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Music Engineer Kesha Lee Is Ready To Free Her Voice

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Azriel Clary interview here.

If you’ve never heard Kesha Lee’s name before, you’ve damn sure heard her work.

This multi-platinum Grammy Award-winning music engineer is serious business. Her credits include Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Luv Is Rage 2” and “Eternal Atake” albums, just to name a few. She was listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2018.

And in an industry dominated by men and a genre where braggadocio is seen as a prerequisite, Lee holds her own and does so humbly.

The Birmingham, Alabama, native started her professional career as an in-house engineer for Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s Brick Factory in 2011. She hustled, turning a life filled with sleepless nights, broke-down cars and a shitty apartment into platinum records and a name in the industry that speaks for itself. She’s worked with artists including Solange, Pharrell, Future, Earthgang, Young Thug and more. (Get into her credits.)

Lee, 33, is the reason you’ve bopped to some of the best trap hits of the last decade. She helped Lil Uzi Vert craft his signature sound. And she’s worked on so many songs she’s lost count. The lowkey mix engineer has been called “Atlanta rap’s secret weapon” for good reason.

Since the pandemic, she’s been even more lowkey than usual. A two-week break turned into a two-year hiatus. Now she’s plotting her next move in music and returning with a different focus: herself. She’s revisiting the reason she wanted to be in the industry in the first place, which is to be an artist.

“I wanted to be a singer at first,” she said in her soft, melodic voice. “Kept going and it led me to engineering and I feel like I fell in love with that.”

She’s not mad at the detour, saying that her faith in God’s plan guides her. But the isolation of the pandemic led her to a realization that despite the accolades and recognition, “I got off course.”

When I caught up with Lee at the top of Black Music Month, she was in student mode in LA for an audio engineering conference, geeking out on audio gear and falling in love with the craft again.

“I want to go back to a place where I can just be free to do stuff,” she said. “I forget that I can do that with myself. I don’t have a sound that I have to upkeep. I don’t have a fan base that’s expecting something and the fact that I’m doing it from an engineering perspective, I can do anything because as an artist, I don’t know if people understand what it is to have your own sound.”

Lee plans to put out a music video with her first single, “Feels Like Home,” but unlike when she does long studio sessions with others, she’s finally on her own time. And she’s going to take as much of it as she needs to get it right.

HuffPost: What did you listen to growing up? I know your dad played a big role in you getting into engineering. What kind of influence did his ear have on you?

Kesha Lee: He loved Anita Baker, Chaka Khan. I heard him sing the songs and play them, but it’s weird because I listen to music differently. I did listen to Mya. He had one song from Chante [Moore] and then Mariah Carey. So I listen to stuff like that. You know how people have a playlist of music and they have all these favorite songs. I don’t listen to it in that way, but I can’t really explain it, but I think I literally enjoy music for the engineering aspect of it.

Hmm. So when you hear a song, how do you process it?

I love 808s. That’s why I like trap music. I just like the low end and drums and stuff like that. So whenever I hear a song like that, I like it, but I don’t re-listen to it.

What year did you move to Atlanta for audio engineering school?

It was 2011.

That era was a really good time for music, especially music coming out of Atlanta. What did your path to the industry look like when you got there, especially considering it’s the birthplace of trap music?

I really went to school to learn how to engineer myself as an artist. So before, when I was in Birmingham, there was a couple of people that were recording me. I just wasn’t happy with how it sounded. And so I didn’t want to go to college for four years ― not to engineer. [laughs]

So I figured, I’ll get my Pro Tools certification. That’s really what I needed to learn to record myself. And then I saw that Atlanta Institute of Music had a year program for engineering. So I ended up going to that school and the program was 11 months and I learned everything I needed to learn.

And then on top of that, towards the end, I was interning. So I was sitting in with Seth Berkins. He’s no longer alive, but he was Future’s engineer. So I was sitting in on his sessions, just seeing how stuff was ran because school, you learn, but being in the studio gives you more a real-life experience. And then after that, I started actually engineering. So I had met Gucci and I started sitting in on his sessions. And then when he got his own studio, I started engineering and working for him.

What songs did you work on for Gucci?

My goodness. I couldn’t even tell you. This was around the time Gucci was dropping full mixtapes left and right. I wanted YouTube to be a discography of released work that I worked on. And it’s so funny because when I log back into my YouTube, I had all these copyright claims.

Oh, wow.

Because you’re not supposed to post other people’s music. So I had to un-list all the videos. I was doing that at first, but I couldn’t keep up with everything that was coming out. I had to stop because there was just so much music and I couldn’t even keep track. There’s probably stuff that’s out that I didn’t even know I recorded because we were recording so many songs a night.

Gucci would want to record and then all the people that he cool with be in the studio. Once he’s done recording, he goes to sleep, then you got the homeboy and [Young] Thug and Migos because at the time he had signed them. Then you had Peewee [Longway]. So it’s always someone wanting to record. So it was just so many songs coming out.

You wasn’t getting no sleep, huh?

No, I didn’t. It got to the point where — and this is early on when I first started working with him — I was there for a day. So I left to go home. They would call me right back. One time on my way home, before I even made it home, they asked me if could I come back because I think Peewee wanted to shoot a video to their song and record right after.

So I turned around. I bought an air mattress and I just slept in the back office then. Even though it was a studio, it was a full-out bathroom with a shower, kitchen. So it was cool.

I can’t even imagine. Audio seems like it requires such crazy attention to detail. How do you do all that while sleep deprived?

When I would sleep, I’d have to sleep light so that I can hear Gucci call my name. He did have two engineers though. So it was me and Sean, Sean is his main engineer. We’ll both be recording, but there will be times where I’ll sleep in, then he’ll record. He’ll sleep in, I’ll record. But you’re recording so much that what you’re doing becomes, I guess, kind of second nature or routine.

So if you’re familiar with the person’s lingo… Let’s say I’m working and then they say we’re working on the second person. They say, let me hear it from the top. If you work with someone enough, you’ll know if they mean the top of the second person or the top of the song. So I will be sleep, but still kind of engineering in a sense because I’m not in a deep sleep.

Is there a lesson from that era with your first job with Gucci that carried over as you went freelance and started to work with other artists like Uzi and Childish Gambino?

That was like boot camp for me, because you’re recording all these different people. And then you recorded people who don’t know anything about engineering, so they don’t know how to translate what they want. So you got to kind of understand what they’re saying that they want, even though they may not be saying it right. But I just learned how to pick up what people are trying to say and what they want and how to record really fast and all the different recording styles. And that definitely helped me with freelancing.

Being a woman behind the boards in a male-dominated industry like hip hop, how do people usually receive you when they walk into the studio and see that it is you sitting behind the boards?

In the past when I was freelancing ― so this was a while ago, but that’s where I got the most reaction. So some guys you could tell they weren’t really sure. They asked me questions like, “How long you been doing this? Did you go to school for it?” But then once we start working, they always compliment me, like, ‘Yo, I didn’t know you was that fire,’ or whatever. And then I noticed with girls they’re super hesitant. A couple of them walked out on me.

Geesh! Did you have any challenges as far as booking work or anything because you’re a woman?

No. Sometimes that’s more of a mindset. If you believe “I’m a woman, it’s going to be hard for me,” you’re going to notice all the things that’s hard for you. I was so excited to engineer and just work with people that maybe there were some times where something might have happened because I was a woman, but because I kept moving and I didn’t focus on that, I wasn’t in tune with all the things that may have happened.

I did know of one studio that I was trying to intern at, they didn’t want to hire me because I was a girl because it was still so new then. And I don’t know if they thought girls may interact with guys in a way that may not be good for their studio. I don’t know. But I do know that particular situation I didn’t get something because I was a woman. But again, I’m moving around so much, that doesn’t phase me. But I can only speak from my experience because there might be girls that do have a hard time because they’re female. So, I can only speak on my experience, but I feel like guys were welcoming to the idea.

What do you like most about what you do?

I like the creating aspect. And I think that’s why I’m trying to transition or rebrand or whatever, but I don’t think people understood that when I was recording, I was doing more than what an engineer does. It’s almost like producing along with engineering. But I’m not producing in a sense where I’m making beats, but producing in a sense where you build up a song and you add in elements and you change things and stuff like that.

That’s what I love about it and that’s what I want to focus more on going forward. I love recording, but I feel like there’s a time and a season for everything. And that was my time just to really dive in and record. But now I don’t want to be in the studio all day and I feel like with production, I still want to record, like if we need to go back in and add something, but yeah, I just don’t want to give all my time to the studio.

Are you done engineering for other artists or will you still be doing that on the side or do you just want to mainly focus on your own music?

Right now I am just focusing on my stuff. I do want to do it on the side. If God leads me to work with someone or on something, I want to do it. But I don’t want it to be where that’s taking up my time because I have so many ideas and things that I want to do that kind of works with engineering, but I can’t give engineering all my focus like that anymore.

How has knowing that side of engineering helped you in developing your own music and sound?

Before I even knew what engineering was, my mom had bought a Mac computer. It wasn’t for me, but GarageBand was on there and I just got so curious and before I even understood what engineering was, I was so intrigued about all the things you can do to manipulate audio. And I was able to bring that into other people’s music. I noticed because I’ve worked with a lot of people before they got famous and then they blew up and then I worked with them like a little bit at the beginning of their fame. And I see the transition where it goes from doing whatever you feel and whatever you like and you’re not thinking too much to thinking too much, being over selective, scared to try stuff.

So I want to go back to a place where I can just be free to do stuff. And I forget that I can do that with myself. I don’t have a sound that I have to upkeep. I don’t have a fan base that’s expecting something and the fact that I’m doing it from an engineering perspective, I can do anything.

Because as an artist, I don’t know if people understand what it is to have your own sound. But a lot of times it’s people sticking to a certain vocal chain or gear, a certain mic. With me doing it from an engineering perspective, I may not have a sound in that sense, because I’ll be trying out different mics so people will understand the sound of a mic or the sound of this EQ or whatever, but I like the freedom in that.

You’re a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum engineer. When you look back on what you’ve been able to accomplish so far, how does it feel?

It’s crazy. God is so amazing. I wanted to be a singer at first. Kept going and it led me to engineering and I feel like I fell in love with that and I got off course. It is just wild to see because in Birmingham I had a lot of restaurant jobs and I was always trying to apply for a better job.

And I just wanted to be busy. I didn’t want to be at home. But I ended up moving back home and I know that looked like I was moving backwards. But that’s really what I needed to launch me into the next step because I was able to find engineering. And so at that point I had a job at a bakery. I would go five in the morning, get off at three and then I would go the radio station, a graveyard shift, overnight.

When I went to my internship at the radio station, I would help run the board and put in the queues for the shows and make sure that they’re running on time and stuff like that. But on the side I’ll also cut commercials on Adobe, which is a DAW, a digital audio workstation, which is similar to ProTools, what we use to record artists and stuff like that. He was like, you’re really good at this. You should look into engineering. And before that I didn’t even know what engineering was, that that existed. So I looked online for schools, but yeah, it is crazy to see how my life changed with God at the head of it.

It’s so full circle that you’re gearing up to release your first music video and first single. When are you thinking of dropping everything?

I don’t know when. I’ve been recording since before I started engineering and I’ve never put anything out and I kind of wanted to get over that hump and just put something out and not put so much emphasis on it.

I think because artists have a fan base that’s waiting on music, they’re eager to drop stuff and they don’t really think everything out as far as a concept or stuff being cohesive and stuff like that. I was trying to hurry up and put my song out in December. So I just kind of did whatever kind of cover. I put effort in it, but it just wasn’t thought out. And so when it took so long to come out, I realized “take your time. It’s your first song.”

The industry got hit bad at the beginning of the pandemic. How did COVID impact you and where you’re going with music?

It changed a lot. It didn’t change the whole direction, but I was working on the road and this is when they started the lockdown. I’m like, I do not want to be in lockdown in a hotel. I went home thinking that I was going to take a break and get back to it. But God had other plans. I don’t know, he showed me so much and my mindset with things that wasn’t healthy and the things that I was putting first. I just feel like he showed me the direction I needed to go in.

So because of COVID, having that time to just sit at home has been a lot for me because I wanted to take a break, but I’m thinking I’m going to take a two-week break and get back to it. But it ended up being two years. I did my expenses last year. I worked 45 days as far as recording. I worked every day, but for me, of course that’s not paid right now. So paid recording work last year was 45 days and a year before that zero. Because that was the height of COVID. So it’s just been a while in a good way.

Yeah. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot of big lessons just from sitting in silence, which is kind of ironic because your career is so driven by sound. I’m wondering what the biggest revelation was about yourself and your journey and where you’re going?

I think the biggest revelation is what drives you. What do you do it for? Because a lot of things that we work towards are really empty. The amount of things that I was going through and experiencing, I had to ask myself, like, for what? Is it for a plaque? Because it definitely ain’t worth it. Is it for a No. 1 album? Because it’s definitely not worth that.

This industry was so driven about just working hard, no sleep, materialistic things. And those things really don’t matter, especially when you’re putting your all into it. I’m not saying I was driven by money and stuff, but I guess when you look at it, when you’re working and you’re working because you love it or you enjoy it. But when you let it consume you like that, what are you doing it for? You’re literally bringing harm to you that you kind of don’t see in it.

And when you’re out of it, you really realize where you was headed. So, yeah, that’s the biggest revelation.

So, now what? What are you looking forward to? How are you leaning into this next step of your journey?

Looking forward to it all, just seeing stuff come to life. There’s just so many different things that I’m working on. I’m mostly excited to just create and not be suppressed about my ideas and have to do it this or do it this way. Just do whatever, and be inspired. I want to start going to art museums and I’m excited to create.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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