Syrup, $300,000 cars and "magicianal" rhymes: Up close with Atlanta rappers fans think are better than the Beatles
Syrup, $300,000 cars and "magicianal" rhymes: Up close with Atlanta rappers fans think are better than the Beatles
Drive down an unmarked alley on Atlanta's northwest side. See the thrift shop on your right and you'll know you're headed in the right direction; reach the dog boarder and you've gone too far. Approach the chain-link gate guarding a squat building with surveillance cameras all over its windowless facade: This is Quality Control studios, where million-dollar hits get made.
As the gate slides open, follow the McLaren 650S Spider currently rolling into the parking lot, white paint aglow in the dusk. Quavo – 25, one-third of the hip-hop phenomenon Migos – is behind the carbon-fiber steering wheel with his sneakers off "because you gotta respect the suede," he explains. His passenger is a young woman named Destiny, a nursing student who took a semester off to pursue modeling. Quavo told Destiny to remove her stilettos too, and when the Spider's wing doors swivel upward, she pulls her shoes back on, delicately. Quavo is Migos' de facto frontman, a onetime high school quarterback used to being the center of attention. As he relaces his Jordans, a late-January drizzle hits his dreadlocks. "Raindrops keep falling on my head!" he sings, flashing a huge smile.
Quavo's got many reasons to be happy. There's the Spider – a $300,000 car, give or take some options, and a splurge so recent it's still got temporary plates. There's Migos' hit single "Bad and Boujee," which rose, the previous week, to Number One on the charts and will return to that spot in a few days, certifying the trio as new-school hip-hop giants. Its ultraminimal hook – "raindrop/drop-top" – has gone viral and then some, getting riffed on everywhere from Twitter memes to placards at the nationwide Women's March. If that weren't enough good news, there's the Falcons-Packers game, on in the studio lobby. "Ohhh, shit," says Quavo, seeing his hometown football team well on the way to a 44-21 win. "Atlanta piped up!"
In Studio B, Quavo's cousin and fellow Migos MC Offset, 25, is in a swivel chair wearing a $1,000 Vetements hoodie. Beside him is Takeoff, the youngest Migos member, at 22, and Quavo's nephew. "Weak-ass ... Jeezy and Ludacris played the game," says Offset, scowling at his phone. Quavo looks over. "They had them do the halftime show?" he asks. Offset nods. "Why they did that?" Quavo cries out. "Shoulda had us doing 'Bad and Boujee'! We need to do that song at the Super Bowl!"
Migos have been playing "Bad and Boujee" lots of places lately. A month ago, they played it on tour in Lagos, Nigeria, for a massive, hyped-up crowd. Last week, they were in L.A., where they played it on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, then again at a star-packed party celebrating the imminent release of their excellent new album, Culture. Last night, Migos played it at a sold-out event in Washington, D.C., the day after Trump's swearing-in. "The inauguration was weak," Quavo says, referring to the relatively sparse turnout. "It wasn't as thick as the last house party, you dig? If it's some buffoonery, some laugh shit, people ain't pulling up. Trump's laughable."
During the primaries, Quavo recorded a lyric in praise of his preferred candidate. It went something like, "Jump jump, I don't fuck with Donald Trump/I feel the Bern, feel the Bern – Bernie Sanders!" Quavo explains his support: "Bernie was in the trenches back in the day, really in the streets." Before the song came out, though, Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination and Quavo, disappointed, scrapped the line.
Migos are not a political act – not in any explicit sense. "Bad and Boujee" is a hard-edged track about boning groupies and "cooking up dope with a Uzi." As pop smashes go, it's a remarkably dark song with few concessions to mainstream tastes: no candied melodies, no silky guest hooks. "We did it the trap way, not the pop way," says Offset. Takeoff chimes in: "That's what got us here." Migos' first regional hit, 2013's "Bando," was about turning an abandoned house into a drug-dealing hovel. Their national breakthrough, "Versace," arrived later that year, an ode to, well, wearing lots of Versace. Drake hopped on a remix, aping Migos' distinctive triplet-stuffed cadences. Kanye became a fan and copied their flow too. Fans began calling Migos "better than the Beatles" – a prankish, hyperbolic meme that spoke, nonetheless, to the trio's influence. A few weeks ago, Donald Glover made a point while accepting a Golden Globe for his FX series, Atlanta, on which Migos guest-starred, to praise them. He later called them "the Beatles of this generation" – and said that "there's no better song to have sex to" than "Bad and Boujee."
Despite the rambunctious energy of their music – buoyant Auto-Tuned warbling, intricate syncopations – Migos take pride in their work ethic, and so right now, with the biggest hit of their careers under their belts, they aren't kicking back. They're about to hammer out a new song. A tall guy named Durel sits at the mixing board. He plays various roles in Migos' camp, including DJ, beatmaker, engineer and occasional snack gofer: "Yo, Durel – come here with the Lunchables!" Quavo commands at one point. Behind Durel, fast food and weed crumbs litter a console table. (Quavo says he smokes as much as half an ounce a day.) Also on the console is a cardboard box marked THIS END UP – GLASS – FRAGILE – PROMETHAZINE-C. Inside is a big bottle of codeine cough syrup, which some members of the crew have poured into Styrofoam McDonald's cups, creating a woozy cocktail with Mountain Dew Mango Heat and Peach Crush soda mixers.
Their friend and collaborator Tray1 is sitting beside Takeoff, wearing floral-print jeans. On the floor in front of them, a Springfield Armory XD handgun lies askew on the carpet. It's a plastic pistol, fashioned from black and tan polymers; marketing materials call it a favorite among concealed-carry weapons, which are legal in Georgia. When I ask Takeoff about it, he imitates the sound of gunfire. "That right there? That's called brrrupp!" He grins. "Look around. You wonder where security at? It's right here" – he points to Tray1, then waves a hand across the room. "It's my brothers. My brothers are my security. You gotta stay on your P's and Q's. When you popping so hard, got these blessings coming down, you got the devil tryin' to get at you. You gotta stay focused –"
"– or you could just beat a nigga ass on siiight," Quavo interjects, half-singing. "Shoot a nigga ass on siiight."
He delivers these threats playfully, but trouble has followed Migos even as their stars have risen. In March 2014, in a van on I-95 in Miami, they exchanged gunfire with unidentified assailants in another vehicle. Three months later, an innocent bystander named Paris Brown was killed in Atlanta by a gunman who intended to harm Migos, according to authorities; the suspected shooter later killed himself in a standoff with police. In April 2015, cops arrested the trio at Georgia Southern University, where they were booked to perform, on gun and drug charges.
Quavo and Takeoff made bail and took pleas, but Offset is a convicted felon, his record dotted with arrests, so he spent eight months in prison. He read the biblical story of Solomon for solace: "He was a king that had everything, and he lost it all but still had faith," Offset says. "So God blessed him with 10 times more. When I was in jail, like Solomon, I didn't understand why I was going through what I was going through. I was on the right path. Wasn't riding dirty. Then I got trapped in this hole. So I reached to the Word."
"Pee" Thomas, the co-founder of Migos' label with Kevin "Coach K" Lee, recalls his frustration: "I'm like, 'Why would you give cops the opportunity to arrest you when you know you in they crosshairs? When you're young, black and successful, cops don't like that. Migos make $75,000, $100,000 in a single night. Salute to what cops do, but it takes them maybe a year to make that much." As for enemies on the other side of the law, he adds, "If you don't have haters, you ain't doing it. But I say just focus on getting money in they face – that's how you kill haters." He adds, of Migos, "They're their own biggest challenge. They can make hot records in they sleep. What they need to do is avoid the mistakes they made in the past."
In Studio B, for a moment, the smile leaves Quavo's face. "You gotta learn to walk away," he says. "There's no room for fuck-ups now."
Migos keep "a few different spots" in and around Atlanta, says Quavo, but the three are used to sticking close together. They spent much of their childhood in the same small house, raised in the northern Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett County by Quavo's mother. "She was the father figure," says Offset. "She knew how to raise you as a man, tell you how niggas is. 'Homes right there is this.' 'This nigga right there is this – watch out.'" They all call her Mama and love her dearly. "She had a house full of niggas playing games, shoes off, eating all the food, and it's hard times – but she never complained," says Quavo.
Takeoff loved professional wrestling as a kid, and the three transformed a backyard trampoline into a makeshift ring. Quavo was alone in his love for "the National Geographic Channel," Offset recalls. "I used to cuss this nigga ass out 'cause he'd come into the room at 10:00 and wanted to watch the whales and the motherfucking ocean." Offset and Quavo played football at Berkmar High School; the latter earned a starting quarterback gig, but Offset, a wide receiver, had a self-sabotaging temper. "I got kicked out of all Gwinnett schools 'cause I got in a fight, and I had to go to military school," he says. When he returned, he got into a spat with the coach and quit the team in a rage. "I was tripping, going in the streets, doing dumb little ignorant shit," he says. "That was my wild stage."
All three were music fans – Tupac, Biggie, Cash Money, T.I., Goodie Mob, old soul and funk records they discovered on vinyl at an auntie's house. As an adolescent, Takeoff downloaded beats from SoundClick and made demos while Quavo and Offset were off playing sports; at night, they united, fleshing out tracks. That wasn't all they were up to. In December 2011, Quavo and Offset were arrested as part of a major gang sweep alongside alleged members of the Gangster Disciples crew. (Quavo says the arrest was "just for show" and the judge set them free.) "We cliqued together, called ourselves Migos, started terrorizing, got in trouble," Quavo says. There was burglary, making money "in the streets" – which they describe as a means to an end. "We had to got-damn find some motherfucking money," says Offset. "Doing this music took dough." He explains that, in addition to recording gear and DJ mixtape-hosting fees, there were jewelry and clothes to buy: "You gotta flex. You gotta look good, bro. Especially coming from the outskirts and wanting to take over the whole Atlanta."
Their hyped-up tracks caught the ear of Atlanta legend Gucci Mane, who helped introduce Migos to Pee and Coach K. "The music was crazy," Pee recalls, "but what made me really wanna go hard for them is that they packed all their clothes and moved into the studio – literally lived there, sleeping on reclining chairs and making music all day." Their styles are complementary but distinct. Quavo is the most charismatic member. Takeoff is the most rhythmically nimble. Offset is the most haunted, hinting glancingly at depression with curveball, downbeat lines ("I don't plan on going out sad today") that undercut his brags. He came up with the spare "raindrop/drop-top" hook, trying to expel demons he doesn't specify: "I had some little situations going on with life, family stuff going down, so I went downstairs to record. Sometimes that's the best time to get music off – you might be mad, make some crazy shit."
"Bad and Boujee" was the crazy shit that resulted. The track has put Migos at the forefront of a new wave of Atlanta hip-hop talent that includes friends Lil Yachty and Young Thug. All are wildly different MCs, illustrating the "diversity" that Quavo says is one of the things he most loves about Atlanta. And so I'm surprised by Migos' reaction when I mention iLoveMakonnen, the local MC who just came out as gay on Twitter. "Damn, Makonnen!" Quavo bellows after an awkward interlude. I mention support I saw online for Makonnen's decision. "They supported him?" Quavo asks, raising an eyebrow. "That's because the world is fucked up," says Offset. "This world is not right," Takeoff says. "We ain't saying it's nothing wrong with the gays," says Quavo. But he suggests that Makonnen's sexuality undermines his credibility, given the fact that "he first came out talking about trapping and selling Molly, doing all that."
He frowns. "That's wack, bro."
It's 8:30 p.m. Migos have a full day of radio interviews tomorrow, plus a video shoot. Now it's time to make music. "Put your timer on," says Quavo. "This gonna go on for about 15 minutes, and when it come out the oven it's gonna be a masterpiece. Leave for 15 minutes, you gonna miss some magicianal shit!"
As Durel mans the board, firing up a beat he produced, Quavo enters the booth with a blunt. He spits gibberish first, hashing out rhythmic and melodic ideas: "Nigga, the ice on the boat," he mumbles. "Waste on, coo on." Bar by bar, he transforms this doggerel into intelligible ideas. "Prayer clean/Put on a pair of wings" becomes "Pull up McLaren and wings/Pull up and spread my wings." While Quavo proceeds through his verse, Takeoff listens intently, holding a seven-inch stack of rubber-banded cash to his head like it's an old cellphone and shouting lines into it, revving himself up.
The process is undeniably magicianal, but it's also painstakingly incremental. Fifteen minutes becomes an hour, then two. Destiny has long since left. Offset takes the booth next. Quavo FaceTimes with his mom, who's at "a $2.3 million mansion" he bought in town. "Stay vigilant," I hear her tell him. "Don't do no stupid moves."
Takeoff goes in last – by now it's after 11. Quavo and Offset head to an adjacent room. Suddenly, a commotion erupts in the hall. A woman with bright-blond hair and a regal bearing is screaming, "Fuck you, Quay!" I see her take a swing at Quavo, backing him into a wall. O-Ron, the studio manager, puts his body between them. "Y'all niggas want a round with a real nigga from the streets?" the woman yells tauntingly. Quavo chuckles, seemingly unruffled: "We don't want a problem, nah."
Soon she bursts into the studio and addresses Durel. "These niggas wanna fuck all these wanna-be-famous-ass ho's," she says, in apparent explanation for her anger. Then: "You corny. You been in jail? I been in jail, nigga. Make your beats." Durel purses his lips and concentrates on the mixing board as O-Ron leads her into the hall.
Mounted above the mixing board is a flatscreen showing surveillance feeds from cameras around the property. In the bottom left corner, I see Quavo run out to the Spider and the woman chase him. Others join them at the car. Durel and Tray1 are watching the same feed with me, neither of them commenting. The picture is too small and grainy to say what exactly happens next, but I see the woman fall to the ground. O-Ron carries her, as she kicks furiously, away from Quavo. Soon a car arrives; she gets in and leaves. O-Ron returns and explains that the woman "fell down and busted her nose – her face is all bloody."
Quavo and Offset drive away in the Spider. It's the last I see of them: interview, apparently, over. (Asked to clarify the circumstances of the incident, a representative from Migos declined to comment.) Takeoff, meanwhile, is still recording, refining inspired non sequiturs one by one. "Sensei way I kick the feng shui," he raps. "Major bag alert with a Kim K." He's unaware of the fracas outside – focused on the music, focused on the money. The air in the studio is sour and tense. The track sounds great.