Kevin "Coach K" Lee is a businessman, entrepreneur, mogul, and larger-than-life executive who can recognize potential when others don't. He is the co-founder and COO of Quality Control Music. Coach K is an art collector of black living artists and loves sports and music. He recently became a new board member for the High Museum of Art. He doesn't believe in talking much about himself, instead, he leaves it all on the field and lets his work speak for itself.
Q: YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN INDIANAPOLIS, IN. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MOVE TO ATLANTA, GA?
A: I moved to Atlanta for a better opportunity. I wanted to work in the music industry. When I lived in Indianapolis, ten friends and I decided to start a label in 1996. We attempted to start it, but there’s really no opportunity there for that. There are many talented people there, but there is not an infrastructure set up for someone who wants to try and make it in the music industry. I would come to visit in Atlanta, and I saw the opportunity for black entrepreneurs. I packed my bag one day, and I left Indianapolis and never came back.
Opportunity was my motivation. I had a dream, a goal, and a vision. My mother never pressured me. She let me dream. I told her I wanted to work in the music industry, and she said, “Well, you’ll probably be good at that because you are good at anything you put your mind to.” She always supported me.
My mom had moved to Atlanta in 1995. I’m the only child, so my mom and I are like super close. She moved to Atlanta from Indianapolis, and for like a year and a half, I have only seen my mother maybe 5 times. I wasn't used to that. So, when I moved to Atlanta in 1997, my mom actually lived here. I knew I had a place to stay. So, I made the move. Then my grandmother got sick. She had cancer, so my mom moved from Atlanta back to Indianapolis to care for my grandmother. She stayed in Indianapolis until 2018. I moved my mom back to Atlanta after my grandmother passed.
Q: WHEN DID YOU START QUALITY CONTROL? HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
A: We started Quality Control Music in March of 2013. I had a management company and managed artists for 15 years before we started Quality Control. “P”, my business partner, had a record label and recording studio. To be honest, I got tired of just managing artists. I felt like I was selling myself short by just managing because when I managed artists, I developed their brand and everything around it. So, when P and I came together, I remember our first conversation. I was like 'Man, you know we should start a label together." He was like, "We don't have any artists." I was like, "Trust me, I can get artists." He said, “Really?” I was like, “Yes, I can.”
I was tired of bringing artists up, and with management, you can get fired at any time. So, I got tired of doing that for years and years. I was wasting my time, time that you can't get back. So, I wanted to start a label where we sign and are like partners with the artists. So, if we go down, we go down together. If we grow and become bigger, then we become bigger together. So, P and I started the label, and the first artists we signed were the Migos. It was like a match made in heaven because everything that P and I represented and wanted to do, the Migos, they let us do it, and they had the talent. Once we signed them, it was like an explosion. We did it the old school way. We were in control of artist development, where a lot of labels don’t do that anymore. A lot of labels are all about data. They want to know what the numbers are looking like. Are the numbers good? What are the socials like? We weren't into that. We were like let's find a diamond in the rough and develop it until it shines.
Q: WAS IT YOUR LOVE OF MUSIC THAT INSPIRED YOU TO DEVELOP THE LABEL? OR MORE SO, WANTING TO DO YOUR OWN THING AND GETTING OUT OF THE MANAGING SIDE OF THE BUSINESS?
A: It was for the love of music but also being able to develop talent. When it’s developed and we’re able to showcase it, we can get our credit. Credit in the music business is all you have. When you put your hard work down, you want to be credited for that.
Q: MANY AFRICAN AMERICANS STRUGGLE WITH FUNDING AND RAISING CAPITAL TO START A NEW BUSINESS. DID YOU FACE SIMILAR STRUGGLES, AND IF SO, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
A: We did struggle. When we first came into the game, we were like, we'll just stay independent. But being independent is tough. You really have to put up or shut up. There’s no one to fall back on and say, “Hey, I need a budget, or where is the budget?” No, you are the budget. Everything we put in or got out, we put right back in. Of course, there have been times where we’re like, “Hey man, this is all that’s in the account. We had to double down and empty it out. But by the grace of God, we are highly favored. Every time our account looked negative, a check would come. We would grind it out, and another check would come. Then we start learning the process. We got our secret sauce that we don’t really talk about, which is how we develop and market talent. But that sauce is through trial and error and learning. It got to the point where, you know, eventually we built Quality Control up and decided we needed to take in a partner so we could have global domination and make it bigger and have longer arms that we can stretch. So, we took on a partner, and that would be Motown.
Q: YOUR PRESENCE INSPIRES A ROOM, ESPECIALLY YOUNG MEN. WHAT MAKES YOU REMAIN HUMBLED?
A: It’s something my mother and grandmother instilled in me growing up. When I see talented people, I stop to acknowledge them and tell them, “Hey man, you’re talented. If there’s any way I can help you, I would love to extend my olive branch to you.” Because, as black people, we have to do that and support each other. I come peacefully and humbly. I don’t care what room I’m in. If I’m the small or big guy in the room, I’ll always be the same person.
Q: CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU FOR GOING BACK TO SCHOOL AND RECEIVING A BACHELOR OF SCIENCE DEGREE IN ORGANIZATIONAL MANAGEMENT AT SAINT AUGUSTINE’S UNIVERSITY AND BEING BESTOWED AN HONORARY DOCTORATE DEGREE OF HUMANE LETTERS. I KNOW IT WAS A PROUD MOMENT FOR YOU, YOUR MOM, AND YOUR FAMILY.
A: Thank you! I graduated in the class of 2020, but because of COVID, I didn’t get to walk. So, we walked with the class of 2021. My mom, my three kids were there, my father came, and my best friend. My grandmother was there in spirit. It was wild because one of my best friends called me. He was staying at my house in Atlanta. He was like "Man, I'm just going to stay in the house and wait for you to get back.” He Facetimed me. The school streamed the graduation on Facebook. There is a beautiful picture that I have of my grandmother that sits in my living room. He put the picture on Facetime, so her face was looking at the screen, and that touched me.
Q: YOU HAVE A TESTIMONY TO SHARE. HOW CHALLENGING WAS IT FOR YOU TO DEAL WITH THE ORDEAL OF BEING SHOT AND LEARNING HOW TO WALK AGAIN? HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO OVERCOME?
A: I mean, it was a challenge. Never in a thousand years did I think that would happen to me, but it did happen. It changed my life. I was 21 years old and I just had a child. I stayed in the hospital for five months. Then, I was in a wheelchair for six months. I had to learn how to walk again. I had to look deep in my soul. I went into a great depression. But God was with me and showed me the light and got me out of it. That’s when I really fell in love with music. I always loved music, but I loved sports before that. Once that incident happened, I couldn’t play basketball anymore on a collegiate level. So, in the hospital, music saved me. Music was my escape. I used to put my headphones on, and I’d escape.
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY BOOK DEALS IN THE WORKS?
A: I’m working on it now. P and I are working on our QC documentary, our life story. So, with that, it’s going to be a book as well. For a long time, I ran from it because I’m kind of shy. But then, I started thinking. I do have a story to tell and a testimony to share. I want my book to be able to help and inspire any young brothers who want to become an entrepreneur, or in the music business, or even be a guiding light for someone.
Q: WHAT PHILANTHROPY PROJECTS ARE YOU INVOLVED IN?
A: We started giving back from day one. “P” and I both come from inner-city neighborhoods or the hood. God blessed us with success, and the first thing we wanted to do was make sure we gave back. We started giving back to the elderly and those who are less fortunate about four to five times a year. We give out food, clothing, supplies, and more in both Atlanta and Indianapolis. I recently started a foundation in my grandmother's name, Betty Brooks foundation, in Indianapolis.