For the last two decades Atlanta has been the city shaping the sound of street rap, it’s literally redefined the genre by introducing the world to trap music. Behind that shift are artists like Pastor Troy, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and, most recently, Migos. And behind each of those artists is one guy: Kevin “Coach K” Lee.
Coach K is from Indiana, who’s lived in Atlanta since 1996, and has managed almost all of Atlanta’s biggest rappers at some point—points Coach K parted ways with Jeezy in 2007 and Gucci in 2012. He’s the co-founder of Quality Control (QC) Records, home to viral hitmakers Migos and OG Maco. From the emergence of trap music to the inner intricacies of the legendary beef between Jeezy and Gucci to the shifts in the music industry post-internet, he’s seen it all.
Check out his interview with Noisey.Vice.Com
Can you tell me about Atlanta when you got here?
I moved to Atlanta in ’96. The Olympics had just come here, and it was in a transition period. Outkast had that sh*t crazy. It was new things starting to move. Like ’98 hit, and this kid name Pastor Troy really introduced street music to the city. He really was talking about sh*t that was kind of gangster/street. They talked about the streets, but Troy brought this crazy ass, wild energy to the sh*t. That was one of the first artists I ever worked with. When he came, Outkast had their run, but it was in a transition period where No Limit was crazy in Atlanta. They had this sh*t crazy. Troy came in singlehandedly and shut that whole sh*t down.
He took on Master P?
Head on. I remember it was Birthday Bash, I don’t remember which number it was. Troy was on fire. He had every street cat in Georgia at his call. Birthday Bash is a show in the summertime that the radio station puts on. Hot 107.9—at the time, they were Hot 97. Big, big, big. And Troy was going to be the headliner. But check this out—this is how politics come in. The radio station needed something big, so they had No Limit be the host. Master P was the host for the show.
So he kicked Troy out?
They wouldn’t put Troy on the show. They told him the day before. They were like, ‘yo, you can’t perform.’
What did he do about it?
Goodie Mob brought him out. But the craziest sh*t is, pulling up to the Birthday Bash, all you heard was Troy’s music out of every car. So we pull up in there, and he had to really sneak in because they didn’t even want him at the venue and sh*t. And Goodie Mob brought him out. The sh*t was a movie. It erupted. I’m talking about erupted. And that was the beginning of the end of Master P in Atlanta.
Do you think of Troy as the start of trap music?
I don’t want to say started it, but kind of sort of. He was talking about how people were getting hustled. But Troy was talking about sh*t that was going on in the hood; he just had a lot of aggression. T.I. had his album—respect to him and Grand Hustle. He was probably one of the first ones that spit that lingo, but I don’t think trap music was really born until we put out Jeezy’s first mixtape, which was The Streets Iz Watchin, and then, six months later, he put out Trap or Die. I think after that, people got it.
Because that was really the sound.
That was the sound. I mean, you’ve got to think, making that process is crazy. We used to be in the studio and I used to tell Jeezy—like, one night, we went to a club. I watched this man pop like 50 bottles. It was just me and him and two girls. To the point where—I don’t want to call names out, but—there were big time artists in there that were big time artists at the time. They couldn’t even get Cristal because we bought every bottle. So we started sending bottles over to them. And they got mad and left the club.
I remember it was like 6 AM, and we were coming out the club. We were in the car, and I said, ‘man, you’ve got to start talking about this sh*t in your music,’ and he was like, ‘nah, I can’t indict myself like that, man.’ I’m like, ‘dog, just be real witty, and talk about that sh*t in third person. Jay and them do it all the time.’ Once he got that and understood how to do that sh*t, it was over with. What Jeezy did is he introduced the nightlife in Atlanta to the rest of the world. He talked about the street sh*t that was going on, he talked about the guys that were making the moves in his music. It was really authentic because he was really doing that sh*t.
And that’s when Atlanta was super flush with cash.
So much money, man. BMF. Nothing bigger than that. Best to ever do it. For real.
They ran the world, right?
For real. I watched them go from city to city and do their thing. It was so much money in this city. The waitresses, the strippers, everybody made money. Everybody was happy. There was that much money on the streets, man. And what Jeezy did was he took that sh*t and put that sh*t into music. Everybody was hearing about it. The internet wasn’t like that back then. You had to actually come here and see it, or, if they came to your city, you needed to be in there to see it. So what he did was in the music he talked about that sh*t. He talked about it, and, man, it was a motion picture. I said it was like film on wax. It was the soundtrack to the streets.
I remember the convoys of Lamborghinis.
Let me tell you something. This is crazy. This is when they shot “Over Here,” and we shot “Air Forces” in Miami. But it was J-Bo, he was like second lieutenant of BMF. It was his birthday party. They bought out the whole Sagamore Hotel.
No, literally. The whole Sagamore. Tour bus pulls up, and a fu*king trailer, the big trailer—two Phantoms, two Lamborghinis, two Ferraris, a Maybach, all this sh*t on the back of these damn things—drops all of this sh*t off in front of the hotel. I’m talking about a movie. Matter of fact, it was two hotels. It was the Sagamore, and it was this hotel called Teasers on Fifth and Ocean. That hotel too. Literally they had both of those whole hotels all weekend. We ended up shooting over here with Bun B. We shot “Air Forces.” It was that Sunday. It was the last night we shot those sh*ts. If you go back and look at the video, it’s black and white. It’s slow. The shots are mean.
How did you hook up with Jeezy in the first place?
When I first met Jeezy, me and Troy had split. I had picked up some producers, managing producers. Every studio manager I was cool with, so when artists would come in they would hit me up like ‘These artists are looking for beats, bring your producers by.’ So that was my hustle. I would pull up with my producers. My man was managing Dark Studios at the time. He hit me up and was like, ‘you need to get up here man, there’s some young dudes with a lot of money. They’ve been in the A room for like 30 days!’ Basically like, ‘yo, you need to get up here, this is a lick for you. You can make some money.’ So I pull up.
Jeezy wasn’t even rapping. He was on some CEO sh*t. He wanted to be Master P. I walk in the room, and I’ve got my producer. We started playing beats. He was like, ‘yo, are you the guy that used to work with Pastor Troy? I’ve been waiting to meet you.’ So we start kicking it, I got him up out that studio. He played a record and I was like, ‘who’s that?’ He was like, ‘that’s me, but I don’t fu*k around like that. This is my label, I’m CEO.’ He’s 21 years old. So we walked out of the studio and down to his car, this is a 2001 LS400. Lexus. Sitting on 20s. I’m like, ‘OK.’ He was like, ‘man, let me play you some more of my stuff.’ He played me two more records. I’m like, ‘nigga you the one!’ He was like, ‘nah man, I’m playing around.’ But then he was like, ‘man, you really like my stuff?’ So that was the birth of us working together. And people don’t know: It took three years of development and a lot of work before we put out that first mixtape.
It’s weird thinking of him being a little bashful sounding.
Nah, he wasn’t bashful. He was a street nigga. So he was respected in the streets. If you put out some wack music, then the street cats aren’t gonna respect him. He came in the game a millionaire, and I can attest to that.
What was the development like?
I’m a perfectionist. We sat in the studio for days. We actually used to be in the studio every day. Dude is a hard worker. A really hard worker. That’s how I got the name Coach. I’m like ‘do that sh*t over.’ I’m a perfectionist. One day he was just like, ‘aight, Coach. You think you’re my coach or something?’ I was like damn, I like that. I’m really big into branding. I’m like, ‘whenever we’re out, don’t call me by my first name. Call me Coach.’ My first name’s Kevin, so Coach K.
When did Gucci Mane start coming around?
At the same time. Gucci was right after we dropped Streets Iz Watchin. He had this record called “Fork In The Pot.” It was crazy. He was talking that street shit, too. He was from Zone 6, a whole different place. I had never met him. One day I was walking into [clothing store] Walter’s to get some sneaks and shit, and he walks up on me. He was like, ‘man, you Coach K? I’m Gucci Mane. I’m the guy you’ve been looking for.’ Because I put it out to my cats in Charlotte, ‘you find him, I want Jeezy and him to do some records together.’
We started kicking it. First, they did a “Black T” remix. Gucci had a song—that’s when that song “White T” was out—he had a song called “Black T,” where he dissed the cats that had the “White T” song. We had another session, and they actually did another record. Gucci came to the studio, I swear, he sung that hook to “So Icy.” He sung that hook all day. He came in, ‘listen to this!’ At first, Jeezy was like ‘I’m not feeling it. We should do some street shit.’ So they did a real hardcore street record. But it was just cool. Gucci kept singing this hook. So then Zaytoven comes in, and pulls up the beat. I told Jeezy, ‘let’s try this shit, this hook is melodic.’ Little Will, this singer from Atlanta that came up from the Dungeon Family, he happened to come up to the studio. He ended up singing the hook and killing it. If you ever notice, on the third verse of that song, Boo from Boo and Gotti is on that record. He happened to be at the studio on that day. So it went Jeezy, then Gucci, then Boo.
I’d always heard about Gucci’s 48-hour marathons.
That man would literally stay in that studio, bro. Spent many days, man.
I feel like that was the Golden Age there, when Jeezy and Gucci were getting along, before the fallout. Would they hang out?
Yeah they’d hang out. They kicked it. It was actually cool. And then the differences, man. What fucks the game up is what I call the liabilities. I had a rule on the road: Either you’re an asset or a liability. Assets have jobs, have places to be. It’s all the secondhand folks that start putting shit that makes the shit turn into bullshit. That’s basically what happened.
Did it start from one side?
It’s everybody on the outside saying, ‘man, this person, your record, blah blah,’ and before you know it, they’re both two men. We had pride. So eventually, it just turned into some bullshit, really.
I guess with diss tracks, from a listening point of view, I never understand when it’s serious or not. Does it usually kick off with the music, or is it already a problem when they’re making tracks about each other?
It turns into a problem. An angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. ‘I saw him in the club. I think he told the DJ not to play your verse on the record!’ Then it would get back. But Gucci shot first, though. He put out a diss record first. And at the time, Jeezy couldn’t even talk. He had surgery on his vocal chords. We dropped Trap or Die right in the prime, right when everything was bananas. He couldn’t talk. It was crazy. The first song he did when he came back from not talking was “Stay Strapped.” It was his first reply. It was his only reply.
Did you feel like you were in the middle of that shit?
Yeah, you know. Gucci had dissed me on a record. He said, ‘if I can’t get the keys, then I’ma snatch Coach K.’
Does that piss you off? I’d feel complimented.
Nah man. I don’t get mad at that type of shit, man. Damn, I’m doing my job.
Did you see that shit getting as serious as it did?
I didn’t. I really didn’t. I never look at that shit seriously. That’s music. That’s been happening. It’s a competitive sport, basically. That’s how I look at it.
So how did you deal with that during the fallout?
At the time Jeezy was my artist. So we just kept doing what we did. We had an album to put out. So we continued to work on the album.
How did you end up with Gucci?
Me and Jeezy split in 2007. That’s when I started managing Rocko. And we did Rocko’s deal at Def Jam—he put out mixtapes, and he had some hits—really birthed his career. That’s still my brother. We were just going in different directions. Around 2009, I ran into Gucci at Patchwerk Studios. We had seen each other but just kept it moving. He was like, ‘I never had no problems with you, bro. All you did was do good work, you wasn’t with the bullshit. You and Jeezy?’ We had been split for like two years. He was like, ‘shit, I need some help.’ And I was like let me think about that. I asked my business partners, friends. They were like ‘y’all ain’t have no problems,’ so I was like, fuck it. Let’s do it. It’s fucked up, but I kind of had a chip on my shoulder.
So when you and Jeezy split in ’07, that was after the bottom dropped out of everything. After BMF got taken down. Atlanta changed, didn’t it? The nightlife?
The nightlife didn’t change. What BMF did, that’s when the cats from Atlanta that was getting money, that was staying in their areas, that’s when they started coming out. It really turned Atlanta into black Hollywood. The athletes, they were all coming. All the young athletes were coming here spending money in the clubs. It was still turnt up.
So it wasn’t a totally different thing?
Nah it wasn’t. It was a fucked up time, though. The market had crashed. But people were still in the clubs. Whenever there’s drugs in the street, the nightlife is going to move. When it’s slow, there’s a drought, the nightlife is slow as hell.
Did music change because of that?
Nah. Music didn’t change at all. Well, Jeezy’s next album was Recession. But basically, if you really listened to that album, he was talking about how he’s recession proof. We made it through.
What was Gucci like to work with?
Gucci’s amazing. He’s one of the hardest working artists I’ve ever worked with. Ever. His work ethic is crazy. Really creative, really smart. He has a few issues, health issues, that he deals with from time to time. Staying out of the system—that will hurt—to get to this point and then go backwards. Which would make his buzz crazier, but we’ve still got to come back.
Good for publicity on one hand.
Crazy for publicity because with him, I mean, it’s like a living legend. His fans have lived through all his shit with him. A lot of the rappers, they talk about shit, but the fans have never seen it. They’re just going off what you’re telling them. But with him, they lived through this shit with him.
How did you feel about the ice cream cone tattoo?
It was crazy. It was a snowstorm that had hit. He called me and he was like, ‘man, I did it man. The big one.’ I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ He told me he got a tattoo. He was tatted all over his body. But he was like, ‘man, I just got this tattoo on my back.’ At around three in the morning, somebody texted me a picture. I was like, ‘this dude. This dude is a fucking rock star.’ One breath I was like, ‘fuck.’ The publicity from that shit went crazy. If he can wear it, fuck it.
What was Gucci like on the road?
He’s a hard worker. We’d go into the city, and Gucci would be like, ‘Coach, I’ll give you a bonus if we can make $100,000 by the time we come out of the city.’ So we’d go into the city, do a show, pick up $40-50,000. Then we’d line up five features. We’d leave that city with $130,000 in one night.
I heard when you guys were in Florida for Spring Breakers that as soon as they’d call set, you guys would go play shows.
We were there for a week. I lined this shit up. As soon as we got there, we did our thing, and then we left. We had to be on set until a certain time, and we were either shooting videos or doing verses. Then this bastard, one night, goes to the casino. Knocks on my door and gives me $120,000 like, ‘yo, go put this in the bank tomorrow.’ I’m like, ‘what the fuck? Where’d this money come from?’ He was like, ‘man, I hit they ass tonight.’ I’m like, ‘hit who?!’ But he took a cab and went to the casino by himself.
Then the next day, we went and did, like, three features, two videos. A show. Then we went to the casino, and he hit them for another $40,000, and I won $15,000. It was a lucrative week. Everyone on set was like, ‘this motherfucker is the realest ever.’ They couldn’t believe it.