Elton Chueng, 33, began his career as a professional recording engineer with an internship at Classick Studios in 2011. He’s since worked with some of the brightest stars to emerge from Chicago’s hip-hop scene in the past decade, including Saba, Noname, Smino, and Chance the Rapper. In November his contributions to Yebba’s 2021 debut, Dawn, earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

As told to Leor Galil

I always loved music growing up. It really was something that got me by on a daily level. I had a hard time paying attention in class and doing homework, so in order to power through those moments I’d listen to music. It was mainly R&B and hip-hop. As far as rap and stuff goes, a lot of it came down to the attitude; it felt very expressive and cool. Something about 90s hip-hop and R&B was the coolest thing to me. 

I grew up in Skokie. I was born in Chicago. My parents wanted me to have a better education, so [they] moved the family up into the suburbs. I felt a little out of place. I had more of an interest in these things [hip-hop and R&B] than other people. Later in my education—when you’re supposed to make these important decisions about what you want to be—I found myself a little bit out of place. Something in my gut told me, “Hey, I want to do music, or I want to do something in music.” I didn’t know what it was yet. But I kind of felt like an outcast, ’cause any time I would mention something like that, I would have friends, like, “Oh man, that’s kinda risky. What happens if you don’t make it in that?” Everybody else wanted to be, like, doctors, accountants. I just wanted to do music. 

It stuck with me all the way through college too. I had the hardest time trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I went with my gut with that too, and just was like, “I don’t have the interest to do anything else, so let me see what I can do in music.” While I was studying, I was blasting music; I was listening to a lot of Kanye. I was like, “The emotion in the music is so expressive, it’s damn near theatrical. It’s a lot of energy in this. How do I get involved in something like this?” 

In high school, I had a bunch of friends who would rap in the hallways. My cousin had bought me this little recording setup, so I had a bunch of friends come by and record. I found my way into engineering that way, because I was so much more obsessed with how to make stuff sound professional. It was 2003—something like that. It was a little recording package that you’d get from Guitar Center or Musician’s Friend. I don’t know how I even figured out how to set all of that stuff up at such a young age—I guess I was kind of nerdy with the computer stuff. 

I got the word out that I had a little recording setup in high school—it definitely created a slight clientele for me. But I didn’t even realize what I was doing. I was so obsessed with making this sound professional and radio ready, just like everything I grew up listening to. 

I’m extremely hard on myself. I’m always pushing myself to learn. I think when I first got into engineering, it was having this internship at Classick Studios with [founder] Chris Classick; I learned everything under him. It was under him, my good friend HeadAche [Clinton Walker], who is also an engineer, and Jeff Jackson. These were the very first engineers over at Classick. We would nerd out and trade little tips and tricks and stuff as we went along with our journey. I owe it to those guys, who gave me that push to get better and learn the trade and the skill set. 

Elton Chueng engineered, mixed, and mastered this 2017 Smino album.

This was around 2011, when I first started interning and stuff. It was like translating emotion into technical skills. “Oh, you like this particular sound—you like how the song felt? Well, in order to make this music translate, you have to understand how to do this, this, and this—particular skills and engineering.” I took those little skill sets along with me this entire—what has it been, ten years now? I can finally really tell, from top to bottom, what a song is supposed to feel like or sound like. 

The engineering field is very selfless. A lot of the times, where I find success is to be as empathetic as I am, just as a person, and to have that translate on a technical level. I guess it does register as an emotional sonic palette. But using that as a little bit of background—I use that to make those stories and those songs come to life for artists.

I use everybody that’s around me that I can call a friend or a colleague to draw inspiration from, because I think a lot of us shared the same struggles. I’m the type of person that’ll never forget where they came from, so I use that as a driving force. Like, “Look how far you’ve come, from being the person who didn’t know what they want to do in life to . . . ” We just got nominated for a Grammy, so I’ll be making an appearance at the Grammys for the first time this year. It’s kind of mind-blowing. 

Chueng’s work on the Yebba album Dawn earned him a Grammy nomination last fall.

We need every single one of us to keep uplifting each other and keep this thing going. I’m still reaching back to try to find, like, “Oh, who’s doing what next? Who’s a young artist that we should be looking out for? Let’s get behind them and champion them, just like how we did with Chance, Kids These Days, Chief Keef.” I think that’s a dope thing—we gotta keep this thing going. I think that’s more important than anything to me. 

I get those questions all the time, like, “Hey, when are you moving out to LA? When are you moving down to Atlanta? When are you getting out of Chicago?” I think it’s more rewarding for me to do things out of here; there’s still so much to build here. And I wish everybody the best, and we’ve just gotta keep this ecosystem growing, for our artists and our creative community to thrive. As hard as it is to get it done here, we still got something going for us.