Photo/Courtesy of Leslie Brathwaite
For as long as he can remember, Leslie Brathwaite wanted to contribute to the culture of music, more specifically, hip-hop. And he did. The 18X Grammy Award-winning mix engineer has worked with some of the most influential hip-hop artists of today, including Beyoncé, Jay Z, Pharrell Williams, and Cardi B.
It’s Saturday afternoon. Leslie and I connect via Zoom. He is sitting leisurely in his home studio as we catch up on life and family. Then we get to the reason for my call – to talk about music and his journey to becoming a Grammy award-winning mix engineer.
While most of us were going to carnival to whine our waists, Virgin Islander, Leslie Brathwaite was on Jam Band’s truck paying close attention to how things worked behind the scenes. Fast forward – the gregarious young boy who loved music and the technology behind it has built a successful career in the music industry that spans decades.
When did you fall in love with music?
I have always had music around me. My dad had a huge record collection. My mom listened to a lot of calypso and reggae. My cousins listened to Steel Pulse and Bob Marley. I can’t pinpoint that exact time in my life that I fell in love with music. I just knew I always loved it.
We all know the importance of having great mentors. Who were your musical mentors?
Growing up I hung out with members of Jam Band - the late Nicholas “Nick” Friday and lead trumpeter and arranger Ambrose "Boots" Schmidt. Boots gave me my first drum machine. I was fortunate to have those types of mentors around me. They helped fuel my interest in music.
I also draw inspiration from music producers like Rick Rubin, Quincy Jones, and Pharrell Williams. I think they are not only brilliant at their craft, but they are also good people. I look up to people like that.
How did you land your big break?
In the early 90s, how you got your foot in the door was to work at a studio as an intern. So that is what I did. I was a runner. I would go and get coffee, food, and just make myself useful so that people would want to keep me around. That was the name of the game. On my first day as an intern, I went to get food for Whitney Houston. Fast-forward, I ended up recording and mixing some of her music.
But my first major project was as the recording engineer for R&B singer Monica. I recorded her first single and did a rough mix of the song. Monica’s producer gave that cut to several mix engineers to mix the song, but they did not like any of the mixes. They kept comparing the mixes that were done by the more seasoned engineers to my rough mix. Finally, Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records said, “Let’s use Leslie’s mix,” and that is how I came on the scene as a mixer. That was my breakthrough moment.
The people that I work with now are a testament to me putting in the work early on in my career. For instance, when I first met Beyoncé, she was twelve years old. No one knew who she was. She was in a group called the Dolls. But I worked just as hard then, so when she became Beyoncé, she remembered that.
You’ve worked with Jay Z, Beyoncé, Outkast, and Whitney Huston to name a few. When you started working, did you envision having such high-profile clients?
To be brutally honest, for me it wasn’t about expectations. Most creative people will tell you if we get to do what we love and make enough money to live, that is the goal. Everything else is icing on the cake.
I always had this confidence in myself in music. I knew I could be successful if I worked hard. I think you can relate to that. That’s how we were brought up in the Caribbean. That is a part of our DNA. You work hard, and you will succeed.
Take me through a day in your life as a Mix Engineer.
After the recording engineer records all the music with the music producer or songwriter and the artist, the raw recorded material is sent to me. I then seethe through the various takes to determine which take of a verse is the best and piece the best parts of all the takes together, so it sounds like one cohesive take.
I typically start work late at night and work until the early hours of the morning. It’s extremely efficient because I do not have the same distractions as someone who works during the day. Even with the pandemic and having to work at home instead of at the studio, I can get a lot done because my family is in bed by 9 or 10 PM at the latest.
For instance, right now, Cardi B is somewhere in Paris in a completely different time zone. She might call and say, “Can we change something on this song?” at 2 AM. It is part of the culture of the music industry, and we were trained for this lifestyle in school. Some of my classes started at 3 AM. This was all to prepare us for life after we graduated.
Unlike your peers, you did not have any interest in going to college. How did your mother react?
My mom was the first in her family to go to college. She also worked at the University of the Virgin Islands at the Upward Bound Program. So, it was a tough sell when I told her I did not want to go to college. It was expected of me.
I remember the very moment I told her. It was a Saturday afternoon, and she was taking me to a bass (guitar) practice. I remember saying, “Ma, I don’t want to go to college. I want to do music. I haven’t figured out what that means for my life yet, but I do not want to go to college.” She just shut down. She wasn’t trying to hear it.
How did you discover the Full Sail Music and Recording Program?
I was in the 12th grade. After school, I would go to Ms. Cook’s office to do my homework. She was one of the counselors of the Upward Bound Program. I would tell her, “Ms. Cook, I do not want to go to college.” That was my story every day. One day she came to me and said, “I’ve got something you will love.” She gave me a two-page pamphlet from Full Sail, which at that time was just Full Sail Center for the Recording Arts – it was not a University yet. The program laid out a curriculum for learning how to record in a studio. And when my dad took me to the orientation in Orlando, I knew that was where I was meant to be.
You played the trumpet, saxophone, and bass in high school. Why did you pivot from the forefront to a role behind the scenes?
When I graduated from high school, I knew two things. I knew I absolutely loved music. I also knew I didn’t want to be an artist. While I had an intricate knowledge of music from playing different instruments, I was more fascinated with technology. As a kid, whenever I got any electronic gifts, like a turntable, a radio, or remote control car, I would take it apart down to its bare bones and then put it back together. So when I got to Full Sail and saw all the technology behind the music, my fascination grew. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to be a mixer.
What makes you unstoppable?
I think it’s always having a posture of humility and always knowing that I don’t know everything. I am always willing to learn from the younger generation. That’s why I am still in the game and mixing music that the teenagers are loving. I adjusted to their era. Usually, when people burn out or fall off in the creative industry, it is because they thought they knew it all and they did not want to change and adapt.
What do you want your legacy to be?
When I think of my legacy, I think about my daughters. As long as I impress upon two thoughtful, caring, and hardworking human beings, I am good. I don’t care if they are gay or straight. I care that my girls understand empathy, honesty, and love. If I leave them with that, then to me, that’s legacy, and that’s enough.
Leslie Brathwaite embodies the very essence of Caribbean people. We always find ways to break the societal barriers which trap us into thinking that we will fail if we challenge the norms. Leslie's decision to bypass conventional college and pursue his passion for music is thus reminiscent of rising Antiguan musician Arlen Seaton’s brave decision to relinquish a career in medicine to achieve his dreams. Why should we acquiesce to limiting conventions when we can rebel and become truly unstoppable?