For nearly two decades, Atlanta has been the city shaping the sound of street rap—in fact, it’s literally redefined the genre by introducing the world to trap music. Behind that shift are artists like Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and, most recently, Migos. And behind each of those artists is one guy: Kevin “Coach K” Lee. An Indiana transplant who’s lived in Atlanta since 1996, Coach K has managed almost all of Atlanta’s biggest rappers at some point—points that, by the way, were at the height of their respective careers—and, by doing so, has quietly had his touch all over recent rap history. Coach K parted ways with Jeezy in 2007 and Gucci in 2012, but his finger is just as on the pulse as ever: He’s the co-founder of Quality Control (QC) Records, home to viral hitmakers Migos and OG Maco.
Hip-hop's got no shortage of impresarios. Besides every would-be rapper who is “actually more like a CEO,” you've got a full clown college of real moguls and managers who each dresses and acts like an insane cartoon of themselves. What makes Coach K stand out from this crowd is he's the only one who doesn't stand out at all. He doesn't rent giraffes for his birthday or do interviews in the lotus position or walk around in his own brand of velour urban camo loungewear. Coach actually wore the same pants as I did to our interview.
Which, by the way, he barely agreed to do. When we met him in the parking lot of Magic City (he was dropping off two of the Migos for a video shoot) and asked him if he wanted to say anything for the camera as part of Noisey Atlanta, he told us, “No thanks, I'm not so big on attention.” Who in rap has ever said that? In an industry where every label boss is preening for the same amount of publicity as their artists, the fact that the manager of three of the rap world's biggest acts has flown under the media radar for almost two decades isn't just weird, it's kind of spooky. Like, what does he know?
Update! Billboard just blew the lid off of him. Timing, man.
This is a lightly edited transcript of part one of our conversation, focusing on Migos and Gucci Mane. Part two, focusing on Pastor Troy, Jeezy, and Gucci, is available here.
Can you tell me a little bit about hipster rap?
I’m really a grown hipster. I hate that word, but it’s really the cool kids that have their own individuality, that don’t fall into the norm of what’s going on. I was always one of those kids. Hip-hop birthed me, though. I could see where it started, and I’m relevant to where it is now. I used to own a lounge. It was comparative to a lounge in the Lower East Side. It held about 250 people. That’s where the whole “hipster scene” started. In my spot. This party called Broke and Bougie started at my club. This party called Sloppy Second Saturdays started at my club. That was where the hipster started. Maco calls me the Hipster God.
How do you feel about that?
[Laughs] It’s cool. I’ll take that. If I’m the Hipster God, then I’m the Trap God, too. I gave Gucci that name, though.
Oh, really? I always assumed it was something he came up with himself.
No, I gave him that name. We went to California and we did this show downtown. We did it with G Shock and the Hundreds. They did a collabo watch. Gucci was the performer for this show. I go to LA a lot. That was the first time I saw hood niggas—it was like 2,500 kids just wylin’. I heard them kids: ‘Gucci is god!’ So we were trying to think of a name for his next mixtape. I was like, ‘you're the Trap God.’ Boom. That shit was birthed.
So Gucci’s got a good rep with A&R, finding people. How much of that was genuinely him finding people, or how much of it was you, and him getting credit?
I mean, nah, Gucci’s got a good ear. We worked hand in hand on that shit. With Gucc, I knew him he knew me. We were really close. So I’d play shit for him, and he’d be like hell yeah. Or, he’s such a free spirit, he would just go. His ear is crazy. He knows before it hits.
It’s like a canary.
Yep. He knows, man. He’ll call me, ‘Coach, you gotta hear this!’ I’ll come listen to this shit like, ‘yeah, that’s it right there. Let’s sign him.’
Are you guys still in touch while he’s in jail?
I haven’t talked to him in a minute. We’ll probably end up talking. I know we’ll talk. It’s been a few months.
Do you think his time at the top of Atlanta, 2009-2012—
That was his.
Do you think that was the peak of it? Or is his influence still important?
I mean he has a real cult following. You know, his fans are for real. I used to watch them. Gucci’s honest, so he’ll get on that social media and he’ll come directly at you. Maybe he says something to an artist, his fans. They were true fans. It’s hard to say, man. I’m gonna keep it real, it’s a new day now. The rap game, to me, it changes about every ten years. It’s like a change of guards. Now you’ve got the Migos, you’ve got Rich Homie, you’ve got the Thugs. They took the baton. The T.I.s, the Guccis, they’re OGs. They calling them OGs, now. Once they start calling them OGs, that time is ticking. You feel what I’m saying? It’s a new generation.
How’d you find Migos, by the way?
Internet. Zaytoven called me. He called me like, ‘you heard about these boys?’ I’m like, ‘oh shit.’ You know how I really heard about them? The hipster kids. The hipster kids be on the grungiest, dirtiest shit first. It’s different. They want to be the first ones who was on it. We knew about that. I remember hollering at some of the little hipster cats like, ‘yo, you heard of Migos?’ They were ‘fuck yeah, Bando!’ I was like ‘I’m going after these boys.’ For real. I gave new shit, on the brink shit, for my young cats. My hipster cats. I hate saying that word though. I’m not saying that shit no more.
I feel like it’s almost like, a psychedelic era in hip-hop.
It is. Yeah. It’s like the 80s, man. It’s the early 80s, man. These kids experimenting with all these drugs like they did in the 80s.
Ecstasy’s hitting again.
You've got to think, in the early 80s, man, they were on that shit. It was a real psychedelic time. You can hear it now. The music is really—it’s a hybrid music.
The sound is really colorful. Production has gotten crazy. This is a real producer’s town. A lot of people credit you with that. Do you think that’s fair?
I mean, I just gave a lot of the new producers chances. There was a time when we were making music where, when I started with Gucci, I was his producer. When I was doing Jeezy, I had Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy. They were young, and they were the go-to with that sound. To me, Shawty Redd created trap music. He created that sound. From him, all these producers came through. But I believe in going and finding the young, new producers.
How would you define the sound and aesthetic of trap music?
Trap music is the pure, uncut book—this is on the rapper’s side—the book of the streets. It’s the journal to the hood. In trap music man, when the rapper’s rapping, you should be able to smell the dope cooking. If he’s talking about it. You should be able to visualize that shit. And then the beat, production wise? Crack baby beats. Because it’s like four sounds. 808s. Leave that shit open so a nigga can put his adlibs in there! That’s how we were doing it with Jeezy. He had a really slow flow, so leave the beat open. And go on the beat and pocket, but let your adlibs be the other components of the beat!
What does that actually mean, “crack baby beats”?
Born in that era, man. Crack baby beats are the kids who didn’t grow up playing instruments, but they might have had a keyboard. A Casio. The simplest shit. But the 808 is hitting. He might have four sounds in that shit. OG Maco’s “U Guessed It,” that had four sounds in it, and that shit is crazy.
What’s your take on major labels circling in? Atlanta kind of keeps them out.
The South is the home of the independents, bro. You had Rap-A-Lot, you had Swisha House, you had Suave House. Rap-A-Lot and Suave House were the first to do it—8Ball and MJG and Tela, the Suave House movement was crazy—around the same time, and then came Master P and the Cash Moneys. In Atlanta, there was mad independents here, but you had LaFace here. That was really like a major indie with a lot of fucking money. And they signed Outkast, so basically, they were the first major to come in it. But when LA Reid left—it was only five years—he left, and it opened it right back up. We’re going to get it ourselves. We’ve got to grind it out because the majors weren’t coming down here. They weren’t. So that whole mind state is still down here. You can fuckin’ get your artist right, get his record going, and tour the chitlin’ circuit, which is every B and C market in the South.
Can you still do that?
Fuck yeah! Pastor Troy still makes—he said he gets $3,500 to $4,000 per show. And he’s booked four or five times a week.
Exactly. But the market is so big that you can move around. You have all these major artists, they’re not going into those towns, man. Kids in these towns used to actually go buy and mix CDs, looking for the records. That’s how Yo Gotti blew the fuck up. Hitting those markets. Lil Boosie, same way. Their whole shit was built off the chitlin’ circuit. Trill Entertainment. I-10, from Florida to Texas. They ran that shit.
Can you tell me about QC?
It’s a label we started a year and a half ago. Migos was the first group we signed. We signed Johnny Cinco. We signed Rich Da Kid, Skippa Da Flippa, and OG Maco. Migos’ success, we worked really hard to blow those kids up, to make them a household name. We had some success over the past year. I give it up to them because they keep it real. They’re all about branding QC. They’re screaming that shit out. So they started branding the label.
Are you worried at all that trap music might be co-opted?
It is. I think trap music is on it’s way out, I’m gonna keep it one hundred. I’ve watched this shit. I know when it’s about to make a change. It’s changing now. I think with the artists that we have—take Migos, they make trap music. But they also came into the game with a cadence and style that was never heard before. I mean people can say they took this or that. From that, I watched every major rapper steal their flow. These kids is about to be here. And they’re so creative that they’ll be here for the next ten years. So I’m not even scared of that.
What do you think will happen to the trap scene?
They’ll come up with a new word for it. It’s just lingo. You know? Like “swag rap.” They fucked up swag. That word, I hate that word. And that’s what they’re doing with trap. Whenever The Man gets control of the lingo, eventually it turns corny. So they just need to come up with some new lingo.
What are Migos like? A lot of kids see them in videos and think, ‘Fuck, I’d really like to meet them.’ Can you describe what they’re like? How are they to manage?
It’s my first time dealing with a group. So it’s a lot of work. They’re three individuals. And individually, all three of them could be solo acts and stand up on their own. So dealing with three individuals is like, you’ve got to really take into consideration that there’s three of them. So you’ve got to give each one their time. But they’re stars, man. They’re from the North Side. But, see, people get it misconstrued. The North Side, there’s nothing going on out there. They shut the projects down and moved the kids out. All the families out. You go to the North Side it’s crazy as hell out there, bro. That’s the drug hub of the east coast. Spaghetti Junction. I-285.
Because it goes right up the North East.
Exactly. And I-75 goes to Florida. And we have the third largest Mexican community in the US. It’s crazy on that side of town. About every six months they find and hit like three hundred bricks of cocaine. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten million dollars. It’s crazy.
What are Migos like individually?
They’re fun as hell, man. They each are different characters. Offset is real aggressive. He’s been in and out of jail a couple times. He’s dealt with a few things. Quavo is this smooth motherfucker, man. Really really smooth. Takeoff is a sleeper. He’s the baby of the bunch. He’s like the player that you got on the team that you know like, ‘listen, we got ten seconds left, we need you to score this three pointer. Take off.’ He’s going to score. His verses, man? He never ceases to amaze me. I’m like, ‘what the fuck was you thinkin’ about?’ It’s so fiery, too. They’re like my little brothers, man.
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