While other cities have risen and fallen in relevance and creativity, Atlanta has remained a hip-hop Mecca. From the warped, futuristic vistas of OutKast to the chilly, emotional valleys of Future, the city has become its own self-sustaining and thriving rap galaxy, transforming other solar systems along the way but still retaining its own distinct, isolated atmosphere. In addition to the bright shining stars—T.I., Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka—the city, like any complex system, needs an infrastructure to operate and it needs guardians to quietly watch over it. Coach K, a.k.a. Kevin Lee, is one of those watchmen.
But sometimes, the watchmen come out of the shadows. The 42-year-old music industry veteran made headlines last week when one of his former clients, Gucci Mane, exploded on Twitter, hurling a series of wild accusations and claims at former colleagues and friends. At one point, towards the end of the meltdown, he claimed his account had been hacked by his ex-manager. Coach K handled the situation like someone used to staying out of the limelight: He issued a brief statement saying he hadn’t managed Gucci Mane for months and declined to comment further.
It’s that type of professionalism that has suited Coach K well in his time in the music business, a period during which he managed some of hip-hop’s most talented, hard-working and volatile personalities. Though he shares his nickname with Duke’s quick-tempered basketball coach, Coach K is a quiet, reflective guy, as he revealed during a phone conversation with XXL that spanned his career working with icons like Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and now the emerging ATLiens Migos.
“The hardest part is keeping all the bullshit away,” he says when asked about the worst aspects of managing an artist. “As a manager you’re the liaison between the artist and the world. You gotta protect them and shield them. But at the same time they’re artists so they’re going to do what they do.”
Raised in a single parent household in Indianapolis, Ind. by a mother who worked at an RCA record pressing plant, Lee grew up in a house filled with music fresh from the factory. He remembers his mother bringing him home records and tapes, mostly R&B and jazz. One day she bought him a copy of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which sparked a lifelong obsession with hip-hop.
“I was hooked on rap immediately,” he explains. “Me and one of my best friends, his parents had bought him two turntables, so we just started spending our money buying records.Then my cousin, he DJ’d so I got engulfed in buying records.”
After studying economics at Saint Augustine University in Raleigh, N.C. on a basketball scholarship, Coach K returned to Indianapolis and started a record label called Universal Stars with some friends. With an A&R department and a management section, the business provided Coach K with his first music business experience, but it didn’t pan out. Looking to make a new start, Coach K moved to Atlanta in January 1997, less than a year after OutKast had released ATLiens and months before Lil Jon And The East Side Boyz would drop their debut full-length, Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album.
Atlanta’s hip-hop community was brimming with talent waiting to be exposed. Luckily, Coach K arrived with some helpful connections: A childhood friend of his, then-Atlanta Hawks power forward Al Henderson, was starting a record label and wanted Coach K to run the A&R department. From there, he started managing Pastor Troy and establishing himself in the city’s rap world, developing his identity as a tastemaker who could take regional artists and repackage them for a larger audience.
“I think it’s about recognizing talent,” explains Zaytoven, the celebrated producer and frequent Coach K collaborator behind Migos’ “Versace” and Gucci and Jeezy’s “Icy.” “It’s the same gift I have. When I decided to work with Migos it’s like I almost foresaw that they were going to be big. Coach K does the same thing.”
To examine Coach K’s role in Atlanta hip-hop, XXL spoke with him about three of his biggest artists—Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and Migos—and the role he played in their development, growth and, in the case of Jeezy and Gucci, his eventual split from them. —Dan Jackson