Quality Control Music has a good claim to being the hottest independent label in the world today.
In little over three years, the Atlanta-based hip-hop specialist has mastered the art of breaking stars in the Spotify age.
Take, for example, Migos: the Lawrenceville, Georgia trio’s second studio LP, Culture, has just been certified Platinum in the US, two months after debuting at No.1 on the Billboard 200.
Culture’s lead single, Bad & Boujee, is also a US No.1 – and, according to Nielsen, was the most-streamed track in the whole of the States in the first three months of 2017.
Other Quality Control artists include ‘bubblegum trap’ star Lil Yachty, signed to both QC’s label and management operation.
The fast-rising rapper already has a US platinum hit to his name – One Night – and is now averaging around 10m on-demand streams a week, ahead of his debut album release later this year.
“This isn’t just a music company anymore. It’s a cultural experience.”
Kevin ‘Coach K’ Lee, Quality Control
Achievements like these have ratcheted up the ambitions of the two men who founded QC back in 2013 – Kevin “Coach K” Lee (COO) and Pierre “Pee” Thomas (CEO).
As Coach K tells MBW: “This isn’t just a music company anymore. It’s a cultural experience.”
The next step in the duo’s masterplan is, unhesitatingly, global domination – starting with London showcases at the 5,000-cap O2 Brixton Academy on Tuesday and Wednesday (April 25/26).
(The first sold out in minutes, prompting the quick addition of a second night.)
Yet Quality Control’s ascent to this rarefied level of success hasn’t come without its struggles – or its sacrifices.
Take a glance at the video for Migos’s breakout 2013 single Versace: racked with diamond-studded watches and glimmering gold jewelry, it also features an opulent mansion and, oh yes, a live cheetah.
Behind the scenes of this unfathomably lavish picture, however, was an independent startup gambling every last penny on celluloid glorification; the convincing presentation of Atlanta knockabouts as authentic aspirational icons.
“We put everything we had into developing these boys,” explains Coach K, who was a well-known veteran of hip-hop artist management before launching QC. “It took us four years of peaks and valleys to get Migos to where they are now.”
Quality Control has faced down multiple obstacles which will be very familiar to fellow entrepreneurs – especially when Migos started breaking, and financial demands rocketed in tandem.
“I’m gonna be real: it was check-to-check at times.”
Coach K, Quality Control
“I’m gonna be real: it was check-to-check at times,” admits Coach K. “With Migos, we were scratching our heads like: ‘We have $150,000 in our account, but we have to go with this record to radio now. It could wipe us out… F*ck it. Let’s put it on the line.'”
Pee admits that, after signing Migos, the duo showed the group a bag stuffed full of money – illustrating the bountiful sum, and financial risk, the entrepreneurs were about to commit to their development.
Other difficulties along the way have been less typical.
“At one time, 90% of the artists on the label were incarcerated in jail,” explains Pee.”We had a lot of money invested, and tours were on the line that we had to cancel. It got really rocky – legal issues and things of that nature.
“Thank God we overcame it, we figured it out, and here we are.”
In Coach K and Pee, Quality Control is run by two entrepreneurs who’ve been dealt body blows by the music business – experiences that have left them all-the-more hungry for triumph.
Coach is one of Atlanta’s best-known hip-hop managers, having handled the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane through the rise of Atlanta’s ‘trap’ scene over the past decade.
“As a manager, you spend a lot of time, energy and money building artists’ brands,” he explains. “But, at some point, if that relationship doesn’t last, you don’t walk away with any equity.
“Four years ago I decided to start something I had ownership in. I saw music was changing; hip-hop was getting younger. I wanted to start a label and develop young, fresh talent no-one had ever heard of.”
His previous venture, Atlanta label Dirty Dolla, folded shortly before he met his now-business partner.
“I’ve never met a person in this game more honorable than Coach K… When you’ve got a partnership where there ain’t no egos, when you’re on the same page with the same vision, you ain’t ever going to lose.”
Pierre “Pee” Thomas, Quality Control
The experience left him with sour memories of music business hardship – but also left him with an impressive studio right in the heart of Atlanta.
In a bid to raise a bit of cash, Pee called Coach to ask him if any of the artists he was managing needed to rent a recording space.
“Coach saw how much money I’d spent on the studio and how dedicated I was to it,” explains Pee. “And he said if we signed these guys [Migos] together, we could start something amazing.”
He adds: “Me and Coach come from different backgrounds, but we both have the same vision.
“I’ve never met a person in this game more honorable than Coach K. I’m so pleased he’s my business partner; we can agree to disagree, but we never have any problems.
“When you’ve got a partnership where there ain’t no egos, when you’re on the same page with the same vision, you ain’t ever going to lose.”
The first big acceleration point for Quality Control came in 2014, when it signed a deal for distribution and marketing with 300 – the New York-based label co-created by Lyor Cohen and backed by Google.
In a previous life, Coach K had worked for 300 co-founder Todd Moscowitz as an A&R exec at Warner Bros Records.
“We knew we were great at getting our music from 0-60, but that we had to partner with a company that could spread it everywhere,” explains Coach.
He adds: “The 300 partnership helped give us success across the US. But about two years into our deal, streaming really started popping – and for the first time, we were watching artists breaking not just in the US, but around the world.
“We were like, man, we need to find a partner on that level.”
“[Pee and Coach K] are so smart and so passionate about what they do; their success is the result of having brilliant eyes and ears for talent, strong vision and planning and great execution.”
Steve Barnett, Capitol Music Group
Steve Barnett, Chairman & CEO of Capitol Music Group, says of QC’s co-founders: “These guys are so smart and so passionate about what they do; their success is the result of having brilliant eyes and ears for talent, strong vision and planning and great execution.
“I’m really thrilled that we’re partners in their success and we are helping QC and its artists get to the next level and beyond. This is a textbook example of how a major like us can help an independent label – its executives and artists – achieve its goals and stay true to its mission.”
Coach K reveals that, having made the decision to leave 300, Quality Control sat down with every possible major label partner – and were close to signing elsewhere – before Motown President Ethiopia Habtemariam presented them with a golden opportunity.
Although he won’t be drawn on names, MBW understands that both Epic and RCA were in the frame – before a deal was swiftly agreed with Capitol’s Barnett.
“Coach K and Pee have done an incredible job building Quality Control into one of the most influential independent labels in hip hop.”
Ethiopia Habtemariam, Motown
“Coach K and Pee have done an incredible job building Quality Control into one of the most influential independent labels in hip-hop,” Habtemariam tells MBW.
“From day one, it’s been a true partnership as we’ve worked together to move urban culture forward through music and talent that connect globally. There’s so much more success to come with Coach, Pee and the entire QC movement.
“We’ll be in lock-step with them all the way to help them achieve it.”
QC recently brought Migos fully into the fold of its Capitol/Motown deal, via an extension of the JV agreement.
Not since the heyday of its Priority Records imprint some 30 years ago has Capitol shown such commitment to urban music – something that isn’t lost on Coach K.
“Capitol were quite open with us that they had was a wide open lane for hip-hop,” he says. “Before [the QC deal], they were best known for building these really big icon pop artists.
“We realized that if we did what we do on the urban side, and they did what they do to get the word out globally, it would make for an explosion.”
This week, Quality Control takes London.
Both Migos (pictured inset) and Lil Yachty are down to appear on the bill at Brixton Academy – two nights their label bosses hope could prove ‘I was there’ moments for a burgeoning British scene.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time in London and, to me, it kind of feels like the new New York in terms of hip-hop,” observes Coach K.
“Hip-hop has slowed down a lot in New York, but culturally in London it really seems to be at the centre of things right now. I really feel London’s hip-hop artists are about burst out across the world – including in the US.”
Coach is putting his money where his mouth is on that score: QC recently signed a US-only deal with Stefflon Don – the UK MC for whom big things are anticipated in the wake of Stormzy and Skepta’s mainstream success.
“Stef is about to be a megastar,” says Coach, matter-of-factly. “This music is really beating down the culture in the UK; it’s the perfect time for US artists and UK artists to start intertwining.”
“It’s so fascinating to see a cultural gear-shift going on in front of our eyes here in the UK.”
Ted Cockle, Virgin EMI
As part of QC’s London ‘takeover’, there are strong rumors of a pop-up store and surprise school visit by Migos, Lil Yachty and Stefflon Don, while QC billboards and snipes will be highly visible across the capital.
There is talk of similar ‘takeovers’ coming to New York, Toronto and other cities across the world in future.
“Me and Steve [Barnett] have been talking a lot lately about Berry Gordy; how it’s genius the way that he brought the whole Motown thing to London [in the ‘60s] and made sure everyone paid attention,” adds Coach K. “That’s what we want to achieve.”
Ted Cockle, President of Quality Control’s UK label partner Virgin/EMI, is convinced.
“It’s so fascinating to tangibly see a cultural gear-shift going on in front of our eyes here in the UK,” he says.
“A whole new generation of music and hip-hop fans are opting for the Quality Control sound, its artists and its culture. It’s already generating so much heat in the UK with Lil Yachty and Migos and Stefflon Don – and we’re only just scratching the surface.”
Coach K and Pee realize that, despite striking early success, counting themselves in the great pantheon of independent hip-hop label mavericks would be premature.
To take another step towards that calibre, they’re going to first have to break Lil Yachty (pictured inset) as a proven global megastar – as well as significantly boosting the careers of other Quality Control label signings such as Rich The Kid and Twelve’Len.
(QC also runs a publishing division, with signings including Migos, Rich The Kid, OG Parker and Young Greatness.)
But the duo know exactly whose achievements they want to emulate – and, seemingly, exactly how they’re going to get there.
“We really built this company from the ground up,” says Pee. “People might think it was easy when they see the glitter and the artists shining.
“I admire what Cash Money did – they’ve sold a billion records. That’s pretty amazing. But if it’s been done once before, it can be done again.”
Pee, Quality Control
“But we’re a proper artist development label; we take pride in taking something unpolished, not well known, and building it up ourselves.”
He adds: “I admire [No Limit Records entrepreneur] Master P, and I admire what Cash Money did – they’ve sold a billion records. That’s pretty amazing.
“But if it’s been done once before, it can be done again. And with this streaming thing, there’s no limit on what we can do.
“First, we’re gonna take London. And then we’re gonna take the world.”
Adds Coach K: “Def Jam, Interscope and Atlantic all started out as indies and then became majors. I feel like Quality Control could be the next one on that list.”
He quickly corrects himself.
“Actually… I know we’re going to be the next one on that list. And we’re gonna keep on working hard until everybody out there sees it.”Music Business Worldwide