It’s the day after the 60th Annual Grammy Awards, and the members of Quality Control Music have to put their tuxedos back on. We’re awaiting the arrival of label heads Coach K and Pee, the Grammy-nominated Migos, and Lil Yachty at a spacious Brooklyn warehouse for a cover shoot and interview. I’m anxiously pacing. I’ve met them all—before Yachty’s breakout and the meteoric rise of Migos—but their most recent interaction with Complex launched a thousand memes. I’d like to avoid that.
As I march about, I imagine an exuberant caravan of rappers, managers and friends, all making an elaborate entrance—something like a hip-hop presidential motorcade. These are superstars, after all. QC is, at this moment, one of the most respected (and lucrative) collectives in rap and, in Migos and Yachty, genuine celebrities. But my expectations of everyone materializing in a single post-party, weed-scented, well-choreographed tornado are dashed. Instead, this close-knit family’s arrivals are staggered, separate.
Quality Control’s founders, COO Kevin “Coach K” Lee and CEO Pierre “Pee” Thomas, are the first to arrive. The pair are all business, scanning the room in search of the decision-maker. Coach K is a towering figure whose grey beard, direct eye-contact, and tranquil demeanor elicit respect. Pee, a man who looks younger than he likely is, keeps his shades on indoors for much, much longer than someone whose day job isn’t finding, signing, and managing superstar rappers.
Coach K and Pee founded QC in 2013, a black-owned independent record label still based in Atlanta. In five years, they’ve risen to the top of the pyramid, moving from a trap-focused boutique operation into a bonafide powerhouse capable of producing stars and hits. With a proven knack for spotting talent, a prescient embrace of the digital landscape, and a relentless work ethic, the pair are now, if not the center of attention, the people everyone keeps an eye on to see which ways the music industry’s winds are blowing.
After managing the early careers of Southern rap titans Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, Coach K earned his reputation as a creative music industry veteran with a talent for developing artists. Pee’s resume begins mostly with his work with Migos, but he’s a walking, breathing treasure chest of information. He speaks in short poetic bursts, as Southerners tend to, careful not to let too many prized gems slip out.
When asked how they developed their business acumen, Coach—true to his name—says, “From within, man. You know, it's like recruiting athletes. It's a lot of them out there. It's that gut feeling of like, ‘Okay, I'm going to take a chance on this one.’ They got special talent, and their character's right? Man, we going to bet on it. You know what I'm saying? We're going to bet on it.”
Quality Control’s first wager was on the Migos, and it’s paid off—the group’s Grammy nomination for Rap Album of the Year, which pitted them against Jay-Z and (eventual winner) Kendrick Lamar, is the reason they crew is in New York today. The Atlanta trio are the next members of the QC family to arrive to the sprawling photo studio. Quavo and Takeoff are first in the door, quiet and stealthy, speaking almost exclusively to each other. Offset’s nowhere to be found, but it doesn’t cause alarm. He arrives a few hours later, and the group decamps to their dressing room, which has been outfitted with countless boxes of Popeyes chicken, upwards of 20 biscuits, and gallons of sweet tea served in satchel-like bags. I’m impressed—I’ve never needed enough sweet tea to warrant a sack of it.
Clippers are buzzing in one room. Expensive designer tuxedos are being fitted in another. The jewelry is out and glistening. Their latest release, Culture II—number one on the Billboard charts at the time—is bumping, and the odor of some weed, presumably with a cool-ass name, is creeping throughout the space. It’s a long way from 2013, when the trio were still recording at home and waiting for the rest of the world to catch on.
“I'll never forget, man. I had rolled out to their house. At the time it was out on the Northside in the bando,” says Coach K, reminiscing on discovering the group. “I went down in that basement, and I heard some of the most incredible music I ever heard. Like, serious. I got a CD from them, I gave it to Pee, said, ‘Man, listen to this music.’ Took him a week. I don't know what he was doing.”
Pee, when he did get to it, was so moved by the music he saw it as a sign. “This might be my break out of the hood,” he thought. “So let me jump on this.”
“The next meeting we had,” says Coach, “They was at the studio before I got there.”
Their plan for the trio was simple: mix the URL and IRL, and focus just as much on building an Atlanta fanbase as taking over rest of the world. That meant hitting events like the local mainstay, Beer and Tacos. “You play Beer and Tacos, and come out, you going to be the next guy,” says Coach. ”It’s that crowd.” QC’s strategy—aggressive touring through the chitlin circuit, shooting music videos, and a press run in New York—succeeded. “When all of it connected, with the streets, and the hipsters, and the colleges…” says Pee, “it was an explosion.”
You know what happened next. If you were listening to the radio, going to parties, attending sporting events, or simply breathing oxygen, you were in the blast radius of that detonation. Through 2014, Migos produced a string of successes, from “Versace” to “Fight Night” to “Handsome and Wealthy.” “When we dropped ‘Versace,’ shit just started going crazy,” Quavo remembers. “People started calling.”
One of the callers was Drake, who jumped on a song, and it didn’t take long for the Migos’ distinct sound and look to be co-opted by others. In one fell swoop, the group had shifted the center of hip-hop in their direction. Coach K saw the growing number of imitators as proof of concept—if they’re biting, it means you’re successful. “When you create something authentic, a lot of the time, authentic things get duplicated,” he says.
And nothing was more duplicated than the dab. “Look At My Dab” was released in October 2015, complete with a dance maneuver so easy senior citizens could do it. It quickly spread through the population like a zombie epidemic, turning everyone it touched into an elbow-raising, head-nodding affiliate of the Migos.
As dabbing consumed the public, it made its way into football endzones, endless amounts of memes, and family holiday portraits. Even Hillary Clinton got in on the action, dabbing during an interview with Ellen Degeneres during her presidential campaign. That’s like the whitest shit ever. It doesn’t get more mainstream than that.
And, while Migos managed to create something that had the ubiquity of a viral video (before viral videos began regularly pushing songs to #1), the dab’s sweep of the nation didn’t lead to a payday for the group, or QC.
The summer before the country began dabbing, Quality Control Music entered a distribution and marketing deal with 300 Entertainment. 300, founded by former Warner execs Kevin Liles, Lyor Cohen, and Todd Moscowitz—the latter two have since left the company—was a splashy new venture at the time, promising to be a new kind of record label that understood the emerging streaming landscape. It made sense at the time: QC had long aspired to more than its reputation as an upstart trap label, and this was the deal that would bring them to the next level.
However, when asked about the biggest hurdle they’ve faced as a group along the path to their current success, Offset doesn’t mince words: “300. I’m saying it. What.”
He continues, “300 was the biggest hurdle. They tried to hold us against our will. It wasn't never no in-house hurdles we ever had, like where it had been a problem. With 300, that was the biggest thing, going through times and situations with them. And we still did them right. Left them a nice piece of work.”
Pee, whose words are typically measured, adds, “I'm going to stand behind him on that. Because for 18 months, we couldn't sell no product. Whatever that was already out, that was already on iTunes or whatever, that was cool, but anything that we was putting out, it was like we was shackled down.”
“They created that whole movement,” Pee continues, referencing the fervor “Look At My Dab” sparked. “It was one of the biggest songs of that year. We had the athletes doing it. You had the kids, everybody was doing it. But you ain't see it on iTunes, you see what I'm saying?” We couldn't sell it. We couldn't stream it, because we was in a battle.”
“We got a company saying, "Y'all can't put no music out. We ain't letting y'all sell nothing.”
“This is the biggest group in the world right now. Somebody trying to stunt that growth, and it was a big challenge, because they depend on us. They trust us with their career, their life. And we're still trying to build the company, and our biggest asset has been held down. You feel what I'm saying? We didn't make no money off of that. We didn't make a dollar. I mean, they were still continuing doing shows, but we couldn't sell the actual product.”
According to Pee, it took almost a half a million dollars in legal fees to break free from that contract. Coach K, smoothly heading off the conversation, attributes their move from 300 to “good litigation.”
“For us, we underachieved. And we was in a legal battle, right? So now, we had to go back into the war room,” says Coach K.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he reminisces, “As soon as we came to an agreement, we leaked ‘Bad & Boujee’ and the rest is history.”
The next QC member to arrive to the studio is Lil Yachty. At just 20 years of age, he’s already a magnetic star, with the charisma and checking account to match. His team begins to scramble at his entrance, searching for the pizza—Pizza Hut, specifically—and Fruit-by-the-Foot that he requested, but is nowhere to be found.
While Coach K and Pee were embroiled in their year-long struggle with 300, they kept looking for the next talent to draft to their roster, the next big bet to make. In Yachty, they found an unlikely addition, a tall, dark-skinned teenager with braids the color of fruit punch, and music that sounded like candy-coated trap music.
For his part, Yachty, who was just a high school freshman at the time of the group’s earliest releases, had been watching his future labelmates with a close eye. “I was in ninth grade when I first saw “FEMA” and “Bando” on my little sister's Hello Kitty laptop, thinking like this is the most craziest shit I ever saw in my life.”
He didn’t, however, foresee signing up with Coach K and Pee. “I used to think I probably would never get in because I didn't fit in,” he says. “You know what I'm saying? I felt like I had no parts whatsoever being there. But dreams come true.”
Coach K, who drafted the rookie, saw things differently. “He's totally different, but the thing is, building our company, we wanted to be more than just looked at as a street label. And the music, it was transitioning and getting younger.”
Yachty proved him right, taking off like a rocketship in 2016. He immediately took the label to venues and audiences it had never been before. Within months (and with a fraction of the releases that Migos had under their belt), the young artist garnered a fanbase that ranged from pre-teens to whole-ass adults, enamored with his unique look, bubbly music, and infectiously positive demeanor.
His first official release under Quality Control, a mixtape titled Lil Boat, produced platinum and gold singles in “One Night” and “Minnesota,” respectively. Not long after, he popped up on D.R.A.M’s “Broccoli” and Kyle’s “iSpy”—both of which are multi-platinum—and earned a Grammy nomination for the former. Like Migos, the hits led to calls. But with Yachty, QC started getting different calls. Big brands came knocking at their door, in search of Lil Yachty’s clear and explosive star power. Within months they landed a deal with Sprite for Yachty to appear in a television spot with LeBron James. In the time since, he’s partnered with Nautica, Urban Outfitters, and was featured in a TV spot for Target alongside Carly Rae Jepsen. All of this before releasing a studio album.
Throughout Yachty’s rise, Migos were sidelined by their deal with 300. But, when they returned, it was with a vengeance.
It’s difficult to accurately describe the impact of “Bad & Boujee.” Just text someone—literally anyone—the words “rain drop,” and count the seconds until they they text you back. “Drop top.”
The single, released offhandedly in the waning days of summer 2016, fresh out of their distribution deal, went four times platinum. It earned them their first #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, and a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance. When Donald Glover won a Golden Globe for Atlanta, he thanked the Migos for making the song. They booked spots on Ellen, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Live With Jimmy Kimmel!, and Sportscenter. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff—who had been changing what it meant to be a rap star for years at this point—were suddenly actual, recognizable-in-the-suburbs celebrities.
Coach K attributed their success to the Migos returning to what they knew. “Bad and Boujee,” as well as other tracks off of their #1, multi-platinum album Culture, were recorded in a closet in their home, forgoing the label’s state-of-the-art recording studios. This year, they’re back with its 24-track sequel, Culture II, which has already produced a gold-certified single and debuted at #1. “Bad and Boujee” wasn’t just a hit, it sparked a run that hasn’t ended yet. More than that, it pushed the Migos’ sound and style into the mainstream pop landscape: They’ve managed to not only infiltrate the zeitgeist, but define it.
And now, with everyone present and dressed to perfection, the photoshoot commences. The Migos have the spatial awareness of a polished boy band; each member of the trio understands who looks best where. Quavo, who can’t stop cracking jokes, knows the exact moment to turn on his “blue steel.” Yachty is an endless well of charm. The mood is light as each bulb flashes and pops, and “that’s the one right there” is a constant refrain after each picture is taken. Even Pee sheds his cool for long enough for the cameraman to capture a rare image of the CEO smiling. Coach K, ever the perfectionist, is already looking over the early proofs. Quietly, almost as if he were thinking out loud, he says, “They never show us like this.”
These guys don’t just look good. Together, QC have more than proven their importance, their impact on hip-hop, and increasingly on mainstream pop culture—now all they want to talk about is what comes next. The label’s been pushing UK-born female emcee Stefflon Don, and Pee spends the day asserting Lil Baby, one of their most recent signees, “is ready to blow up.” Meanwhile, QC’s management arm, “Solid Foundation,” is expanding, and just added the wailing SoundCloud phenomenon Trippie Redd to its roster.
Individually, Takeoff is in search of longevity, while Offset aims for consistent improvement. Quavo confidently states that he wants to conquer as many fields as he can, with goals of moguldom. Yachty wants to diversify too, and sees 2018 as his year to broaden his already wide spectrum of interests. Coach K reveals that Quality Control has big plans to enter the world of film, but won’t share too much about what, exactly, that will look like. Pee is focused on developing their current superstars and shaping QC’s other talent. He makes sure to add “get this money” to his agenda.
Coach K’s statement plays again in my mind: “They never show us like this.”
But for me, as I look into the eyes of the six black men looking back at me, who have put together an almost unimaginable resumé, with plans to conquer much more... Well, it’s difficult to see them any other way.