By Kat Bein By Kat Bein | September 15, 2021 | Lifestyle
Atlanta’s Quality Control is expanding far beyond music for total media domination.
Kevin “Coach K” Lee surrounds himself with art and culture, and even sits on the board of the High Museum of Art.
Turn on the radio, and you’ll likely to hear the work of Pierre "P" Thomas and Kevin "Coach K" Lee. You hear their hustle in rap trio Migo’s signature triplet flow, in Lil Baby’s meteoric rise and Lil Yachty's upbeat drone.
Entirely self-taught, these modern media moguls worked their way from the bottom to the top and built an international entertainment empire off the strength of one thing: believing in their talent.
“We turn the artists into a brand,” Lee says. “We're not out here chasing a record. We take our time, and when we bet, we bet. A lot of artists we sign don't have all the big Instagram followers, but if you find that raw talent, then you go build it … gradually, you build a solid foundation that's not going anywhere. That’s why our company is called Quality Control. We're not going to sign a thousand artists, let's find the diamonds, and we're going to polish them until they're the brightest shining diamonds.”
See also: Step Inside Grammy-Winning Producer Gaspard Augé's Chic, '70s Sci-Fi Studio
Quality Control began as a label in 2013, and it’s grown into a full-service management group for artists and athletes branching into film, tech investment and more. Thomas and Lee stand at the helm, driving this ship toward billions of annual streams and beyond, but under all that success are a lot of paid dues.
Thomas was born and raised in the projects of Atlanta’s west side. His dad was in and out of prison, and his mom faced her own struggles raising three kids.
“I'm really the first successful person in my family,” Thomas says. “My brother is successful, too, but I feel like I'm the first one to break the generational curse of poverty.”
Pierre “Pee” Thomas was born and raised on the Westside of Atlanta, and he’s growing his community into a media empire.
Music was never Thomas’ passion, but getting his mom out from under the weight of rent checks was always a goal. It just so happened that his best friend grew up to become one of the most recognizable faces in Atlanta hip-hop, a hit-making rapper and actor called Gucci Mane.
“I’d seen how much money he was making just being an artist,” Thomas says. “I wasn't an artist, but I was always an entrepreneur, and I was never scared to try different business ventures.”
He and a friend started a label called Dirty Dolla Entertainment. The friendship lasts to this day, but the partnership folded after two years. Thomas found the music business to be “real nasty,” and a lot of people took advantage of the fact that he and his pal didn’t really know what they were doing.
See also: The 25 Most Inspiring Celebrity Homes and Interiors
Lee likewise came to music sideways.
“When people ask ‘how did you learn about music?’ I say ‘my mom worked at RCA—but not the RCA you think,’” he laughs. Both his mom and grandmother worked at the RCA pressing plant in Indianapolis, IN. There was a record store in the factory, and employees got a nice discount with early access to releases.
“We would all sit around, my grandmother would be cooking,” he says, “and we'd be playing good music in the house, a lot of Motown.”
Musical as his home was, Lee was really focused on athletics. His mom enrolled him in every extracurricular she could from karate to football, trying to keep his attention off the drug dealing and prostitution on the neighborhood streets. By 5, he was playing organized basketball, and when it came time for college, he went on a scholarship. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from getting caught up in the crossfire of a street shooting.
“I was in the hospital for five months,” he says. “I would put my Walkman on, and I would escape out the room. I was in a lot of pain, and Sade’s second album would soothe me. I listened to Red Man and a lot in a lot of hip hop music to get my adrenaline up so I could push through the therapy … I fell in love with music like I loved sports.”
View this post on Instagram
After three years of rehab, Lee had the chance to move to Atlanta and help his professional ball-player friend with a little music venture. Much like Thomas, he learned the industry the hard way.
“There's no books that can really teach the music industry. You have to be in it,” he says. “We made so many mistakes that by year three, his business manager was like, ‘you're wasting a lot of money. We have to pull out.’ Allan had a job, he was a pro basketball player six months out the year, but 12 months of the year, I was really on the front line really believing in this music.”
His business partner was out, but Lee continued with his own management company. He convinced a friend of his to start rapping and helped grow him as an artist. Soon, Little J changed his name to Young Jeezy. In 2004, Lee handled his deal with Def Jam Records.
“That was the introduction,” he says, “and I never looked back.”
Lee managed Jeezy from 2008 to 2013, and when Jeezy spent some time in jail, he wasn’t ready to turn in the towel. Coincidentally, that was when Thomas needed help booking artists for a studio he’d built. He was just looking to recoup his funds and had pretty much sworn off music management for good, but Lee made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
View this post on Instagram
“I was like, ‘listen, if I could go find talent, would you think about getting back into the music industry?’” Thomas was skeptical, but a week later, Lee called again. “‘If I can get the Migos, would you think about?’ He was like, ‘you can get the Migos?’”
In 2013, Migos signed with Lee and Thomas’ new Quality Control label, and the rest is history.
A real talent incubator, Quality Control sees itself as a storytelling machine that aims to turn artists into moguls themselves, so they too can provide for their families and inspire generations to come.
“Motown and Berry Gordy really built the blueprint for us,” Lee says. “When music went to a digital space, a lot of the labels got rid of the A&R departments and started hiring more researchers. It became watching the stock. ‘Oh there's a kid in Kansas, his numbers are high on YouTube,’ then everybody runs and it's a bidding war to sign this kid. The song could have just been an anomaly, and this kid's not even a real artist. We never ran and chased those. We find those diamonds in the rough, take the time to develop them. A brand lasts longer than a song. We are building career artists that can last at least 10 years.”
Over the last eight years, they’ve grown from a two-man operation to a core five-person team, and finally a 30-plus employee outfit. QC invested $1 million into a west Atlanta headquarters that boasts four recording studios and office spaces.
QC opened a management arm, Solid Foundations, because so many artists with existing contracts were coming to them asking how they could work with the team that developed Migos into a household name. They make stars like the CIty Girls and Lil Baby relatable for fans via mini documentaries, expanding further into film and mixed media. Leaning into Lee’s expertise, they started getting into athletic management, and now, they’re investing in the world of tech.
“I just call it culture now,” Lee says. “You have athletes who want the coolness of the artists. Artists want to make money that athletes make. You turn on ESPN and you hear the rap song, then a commercial comes on and this hip-hop song is selling this brand. You've got talent in these films, and it's all intertwined. We are on the forefront of that.”
Photography by: PHOTOS BY NATHAN C. - THE MAN BEHIND THE CAMERA