson. He soon became involved in the management of such artists as Pastor Troy, Gucci Mane, and Young Jeezy (who, under Coach’s direction, scored two Number One albums on the Billboard 200).
Meanwhile, Atlanta native Pee, who grew up idolizing No Limit mastermind Master P, was trying to launch an independent label called Dirty Dolla. “We were out there grinding, trying to get things off the ground,” he says, “but we didn’t know what we were doing—we were just going around spending a lot of money and getting no results.” Having already invested over $300,000 into building a new recording studio, he approached Coach K to see if he had any acts that might want to use the facility.
“I was fed up with music, but I had this studio, so I was going to just rent that out and make my money back that way,” says Pee. “Coach saw it and said, ‘This is amazing, are you interested in starting your label thing back up?’ I was like, ‘I ain’t putting my money back in some artists right now.’ “But Coach played him some music by Migos—a young trio from Gwinnett County, whom Pee had already seen recording in the studio with Gucci Mane—and, says Pee, “when I listened to that, I said, ‘This shit is amazing.’ “
As Migos’s first single, “Versace,” started to blow up, Coach and Pee signed more local artists to deals that covered touring, merchandise, publishing, and licensing. For QC, music came first, and when great the sound was as much an advertisement for tours, merchandise, and endorsements as it was a product to sell.
Recognizing that they would need resources to really grow QC for global takeover they had signed a distribution deal for Migos with Lyor Cohen’s 300. Utilizing 300’s data-accessing agreement with Twitter, they could monitor activity on social networks and streaming sites and adjust spending and tour plans accordingly. The next step was a joint venture with Capitol Music Group. “The key is to find a partner who really understands who you are,” says Coach. “And trust that understanding to allow Quality Control to run its own show. I still get to do what I love to do, which is develop talent—find it early, develop it, and get it ready for global success.”
Most notably, Quality Control took a forward-thinking approach to streaming, digital distribution, and meeting its audience in the places they discovered music. “We weathered the storm, the time where there was a shift happening from downloading to streaming,” says Coach K. “Right when everybody figured it out was right when we dropped. “
They signed Lil’ Yachty, who was “blazing the streaming scene,” and Coach rode in the van for a 25-city tour that let him explore what was really happening in youth culture. “It was a pivotal time to do that, right after everything was switching. As soon as I got off that tour, we put out ‘Bad and Boujee,’ which was the first Migos record we put on Soundcloud”—and which went all the way to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100.
Looking ahead, Coach and Pee want to go beyond borders of genre or country. “I don’t want just to be known as ‘the trap label,’ ” says Coach. “I want to be a world label.” A QC package sold out London’s O2 Brixton in three minutes, and the summer of 2017 was spent overseas—in Australia, New Zealand, France. “It took balls for us to name the Migos album Culture,” Coach points out. “That was saying a lot, but we knew we had the music and the creativity to do that. This is world music now, affecting the entire world.”
Quietly, these two men have created a company in the independent spirit that spans from Motown and Stax to Roc-a-Fella and No Limit. Pee, for one, wants to keep the focus on the results rather than the men behind the curtain. “I don’t need to be all in front of the cameras, in all the magazines—I’m here to take care of business,” he says. “Some people get egos, get the big head, but where I come from, we don’t like cameras, we don’t like the spotlight. My motto is ‘Hit hard and move in silence.’
Coach K finds his greatest reward in helping young talent find their own voice. “At QC, my job is to make the best out of an artist,” he says. “They might not know what they really have, but I dig in and pull it out of them.”
And the big pay-off for the Quality Control team is the impact they are having with listeners, with an audience that can tell it’s been written off by so much of the music business during this turbulent and transitional time. “I love when kids say, ‘Thank you for believing in youth, for supporting us,’ “says Coach. “My peers won’t even listen to them, but they were all that same kid once.”