“Shoutout to the Engineer,” are the words Dom Kennedy exclaims in the last few moments of his new album with Hit-Boy. Top to bottom, it’s a clean cohesive listen and a cap to a year for him and Hit-Boy who dropped 3 EP’s leading up to the release of their album Courtesy of Half-a-Mil. While Hit and Dom are on the forefront of the music, they had an another key member that they couldn’t have done this without: their engineer David Kim.
David has been the engineer on all of the EP’s and their latest album. He’s been engineering for 9+ years for the likes of Travis Scott, Mary J. Blige, Future and even Kendrick Lamar whom he got a Grammy with for his work on To Pimp a Butterfly. The engineer is an often forgot about key component of the recording process, that needs more attention. Without a engineer the music can come out uncohesive, sounding out of wack, and throw off something that could possibly be a great project. RESPECT sat down with Kim to talk about how important the engineer is, Half-a-Mil, winning a Grammy, and how far he’s come as an engineer.
RESPECT.: So, what does an engineer do?
David Kim: As far as the engineer goes we’re responsible for being in the vibe and capturing the vibe. Whatever the artist wants to get across you gotta translate it to what they want in their head. So, Dom records his verse, then hit records his verse and they bring me in to clean it up, and then go in and mix all the instruments, and all the vocals and add all the stacks. Then have it come out sounding good. Hit is a producer so he got specifics. You gotta accommodate all those requests and try to make it work. As an engineer, you only have a certain amount of space, it’s called headroom, volume wise. In that space, you gotta maximize as much as you can, you gotta have vocals cutting, and a low end cutting while the instruments are creating a vibe and I’ve worked with a lot of artists and most of them all have a particular sound they’re looking for.
RESPECT.: So how long have you been engineering music?
David Kim: I’m going on like 9 years. I started at Chalice Recording studios in LA. It’s one of the top recording studios in LA actually. I started as an intern, made it to a runner, then assistant engineer, and then made it to head engineer.
RESPECT.: Break down the process of what you did until you became the head engineer.
David Kim: When I started as an intern, it was no pay, cleaning the studios, getting peoples food orders. Cleaning toilets, making sure snacks were fixed in a right way, really miniscule stuff, before they even let you in the studio. As a runner, you’re a paid intern. Minimum wage. You’re still on food runs, you’re like the studio b***h (laughs). It’s all necessary. I understood that though and figured like if I’m the best intern, if I’m the best runner they gon see it. They gon want to give me a promotion, they gon want to put me in the studio. Through that, any chance I got, I got in the studio, and I learned from all the engineers, producers and artists that came through. Then eventually I made it to assistant engineer where I’m actually in the room. Then I got to observe and ask questions and stay late when the artists leave and the engineers stay. I learned from that, then it was practice. I would go home or to a library, and practice my a** off.
Then eventually I got my break. I can’t remember what session it was but an engineer was sick. They put me in there, and then the client requested me again. Then eventually people just started requesting me. Then that’s how I got popping at the studio.
RESPECT.: You don’t remember who the artist was?
David Kim: It might have been Jamie Foxx. It’s hard to remember those little things. The type of person I am I don’t really dwell on accomplishments. I look forward. I work with somebody great, then it’s on to the next. I’ve worked with Kendrick on To Pimp a Butterfly, I got a Grammy for that. I’ve worked with Travis Scott, Thugga, Future, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Mary J. Blige, the list goes on.
With Hit, I was always a fan of his music. I’m born in the same year, we’re the same age. So, he was at Chalice one day, and I told him one day I’m a work with him. That was when I was a runner, and he was like that’s what’s up. Then a few years later I got a call to do one of his sessions. Then I did a good job, and we started to do 1 or 2 days a week. Then he sat me down like I need you full time. Are you ready to be challenged? I took the shift, and now I’m rocking with Hit-Boy.
RESPECT.: So, what made you get into engineering?
David Kim: I’m a very technical person. I like to know how things work. When I was in high school I started recording the homies. They would be like hurry up let’s release this, let’s get it out. I was like na na we got to get this perfect. I would spend hours and hours doing it and they were just like why don’t you engineer? Then I started looking into it, I started looking at the school options and then I went school in Hollywood, and that’s where I learned I really like it. I learned I’m the type to sit there for hours and stare at a computer screen and get the sound right and get it to where it should be. That’s where I learned that I want to be an engineer above anything else.
RESPECT.: How did Dom and Hit link up?
David Kim: Hit’s produced a few tracks for Dom in the past, so they have a working relationship. I think like they were in the studio and Hit understood that Dom could take his rapping to the next level, cause Dom’s a veteran. Dom understood that Hit could bring something to the table, musicality, push his boundaries on things he wasn’t doing. They just had a really good understanding and they get along well as people. That’s where it really starts off. That’s how I saw it coming together, I don’t know if that’s the real story, but from an engineer standpoint that’s how I saw It come together.
Actually. I remember. Hit had a beat. Dom spit on it. He asked him like why don’t you do the hook? Hit did the hook. The song was Leparc Suites. It’s on Courtesy of Half-a-mil. That’s when it kind of started like whoa, we might have something here.
RESPECT.: What was it like working with Kendrick on To Pimp A Butterfly, and what was it like getting a Grammy?
David Kim: It really convinced me that I was doing the right thing. That I was in the right field. I been in the game for a pretty long time, and we don’t get a lot of validation. When I first got that nom’ (nomination) I was like wow. When I actually got in that session it was like wow, just being here being around my favorite rapper and that professionality they bring and then the musicality of that album it was just crazy. At the time, nobody was doing live music in rap. Maybe Cole, but when we got nominated I was like whoa. I could really have a Grammy. Then when it happened, it was like lets piggy back on this to keep getting more. That was the validation, that was god telling me like you’re on the right path keep it going. It was more of a checkpoint for me than an accomplishment or goal. I feel like I ‘ma get more Grammys. You work hard at something, you succeed.
RESPECT.: Was it hard engineering the live music from To Pimp a Butterfly?
David Kim: It was different, but I was ready for it. I went to school and I had done tracks with live instrumentation, and I studied and it wasn’t my first time recording live stuff. So, it was natural for me. Also, the musicians were super talented, and it’s like if you don’t have to do much, then it makes the process way smoother and easier.
RESPECT.: What’s Dom and Hit’s recording process like?
David Kim: Hit starts writing on a verse, records it, then will say “yo check this out (to Dom) and then Dom will say “okay” and usually start writing to it. It happens very organically, there’s no gimmicks. It’s like “Hit I wrote to this beat, what you think?” “Oh, I like it I’m gon write to it, oh let’s do a hook or get somebody to do the hook.” Boom there’s a song. The first couple of months they were doing a song a day so we have a deep catalog. Some of the songs made the EP’s and the album, but we still got s**t in the bank.
RESPECT.: Are there any challenges engineering Half a Mil?
David Kim: Hit being a producer there are things that conflict with my mentality as an engineer, or it’s he’ll want certain things higher but we always meet at a middle ground. The greatest thing about Dom and Hit they’re willing to learn and willing to teach, and they’re patient. It’s very rare that we disagree on something, and when we do it’s always somebody that will just bite the bullet. We know that music means more than anything else.
RESPECT.: What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve had engineering somebody?
David Kim: I don’t want to talk names, but certain artists are from different backgrounds or environments so the way they treat people is a little different. I wouldn’t say it’s right or wrong, but sometimes the way it comes off is rude or disrespectful. Engineers are gaining respect as people are becoming more knowledgeable about the recording process. Some artists don’t respect the engineer as much as others. When they’re recording they’ll kind of like taunt you in a disrespectful manner. Like “yo hurry the f**k up” like just cussing at you and things like that, not being considerate of what you’re doing for them.
RESPECT.: What’s one of the benefits of being a full-time engineer for Dom and Hit?
David Kim: Every day I get to come work with the same people. Every day we get to grow, and pick up where we left off. Whereas, when you’re working for new artists it’s a clean slate and can be unknown. As an engineer, after every mix I have something I wish I could have done better. Working with the same people that will let me implement that on the next mix or the next tape. If you listen to the EP and tape, progressively the bounce got better. That’s because we learned from each project and each song. That’s because 3 people are collectively pushing the boundaries.
RESPECT.: If there is one project that you worked on that you’re super proud of amongst all the rest what project would that be and why?
David Kim: I would have to say this Courtesy of Half-A-Mil project, because that’s the most control I’ve ever had as an engineer. I was the only engineer to touch the project. From the recording to the mixing to going to the mastering studio and sitting with the mastering engineer and going through every song and telling him what we need and that’s so much time and energy in something, so this the one I’m most proud of.