Sometime in the 1980s, when Rick Rubin was completing a degree at the New York University, he co-founded Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons. Together they played a role in establishing the careers of hip-hop pioneers such as Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Run DMC.
With a three-decade genre-hopping career, Rubin’s productions have served as a sonic backdrop for the likes of Adele, Black Sabbath, Eminem and Kanye West, and he has earned himself eight Grammys and 15 nominations.
But it was when he coupled the chords of an electric guitar (which come from Billy Squier’s The Big Beat) with Jay Z’s “If you havin’ girl problems I feel bad for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one” lyrics, it caught the attention of a prepubescent girl by the name of Karien Barnard in Knysna.
She had to know who put a sound that reminded her of metal rock to Jay Z’s verses. On discovering that Rubin was a quirky-looking white man with an overgrown beard and matching hair, she was captured.
“I related to Rick Rubin because he’s this old white dude with a big beard and crazy hair making these hits in hip-hop. We’re the odd ones out in the situation.”
Today, 15 years later and aged 25, she goes by the name Kay Faith and she’s forging her place as an audio engineer and hip-hop producer with the objective of highlighting the originality of Capetonian artists in the national conversation about the genre.
“We are in an era where we need to be careful because our rappers are starting to rap with an American accent. My thing is letting artists know if they sound gimmicky or American. The music needs to stay true to our environment and heritage. I mean, what better way is there to fuel the vehicle of creative content than by using your background? Cape Town has that,” she argues.
The beginning of Faith’s story is not so much one of a hustle as it is one of chance. She left Knysna to study fine art at Michaelis but her application “got lost in the mail” and she had to look for an alternative. So she opted for a sound engineering degree at the Cape Audio College.
After graduation, she was still uncertain about specialising in hip-hop so she tried out a bit of everything by being an intern at theatres and festivals and in studios.
“Kay, who I knew as Karien, studied at Cape Audio College a number of years ago. She performed very well as a student to a point where we offered her an internship on completion of her studies because she stood out,” says Jono Pike, the academic head of the college, who has worked closely with Faith.
The studio internship required her to set up the studio for sessions, do the coffee run and stay in the background while the more experienced engineers worked with the artists. On one day, the artist happened to be Yasiin Bey.
“Mos Def ran super late and the guy who was supposed to engineer left so I was thrown in the deep end. I engineered two sessions with him. one of the tracks was produced by Petite Noir,” Faith recalls.
In true millennial style, Faith snapped away and posted the experience on social media. “Just like that I became the Kay Faith who recorded Mos Def and instantly got traffic because people thought I must know what I’m doing.”
Before she could take on the label of an engineer specialising in hip-hop, local rappers began following her on Instagram and sliding into her DMs to see how they could set up studio time with her.
“So I thought, maybe I should give this hip-hop thing a try because there’s not a lot of people specialising in it in Cape Town.”
Last October, her work landed her an opportunity to headline at Rocking the Daisies. As a producer, Faith’s sound exists between the boom baps and 808s she listened to while growing up, coupled with the more skrr-skrr ad-lib-friendly trap sound that can be picked up in singles like Waya Waya with Ginger Trill and High Note, one of the tracks off her debut EP titled In Good Faith. In some of her recent work with Cape Town duo Phresh Clique titled Asifuni Lala and Waya Waya, she dips into kwaito keys.
Although her productions slap hard in many instances, Faith’s sound as a producer is too familiar and could be read as a safe bet. Perhaps this has to do with the imposter syndrome that seeps in every now and then.
“It has its moments where it sucks. As a woman in the industry, I have to deal with men being uncomfortable with me being in this position and I have to constantly assure them that I have got the juice,” she explains.
It has been three years since she cashed in on the unmerited favour. To date, she has worked with the likes of Nasty C, Dope Saint Jude, Kwesta, Uno July, Stogie T and YoungstaCPT, who met her in 2014.
“I met Kay Faith when EJay was working on his Apartheid EP. The talent that she had was clever and undeniable from when we started working together. She’s very focused so it was easy for us to get along immediately. Even today, we don’t play in the studio, there’s no time for leisure and joking when you’re in studio with her,” says YoungstaCPT.
The rapper, who has more than 30 EPs to his name, says he has learned much from Faith about the process that goes into making a hit. “She’s disciplined, has a sharp ear and is a master in progress.”
Although Faith’s goal has always been to follow the path she watched Rubin take as a producer, she put in the hours as a sound engineer to make up for the luck that fast-tracked her career.
“I spoke to someone who is in radio once and he said they don’t play South African songs next to international songs because it shows the lack of technical input. Before I could get into producing, my goal was to try and get our music sounding as great as possible.”
Sound engineers make this happen by specialising in balancing, reinforcing and adjusting sound sources to suit the artist’s desired end. Faith starts this by studying the artist’s music, their musical references, their enunciation and tone of voice.
With smartphone apps and programs that have trial periods that allow users to use them for free, some may argue that the role of an engineer is slowly becoming obsolete. But Faith emphasises that artists should focus on creativity and not be caught up in the technicalities of the end product. “We are people who specialise in making you sound as good as possible. My ear is trained for sound.”
Faith is set on staying in and being there for Cape Town because she feels South Africa is neglecting its hip-hop scene’s potential.
“In addition to her career in the music industry, she has started to teach in some of our course work. We continue to invest in her upskilling because she has a great rapport with the students and she brings her real-world experiences,” adds Pike when asked about Faith’s contribution to the industry.
Faith pioneered and heads the Cape Audio College Hip-Hop Society, where students who are interested in the genre are given an opportunity to network with its artists.
“Artists feel like they need to go blow up in Jo’burg. I don’t want that to be true. I want to uplift Cape Town because I see how much talent there is out here. I see a lot of talented guys who are disheartened because no one is booking them or playing their music because they don’t know it’s there. Our artists shouldn’t have to leave to make it,” she says.
To prove a point, Faith asks me, someone based in Gauteng, to list the Cape Town rappers I am aware of.
“But that’s not all, there’s also Phresh Clique, Ginger Trill, and don’t get me started on Sipho the Gift,” and she goes on and on. “The range of Capetonian hip-hop is South Africa’s best-kept secret. I work in the Cape Town scene. The [number of] talented artists that I have begun meeting on a week-to-week basis in Cape Town is phenomenal. The scene is so diverse. The rest of the country might not know about it but I realise how special things are in Cape Town. That’s why I’m not going anywhere.”