The South African bass music whiz and "Hey Now" creator tells his story of how he rose from making beats in detention to professional producer and touring artist.
To put it in his own words, South African-born, Los Angeles-based Chee became “the unofficial Bitwig ambassador” of Twitter during the pandemic lockdown. An encounter with the impressive modular rig of edIT of Glitch Mob recontextualised what he could do with The Grid, and since then he has racked up enough experience in Bitwig Studio to become an expert capable of composing the demo song for Bitwig Studio 5. “Hey Now” is a moody UKG/grime-influenced roller that's available as a Bitwig project file, allowing users to see Chee's process and approach to sound design.
In this conversation, Chee considers his history and his artistic process and revisits some of the most influential moments of his music life: School detention, moving from South Africa to Philadelphia, and finding a community of dubstep and drum & bass heads online.
You’re from Pretoria, South Africa, and now live in Los Angeles, but you spent several years in Philadelphia in between. Philly seems like an unexpected place to land after moving to America to pursue music. What was behind that decision?
Philly was my way of getting my foot in the door to live in the US. I toured America in 2017, and it was insane for me to see that you can live off making bass music, as that doesn't happen in South Africa. The popular genres there are house music and hip-hop. On that tour, I met someone who ended up calling me in March 2018, like, “Do you still want to move to America? I have a room.”
After living in Philly for four years, I had made enough of a name for myself. I knew the risks that came with moving to Los Angeles, being a high risk/high reward place to pursue anything. But by the time I moved, I had a lot more friends based out here.
Is there anything in particular that you learned about music or your creative process since being in LA?
Yeah. This is the first place I've lived by myself. I've always had roommates, but I realized I have a tendency to not fully be myself with other people around, because I feel like someone might be looking over my shoulder or listening. So now I experiment a lot more with music.
Actually, this comes back to Bitwig. I ended up going to edIT's house in the Arts District, and he has his giant modular, the biggest I've ever seen. I was messing and tweaking with that thing for hours. That was where I got the modular bug. I came back home and started messing around with The Grid. For the next month or so, I was up at insane hours with a giant whiteboard drawing patch ideas.
I feel like the domino effect of me living here and not having roommates has led to being up at 4 AM coming up with ideas, blasting really strange noises. If I did not take the lead to live by myself, I wouldn't have learned or pushed myself to do half of the things that I'm doing right now musically.
“I do think there’s a level of seeking validation that we musicians are scared to admit to when music is your full-time career. Taking risks can go one way or the other, but I reached a point where I got bored of playing safe.”
How do you feel about showing this newer, more “alone” version of your music to people? Does it feel more vulnerable in a way?
It definitely does. When your foundation is a certain sound, it’s hard to alter the DNA of it without throwing people off. I do think there’s a level of seeking validation that we musicians are scared to admit to when music is your full-time career. Taking risks can go one way or the other, but I reached a certain point where I got bored of playing safe. Some of my favorite artists release something polarizing every time.
How do you balance the desire to not be a prisoner of your own sound with the very real pressure of remaining appealing to audiences as a full-time artist?
There's a lot of musical wiggle room to work within the dubstep scene — it’s actually very open-minded. I also think fans are now a lot more forgiving when it comes to experimentation, because “genre” is slowly going out the window.
When did you discover Bitwig Studio?
A lot of my favorite artists were using it — the people that got me on to Bitwig were edIT, Seppa and Tom Finster. I was like, “Why have I never heard of this before?” I got hooked. From building devices to creating my own Grid patches, to fully performing my live sets, I could do anything I wanted, like create a self-generating patch that just runs free by itself. It was also more forgiving on my laptop, because the CPU usage was a lot easier. On Twitter I became the unofficial Bitwig ambassador.
What about Bitwig Studio hooked you?
I've never been obsessed with a program as much as I have with Bitwig for a number of reasons, one of them being its modular capabilities. This doesn't just speak to the DAW — it actually speaks to everything that we do today. Everything that we do or we have is customizable to our liking. A DAW like Bitwig fits that criteria so well.
Its complexity with its user-friendliness is something that's quite rare. Changing your workflow is a tedious process, or changing the main program you use to create whatever it is you're creating — especially if it's been over a decade. But the fact that it took me such a short time to get used to Bitwig spoke volumes.
Bitwig reset the arbitrary rules that I usually follow when writing music. I think it's very important when creating art to hit a factory reset once in a while, to remember that there're other ways to do certain things. Because it's very easy to get very comfortable in a process. That's one of the reasons why I do this, whether it's with art or with music. I try to test not just my knowledge, but like, how far I can go with something that I have no idea about.
When you realize the amount of things that you can do inside of a DAW like Bitwig, it can kind of be overwhelming, to the point where you make so much, or you're faced with so many things, that you get choice paralysis. And at the end of the day, that happens whenever you get anything new and you figure out the different combinations. It's all about limiting yourself and setting parameters.
When you accepted the project to write the demo song for version 5 and to do a video breakdown about it, did you have any reservations about being transparent in your process?
During the pandemic I put out my first sample pack, and it ended up being quite a success. I also worked on an IO [Music Academy] masterclass explaining my production process with my tracks “Vultures” and “Blood Thirsty.” I found that I really love teaching and showing people the process.
I can definitely see why producers wouldn’t want to give away their secret sauce, but at the same time, I know that even if I give someone my entire library of sounds, only I know how I made my tracks. I'm potentially giving people who just started producing the opportunity to mess around with really cool sounds from the get-go. It's like a new version of going to forums to figure out how to make a Noisia bass on FM8. I was definitely one of those people. Where I am right now in my career is because of the internet. The internet is also, for my African mom, a way for her to grasp the idea that all this fiddling on the laptop that got me put in detention is working, solely because of people online supporting what I do.
Tell us about younger Lesego in South Africa, perhaps with your mom peering over your shoulder being like, “What are you doing?” What you were learning about, what was resonating with you as a young person in Pretoria?
The reason I even make electronic music now was because I played so many video games. I was a recluse, I was inside all the time, and I wanted to recreate the sounds that I heard in video games. When I found out about dubstep I was 12, 13. It was the closest thing to full-blown alien shit I've ever heard, and I was very obsessed with it. No one else in South Africa knew about it. Even if I tried to show other people they were like, “This is weird.” There was definitely a sense of not feeling dubstep in South Africa, or it not being understood. Except for, you know, the community that I found online. There was a group of people that I randomly became Facebook friends with, and they were across the world and my age, like '96, '97, '98 babies, just sharing music with each other.
The only person I was doing this with in real life was John Casey, my it HZ partner-in-crime. We went to high school together, we found dubstep together, we’d have sleepovers where one week I'd be writing a bunch of tracks, next weekend I’d go to his house and he’d show me his songs. It was like this healthy competition, but we were learning from each other, and that's one of the reasons we’re so close. Now he's here in LA as well, and we're doing it together.
How would you describe the music you were producing at the time?
A lot of bass, with the sonic palette in place of where lyrics might be. One of the things I really liked about electronic music was that there were no lyrics. When I listened to anything that my mom and my brother exposed me to, like Michael Jackson, jazz, disco, Jay-Z and Kanye West, I wasn't drawn to the lyrics. It was always the beat. That's why I like Scott Storch, Timbaland, and Neptunes. That's why I’m where I am now: I exclusively write beats.
I would sometimes purposefully get detention to take my laptop to school to write, or I'd wait for my mom to switch off the lights before she went to bed, and when she closed the door I would take my laptop, go under the blankets, and write music. She was not a fan of me not-doing my homework, because coming from a South African household, if it's not paying the bills, putting food on the table or a roof over your head, it needs to go. It's a pipe dream. It's like, “Yeah, this is a fun thing to do, but maybe you should study something that will be a fallback plan.” It's very realistic — especially if you're a person of color, life is on extra-hard mode, and it would be ignorant to completely ignore that. So it's something I had in the back of my brain as well. I actually went to school for 3-D animation in game design, but I ended up dropping out because I was playing shows.
But once I got started, released my album Fear Monger in 2017 and started getting global traction, specifically in the States, I got hit up to do a tour in North America. I showed my mom and I told her, “We need to go to the Department of Home Affairs and get my visa.” She was like, “OK. This is clearly a thing, and I'm fully supportive of it. If it's making you happy, and paying the bills, go at it.” So I dedicated my entire life to it.
How would you characterize the different qualities that you and John individually bring to it HZ?
John is known for his balance, his flow, his swag. He's really good with grooves. With our live shows, he’s very much curating the vibe, but on the technical side he knows what he's doing. On my side, I bring the storytelling sound design, engineering, routing side of things. It's a good match: John as a person is very social. and good at communicating. A large portion of my fan base are producers, and I'm more of a recluse. I like being in the studio more than on the stage. I also don't look up when I play because I just get really nervous. But we've been doing this together now for 12, 13 years. Having someone that I've grown up with in South Africa be in the States with me and tour with me, we have these moments where we look at each other like, We made it, we did it, we did the thing.
Perhaps we could finish by digging into the sounds and components of “Hey Now.” We hear a lot of different references from both sides of the Atlantic, like Moderat and Burial.
Yeah, I love UK garage, and there are certain Burial songs that just teleport you. Lately, I've been embracing more composition and song-writing than sound design, and I definitely did that with this song, but the fact that it took me such a short time speaks volumes. I synthesized everything from scratch all with elements that are native to Bitwig.
Initially, the song was a reference to a release I put out called “Spangled.” That triplet groove that you hear in the song is something that I've done with dubstep, but just with the hats. For the demo song, I wanted to give a UKG feel to it to translate my ideas to people that aren’t into the music that I usually write, but also with lots of layers underneath. On a surface level, it's pretty straightforward, but when you actually go into the project and break it down and see how each element was created, it gets complex. It's definitely touching on a side of the music that I’m currently listening to and experimenting with in the more percussive and songwriting sphere. It shows what Bitwig is capable of, and also what I’m capable of.
Photos by Kathy Rosario.