How Coach K Guides Atlanta’s Hip-Hop Stars (New Yorker)

How Coach K Guides Atlanta’s Hip-Hop Stars

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Seven hundred turkeys, two rappers, and an intermediate number of onlookers had assembled in the parking lot of a Kroger supermarket on Cleveland Avenue, on the scrappy south side of Atlanta. The rappers were Quavo and Takeoff, two of the three members of Migos, the dominant hip-hop group of the moment—known for exuberant, off-kilter tracks, like “Bad and Boujee,” that seem to consist of nothing but interjections. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, and the two were standing in the back of a U-Haul truck, facing a growing crowd of people who wanted turkeys or pictures or both. Takeoff grabbed a carton and opened it. “We shipping them boxes out,” he barked—Migos can turn just about any handful of words into a memorable refrain.

The turkey supply had already begun to dwindle when one of the event’s organizers arrived, pulling up in an elegant but inconspicuous Range Rover. His name is Kevin Lee, but everyone calls him Coach K, and, in the world of hip-hop, he may be better known than the Duke basketball impresario from whom he took his nickname. In the aughts, Lee managed two of the city’s most important rappers—Young Jeezy and then, a few years later, Gucci Mane—undaunted by the fact that the men had engaged in a bitter and apparently bloody feud. Nowadays, he is both a manager and a record executive, guiding the careers of Migos and a clutch of other young hip-hop stars, including Lil Yachty, who is twenty and calls himself the King of the Youth. Lee is forty-six, an age that offers some advantages of its own. “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.’ ”

Lee is a former college basketball player, and he walks with a strut that turns out, on closer inspection, to be a limp, the lingering effect of an incident that ended his athletic career. He says that he was visiting some friends, who happened to be drug dealers, when they were raided—not by the police but by rivals with shotguns, who strafed Lee’s leg so thoroughly that he spent a year relearning how to walk. He is, in person, every bit as watchful as one might expect a hip-hop godfather to be, but a good deal friendlier. In Atlanta, his adopted home town, he seems to know and like everyone he comes across.

When Lee turned into the parking lot, he was met at once by an acquaintance who was, like countless young people in the city, an aspiring musician. “I D.M.’d you a song,” she said. “Now I caught you in real life. I’ma keep D.M.’ing you until you get tired of me.” Lee responded with a warm but noncommittal smile, and asked where he should put his car—the crowd was filling up all of the closest parking spaces. She laughed and gestured toward a tow-away zone in front of the supermarket. “This Cleveland Ave.,” she said. “You ain’t got to park right.”

The location of the turkey giveaway had been moved twice that afternoon, from a school to a day-care center to this parking lot, because no one was eager to contend with the crowds that would be sure to come. Between the popularity of Migos and the popularity of free turkeys, no advance notice was required, and, if some unsuspecting shoppers were surprised to be offered a turkey, none of them seemed particularly shocked by the sight of Quavo and Takeoff holding court in a U-Haul. Atlanta is the hip-hop capital of the world, which means that it is full of worldwide stars who are also—and perhaps primarily—neighborhood guys. Quavo, who is twenty-six, grew up in Gwinnett County, northeast of the city, with Takeoff, who is twenty-three, and who is Quavo’s nephew. The third member, Offset, is twenty-five, and he is Quavo’s cousin, although he may be better known, these days, as the fiancé of Cardi B, who this year became the first reality-television star to find a place on hip-hop’s A-list. Her show was “Love & Hip Hop: New York,” on VH1; her breakthrough hit was “Bodak Yellow,” which owned the summer. Offset’s proposal was made, and accepted, onstage during a concert in October. Their wedding hasn’t yet been scheduled. “Everybody’s calling about it,” Lee says. “I think maybe we should shoot a movie, put it out on Valentine’s Day. I mean, ‘Girls Trip’ just did thirty million in one weekend.”

Offset never made it to the Kroger parking lot, but none of the attendees were complaining, especially not the ones staggering away beneath the weight of their free turkeys. Lee waded into the crowd and greeted his business partner, Pierre Thomas, known as Pee, who is a decade younger, and noticeably more cautious around people he doesn’t know. Thomas is relatively new to the music industry, having evidently been successful in his first career, which he declines to discuss. “He come from the streets,” Lee says, by way of explaining why neither of them will explain more. Unlike Lee, who grew up in Indianapolis, Thomas is from Atlanta, and, when the two began working with Migos, Thomas’s local reputation was a great asset—he was known to the proprietors of the city’s clubs as a generous patron, and an unusually well-connected one. “It all came together,” Lee says. “My skills, his credibility.”

Lee and Thomas launched their company in 2013. Its name, Quality Control, reflects the different sensibilities of its founders: Thomas wanted something starting with “Q,” to honor a friend of his who had been shot to death; Lee was inspired by a tag on the pocket of his designer jeans. For a time, their base of operations was a small, freestanding brick building up the street from the Kroger, which they turned into a bunker-like music studio. “Bricked up all the windows, because the music game dangerous,” Thomas says. The studio was in a residential area, and some of the neighbors resented the constant traffic and the occasional altercations; not long after a bullet shattered the window of a nearby house, Quality Control was forced to move. The company’s new headquarters is a purpose-built suite of offices and recording studios, tucked into an industrial corner of a burgeoning neighborhood near midtown. Lee drove there after the giveaway, which he judged a success, not least because it reflected the same unpolished quality that he prizes in music. A friend called, and Lee described what had happened, sounding exuberant. “We did it in the hood, man,” he said.

In the course of Lee’s career, and in some significant part because of it, Atlanta has gone from being a regional music hub to hip-hop’s cultural home, the city that sets the musical agenda for the rest of the country. But, compared with Nashville, which hosts both the lucrative country-music industry and a thriving country-tourism industry, Atlanta is much less corporate. The hip-hop scene remains stubbornly decentralized; there is a profusion of great rappers and producers, but little in the way of major institutions, unless you count the city’s strip clubs, as you probably should. The big companies remain, for the most part, in New York and Los Angeles. “There are no labels here—no major labels,” Lee says. With Quality Control, he is trying to change that. The company has a full-time staff of eight, and operates as a joint venture with the Capitol Music Group, which is part of Universal; the label’s artists include
Stefflon Don, a British vocalist who recently scored her first Top Ten U.K. hit. Lee and Thomas also run a management firm, Solid Foundation, which represents clients such as Trippie Redd, a rising hip-hop star. The firm is also aiming to move its clients into television and film—Lee sees no reason that Lil Yachty should not have his own sitcom.

The goal, for Lee, is not just to build a company but to help build up Atlanta, a city that has transfixed him ever since he first began visiting, in the nineties. One afternoon, he took a call from Ryan Glover, a longtime friend and local entertainment executive. (Glover was formerly the president of Bounce TV, a network targeting African-Americans, which was recently acquired by E. W. Scripps, the media conglomerate.) They reminisced about the old days, and Lee recalled the excitement of arriving in the city for the first time. “I remember coming down here and thinking, These brothers driving Benzes? Off of music? I’m coming to Atlanta!” They talked about supporting a friend named Keisha, who turned out to be Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was running for mayor. Bottoms, like the previous five mayors of Atlanta, is African-American; in this and other ways, she fits Lee’s vision of the city as a place where black people can become successful without becoming anomalous. “There’s no feeling like when I’m coming back to Atlanta, I’m in that airport and I see all those black people with jobs,” he says. “When I travel to Phoenix or to Chicago, or even Indianapolis or Cleveland, Orlando—when you walk into those airports, it’s a few of us. But when you come to Atlanta it’s like, Whoa!”

In a way, Indianapolis, where Lee grew up, was also a music city: the site of a pressing plant, operated by RCA Records, which was one of the world’s largest record manufacturers, until it shut down, thirty years ago. Lee’s mother and grandmother both worked there, which meant that he had the best music collection in the neighborhood; he remembers hearing an eight-track recording of “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” a 1979 B-side by the Fatback Band that is generally regarded as the first hip-hop record ever released.

His mother had a friend in Harlem, and sometimes brought Lee, her only child, along to visit; there, he learned all he could about hip-hop, which still seemed like a peculiar subculture. As he grew older, his tastes broadened further. At seventeen, he and his friends began driving to Chicago, three hours away, and bribing doormen in order to get into the night clubs where a danceable new style called house music was being forged. House music remains Lee’s genre of choice, despite his career; more than one streetwise rapper has been shocked, on entering Lee’s car, to encounter some dreamy club classic from the eighties—say, “Mystery of Love,” by Mr. Fingers. Even after he moved to Atlanta, Lee found that local house clubs provided a pleasant respite from the hip-hop scene, where he was starting to build his reputation. “That was Kevin’s world,” he says. “And then Coach would go to the Bounce, in Bankhead”—a legendary night club, in a legendarily rough-and-tumble neighborhood—“and fuck with the drug dealers.”

Although his mother had a steady job, Lee grew up in a neighborhood he describes as a “ghetto.” He was a gifted enough athlete to get a scholarship to Saint Augustine’s, a historically black college in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a decent basketball player, and a better than decent party promoter, helping to organize “two-to-sixes,” late-night, locked-door events that drew revellers from throughout the region. After college, he returned to Indianapolis, where he tried and failed to start a record company; then he made his way to Atlanta, where he worked as a special-ed teacher. He reconnected with a childhood friend, Alan Henderson, who played for the Atlanta Hawks, and they formed a label called Hendu Entertainment, which was an education—although not, for Henderson, a cheap one. For a while, Lee managed a hardworking local hip-hop provocateur named Pastor Troy, and then, in a studio, he met a charismatic rapper from a small town called Hawkinsville, who named himself Lil J, at first, and then Young Jeezy.

In the early aughts, Atlanta hip-hop, long defined by the exuberance of OutKast, and by a string of delectable party records, was growing slower and meaner, following the lead of an emerging star, T.I., who declared, in 2001, that he rapped “for the niggas and the j’s in the trap.” The j’s were junkies, and the trap was one of the tumbledown houses that often served, in Atlanta, as dealers’ headquarters. (“Trap” became a verb, too: trapping was what trappers did in the trap.) It was the dawn of what came to be known as “trap music,” a term that Lee doesn’t embrace: to him, this was simply the latest iteration of Atlanta hip-hop—characterized, as hip-hop often has been, by lyrics that presented a stylized version of street life. This was the world that Young Jeezy, too, chronicled in his rhymes. He favored tracks full of grand, gothic keyboard lines, and he made his words memorable by using fewer of them, drawing out his raspy syllables, or taking a few beats off for added emphasis.

As Young Jeezy rose to prominence in Atlanta, he established a high-profile alliance with the Black Mafia Family, which was both a hip-hop crew and, more consequentially, a criminal enterprise that used Atlanta as the hub of a multistate cocaine-distribution network. The group’s leader, Demetrius (Big Meech) Flenory, appeared alongside Jeezy in his first video, which was filmed during the weekend-long birthday party of a top B.M.F. leader, who rented a Miami Beach hotel for the occasion. “It was very helpful,” Lee says now; the relationship made Jeezy’s rhymes more believable. “If you was in the city at that time, and you went out and you seen B.M.F., the shit Jeezy was talking about really was happening—it was like a fuckin’ movie.” Lee says that Flenory, in order to outdo all the little big guys who were throwing money around in night clubs, once hired a helicopter to drop thirty thousand dollars on the crowd outside Birthday Bash, an annual hip-hop concert.

Although B.M.F. had a record label, Jeezy was never signed to it, and Lee says that he always kept Jeezy’s business affairs separate from his social life. (Jeezy’s alliance with the crew eventually frayed, leading to a flurry of resentful interviews and rhymes; virtually all the B.M.F. leadership, including Flenory, wound up in federal prison.) But Jeezy’s association with B.M.F. had a mixed effect on his early musical career. “Radio wouldn’t fuck with us,” Lee says—stations didn’t want to be seen to be endorsing B.M.F. or its activities. As a form of grassroots promotion, Lee connected Jeezy with a neighbor of his, DJ Drama, who was known for putting together unlicensed CD compilations of recent hits; they were called mixtapes, after their cassette-only predecessors. In 2004 and 2005, DJ Drama and Young Jeezy released “Tha Streets Iz Watchin” and “Trap or Die,” a pair of mixtapes that were really unofficial albums, full of tracks you couldn’t get anywhere else. (To promote “Trap or Die,” Lee took out radio ads that declared a national holiday: “All traps closed today.”) The mixtapes were hailed as underground classics, and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of them were given away or sold, contributing to the success, in 2005, of Young Jeezy’s major-label début—and contributing, too, to the rise of the mixtape as arguably hip-hop’s most important format. Many of Young Jeezy’s fans found that they preferred his tapes to his official albums; some even grew to love DJ Drama’s tendency to interrupt the music with full-throated salutations, known as “drops”:

For all the niggas in the streets! All the niggas in the hood! I don’t care if you’re
in the A-town or your town—it’s how we get down! Young Jeezy! DJ the fuck Drama! Shout to Coach K!

It was Jeezy who encouraged Lee to rename himself Coach K, because of the way he cajoled and nitpicked Jeezy in the studio. And it was Jeezy who ended the first phase of Lee’s career when, in 2008, he fired him, for reasons neither man will discuss. This was a disorienting experience for Lee, whose professional identity had for years been entirely subsumed in Jeezy’s. He bought a night club, worked with some local rappers, and was eventually recruited to manage an old friend who had become the most revered rapper in the city: Gucci Mane, an astonishingly productive and imaginative performer, whose tales of the trap were at once more vivid and more surreal than anyone else’s. Earlier in his career, Gucci Mane had feuded with Young Jeezy, and the feud seemed to culminate in a homicide, in which an associate of Jeezy’s was shot and killed, and Gucci Mane was arrested for murder. (Gucci Mane’s lawyer argued that he had shot the man in self-defense, and the charge was dropped.) Somehow, Lee had guided Jeezy through this dispute without being drawn into it, and, starting in 2009, he spent two years managing Gucci Mane, who released a steady stream of mixtapes even as he darted in and out of jail and rehabilitation programs, fighting an addiction to lean, a liquid-opiate cocktail. Todd Moscowitz was the C.E.O. of Warner Bros., Gucci Mane’s label, and he recalls that Lee was a steady presence during an unsteady time. “He’s really good at keeping the process moving, and not getting caught up in the nonsense,” Moscowitz says. “Every day, if I couldn’t find Gooch, I could find Coach.” Gucci Mane eventually demonstrated, to Lee’s satisfaction, that he was unmanageable, but their friendship endured. Gucci Mane is now free, professedly sober, and more popular than ever. This summer, Lee and Thomas attended Gucci Mane’s wedding. Thomas brought matching diamond necklaces for the bride and groom.

Thomas, like many of the rappers he knows, often talks about hip-hop as an alternative to “the streets”—a way to make money without having to sell drugs. He says that he grew up hard on the west side of Atlanta, the child of drug-addicted parents who sometimes sent him next door, with a pot, to ask the neighbors for hot water for a bath. By twelve, he had become the most reliable person in the house, and so he went to work, building both a rap sheet—he first went to prison at fourteen—and, one surmises, a fortune. During a recent interview for a hip-hop podcast, he was discussing the high cost of launching a new performer when he started to reminisce: “Do you know what I had to do to get my first half a million dollars?” He paused. “I can’t even tell you—but it wasn’t easy.”

Once Thomas had some money, he bought a few buildings and a day-care center, all of which he viewed, quite accurately, as safer investments than music. He got to know Gucci Mane through the Atlanta demimonde, and got to know Lee through Gucci Mane, but he was skeptical when Lee asked him to co-found a record label and to sign Migos: three kids who recorded their music in a grimy basement hideout they called their “bando,” which is a rough synonym for “trap” (it refers to an abandoned house, temporarily commandeered by dealers), and which was also the name of one of their first singles. Like many of the best rappers who have emerged from Atlanta in the past decade, Migos were spotted early on by Gucci Mane. Thomas, in order to sign the group, had to call Gucci Mane, in jail, to get his blessing, which he gave. Thomas stuffed a duffelbag with cash and showed it to the three Migos, as a way of demonstrating how much money he and Lee were willing to invest in the group’s career.

Migos’ music was trap burlesque—they exaggerated and recombined the genre’s essential elements, like irreverent little brothers rummaging through their big brothers’ closets. Lee and Thomas ferried them to appearances at the city’s strip clubs, taking care to leave some cash behind, but the reaction was lukewarm, until Migos released a hit called “Versace,” in 2013. It was mistaken by some listeners for a novelty song, because its composition is so extreme: the members repeat the titular word nearly two hundred times, hammering the name until it sounds like nonsense syllables, and then hammering some more.

“Even though I own the business, I like to have my hands in everything.” This was Lee’s stated explanation for why, early one afternoon, he was driving to a UPS store to pick up packages. The unstated explanation was more convincing: he was expecting a pair of Adidas Yeezy Boosts, the intentionally scarce sneakers designed by Kanye West. Thomas has a weakness for refractive adornment, but Lee’s main vices are European designer clothes and ostentatious sneakers, which are constantly arriving at the Quality Control offices, courtesy of various people who like him, or owe him a favor. Lee and Thomas are a complementary pair: Thomas is willing and eager to stay out late, keeping an eye on the local clubs, while Lee likes to be up by eight, so that he can swim some laps before he starts his day. He is also a practicing vegan, though he doesn’t practice every day.

Lee is aware that he might never have built a label if there hadn’t been someone willing to gamble a duffelbag on an unproved group like Migos. Hip-hop in Atlanta may be an alternative to the streets, but, over the years, it has also been enabled by the streets, which have functioned as an informal, risk-tolerant source of venture capital. In Lee’s view, this helps explain why Atlanta’s hip-hop scene hasn’t been swallowed up by the mainstream music industry. “The money came from out the black market—it came from out the streets—to build the shit,” he says. “You’ve got to do it on your own.”

After the success of “Versace,” Lee and Thomas grew, rather like their clients, irrationally exuberant. “When I seen it happen, I started having all these bright ideas,” Thomas said, one afternoon, cruising through the city in an uncharacteristically low-profile Mercedes-Maybach. (In fact, he was leaving the Gucci store, with a full trunk, and on his way to pick up his Rolls-Royce, which, after an unhappy attempt at customization, was having its original rims restored.) “I was just signing: You want some money, and you can rap? Come on, I got this studio.” Quality Control struck a deal with an upstart New York label called 300 Entertainment, which released, in 2015, “Yung Rich Nation,” an album that was promoted as Migos’ proper début, after a series of warmup mixtapes. The album was a disappointment, entering the Billboard chart at No. 17 and launching not a single track onto the Hot 100. Afterward, Lee and Thomas waged a long legal battle to separate from 300; around the time, in late 2016, when the parties reached an agreement, Migos released “Bad and Boujee,” a song so infectious that it single-handedly reversed Q.C.’s fortunes. Fans made memes out of the track’s mystifying opening lines, which might have described getting high in a stolen car, if they described anything at all: “Raindrops / Drop top / Smoking on cookie in a hotbox.” The track, which was a No. 1 hit, made Migos not just popular but fun to root for. Donald Glover cast Quavo in his TV show, “Atlanta,” on FX, and then, when the show won a Golden Globe, he thanked the group, in his acceptance speech, for making “Bad and Boujee.” Backstage, he added, brightly, “I think they’re awesome—I think they’re the Beatles.”

After trying and failing, early on, to juggle almost a dozen different acts, Lee and Thomas have pared down Quality Control. With its new corporate partner, Capitol Records, Q.C. is under
the umbrella of a brand that they would like to think of as an antecedent: Motown. Migos were nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards; their next album is due out sometime early next year. One of their songs, in particular, sounds to Lee like a surefire hit. During a meeting at Quality Control, he paused the discussion to take a call from a well-known producer who had worked on the song, to whom he offered his highest praise. “We got one, man,” Lee said.

On a whiteboard in the office of Tamika Howard, the general manager, notes are written in three colors, for the label’s three primary acts: Migos, an emerging Atlanta rapper named Lil Baby, and Lil Yachty, Quality Control’s other big success story. Lee found Yachty online, prompted by a friend who told him that a local teen-age oddball was doing great numbers on SoundCloud, the music-sharing platform. Yachty rapped or sang in a playful, spaced-out falsetto; he was dark-skinned, with hair that was dyed red, braided, and beaded. Lee liked him immediately; Thomas needed to drive around for a while, listening to Yachty’s tracks, before deciding that he liked him, too. “He’s not a street cat,” Lee says, of Yachty. “But, in the streaming world and online, his credibility was real—he was authentic.” Yachty grew up in the suburbs, and it turned out that Lee knew his father, a photographer, from the music scene, and had gone to college with his mother. Later, after Yachty joined Q.C., he confessed that he had once sent Lee a message on Instagram, and had never heard back. Lee checked his in-box and found the message, which was a lot like the innumerable hopeful messages he receives every day:

I’m Yachty man I’m 18 and i rap. But I got the image and the sound boss! What 80% of the “game” is missing. All I need is that correct “push” ya know? . . . I have a lot of potential boss. And I know your the guy to help me prosper.

It has been less than two years, and Yachty’s résumé already includes two big hits, although both were scene-stealing guest appearances on songs by other people: “Broccoli,” by D.R.A.M. (No. 5), and “iSpy,” by KYLE (No. 4). His début album, “Teenage Emotions,” which came out earlier this year, was less successful. “I got something to prove right now,” Yachty told Lee. “I gotta have fire on fire on fire on fire.” But Lee says that Yachty shouldn’t worry about old-fashioned hits, because his big and loyal online audience doesn’t worry about them, either. His projects include a whimsical, nautical-themed clothing line with Nautica and a television deal for a series that neither Yachty nor Lee is yet prepared to discuss. And, when Yachty arrived at the Q.C. studios on a recent night, he certainly looked like a star: he was wearing a powder-blue sweatshirt by Marino Infantry, a hip-hop-influenced skateboarding company; bright-yellow University of Michigan basketball shorts; and a multicolored pendant of Bart Simpson with red braids, which doubled as a tribute to Gucci Mane, whose own Bart Simpson pendant, from a decade ago, is widely recognized as one of the most audacious pieces of jewelry in hip-hop history, and therefore one of the best.

Yachty sat down at the control board, opened his Gmail account on the giant screen, and started playing some songs for Lee. “I talk kinda reckless on this one,” he said, bashfully, and then his voice filled the room, rapping in great detail about an energetic evening he hoped to enjoy with a female friend.

Lee and Yachty were engaged in a months-long debate about which songs should appear on Yachty’s next mixtape, and, when Yachty called up one of Lee’s favorites, Lee leaned forward on his couch. “This is the hardest shit,” he said.

Yachty just shrugged. “It might be Top Ten—not Top Five,” he said.

Yachty is deferential around Lee, but Lee, rather touchingly, finds ways to be deferential to Yachty, too. He wanted to know Yachty’s opinion of a rapper he was thinking about signing. And he was intrigued when Yachty said that he had been earning some extra income on Twitch, the site designed to allow users to stream themselves playing video games. “I made fifteen hundred dollars last night,” Yachty said.

Lee didn’t seem too impressed—he tried to explain a venture related to Bitcoin that could, if it succeeded, bring in some real money. At which point, it was Yachty’s turn to be unimpressed.

“Someone donated me five dollars for farting,” he said. “And two niggas paid me five hundred dollars to follow them, and I did it. Then I did fifty-dollar listening sessions: criticizing niggas’ songs on SoundCloud. I listened to songs all night! They said, ‘Why are we giving donations to someone who’s already rich?’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’ ”

Lee knows that, in order to build Q.C. into the kind of Atlanta powerhouse he envisions, he and Thomas will need to find a way to do less managing on behalf of more clients. Trippie Redd, a Solid Foundation client, is eighteen, and is one of the leading exponents of a dark, grunge-influenced variant of hip-hop that has thrived on SoundCloud. (Another of those figures is Lil Peep, who was found dead last month; police suspect a Xanax overdose.) Lee can’t help but notice that trap music has been partially displaced by a style that is softer and possibly sicker but no less compelling: “It went from talking about selling drugs to ‘How many drugs did you use?’ ” In this way, as in so many others, Gucci Mane is a pivotal figure—a trap icon whose music also offers a haphazard portrait of addiction and, more recently, recovery. Lil Baby, Q.C.’s emerging star, may be undertaking a similar journey: where once he casually discussed his lean addiction, now he says that he is drug-free. Whatever is happening in hip-hop, Lee is motivated not to change it but to keep up with it. Nick Love used to work for Lee, in the Young Jeezy era; now he manages the Coalition DJs, an influential crew that helps set the soundtrack at local strip clubs. He says that Lee taught him the importance of flexibility. “When the sound changes, you’ve got to know that the sound’s changing,” Love says. “You’ve got to know where the wave is going and either be ahead of it or at least be willing to ride it.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that an unsentimental music mogul might say, but Lee’s career has been guided by the abiding conviction that, in hip-hop, the most exciting sounds often spring from the most exacting circumstances—and that, despite all that has changed in the decades since he first arrived in Atlanta, the streets still matter most. Lil Baby, who is twenty-two, started rapping in February, at the urging of Thomas and Lee. They knew him as a street guy who liked to shoot dice with their artists, and they felt certain that his charisma would be as appreciable in verse as it is in prose. “The twang in his voice, the dialect—he still has this real Southern dialect,” Lee says. Part of the key to Lee’s success is that he has just enough distance from Atlanta’s hip-hop scene to clearly perceive the glee and the melancholy that make the music so powerful. This combination is distinctively bluesy in spirit, and sometimes in sound, too. Lil Baby’s current single is “My Dawg,” a half-sung statement of purpose. There’s a lovely moment in the chorus when the tough talk falls away, and Lil Baby makes a tender promise that seems to have escaped from a different song, and maybe from a different decade: “I’m on my way, I’m going fast, I’m coming home to getcha.” Steve Barnett, the chairman and C.E.O. of Capitol Music Group, says that Lee and Thomas have succeeded in part because of their connection to their city. “I hope they never move to L.A.,” he says. “You don’t want to see them in a house in Beverly Hills. You want them to be in the center of the culture, in Atlanta.”

Lee recently
flew to New York to spend a few days shepherding Stefflon Don, the British vocalist, to media outlets and radio stations; a number of the people they met seemed more impressed by Lee’s willingness to vouch for her than by the fact that her single—a lilting, Afro-Jamaican love song, featuring French Montana, called “Hurtin’ Me”—had made it to No. 7 on the U.K. pop chart. (Her British manager is, like a lot of people in the music industry, an old friend of Lee’s; he arranged for Lee to steer her career in the U.S.) During a radio interview, when Stefflon Don was flummoxed by a question about reggae history, Lee grabbed a pair of headphones and sat down next to her, to try to explain. The host said, “The boss is here!” A few days later, Lee was in Los Angeles, with Migos, and then in New Orleans, where he has spent many of his Sundays this fall: his nephew, Alvin Kamara, is a running back for the New Orleans Saints, and perhaps the most exciting rookie in the N.F.L.; he is also the first client in Lee and Thomas’s new sports-management business.

All the while, Lee fielded calls, as he does every day, from friends and would-be friends who were sure that they had identified Atlanta’s next star. One afternoon, as he drove through the city, it was a distant relative, with a pitch that did not sound especially promising. “They got some Internet presence,” the guy said. “And the music is something different.”

Lee was neither enthusiastic nor dismissive. “I mean, there’s a lot of artists out there,” he said. “Send me some music.” ♦

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via New Yorker http://bit.ly/2v93nIt

December 11, 2017 at 02:07AM

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