The nimble record label in the world’s de facto hip-hop capital is working
to build sustainable careers, not viral moments, in the streaming era.
ATLANTA — Unless you catch a glimpse of the eggplant Mercedes-Maybach S600 or the various young men with clusters of diamonds on choker-short chains coming and going at all hours, there is nothing too flashy about the headquarters of Quality Control Music, a record label here in the world’s de facto hip-hop capital.
As the birthplace of the chart-topping, trendsetting careers of Migos and Lil Yachty, this studio and office compound, northwest of downtown, is the latest nondescript landmark to help alter the course of rap music, a near-constant occurrence in Atlanta over the last two decades. But despite its pedigree as a center of luxury and innovation, the space — tucked behind a Goodwill and a full-service dog care facility — is light on bacchanalia and heavy on rules and expectations.
“DO NOT come to the studio UNLESS you are working,” reads a weathered printout taped to a bare wall amid four recording studios. “BE RESPONSIBLE for the company you bring … DO NOT have anyone dropping off or picking up drugs at the studio … This is not your home, this is not a hangout, this is a place of business. PLEASE conduct yourself accordingly and in a professional manner.” (Also: “ANY gambling, all parties involved must pay the house 30%!”)
The artists tend to listen. On a recent weekday afternoon, the promising, singsong street rapper Lil Baby, 21 years old and newly into music after two years in prison, diligently wiped his Chick-fil-A sauce and crumbs from a studio countertop as he played tracks from his next mixtape, “Too Hard.” Expected in early December, the project will be his fourth release of the year despite the fact that he started rapping in February.Taking in the songs were the stewards of Lil Baby’s fledgling career: Quality Control’s chief executive Pierre Thomas, or Pee to everyone in his orbit, who typed notes on his phone; and its chief operating officer Kevin Lee, known as Coach K or Coach, who vibed with his eyes closed.
Both men, veterans of the nexus where Atlanta’s street culture meets its music scene, have known Lil Baby since he was a charismatic teenager who was respected around town for his gambling prowess, and they had long encouraged him to pursue a career in music.
Hardheaded and fast-living, Lil Baby resisted until his sentence for gun and drug charges limited his options. As he raps on one new song: “Last year I was sittin’ in a cage/this year I’m goin’ all the way/takin’ drugs, trying to ease the pain.”
Pee, visibly energized by Lil Baby’s progress as an introspective songwriter, announced that the track would serve as the intro for the mixtape, only to receive a vehement protest from the rapper.
“Listen, you’re getting overruled on this one,” Pee shot back, ending the discussion. “Have I told you anything wrong yet?”
It’s this hands-on engagement with homegrown talent that Quality Control hopes will set it apart. Founded by Pee and Coach in 2013 around the flamboyant, fast-rapping local trio Migos, the company went from a start-up with the growing pains typically associated with a new independent label — exacerbated by their artists’ run-ins with the law — to a joint venture with Capitol Music Group and Motown Records in 2015.
Though prospects like OG Maco, Young Greatness and Rich the Kid didn’t truly take off, Quality Control has avoided the temptations of today’s viral-rap gold rush — in which a meme or one-off video by a rookie can lead to a major-label deal — preferring to stick with its system of developing talent gradually and at home.
This year brought an extended breakthrough amid hip-hop’s domination on streaming services: “Bad and Boujee” by Migos hit No. 1 and led to a smash album, “Culture”; while the human meme Lil Yachty established himself as a ubiquitous brand partner with a loyal youth following.
Now, with two well-oiled moneymakers who have refused to fizzle — Lil Yachty’s “Lil Boat 2” mixtape is scheduled for late December and Migos’s “Culture 2,” featuring the single “MotorSport,” is due out in January — Pee and Coach can shift focus to building sustainable careers for its “farm team” of young Atlanta rappers, including Lil Baby, Marlo and Mak Sauce, while simultaneously expanding its brand into television, film and more. (“Quality Control Presents: Control the Streets, Volume 1,” a compilation album featuring the label’s roster and guests like Nicki Minaj, Kodak Black and Cardi B, is scheduled for release on Dec. 8.)
Coach K and Pee are not your standard record industry players, but more akin to No Limit’s Master P and Cash Money’s Baby and Slim: savvy businessmen who shaped their labels with grass-roots hustling — updated for the internet age.
“Other labels have these A & Rs and C.E.O.s and chairmen, sitting in an office looking on the internet at numbers on SoundCloud and Spotify — they’re just into the analytics,” Pee, 38, said. “That’s part of it. But if I’m being honest — and it might sound ignorant — I don’t own a computer. I’m really out here in it.”