Big Dreams and Strange Connections: A Conversation with Joe Coscarelli

By Donald MorrisonOctober 19, 2022

Big Dreams and Strange Connections: A Conversation with Joe Coscarelli

Rap Capital by Joe Coscarelli

IN HIS FIRST BOOK, Rap Capital, Joe Coscarelli, a culture reporter for The New York Times, tells the story of Atlanta’s emergence as the creative and commercial center of the hip-hop world by focusing on some of its most indelible characters: the youthful trio who went, in less than five years, from abandoned houses to having the number one song in the country; the lanky gambling prodigy who would come to soundtrack the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests; the cherubic newcomer who has the look and sound of a star without the resources to get him there as fast as he, or his benefactors, might like.

In this case, those benefactors are Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas, the founders of Quality Control Music, the powerhouse regional label Coscarelli has been reporting on since its emergence in the middle of the last decade. In this conversation, Coscarelli and I talk about his choosing Quality Control and its artists as a vessel for a larger story, the way the internet has morphed recording artists’ careers, and the imperfect, incomplete canonization of hip-hop.


DONALD MORRISON: There are so many different characters you could have chosen to tell this story through; the book strikes a good balance of names the public at large already knows and others whose stories hadn’t been so fully illuminated. How did you settle on your subjects?

JOE COSCARELLI: The story I originally wanted to tell came out of my reporting on Quality Control for The New York Times. I did an early Lil Yachty story. I wrote a really good story about Migos’ Culture. I did a story about the label itself, and when Lil Baby was first breaking out, he was sort of the centerpiece, along with Marlo. Plus, I did a Drew Findling story around the same time because I read about him in the Gucci Mane autobiography. So I knew those guys were going to be a part of it, but what I really wanted to do was something sort of Hoop Dreams–style, where I follow people from the beginnings of their arcs and try to trace their ups and downs through the industry.

That’s something I like to do a lot in my music reporting at the Times, even outside of rap. I made this Hulu documentary with the team here about Dominic Fike [“Dominic Fike, at First,” episode of the docuseries The New York Times Presents], exploring what it’s like to get signed to a major label and what happens after. I just very much like the journey even if I don’t know where it’s going to end up. It’s just as interesting whether somebody becomes the biggest star in the world or whether they end up where they started.

It was always my idea to pick characters that I could embed with and get to know over years of reporting. Lil Reek I came to randomly on the side, but I knew that he was of this lineage. He was very much the next generation, but also somebody who didn’t have the extent of the connections some of these other guys had but was from the same neighborhoods. I just randomly saw his first video, “Rock Out,” on WorldStarHipHop, and it blew me away.

I think of Lil Baby, Marlo, and Lil Reek as the core characters, and then everybody else trickled out from there. Marlo took me to Jimmy, who took me to Shawty Lo, and I was able to tell his story through Bowen Homes, the projects in Atlanta. I just followed these threads. Through Lil Baby, I met his mother, and through his mother, I learned more about the Atlanta child murders. I just like being able to follow these threads up, down, backwards, and forwards, wherever it would lead. That’s the amazing thing about Atlanta: it’s such a small town and everybody’s connected. There’s just a character around every corner. Somebody with a colorful backstory, big dreams, and strange connections.

Speaking of Quality Control, are Migos still with the label? [Editor’s note: Long one of QC’s flagship acts, Migos have seemed, in recent social media posts and on gossip pages, to be splintering, with at least one member voicing grievances he has with the label.]

It’s complicated. Quavo and Takeoff put out an album [Only Built for Infinity Links] as a duo in October. Offset seems to be out on his own and is maybe having some dispute with the label, but they’re all being pretty hush on the specifics. I think that’s keeping with the way these smaller regional labels run a lot like family. They like to handle stuff quietly, amongst themselves.

The way the book ends — and what’s so interesting about rap in Atlanta specifically — is that these guys have reached an echelon where they’re extremely famous, and whether or not they have another smash hit or smash album as Migos doesn’t really matter. They’re firmly part of the hip-hop firmament. They’re more or less stars. They’re branching out into Hollywood, art, and tech. The possibilities for a second and third act of their careers are so much vaster than they were when they were putting out the “Bando” video on YouTube. There are so many examples of that, even in this one scene, even at this one label, and it just keeps growing outward.

Backing up: How did you start writing and reporting on music?

I came up really in the time of blogs. The mp3 blog, and especially Pitchfork, really cast a long shadow over people my age, even more so than the magazines I grew up on. As a kid in the suburbs, I was a big reader of Spin, Rolling Stone, and Blender. I had that sort of Almost Famous view of music journalism, but it seemed very distant. Then the internet exploded with all these music websites.

I knew pretty early on, when I moved to New York and was pursuing journalism, that I didn’t want to be a critic. It felt very much like a dead end, to be frank. There was so much music criticism online during that time. Everyone had a Blogspot or a LiveJournal or WordPress, and it felt like there was too much of it. I liked talking to people and digging, but I wasn’t that into the criticism aspect of it. I pretty quickly made the decision to learn how to report instead of learning how to write criticism. I took a real left turn and just did any sort of local reporting that I could. I wrote this Village Voice piece about a guy who dealt heroin on Craigslist. I covered social media in a way that was novel for the publications I was writing for, like being able to dig through Twitter, find someone’s Facebook and contact them and then do an interview with a viral character — that was something that not a lot of major publications were doing at the time. I really took a break from covering music for most of the beginning of my career, but it was still the world I was most interested in and most plugged into.

The beginning of your career coincides with a really interesting time in internet culture — specifically in the way that culture transformed the mechanism for rappers getting discovered.

You know what I mean? I was always in message boards, in the comment section on YouTube when that started; I was always into finding stuff before other people, which I think is a real boon to most culture coverage. And then when you combine that with learning journalism skills, it’s an advantage.

This was around the time snap music was emerging — did you connect with that immediately?

That’s a good question. I mean, I loved D4L, right? That was so big when I was in high school. Songs like “Laffy Taffy” were huge at my prom. I went to high school in Central Florida, so it was all Southern rap and reggaeton. I was in a school of 5,000 kids, a majority Hispanic, and I’m half Dominican. I always tell people I knew Juvenile songs before I knew Biggie songs. It was just in the water down there.

When I first got to college, Dem Franchize Boyz were huge. Southern rap is what I grew up on, and I also just love pop music — like, I love big monoculture stuff — so seeing the rise of ringtone rap smashes and seeing a song like “Laffy Taffy” go to number one was just a real explosion moment.

What would you say, personally, is your favorite era of Atlanta rap?

Think in terms of “Mount Rushmores,” right? It’s obviously still Andre 3000. It’s Jeezy and Gucci. And then for me, it’s either Future or Lil Baby. Those, to me, are the pillars, but there’s so much good stuff in between.

I have a real soft spot for the streaming swag-era rap, the Rich Kidz and Travis Porter types — Rocko. If music was tabulated the way it is now, these guys might be all over the charts, but instead they’re sort of like lost in history. It’s the same with Young Dro. Future’s run is also just untouchable, in terms of sheer volume of great stuff. I can’t pick an era, but I like how all of the eras are connected.

Something I really wanted to draw out in the book is that this is very much a music scene in that it’s a small group of friends, families, rivals — people who all know each other and grew up together. You can trace the lineage of someone like Coach K through Pastor Troy, Jeezy, Gucci, Migos, Lil Baby — it’s all very much one thing to me.

Were there stories or subjects you couldn’t get access to, or leads that never panned out?

It was always an open question how far back to go, and how much of the comprehensive Atlanta history to tell. Ultimately, I decided to keep it character-based and follow characters that built upon the people who I thought were going to be the main narratives. I was lucky enough to have a little bit of time with Jermaine Dupri, but I didn’t tell the whole story of So So Def Recordings. I met with Rico Wade, and even Big Boi, who I didn’t end up quoting in the book. I didn’t do the full breakdown of the Dungeon Family.

Some of these stories have been told already, and some of them will be told in the future and should be — like the Organized Noize documentary on Netflix [The Art of Organized Noize]. I think that was a great way to tell that story. There are all of these paths available because the story is so rich. But I just didn’t have the space. Plus, I wanted to keep it both present and character-driven: getting as deep with the people I was in with, rather than doing a sort of cursory touch on everything.

And then there were people I had great interviews with that I didn’t end up including. There’s a strip club DJ at Follies who I was calling the Cal Ripken Jr. of Atlanta because he had been working there basically every week for the last 25 years, from the time when they weren’t allowed to play rap music to the times when it was wall-to-wall rap music. There’s no shortage of amazing subjects.

When did you know this story was over? When did you know it was time to put it down on paper and get the book out?

I thought that COVID-19 was going to provide a pretty neat ending. Lil Baby’s big album, My Turn, came out right before things got really bad and the world shut down. I figured, “This is a clean break, and I can just end it there.” And then, you know — spoiler alert for people who haven’t read the book — but one of the characters was killed that July. So it was very clear at that point that the reporting would have to continue.

Are there other rap scenes that deserve this kind of attention?

I think there are infinite versions of this. Something so amazing about what rap music has become is that it’s not just New York and L.A. — and it’s not even just New York, L.A., the Bay, Chicago, or Atlanta. These scenes are happening with local flavor, influenced by city politics, state politics, and history, all around the country. Memphis obviously has an extremely rich music history and an extremely influential hip-hop scene. South Florida, Miami, from the early days of bass music through Slip-N-Slide Records to now. We see what’s happening in Flint and Detroit, Michigan. The possibilities for immersive journalism and nonfiction [writing] around rap, and the way that it intersects with life and history and politics, are endless. It’s one of the stories of our lifetime: this is the art form of the century so far. Every city has their own version of it, and I think it’s crazy that there’s not more of these.

We don’t need the only rap books to be about Biggie and Tupac. That’s just been the default for so long, and I think we’ve gotten too used to rap being ephemeral in the historical record. You see mixtapes disappearing because they’re not on streaming [platforms]. There’s no real library. There’s no comprehensive catalog of these things. Even journalistically, the great rap magazines of the ’90s are very often not digitized in an effective way. And I just think, for such an important culture and art form, that historical record is just too flimsy, and I just want there to be so much more.

What do you make of the recent arrest of Young Thug, and his Young Slime Life label being deemed a criminal gang?

It’s extremely complicated. I think so many threads of American culture and politics are coming together, right? The fact that the same district attorney who’s prosecuting Young Thug is also investigating Donald Trump — it’s surreal on some level. But it goes to the idea that Atlanta really is this place of collision for so much going on in the country. You know, it’s so knotty and it’s going to take a really long time to unravel what exactly is going on there. I think it’s a really long ride, and I hope to keep reporting on it in my role at the Times. It’s an extremely important story. But I do think it’s too early to say how it’s all going to play out, and what it all means. But it’s definitely something I’m keeping an eye on.


Donald Morrison is an investigative journalist and reporter based in New York City. He has written for The Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

Donald Morrison is an investigative journalist and reporter based in New York City. He has written for The Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork, among other publications.


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