You’ve had one of those nights—those nights where the last place you want to be is at the club but a persistent friend somehow gets you there, drink in hand, wondering how and why you’re not in bed. The same situation is all too familiar to audio engineer K Lee: “I hate going out,” she tells me over the phone, chuckling. I can sense that—over the phone, she’s a bit soft-spoken, maybe even shy. But her story has a much happier ending; after getting to the club (where she was forced by her friend to put a skirt on in the car because she didn’t feel like changing) the engineer somehow found herself in the VIP section at Compound Atlanta, standing next to Gucci Mane. “I was standing right next to Gucci, and I had earplugs in and everything—I really didn’t want to be there,” she laughs as she recalls the story. She begins to open up a bit more, telling me she jumped at the opportunity to speak to the Atlanta rapper, who jotted down his number for her and offered her a job as his assistant. “Assistant? That’s not what I want to do,” K Lee said incredulously, narrating the encounter for me. Despite it all, the chance meeting eventually got K Lee into the studio—as an engineer for Gucci Mane, not an assistant.
But before that serendipitous night at the club and before Gucci Mane, K Lee had her start interning at a radio station, cutting commercials for late-night radio host Willis Pride of 98.7 KISS FM. It was apparent she had a knack for it, and he suggested she go to school for engineering to expand upon her knowledge. She selected Atlanta Institute of Music and explored her options, trying out producing and experimenting with making beats before ultimately selecting engineering as her focus.
After graduating, K Lee set her sights on becoming a personal engineer or a studio engineer. She wanted something steady, something reliable—that was easier said than done, though. “When Gucci kept going to jail, I was having to find somewhere else to work… I had this resume that was like Migos, Scooter, Gucci, Waka Flocka—I had those people on my resume and I’d go to a studio and they’d be like, ‘Well, you can intern.’ I thought working with certain people would guarantee a job but that didn’t happen, they didn’t have engineering jobs available.”
She began freelancing, hustling from studio to studio whenever they needed her, working hard to become faster at her craft. Sure enough, her success working as a filler engineer paid off: more and more studios would contact her for her engineering services, and she now currently works as a personal engineer for rambunctious rockstar-slash-rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who is signed to DJ Drama’s Generation Now label. When I spoke to her on the phone, she was on what she called a “paycation” in Hawaii, working on Lil Uzi’s upcoming project Luv is Rage 2.
K Lee does credit some of her success to Atlanta, Georgia, a place she cites as progressive and ahead of the curve in the music industry. “I feel like Atlanta was the best place to start in,” she said. “There’s a lot of artists there—a lot of people who want to be artists and a lot of people who are already established as an artist…[so] it’s not as hard to get started there because people are always needing beats or engineers. I don’t produce, but it’s just easier to get started there. And people are so much more open [to collaborate].”
It seems like a fairy tale story, the archetypal hero’s journey: our protagonist works hard, undergoes struggle, and still manages to come out on top, learning along the way. But the challenges don’t just dissipate with success—K Lee continues to overcome other obstacles too. “I’ve had instances where like, people just kind of judge like, ‘Oh, she’s a girl, she doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ And I can tell when people don’t think I know what I’m doing because they start asking a lot of questions,” she says, her voice knowing, matter-of-fact. I ask her if she deals with ego, especially from the artists she works with, and she pauses, choosing her words carefully. “The only time I really ever have to deal with ego is when the artist knows how to work [recording software] Pro Tools and they think I don’t know how to work [it]. They have their way of doing things and instead of telling me what they want, they tell me how to do it. It’s like, just tell me what you want because there are different ways of going about it to get there!” I found myself nodding in agreement before realizing that I don’t even exactly know what it is she does as an engineer. The conversation steers towards that, the two of us aware that there’s such a small margin of people who know exactly how much goes into making music, including what an engineer does. K Lee happily obliges, though.
“Basically when the artist goes into the booth, the engineer is the one that captures their vocals, edits them, mixes it or [does] like a light mix… adjust it to how it sounds when we hear it on the radio, [and] clean it up. With me, I also have to keep files organized,” she explained. “Uzi, in particular, [will] start a bunch of sessions and he may not necessarily finish the song so I have to make sure that we can go back and find those files, so it’s a lot of file management… If I’m not working with him, I’ll go work with this producer and edit his beats. So the beat will already be made, but I kind of do chops and things like that. And it’s a lot of invoicing.”
It sounds complicated to me, but K Lee is nonchalant about it. In fact, she finds the whole thing entertaining: “I really do enjoy working with everybody because everybody brings something different. To me, Pro Tools is like video games and when you add a different person it’s like a different level, you know?” Knowing that she loves video games, it’s a fascinating comparison. It’s like one of those tired cliches that still ring true: if you love what you’re doing, you won’t have to work a day in your life.
Photos by @shotbycakes.