Meet the sound engineer working with Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug and helping create the world’s biggest tracks
Kesha Lee has a comprehensive social media footprint, meticulously tracking her journey from unknown, struggling trainee to award-winning sound engineer for the Atlanta stars who rule the rap world today.
Only five years ago, the 28-year-old was living in on the edge, struggling to make her break. A tweet of her’s from 2012 reads, “Just deposited 4 dollars in my account with a balance of 2 dollars and kept a dollar so I could eat lmao #thestruggle”. A Facebook post from the same year describes her living conditions. “We don’t have cable, internet, w/d hookup (a washing machine or dryer), and it’s always cold or hot… I want engineering to pay my bills and until I’m amazing at it ill live as cheap as possible”.
This year, she’s worked on half a dozen platinum and gold tracks for Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi and Future, and safely earned the ‘amazing’ label she craved, having helped create and define the sound of Atlanta, the city where trap was born in the early 90s that is now producing the world’s biggest tracks today, as the genre mutated and crossed over into mainstream consciousness.
We meet in a Pizza Express in east London, and she's jetlagged but hyped. “This is the first time I’ve been overseas,” she says. “Someone told us that we'll get a driver's licence but ya'll get a passport right off the bat.” Dressed in heels, a tight black jacket and a deep-cut strappy top, with a long swoop of black hair, she looks more like a star than a behind the scenes character who spends much of her time quietly recording, balancing and editing audio behind a vast mixing desk.
Her Instagram is littered with telltale signs of her past ambitions. In one photo of her doing ballet her leg is flung behind her head, in another she’s been featured in a magazine where they’ve described her as enjoying singing. Later she tells me it used to be an aspiration.
“I'm just really shy, and I know you have to have certain qualities to be a singer, you've got to be a little more outgoing,” she laughs lightly. “Every time I try to get on the stage my hands will be shaking, I'll just be so nervous and like 'okay this is not...' I think I just enjoy singing in the shower.”
It makes sense. She is quietly spoken, a little guarded and endearingly emotional: when we discuss the fact that she was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for 2017, I'm almost certain I see tears well in her eyes. “(When it came out) everybody was calling me and congratulating me and just saying sweet words, and it made me think everything I went through was worth it,” she says.
“I knew the music scene in Atlanta was amazing and I knew whatever school I would go to, I would end up trying to start my career there”
Her story really began when her dad, aware of her singing dreams, told her she needed to learn “how to do everything: song write, learn the piano, record yourself” and her mum bought a Mac computer with digital audio workstation Garageband on it. Fast forward to 2012. She had moved to Atlanta and was studying at the Atlanta Institute Of Music. “I knew the music scene in Atlanta was amazing and I knew whatever school I would go to, I would end up trying to start my career there,” she says.
Eventually, she started asking people if she could ‘sit in’ on studio sessions to gain experience. One of the first major sessions she led was with rap artist Young Scooter, where she was working “too slow” and had to be taken to the side and told to “move faster”. Later she was taken under the wing of Gucci Mane, who initially thought she would make a good personal assistant rather than an engineer. She persuaded him otherwise and began a long-standing affiliation with Gucci and his roster of artists: Migos, Young Thug, Scooter, Waka Flocka Flame, Peewee Longway, Young Dolph, a bunch of other people and all their friends.
“When I started working for Gucci I was like 'oh my gosh',” she says. “I really couldn't believe I was working with him, because he's like the veteran, he's been doing it for so long. Everybody loves him, the streets love him, he has real fans, so I just thought it was so dope. He's very knowledgeable, he knows how he wants to move, he knows what he wants to do next.
“At the time he had a favourite show, Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, and it was just so cool because (laughs) if he missed it, I'd have to go online and try and find it for him so he could watch it.”
She did have one setback, after Gucci found himself sentenced to three years in prison in 2014 for firearms charges. “I was in shock,” she reveals. “That's who I work for, you know? He didn't want me to leave, just watch over everything and keep recording, like I had to keep recording. That's I think when Thug and I locked in the most and recorded a bunch of songs. But yeah, the first time he wasn't in jail that long so he got back out, but the second time he was gone the longest and that's when I... basically I had to start all over, I thought I could just pick up and find another job because of my resumé at the time, but I had to end up interning again.”
“The first time he wasn't in jail that long so he got back out, but the second time he was gone the longest and that's when I... basically I had to start all over”
After a while she was able to get new stints engineering – perhaps most prominently with Lil Uzi Vert; the tattooed, dreadlocked rapper whose unusual sound was clarified by Kesha’s skills: she worked closely with him on his debut album Luv Is Rage 2, which came out in August. Despite her difficulties she thinks the Atlanta scene is flourishing at the moment because “people are open there, you can even pop in on other people’s sessions”. Artists and engineers will live and sleep in their studios, which are more likely to be populated by their friends than stuck up music executives.
She remembers one session she worked on with Lil Uzi when Travis Scott came in which was “dope”. She also remembers a session when a fight broke out; perhaps the sour end of the lack of traditional ‘professionalism’. “I cut the mic off so I couldn’t hear what was going on”.
The sound she strives towards is “cleanliness” – her favourite engineer is Derek Ali, who worked on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. “His stuff is just so clean, so true to how it sounds. Like I know we add things to people’s voices, but unless you want a lot of effects or a certain kind of sound, with rap you want it to be really clean. He's really good at that.” She’s noticing a trend in the Atlanta scene that people are leaning towards simpler beats. “Back in the day you would have transitions before you get on the hook, or there would be a vamp, or the hook would get bigger,” she explains.
“The higher calibre singers would come in and just see a young girl, and automatically would think that didn't know what I was doing”
Being a woman in a technical industry which is very much dominated by men isn't always the easiest. According to the Audio Engineering Society, women working in professional audio make up too small a number in the industry to spend time measuring; but perhaps roughly 7 percent. Kesha says that she never looks at it “like I'm a girl trying to engineer” but she once had a singer, who she won’t name, “walk out” on her. The performer had to be coaxed back into the recording studio, but in the end, the session was “dope” and the singer pleased.
As well as being advised to dress in a certain way by other women in the industry, she’s also been questioned a fair amount on her credentials. “The higher calibre singers would come in and just see a young girl, and automatically would think that didn't know what I was doing,” she explains. “People start asking these questions to try and check. It's like, ‘How long have you been doing this?’ ‘Did you go to school for it?’, ‘How long did you go to school?’, ‘How long have you been engineering?’ I'm like, ‘oh god, these guys don't think I can engineer’.”
Her experiences in the main have been positive. Her gratefulness is palpable – things could have gone differently. Unlike many sound engineers, she’s developed a substantial public profile, and she comments on the fact that “engineers don't get enough credit”. “I know a lot of streaming music you don't get to see the credits and people do sometimes wanna know and it's hard for them to find out.”
As the interview draws to a close we reflect on her unofficial mentor Katherine Johnson (the mathematician of Hidden Figures fame), who is the avatar on her Instagram and her phone background.
“I was just so inspired by her, for a number of reasons. How she kept going despite the adversity, and that she kept a good attitude about it,” says Kesha. “Even if they didn't wanna give her the credit they still knew she was a genius and she was very talented.”