#109: How Quality Control Music Took Over Atlanta

The Atlanta record label gained traction by staying loyal to one of hip-hop's best markets.

As promised, today’s newsletter will be a swap between Office Hours and Trapital. As an added bonus, this week Dan and I are recording an episode of the Trapital Podcast about our articles, so make sure you subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

You can read my article on No Limit in Trapital here.

Let’s get to it!


MUSIC THING:

Hey! I’m Dan Runcie, founder of Trapital, a media company for people taking hip-hop to the next level. I started Trapital because I wanted hip-hop’s business leaders to get the same level of coverage that execs in other industries did. Each week, Trapital gives thousands of decision makers the tools and insights they need to take action.

I’m excited that Ernest and I are swapping newsletters today. He does great work and it’s been great to follow. Him and I will record a Trapital Podcast about our articles, so make sure you subscribe wherever you get your podcasts!

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In 2019, a rapper named Silk the Prince bought a billboard in Atlanta with a simple message: TELL QC TO SIGN ME.

These shameless stunts aren't uncommon, especially in Atlanta. Would I spend thousands of dollars on a billboard like that? No chance in hell. But if an aspiring entertainer goes that length for a company's attention, it's a sign that the company does something right.

Since 2013, Quality Control Music has risen in power. The Atlanta based record label and entertainment company is home to some of hip-hop biggest acts, like Lil' Baby, City Girls, Migos, and Lil' Yachty. QC made a name for itself in a city that was already hip-hop's biggest draw. It has prided itself as an underdog, but it mightl be hard to keep that title.

A city ripe for disruption

ATL's run is unquestioned. Its artists set the tone that others follow. The city's strip club culture became part of hip-hop. Southern slang is so ingrained that some forget where it came from. If we rank hip-hop's most influential regions, Atlanta is top two and it's not two.

Despite its dominance, the region still lacked infrastructure. It sounds ironic, but there are a few reasons why. First, the major record label system still lives in New York and Los Angeles. Atlanta has had legendary labels like So So Def and LaFace, but they still relied on powerful major label execs. A move to LA or NY was a prerequisite to become a superstar.

Second, the city of Atlanta has been less willing to support the music industry. Atlanta's music does not get the same tax breaks given to film and TV production. It's even tougher when other cities give their music industries those same incentives. Atlanta's culture is one of America's greatest exports. It's in the city's best interests to support it.

Here's Coach K said in a 2019 interview with Document Journal:

"I think our music’s just evolved here. That’s one of the reasons I really wanted to build this infrastructure here... Shit started bubbling here. Now you have East Coast sounding like it, [and] West Coast’s watching everything that’s going on. We’re creating infrastructure where the artists of the South feel proud. It’s not even a QC thing, it just happens to be ran by Quality Control.”

The timing was perfect. Atlanta needed a crew to say "This is home. We're settin' up shop here. Come to us." QC is independently run, but it still has distribution deals in place with the majors. Thanks to today’s technology, Coach K and Pee have had an easier time growing roots than their predecessors did.

QC's goals still need to be realistic though. Agglomeration still benefits the incumbents. Music and tech are similar in that way. For instance, there are plenty of startup scenes that have thrived in the era of Amazon Web Services. Sure, they can call themselves Silicon Beach, Silicon Prairie, or Silicon Traphouse*. But none of them will ever match the infrastructure in Silicon Valley.

For QC, Atlanta should stay the priority, but strong connections in LA and NY will still help.

*There's no Silicon Traphouse. I made it up to show how ridiculous those Silicon _____ names all sound!

A memorable 2018 interview with QC. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.

Second-time founders who can relate

Coach K and Pee have been around the block. K is a former special education teacher. He started Hendu Entertainment, a failed record label with high school friend and former NBA player Al Henderdson. He later managed Jeezy, got fired by Jeezy, then managed Gucci Mane. He's seen it all.

Pee is born and raised in Atlanta. He made his money "before music." He launched his own label Dirty Dolla Entertainment, but it failed as well. The two came together, discussed a plan to sign the Migos, and the rest is history.

In hip-hop, experienced founders are more likely to start a company that caters to what they already know. Look at Roc Nation. Jay Z spent his career collaborating with many of the artists his company now manages. They came up together, so it's an easier lift.

Second-time founders are less likely to go the QC route. Pee and Coach K are grown men in their 40s developing artists young enough to be their children. As execs leading younger artists, they had to be relatable, develop trust, and be willing to learn from the next generation.

Coach K spoke on this in a 2017 New Yorker interview:

“With this gray beard, I’m a O.G.,” he says. “When I say something, they listen—like, ‘Oh, the O.G. must have been through it.’ ” But he prides himself on being open to whatever musical mania is currently seizing the young people who tend to be his clients, and his customers. “When I visit my friends, I sit with their kids, and we talk about music,” he says. “And my friends be like, ‘How the hell do you understand that shit?’ I’m like, ‘This is what I love, and this is what I do.’

Coach K said that up to 85% of his and Pee's job is mentorship. It's Quality Control's biggest asset. They have a leg up on their peers, whose artist-exec relationships are more like two people building the plane as they fly it.

Pee and Coach also complement each other well. In a 2017 New York Times interview, QC general manager Tamika Howard said "Pee is the street one, Coach is the suave one." When Pee thought to sign the Bhad Bhabie AKA "cash me ousside, how bout dat?", Coach K advised against it.

Their complementary approach helps keep a tight-knit, competitive roster. But if longevity and expansion are the goals, then the 2020s version of QC will need to evolve.

Leveling up

QC still operates as a boutique firm. It's entered film and tv production, talent, and sports. It was a logical next step. Most of its artists have multihyphenate potential. If QC doesn't have the in-house capabilities, it can help foster them in Atlanta's broader ecosystem. By extension, QC's infrastructure is strengthened by Tyler Perry Studios, Atlanta's growing startup scene, A3C, and the REVOLT Summit.

Internally though, its talent is having a sliding doors moment. The label's hottest artist is Lil' Baby. Before the pandemic started, the 25-year-old rapper dropped a chart-topping album. He's done a bunch of guest verses and hasn't slowed down yet. He's on Trapital's shortlist for the All-Quarantine First Team. City Girls have done their thing too. The duo just released a new surprise album. And Lil' Yachty has been active both in and outside of hip-hop.

The Migos are the big question mark though. In 2017, the trio was larger than life. They had the #1 song in the country with "Bad and Boujee," a pivotal shoutout from Donald Glover at the Golden Globes, the Culture album, and the iconic incident with Joe Budden at the BET Awards. 

If we polled hip-hop fans three years ago and asked them who would be bigger in 2020, Quavo or Travis Scott, most would have picked the guy North Atlanta. We got Quavo the star, but we never truly got Quavo the superstar. The group's solo albums never took off and Culture III never happened.

One of the topics I spoke with Dreamville CEO Ibrahim Hamad about is how a label outlasts its flagship artists. J. Cole is still the face of Dreamville, but I doubt he wants to rap till he's 60. His drama with Noname probably accelerated that timeline. Fans might get one more album if they're lucky.

Similarly, QC is in that phase where it might be time for City Girls and Lil' Baby to take the torch. It's the best way to ensure that the label can solidify its roots and make the impact it wants to.

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Before we know it, Lil' Baby, City Girls, Migos, and the rest of QC's roster will be the ol' heads. QC will have to get some Gen Z artists on its roster. Luckily, connecting with the youth is a skill that both execs have. It takes a good eye to sign the right act, but it also takes luck. But luck comes easier to those who are already in position. Nothing is guaranteed, but QC is more likely to get lucky than anyone else to reap the rewards that Atlanta continues to offer.

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