Pop Culture

How Quality Control Made Lil Baby the Latest Star of a Rap Dynasty

Coach K and P discuss the finer points of molding a rap star into a generational talent in the wake of Baby’s Untrapped documentary.

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Pierre “P” Thomas and Kevin “Coach K” Lee attend the Culture Creators 4th Annual Innovators & Leaders Awards Brunch at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on June 22, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. Courtesy of Jerritt Clark via Getty Images

The lifespan of a rap dynasty is short: Even the great labels like Bad Boy, Death Row, Rocafella, Murda Inc, Cash Money, No Limit, Ruff Ryders, G-Unit, and Maybach Music rarely managed more than a good five years on top, even if some of their artists were dominant for longer and their highs are still, to this day, unmatchable.

All this is to say what Kevin “Coach K” Lee and his partner of the last decade, Percy “P” Thomas, have accomplished in the city of Atlanta with their label Quality Control, is unprecedented. As the capital of hip-hop transferred from its coastal hubs in New York and LA to Georgia, they have had their fingers on the pulse of of the culture, have been able to stay a step ahead of the moving target that is Atlanta rap and its ever changing scene, from trap to snap to mumble to however you’d describe the holy music Young Thug makes. Coach K’s family tree is Young Jeezy to Gucci Mane to Migos to Lil Yachty to Lil Baby. Quality Control has launched other iconic acts, like the City Girls, but that lineage is essentially the story of 20 years of music in Atlanta, and by extension, rap itself. If you charted Coach’s success in music, it wouldn’t even be a hockey stick, it would be a straight line that starts at the stop and never wobbles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPcsqwibjC0

This month, a Quality Control-produced documentary about Lil Baby called Untrapped dropped on Amazon. It’s an admirable, slick product produced and edited by its subjects, self-mythologizing of high order that charts the miraculous five year glow up of an artist who went from opening in small clubs kto arguably the greatest working rapper at this moment. Its most remarkable aspect is perhaps its very existence, and the fact that Baby’s young career already warrants a star-studded vanity project that doesn’t come off as overly absurd or indulgent. But with Quality Control behind Baby, or really any rapper, we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s business as usual for rap’s generational dynasty. GQ spoke with Lee and Thomas about Baby’s rise, his hilarious gambling stories and how to properly develop an artist who’s here to stay.

I was in a bar last night, and the DJ transitioned from “Dreams and Nightmares” to “Freestyle” right after. And “Freestyle” got an insane response, a way bigger response, even though “Dreams and Nightmares” is an East Coast rip-your-shirt-off-and-scream-the-lyrics-on-top-of-a-bench staple. Has that become Baby’s fan favorite? I know he has bigger pop songs or whatever, but is that the one that gets the crowd craziest when he does it live?

Percy “P” Thomas: I don’t know what happened with that record. The record has been out for like four and a half years, and it’s something that activated it. Maybe something off TikTok, or something like that. But for the past couple of weeks, the record just came out of nowhere. And it’s number eight on the Apple Music charts of all places.. It just goes to show how dedicated his fans are, and I don’t see “Dreams and Nightmares” doing it.

But it’s one of those songs. When you think of Baby, that song defines him to the t. That’s one of the street records, he’ll probably be performing that one forever. And I bet you [at that bar] they went word for word with it.

Word for word! People were losing their minds.

Coach: Especially guys on the streets, the kids that are infatuated with the streets, it makes you feel like you’re him. When you’re rapping that song, you feel like that song is yours. And that’s how, like you said, kids stick they chest out. It’s crazy.

You guys have basically had a hand in every significant Atlanta artist who’s gone national in the last 20 years. How do you see Thug and Baby’s more musical style fitting in a continuum with Migos and Gucci and Jeezy? Coach, I know you were managing Gucci in the early 2010s when he signed Thug. So did you see anything Thug picked up from Gucci? And do you think it’s bled into what Baby does?

Coach: I think every artist that came from that era picked something up from Gucci. Gucci was a straight hustler. Nobody worked harder than him. It’s artists out there that’s better lyricists or whatever, but he’s going to beat you. And his cultural relevance, that’s why he won. And every kid that came up in that area, they took that from him because he taught them that in his music and his actions. And they took it and ran with it, especially in Atlanta. Baby, Migos, all of them.

P: It’s not just as an artist, but on an executive level. I was in the studio with Gucci. I was there when he was working with all these new artists like Thug and Migos and PeeWee Longway. He was one of the first rappers that was embracing all the new talent. And working with all the new talent, his work ethic was crazy. I know that Thug and Migos and all those guys, they was in the brick factory with him, and they see how it works. Gucci was one of those artists that would knock out ten songs in one day, and he was always instilling that work ethic on everybody that was around.

Beyond the hustle, do you think that there’s anything in the music that could kind of link them together as part of a lineage?

Coach: Jeezy talked about hustling. Gucci talked about hustling. Gucci talked about robbing. Gucci talked about everything that was really going on the street corner, in the trap. Jeezy was talking about big boy shit. And Gucci talked that shit too, but I think his relevancy came because he talked to the young boy on the corner that’s selling little packs and to the guys that’s selling big packs. He really talked to them.

He approached the street on a retail level.

Coach: His storytelling, his writing. He can visually make you feel like you was right there.

The first reference I can remember to Baby is on Young Thug’s “Thief in the Night” in 2015, right around the time he was going to jail. What was your guys’ relationship with Baby, and Thug’s relationship with Baby, at that point?

P: I already had a relationship with Lil Baby before he even went to prison. Baby has been around me since he was maybe, like, 15. My best friend sort of helped raise Baby. Baby been around, he was around before Migos. He just wasn’t an artist.

And I’ve been knowing Thug since Thug was young. All of us from Atlanta round about the same side. Everybody sort of knows all the same people.

In the 2017 profile of Coach in The New Yorker, Baby is casually mentioned as one of the artists you guys were developing. But really the focus in that piece is Migos, and Yachty is the next guy that’s up and coming.

In the documentary, Thug is presented as more of a life mentor and a childhood friend. There’s not a lot of discussion about how Thug might have influenced Baby’s music. You guys had a front row seat for Baby’s development. Was there a lot of collaboration between them as Baby was finding his sound and figuring out his style?

P: Well, I mean, Baby used to be in the studio with them all the time, so I’m pretty sure that he was observing and watching.. They definitely got two different styles to me, and they are two great artists in their own lane, and that created their own flow and their own style.

Early on, as he spoke in the documentary, when he first started recording he was with Marlo. They were both feeding off each other, and were new at rapping. And also, you gotta remember Baby was in the studio with Migos, and Rich the Kid, PeeWee Longway. He was in the studio everyday, observing these guys. So in my mind, I would think he’s just soaking up the work ethic, just seeing how everybody works because he was around them everyday.

Coach, in the documentary you identify “My Dawg” as this moment where you see Baby level up. Aside from hitting on a great hook, do you think that there were specific things in the flow that signified his maturation?

Coach: He found his pocket, he found his swag. We put out a couple of projects from him, but it’s like that moment, “Oh, shit, he has arrived”. And you can hear all the confidence. Because you got to understand, when we started really developing him, P took it upon himself like, I’m going to develop this kid. Because like he said, he’s been knowing Baby since he was a kid, and he wanted to give Baby this opportunity to get out the streets. So the first projects, Baby might go cut ten records, and P will say, oh, give me them ten records, and went and put a project out. So he’s building the confidence as we’re putting projects out.

Baby has to be one of the fastest progressing and maturing artists of the last five years. From doing those small shows to being a top three artist in a handful of years. And I don’t think there are many points of comparison for that in rap.

P: Yeah, but that comes with dedication, and that comes with him surrounding himself with a great team. And also, I pride myself in what we do over here in Quality Control with artist development. I feel like a lot of record companies, nobody’s creating superstars. Everybody just catching these one hit wonders or TikTok moments or whatever. Nobody’s creating real superstars because everybody got away from artist development. Nobody wants to take the time and put the time into artists to really deliver something special. Everything is just about data analytics.

My Turn is the first album that I can remember not just getting a deluxe release, but the deluxe amplifying and even changing some of the critical consensus. Is that something you guys came up with specifically for that album?

P: I’m going to be honest, I can’t take credit for that. That was Ethiopia over at Motown.Covid shut everything down. So Baby wasn’t able to promote that project.. And so one day I Ethiopia called me on the phone and We were just trying to figure out ways to keep momentum going on the album. She’s like, we should just give the fans some more music.. And I pitched the idea to Baby, and me and Coach all put our heads together, and he came with the record with 42 Dugg.

They went to the hood against our advice because I was scared to come out the house. But they went to the hood and shot a video and delivered the records. And we added five more records and it just amplified it even more. So it was like just trying to keep momentum going while we were shut down in a pandemic.

How did the Gunna collaboration come about?

P: Gunna and Thug and Baby, they got a real relationship. And I think it just came down to chemistry. I don’t even think that tape was planned. Baby and Gunna was just working together. They were doing a lot of music together. I don’t remember who came up with the idea of doing it, but whoever came up with the idea, they knocked the records out really fast.

Is there something that you guys can attribute to your success beyond just talent scouting and promotion? Is there something in the way that you guys promote and build up artists that can explain why you have such an incredible track record?

P: So we sort of got, like a secret sauce over here, but it’s not a secret sauce.

Coach: It’s just artist development.

P: Yeah, we put the work in. We take the time out to develop the artist. We’re not sitting around waiting for no computer to tell us that this artist got a record. It had 50,000 views this week, and next week, the week after that, it had 100,000. So we’re not out just chasing the record while not really building the artist. If you notice the history of us, we never had an already established artist. Every artist that we ever had, we built from the ground up. We find diamonds in the rough. We can sort of see it in the beginning, so we take the time. That’s just what we’ve been doing from day one, and it’s really been working for us for ten years now. It’s been working for Coach for over twenty years.

Coach: But it’s just a strategy that we got. Artist development, man. Taking the time and really molding artists and turning them into a brand. Like, most labels don’t even do it. I mean, none of them do it no more. They all watch the algorithm, right? But we take the time to actually build an artist, to turn them into a brand to have longevity. I mean, that’s why I think all our artists are going to last ten years plus. And not just be here today, single here, single there, on to the next.

The final third of the documentary shifts to the Grammys and Baby’s decision to perform after getting snubbed. So the sales were already there for Baby that year. Besides institutional acknowledgment, what does a Grammy actually do for a rapper?

P: I’m not a fan of the Grammys. In that moment, I felt like they had missed the mark for some reason. I don’t understand how you can have the biggest influence in streaming and sales and put the work in that he put in to have the biggest selling record of all genres, and don’t get a nomination for it.

For me, I feel like I just got to be careful how to say this, because I don’t want to come out the wrong way, ‘cause, you know, they twist people words these days. I just think that for our culture, I just feel like we need our own. I feel like we need our own platform where we get the acknowledgement, where we can acknowledge our own. Because year after year after year, whoever running that committee over there, they’re not giving the artists of our culture and the artists of our race the proper acknowledgement.

Coach: They have a voting system that we feel like does not even understand our culture.

When I was prepping for this, I reached out to an acquaintance who wrote a book about Atlanta rap and he said that I should ask if you have any good Baby gambling stories.

P: Yeah, I just had one last week with him. We went to the casino in Vegas and I was at the Palms Hotel and he was at the MGM, and I was over there playing Blackjack, and he played Baccarat. And I told him, I said, next time you go play Baccarat, I don’t know how to play, but I’m just going to come to the table and just bet with you, whatever you bet on. And he said, okay. I think he was down like $300,000. And this was just on Saturday. I was over at the Palms and I was up $180,000. So he calls me and said, hey, send me $150,000 because I’m down right now. And I say, okay, cool, I send the money around there. And it maybe was like an hour before he had to go on stage at the Chris Brown concert. By the time I got to the concert, he had already got the money, got out of debt and was up maybe a couple of hundred grand or whatever.

So he’s like, I got your money, I’m going to go back later. I said, okay, cool, I’m going to go back with you. So he went to the stage and did the show. He did an after party at Drai’s and then I went back to the hotel and was waiting for him. He said, we’re going to go downstairs and gamble. I’m sitting here waiting on him. But he went in the room and he was just in there for like over an hour and it’s like five in the morning. So I got tired and I left. Then I woke up and I went to Houston. Six hours later, one of the bros called me and said, “Baby just hit for a million dollars on the Baccarat table.”

He gave all of his friends $10,000 each, right?

P: Yeah, but I called him and I was so upset. He’s like “Brother, you left.” And I was like, what do you mean, I left? You had me sitting around for hours in a hotel at five in the morning!. And I hate that I missed out on that.

But he’s been gambling. That’s a new story, but the old stories are Baby used to come around when the Migos and Thug and all those artists from back then used to go on the road and pick up their back ends. And when they used to come back to the city and be in the studio, Baby would be waiting there. He would be waiting because he knew they had cash on them. And he’s beat a lot of those guys out a lot of money.

Do you have any thoughts or feelings you’d be willing to share on the YSL situation?

I know Thug. I’ve known Thug since he was young. It’s just an unfortunate situation. I don’t know too much detail about it, and I don’t really want to speak too much on it. It’s unfortunate. And people should pay attention. Especially people in our culture should pay attention.

Feel free to decline if you’re not able to comment on this, but Coach, did you personally orchestrate the Matt Ryan trade? It seems like something that you might have been behind.
Coach: Oh, because I’m from Indianapolis? (Laughs) Nah. I ain’t going to speak on that.

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