INTERVIEW: Quality Control co-founder Kevin "Coach K" Lee has taken on a duty to keep the culture alive.
Kevin “Coach K” Lee isn’t a native of Atlanta but he’s made it his home and had a major hand in bringing the vibrant culture of the city to the masses. Trap has undoubtedly infiltrated every aspect of popular music 2019, even if it doesn’t get its just dues. Coach K, originally from Indianapolis, was inclined to make the move to Georgia after being inspired by the likes of OutKast and The Dungeon Family. Nearly two decades later, he’s made a significant impact in the city thanks to the Quality Control imprint, and he continues to build out QC’s history with a multifaceted complex in Atlanta that will house music, film, television, and a sports agency as well. QC is leveling up to further push Atlanta’s culture forward, regardless of the artistic medium.
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In between an Urban Outfitters and a Buffalo Exchange is the legendary Plaza Theatre in Atlanta’s Briarcliff Plaza where Red Bull Music Festival hosted Coach K for a rare conversation on November 8th. Coach K doesn’t typically do major press runs. Instead, he, along with Pierre “Pee” Thomas, make sure things get done in the background while allowing their artists like Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, and more to represent the label as a whole. Tonight is different, though. Fresh off of a flight, he sat down with music journalist Christina Lee for a nearly 2-hour long conversation that covered everything from his beginnings as a breakdancer to QC’s reign. For Coach, the connections he’s made have revolved around authenticity. Gucci Mane and Jeezy are examples of this, as are artists like Lil Baby and Migos, but even the people who’ve been riding with QC since the beginning of the decade have proven fearless of getting in the mud.
“Even when I start working with artists, I have to feel it. Like, when I sign artists that aren’t from Atlanta or not from — I tell ‘em, ‘I’ll come to you,’ ‘cause I gotta see where you from. I gotta smell — I gotta understand it. I gotta feel the texture, you know what I mean? I love gettin’ in it with ‘em. That’s the only way. That’s why I think a lot of our artists’ music is so authentic because I never want to take that away from ‘em. And I always want it to feel like that, you know? The best music, like, really all this music is about is storytelling anyway, you know what I’m sayin’?” he told HNHH. “When the fan or the listener hears it, they can feel it. Everything they talkin’ about, they can see it, visually.”
Coach has used this method over the years which not only has proven commercially viable but also helps to preserve the rich African-American culture in Atlanta. “It’s the only city that had a Black mayor for the last 50 years. Major city. It’s some deep rich culture, man. I’ve been here for 22 years and there's no feeling like it,” he said.
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As the saying goes: real recognize real and Coach’s ability to identify that is what’s made him a key element introducing the most successful trap artists into the fold. Jeezy and Gucci Mane are prime examples of this. Jeezy and Coach K are hustlers in their own right, which is what brought them together. At the time, Coach K was managing producers and trying to flip beats. For three years, they worked relentlessly on Jeezy’s debut album. At the same time, Jeezy was still heavy in the streets running with Black Mafia Family. Jeezy couldn’t even be played on the radio because of his affiliation with BMF. Luckily, in a place like Atlanta, where the streets and strip club ultimately dictate what’s hot, radio wasn’t necessary. “We had a problem getting our music played, which wasn’t a problem because, with anything, the streets run it anyway,” he said at The Plaza before elaborating further on that thought backstage.
“What happens is most of these DJs — the DJ in the strip club — they’re mix-show DJs at the radio stations and things. So what they doin’, you know, they goin’ back to their boss, the program director, and are like, ‘these records are poppin’ in the club. Can I hit it once or twice on our 6-10 p.m. show?’ They start to hit that and next thing you know, the cars are driving past bumpin’ this shit, the trap is playing it, it’s just like an explosion — implosion. Not explosion but like, ‘Huh!’”
But it was hearing Outkast and Dungeon Family for the first time that shifted the way he listened to hip-hop from the South. “They rapped about substance and culture and shit that was going on in the South. But they still rapped about the trap. It was that time period, it was a moment that can’t be done again,” he said. “I got really intrigued and with Atlanta being like, the Black-est city in America. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going down there.’”
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Although the BMF or Dungeon Family eras can’t be recreated again, it’s clear that the time he’s spent in the city has placed a battery in his back, with a mission to preserve the culture, especially in the face of gentrification, which he described as both a blessing and a curse. “It hurts and helps,” he explained. “It revives but it pushes away so, I think that’s happening in every major city. For Atlanta, man, it peels some of the authenticity away but at the same time, it shines a light on the city.” Despite this, things have come full circle. Patchwerk Studios is where Outkast recorded some of their early records and over time, it became a hub for artists like Jeezy and Gucci Mane while working with Coach K. He’s engrained himself in the legacy of the studio. He revealed that Quality Control will be launching a massive multimedia complex in Atlanta that will house everything from the music label to a sports agency that’s set to be launched in the future. But this facility isn’t just for QC — it’s for Atlanta as a whole to make sure that the culture never dies down.
“It’s a duty, though, now, to keep it alive. You know what I’m sayin’? It’s like, I’m not from here but I spent more of my adulthood than where I’m from. So it’s like, a duty that I’ve taken on to, like, give back so we can maintain it.”