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Spotlight: Engineer Kesha Lee on Recording Hip-Hop's Top Acts From Lil Uzi Vert to Childish Gambino & More

Kesha Lee
Fernando Decillis

Kesha Lee 

"If you're amazing at what you do, people are gonna make sure you get paid."

On Kesha Lee's journey to becoming one of hip-hop's go-to recording engineers, with chart-topping credits on Childish Gambino's "This Is America" and Migos' "Bad and Boujee," there was a crucial step early on that kicked things off -- finding out what exactly that job even is. Not that she was alone in wondering; studio, mixing and mastering engineers have long been among music's most unsung heroes, doing the behind-the-scenes recording that allows artists to effectively express themselves. But having since built her resume working with Atlanta's top acts, from Gucci Mane to Future to Playboi Carti, Young Thug and more, at just 29, Lee has already established herself firmly among the next generation of technicians behind the boards on some of modern music's most influential records. 

At that time, Lee was feeling lost after graduating high school and unfulfilled attending University of Alabama at Birmingham in her hometown. She wanted to do something in music but wasn't sure what, while friends and family were pushing her towards a more stable career-path. Meanwhile, she was missing classes or showing up in pajamas and her GPA was dropping. At her mom's recommendation, she took a break and began interning nights at a local radio station, where some of the DJs suggest she pursue a career in engineering. 

"I didn't even know it was a job," says Lee, explaining she had to look it up online after that conversation. Interested, she enrolled herself in a recording program at the Atlanta Institute Of Music and Media and decided to give it a shot. 

As Lee puts it, and as she soon learned, the role of a recording engineer is fairly straight forward but difficult to master. "We'll get the beat and then we'll record the vocals," she explains. "And while we're recording, we'll edit it, we'll add effects or we'll stack or do different things, and then try to clean up the sound or try and get the cleanest signal." (From there, a mixing engineer will fine tune levels to "enhance the sound," as Lee puts it, before a mastering engineer puts on final touches that help a collection sound coherent and ready for release.) 

While Lee was in school, she linked up with Gucci Mane through a chance encounter at a club one night, after she was dragged out by a friend visiting town. (Lee says she "is not a club person.") Unenthusiastic to be out, with earplugs in, wearing a dress pulled from her friend's trunk because what she showed up in wouldn't get her in the club, let alone the VIP section, Lee soon noticed a bunch of rappers were there too and decided to make the most of the situation. She struck up conversation with Gucci and told him she wanted to work for him. She got his phone number and --  thanks to a good word from Young Scooter, with whom she had worked previously -- landed a session that soon turned into an in-house engineer gig at the Atlanta rap icon's Brick Factory studio. There, she went on to work with Migos, Waka Flocka Flame, Young Thug and more early in their careers. 

Just as Lee was thriving in Gucci's camp, having recently graduated, in 2013 -- as she tells it -- "he went to jail [on two gun charges], so the studio closed down and we all went our separate ways." She was left almost where she had started, interning and filling in on temporary freelance jobs again, even though she had some of the city's top acts on her resume. But before long, she says, at these various studios, including DJ Drama's Means Street Studios and Atlantic Records' de facto home base in Atlanta, "whoever I was recording, their clients kept requesting me and then it got to the point where I was working there almost as much as their staff engineers." 

Lee landed a new role as the in-house engineer for Means Street, where she teamed with Lil Uzi Vert, building a relationship that spans now almost four years and has made her his go-to engineer. That means traveling with him on tour or commuting from Atlanta to his hometown of Philadelphia, all the while picking up extra sessions on the side, filling her schedule to a point where she says she basically only sees her apartment when it's to pick up a new bag of clothes between flights and sessions. Meanwhile, she has documented the reality behind her rise on social media with a hard-working, relatable tone, posting about paying off her student loans to hitting the laundromat while on the road to sleeping in the studio

"Sometimes I think I'm, like, am I saying too much?' she says. "But then I'll get DMs from people saying that they appreciate that or it's motivating... A lot of people don't really tell those kinds of things, so that's what keeps me doing it."

 

Technical aspects aside, Lee says a big part of her job is just keeping up with the artists because "nobody really writes anymore." She explains, "They're doing things off the top of their head and you don't want to take so long doing whatever that they lose their vibe or their train of thought."

As well, she has had to learn to manage working in different studios with different gear, while staying consistent in her quality. She likens it to being a chef working in someone else's kitchen with a customer expecting the "same results," when you're used to having your own pots and pans, utensils and spices arranged just a certain way. "Some studios don't have the plug-ins you need, it may not have the keyboard that you use or the mouse, or if you're working long hours the chair may not be that comfortable, or the computer may not be able to handle large sessions and that's what causes sessions to crash sometimes," she says. "So I started bringing an engineer bag, so I can pretty much have everything that I need. I carry my own keyboard, mouse, multiple hard drives."

Looking back, Lee reflects on the struggle she endured at the start of her career when she quit a minimum wage job in retail to focus on engineering, taking any opportunity she could get and still could barely pay her $312 apartment rent each month. With a validated sense of confidence that her perseverance paid off, she says she contemplated quitting but didn't have any plan B and "just made it work." 

"A lot of people don't take jobs because they are not getting paid for it or they're not getting the amount that they think they should get, and that can hold you back," she says. "I worked for free a lot. I didn't care, because I was doing what I enjoyed. And, yeah, I was broke and I probably should have brought up pay... But I feel like if you're amazing at what you do, people are gonna make sure you get paid. In the beginning, that really helped me out."

SPOTLIGHT: 

My big break was [Lil Uzi Vert's] Luv is Rage 2. It was my first project from beginning to end and the first time I was both a recording and mixing engineer on an album. Working on LIR 2 was the most fun and challenging process. I'm looking forward to doing it all over again.

The great thing about engineering is nothing is ever the same. I love that it gives you the opportunity to work in different settings and/or with different artists. Your workflow changes often which keeps your job exciting. There's also always new software and hardware to try. 
 
I knew I was committed to music when I was excited to go to school. Each quarter I would exceed the required hours and I never missed a day of class. I was always so eager to tell my family about my day and what I learned. For once I was excited about what I was doing.

Dealing with musicians is always fun. It's cool being able to collab on ideas and interact with them creatively. It's dope seeing something go from an idea to a complete song. 

A good idea when you're trying to achieve your dreams is to have as less distractions as possible and live below your means. For me, moving to a new city gave me a fresh start and I was able to completely focus on becoming an engineer. 

What's tough is trying to stay creative with quick deadlines. You really have to silence anything that can be distracting and not focus too much on when it's due so that you can be in the moment and get your ideas out. 

Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.