“I’m Learning to Be an Eternal Student”: A Conversation with Q-Tip's Engineer Gloria Kaba

From Q-Tip and Phife Dawg to Solange, Gloria Kaba has worked with some of the most creative voices in music.
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No matter how many people are sighing at this very moment, I’m certain each exhale serves a unique purpose. A mother’s relief settling a crying child and that child’s inevitable frustration in adolescence are expressed with the same release of air.

Last weekend, I spoke with sound engineer Gloria Kaba—our conversation was full of sighs. Most were positive, though. She required the time a pause gives to relay her experiences working with countless musical icons of the last 30 years. During her 10 years of experience inside a recording studio, Kaba has had the opportunity to work with A Tribe Called Quest, Madonna, Beyoncé, Solange, William Orbit and Nas, a résumé that many industry veterans would be hard pressed to match.

One sigh, in particular, stood out to me, though. It came when we discussed her work with Phife Dawg. The emcee’s death last year was a time of reflection for hip-hop, a reminder that artists are creativity’s ephemeral mouthpieces. Their impact is far from fleeting, however, as Gloria was able to convey his personal impact as best she could. She pensively explained how Phife was “determined to leave us with a gift,” a quality she absorbed as the artistic impetus behind her own work.

Delivering a meaningful gift requires a deep knowledge of the recipient, which makes artistic gifts that impact thousands, even in death, a mark of human understanding. Gloria is quietly building her tools to deliver a gift uniquely hers to the world, and along the way, she’s learned to give that to her artists in small doses.

By providing the space, timing, knowledge and experimental nature that comes with being a notable engineer, she’s mirroring the ultimate gift she has in mind for her career. “I’d like to start moving into more creative roles, producing and songwriting for artists as well as engineering,” she tells me towards the end of our conversation.

It was odd hearing a person who worked on something like We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your service suggest she has more to give, but humility doesn’t hurt her in this case.

How long have you been working in music?

Well, I’ve always been drawn to music, like many people in the industry. I didn’t come from a musical background, no one in my family was musical, but I took to it for some reason. It started with guitar and piano lessons when I was young. I was never a great musician, but I knew I wanted to produce music. As I got older and went to college, I was unsure about my direction. I went to Temple and enjoyed my recording classes there, so that made me realize I wanted to exist in a studio environment. After college, I interned [at Battery Studios] in New York, worked as a runner and assistant, and about three-and-a-half years ago, I started freelancing full-time. I’ve been doing it about 10 years in total since I graduated.

What music, specifically, were you drawn to as a child?

I was obsessed with '60s and '70s R&B growing up, especially Motown. Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, The Jacksons, the Temptations and so on. Then I got into '80s pop/new wave—Michael Jackson, The Police—and '90s R&B and rap. Some albums that impacted my formative years were Fugees' The Score, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Kanye's College Dropout. The first album I bought with my own money was D'Angelo's Brown Sugar.

Describe some of the difficulties of being a freelance engineer.

Oh wow [laughs], I was actually very lucky that one of the first gigs I got freelancing was working with Q-Tip. So I had that as my main gig and then I’d work from studio to studio. But yeah it’s hard, unpredictable, and impossible without networking. I have a good network I try to exploit to the best of my ability [laughs]. Persistence and patience are important, too. To make it freelancing anything, you have to be dedicated, study your craft, and be prepared to pick up and work anytime. Make sure you keep the faith that your big opportunity is just over the horizon.

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“Study your craft,” I like that. Have you retroactively studied great engineers after deciding you wanted to produce and engineer?

Definitely. After I decided I wanted to produce, I figured the best way to learn how to produce was through engineering. I would listen to stuff I liked and then research the personnel. Someone who stands out is Bruce Swedien, who engineered much of Michael Jackson’s great work. I’d listen, read up on it, and you sorta try to mimic the people who influenced what you know now. Following techniques exactly isn’t what I mean though. You have to experiment too, but seeing people break barriers before you is inspiring.

I’ve always seen audio engineering as a creative expression that can’t be perfected in your head. You can learn about software, hardware, plug-ins, effects, whatever really, but that doesn’t translate to being a good engineer. It’s a very trial-and-error vocation. Practice is vital to becoming a great engineer and keeping yourself in a mindset that can adapt quickly to changing studio atmospheres, vibes, recording styles, and everything else.

Analyze your own approach to engineering. What do you focus on when you mix music?

Since I engineer mostly for hip-hop and R&B artists, drums—bass in particular—are the central focus. I really pay attention to vocal mixes and balancing out the low end then try to fit everything else around that. I strive for balance and clarity, then take into account the attitude of the artist and song’s message in considering what effects to use and when.

Who have you worked with over the past few years and in what capacity?

Let’s start with Q-Tip. I met him through a mutual friend, Noah Goldstein, who engineers for Kanye. He reached out to Q-Tip’s main engineer, Blair Wells, when he was looking for someone to join his engineering team and thought I would be a good fit. I can’t begin to describe how dope it was to be a part of [We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service]. “A dream come true” is the closest thing to capturing it. To work with them as they were reuniting for this project and watching the chemistry they still had after all those years was an incredible experience. I know there were times I stopped and just looked around the studio and tried to soak in the fact I was in the room for this. Them, the feature artists, and musicians who were around made it a non-stop creative environment. Through this, I was able to work with André 3000, who is such an inspiration, Busta Rhymes, Anderson .Paak, Jack White, the list goes on and on.

I'd have to imagine the atmosphere of those sessions was... uniquely artistic.

It really was. There was a moment, recording “Dis Generation,” I’ll never forget. The recording situation, in general, was a different pace. I had to be ready for anything because you never know who is going to walk through the door. We had five mics live positioned around the room for every member of the group and whoever else. Consequence or Busta could decide to walk in.

For “Dis Generation,” they were trying to figure out how they would creatively blend their verses together and they all got the idea to switch off a couple bars at a time. The way you hear it on the record is exactly how it was recorded. Tip would rap, then Phife jump in, Jarobi would jump in, Busta would jump in. There was a magic to that and you can hear the chemistry on that record.

There was also a moment when Jack White came through. He’s another creative genius who'll create from nothing. He’d bounce from guitar to drums to writing to singing. He and Tip were vibing. Seeing those skills blend with Tip’s musicality felt like getting a peek at true creativity.

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What was it like working with the late Phife Dawg?

Phife was an amazing spirit. I think he was determined to leave us with a gift. Obviously, when we were working we didn’t know what would happen, but he worked as hard as anyone else. Never showed a sign of weakness and he showed up every day. You can hear that on the record.

I don’t know. Looking back it’s like he was leaving everything on the floor. Most people know he was an avid sports fan and he approached that work like it was his last game.

He was full of energy and life until the very end and I felt fortunate to be a part of that situation and get to know him.

What's the most notable moment of your career?

When I worked with Madonna, I was assisting at MSR [Studios in New York]. I met one of her producers, William Orbit, who produced "Ray of Light" and started to do some songwriting for him. So through that, we did a bunch of Madonna sessions and she’s awesome to work with, exactly how you would expect a living legend to be. She likes to be produced and directed and trusts that we’re all trying to achieve the best performance possible.

Solange, I met through Tip. He was producing some tracks for her album and I ended up working on that with her. He did several songs for her, but only one (“Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)”) ended up being on Seat at the Table. She has a very relaxed, cool personality, just fun to be around.

Solange always seemed to know exactly what she wanted. She’s obviously a creative person and she knew on some level what that album was going to be, even if she didn’t express it to anyone else. In the middle of that, she was still relatable and down-to-earth, which is an accomplishment in my book. I’m happy people are recognizing her talent more now and giving her due credit.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with the people I have. Lots of people I looked up to when I growing up.

Who are you currently working with? Anyone you're itching to get into the studio with?

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve worked on that hasn’t been released, so I can’t talk about that too much. As far as going forward and collaborating, the catalog of people I’ve worked with so far are the ones I wanted if you’d asked me fresh out of school. Right now, I want to work with anyone who’s trying to push the envelope, innovate, and change the world of music, established or aspiring. Like I mentioned, I want to be more involved in other creative fields too.

Which artists do you believe are currently doing that?

You know who’ve I’ve been on lately is Smino. His work is incredible, have you heard of him? I’m also still trying to process Vince Staples' new album. He’s interesting and a real intelligent guy. I think he’s trying to push music in a good direction. Plus he’s super witty [laughs]. SZA’s new album is wonderful, too.

The music industry is often critiqued for its lack of female representation. Where do you stand on this issue?

I can’t say from my experience that I’ve had it more difficult than anyone else. There have been awkward moments where it’s been obvious that I’m not wanted in the room or they would prefer a male engineer. Those moments were few and pretty insignificant. I’ve had more support and encouragement from people in the industry who looked at me as an engineer first. I think some women are hesitant to jump into a field dominated by men but it’s important for us as women to be present. You can’t make changes if you’re not at the table. Hopefully our talk here today will reach a little girl or young woman who will see someone who looks like her making dope music.

What advice do you have for a little girl, or little boy, interested in engineering?

We touched on it a little bit but study your craft. We’re at a time where anyone with a laptop, a DAW, and YouTube can call themselves an engineer after a few videos. You have to hear the music and find a way to put make it a reality. Studying your craft doesn’t mean learning a master engineer’s template, but seeing how well they molded the sound of their artists.  

Also, listen to music that you enjoy, that’s the best inspiration and get out of the house and network [laughs]. Try to get into a studio and surround yourself with people in the field who can guide you or share the same goals.

Be willing to learn from others too, regardless of your station. One of the things I learned from Q-Tip was how to be an eternal student. Of all the people I’ve met, he might be the most accomplished, but he wants to learn from you. He’s not just “willing to learn” from you, but he desires it. He’ll definitely teach you things you’re unsure about, but he’s a student at the same time.

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