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Angela Morris

Kuk Harrell Tracks His Career Journey From The Golden Arches To The Grammys

The award-winning vocal producer dishes on how signing on for the fast food company’s “Where You Want To Be” campaign put into perspective the skills he attained from McDonald’s as it applies to his career today.

Thirty-five years ago, Kuk Harrell designed his foray into the music industry while taking orders at a Chicago-based McDonald’s. The Grammy-winning vocal producer once worked at the fast food conglomerate as a crew member, then a manager before he became the go-to voice captain for artists like Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, Usher, and more singing heavyweights.

As his writing career began, Harrell wrote jingles for McDonald’s ad campaigns, helping to craft the melody around the fast food restaurant’s “ba-da-ba-ba-ba” tune. In a full-circle moment, Harrell added to his McDonald’s lineage (his mother and two sisters used to sing background for radio and television commercials in Chicago, including for the golden arches), by signing on for the franchise’s “Where You Want To Be” campaign. The initiative pairs a McDonald’s employee with an established person within whatever field the employee is interested in pursuing, allowing them to spend a day and learn the ins and outs of that business. Ayana Lea was selected to shadow Harrell, a moment that re-instilled a sense of passion within him.

“It was refreshing to be able to look back and she gave me a picture of where I was 35 years ago starting out,” Harrell says. “When you get in the music industry, and especially on my level, you’re moving around so much and you’re dealing with people so much every single day and the expectation is so great, you could lose that sense of excitement and freshness. The thing I really picked up from her was just the fresh passion that she has and she’s looking forward to where she can go.” For Harrell, that journey has landed him five Grammy Awards and a scroll of credits from Janet Jackson to The Whispers.

Harrell chats with VIBE on his mission to have the Grammy Awards recognize vocal producers, Rihanna’s ANTI album following its three-year anniversary (while he remained secretive on her upcoming project, Harrell shared that there’s growth from ANTI to her new album), and how his time at McDonald’s still impacts his career today.

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VIBE: How did you know McDonald’s would be a springboard to the next level?
Kuk Harrell: For me, I’ve always been fortunate. People that have a passion for music, they’re always fortunate because that’s something that’s always there as opposed to not being sure. For me, I was really fortunate that that passion was always there. I was also fortunate because I was already committed to doing music so there was something in my mind that made me focus on it. I was able to see I need to do life while I pursue my passion, meaning I needed to get a job so that I can have a life and while I have this job I can still pursue my passion. Passion is music. A lot of times we’re very lucky if we get success doing music. The stereotype is you either just do music and you don’t work and you’re hoping that this could generate money. I was fortunate that my family really instilled in me that you have to work while you pursue it. That was a huge blessing for me.

When you’re working with an artist, are there skills from McDonald’s that come in handy?
Absolutely. The soft skills, responsibility, and teamwork. Those are extremely important in what I do right now because, especially with the clients that I have, it’s really important to communicate and to be a people person. I say this all the time, you can be extremely talented, you can have all the talent in the world and be the best songwriter, the best producer, the best keyboardist, but if your people skills are lacking you’re not going to go too far. After a while, people will realize it’s more of a nightmare being in the room with you as it is, so I credit my experience at McDonald’s. I appreciate it because when you’re standing at that register you’re interacting with people, person after person after person and you have to be like a blank canvas. You don’t know where these people are coming from, what’s going on in their minds and in their hearts, so I love the fact that you’re able to figure out right away how to respond. I learned that at the window. Then being a manager I learned that you have to be a great leader. A great leader is a person that really knows how to communicate with people based on where they are as opposed to a blanket personality like, “I need to speak to her this way” or “I need to speak him this way,” “motivate him that way” or “motivate her this way.” That’s all McDonald’s training for sure.

Looking at your Instagram recently of your Grammys, you said you’re in love with the journey. How did you reach that point where you love what you do?
My cousin [Tricky Stewart] and The-Dream, we wrote the song “Umbrella” for Rihanna and I realized once that song blew up and became what it was, I just sat back and was reflecting on the process of it, how it happened. I realized that everything up to that point was my desire. I was reaching for everything and trying to make everything happen, trying to make a career happen. But when “Umbrella” happened, that song was actually written...it kind of happened. There was no effort about it. Then it wound up on Rihanna, she cut it, it became a worldwide smash. Through that process I realized, “Wait a second, without any effort we were able to…” something was able to happen in my life that became life-changing for a lot of people. At that point, I realized I wasn’t worried about anything at that particular time other than just living life. I wasn’t searching for it and it happened. It really directed me back to, “Let me just make sure I always keep my mind on the journey, the life experiences, the most important thing in everything that I do every single day are the interactions with all the people that I meet.” How I can impact their lives and how they can impact my life. That’s the richness of life for me. Not how many Grammys I have, not how much money I can make. It’s the people along the way.

 

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I’m in love with the journey!! Go get it!!!

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Especially since your expertise goes back to the ‘90s, with R&B acts and pop stars, what has been the biggest shift in vocal production from then to now?
I would probably say the fact that there is a thing called a vocal producer because it really didn’t exist. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back at all, but I’m the pioneer of vocal production (Laughs), you know what I mean? I carved out the niche of a vocal producer, and even that makes me think about the journey because now I’m doing things every single day. I’m having conversations with labels, I’m having conversations with artists, I hope to have conversations with the Grammy board just letting them know this is a thing. People want to do this. Almost like I’m a union representative for people who are trying to do what I do. There are certain things that I have to fight for in order for it to continue to be legit like royalties and getting our points as opposed to just being in the studio with somebody doing all this work and we just got a check for it. Like no, this work lives on forever so we need to make sure we get paid for it.

What goes into vocal production?
The vocal producer is responsible for how the artist sounds on the record, not just sonically, but we carve out with the artist how they sound, how they approach the vocal, if one part of the song needs to be breathier, I’m hearing all of that. I’m going, “Sing it more breathier, sing it sexier, now sing it more edgy.” We’re carving out the emotion of the performance.

You’ve worked with Pentatonix and they solely rely on their voices to be the instruments. How do you help a singer, not necessarily in that format, use their voices as instruments?
I start from the foundation that they’re already a great singer and even if they’re not a great singer that they have vocal ability. At that point, it’s all about instilling confidence in them, getting them out of their head and just getting them to a place where they can just perform. That goes back to what I was saying about being a manager at McDonald’s: how do I lead? I noticed that this person has a shy demeanor but they’re a pop star, or they’re a pop singer, so how do I get the best out of them? It’s all about leadership, teamwork, and motivation.

Have you worked with an artist that you’ve noticed tremendous vocal growth?
Absolutely. I’m not going to say who it is, though. (Laughs)

 

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Now, down to business! #workflow #vocalproducer #vocalproduction #songwriter #purpose 📷 by: @angelamphoto

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Can you describe that growth process?
It’s confidence because a lot of times when an artist goes in the studio they’re in their head a lot. That’s the other thing the vocal producer does, he brings confidence to them and just lets them get to a place to where they’re not thinking about, “Am I doing it the right way?” They’re not thinking about anything other than, “I’m just here to do what I do and I’m going to be the best and I trust that that person has my back and will make sure I sound great.” When I hear records with artists that I started with or we start together and I don’t produce them anymore, when I hear their records now, I hear that confidence and that’s life-giving. That’s an extension of me, that’s an extension of my spirit that they’re continuing on in.

Vocal production can also apply to rappers, too. What was it like working with Cardi B on her Invasion of Privacy album?
It’s a great experience, they’re all great experiences. I get to work with the best of the best and it’s always exciting because I get to work with either a great vocalist or a great rapper. The thing that’s the same is it’s all based on either melody or rhythm. I’m initially a drummer so it’s all about rhythm and I can sing as well so it’s all about melody. With Cardi, just making sure the pocket is right. It’s exciting because I get to carve out audio pictures.

How much of that journey is your talent and the artist’s? I know you said you have to bring out certain things out of singers, but is it a give and take?
It’s 50/50 because that’s where the soft skills that I learned at McDonald’s come together. The person has to feel like it’s a partnership. They can’t feel like I’m a producer coming in trying to make them do what I want them to do. First of all, I have to realize that they’re the artist, not me. It’s their record, so I’m here to bring what I do to enhance what they do. As long as they feel like it’s 50/50, everything goes extremely smooth.

And it can also hit the listener in a different way. To reference Rihanna’s ANTI album, a lot of people herald that as her best project from top to bottom. I think she found a lane within that lower register pocket, and ANTI’s songs can fall into any genre. What was it like working with her on that album?
It’s always amazing and with that particular album because it was a groundbreaking album. It took us three years to make the album and that was hard because it was highly-anticipated. But it was great because we all learned so much in working on the album. That’s the other thing. I love how for me it always keeps going back to the people skill. We had a lot of different things we had to make sure that the album was as we were working on it. There were times it created tension within all of us that worked on the album, nothing crazy, but just creative tension. With that, for me, also puts me in a place where I have to ignite my people skills: “Okay wait a second, we’re doing this. Let’s all make sure that we’re connected as people so that the creativity can flow.”

Is there a song you had the most fun recording?
I would say “Higher” because we worked on that. Her vocals went to another level with that record. And the other one is “Work” because I never worked with Drake before. To see Drake walk in the room was like “Oh snap!”

On “Higher” as fans, we’ve never heard her vocals reach that raw of a level. What was it like getting her to that point? Was she reserved about it?
She’s not in a shell at all. It was just that record was great because it was a challenge for us. It was just a thing that goes back to what you were saying — growth. It was a record that caused us to go, “We can do this, we can nail that record,” and we did.

With the vocal DNA of an artist, let’s say with Rihanna, she works with a lot of big-time songwriters like Sia and Bibi Bourelly. When she sings their songs you can tell automatically that’s a Sia or a Bibi Bourelly song. How do you navigate the vocal DNA of an artist? Is it rooted in the songwriter in terms of how they craft the melody or is it rooted in the singer?
It’s rooted in the singer because they are the artist. As a vocal producer what I’m doing is making sure I keep the characteristic of their voice and their personality so that they don’t get lost. That’s why the consumer loves the artist that they love especially if there’s consistency there with that artist. We take the songs and just enhance the songs.

Do you think the Grammys will become less important to artists and hold more weight to those behind the boards?
I think so because if I’m understanding you correctly, there are more people that are speaking up and speaking out because we’re carving out more niches. Vocal producers, engineers, and it’s not they haven’t wanted to, it’s now things are changing even more and more. The industry is changing and it’s taking different people, even how records are made now it’s different. There wasn’t a vocal producer before, but now there is a vocal producer. Why is there a vocal producer? Because he is focusing on making sure that that artist sounds great. That’s all I worry about. I don’t worry about how the kick-drum sounds, I don’t worry about how the snare sounds, I don’t care about the keyboard. I do care about how that vocal is blended into the track. That performance is going to live forever so I think as we continue to speak up and make the Grammys aware of all that I think they will honor that for sure. And they have, they do it with Best Engineered Album, Best Artwork, and I think we’re getting more categories. I’m pushing for Best Vocal Producer. They already have Best Producer of the Year. If we do Best Vocal Production I’d be mad if I don’t get one of those. (Laughs)

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Kamaiyah/GRND.WRK/EMPIRE

Kamaiyah Talks Long-Awaited Debut 'Got It Made' And Independent Status

On a cloudy afternoon in New York City, rapper Kamaiyah is dressed for comfort, wearing a purple sweatsuit, and the purple beads adorning her signature box braids match her fit. She’s made a stop at the VIBE office during a day of interviews, accompanied by a crew of three women, including her newly appointed A&R Justice Davis. Kamaiyah is observing more than speaking, preserving her voice since she is recovering from a nuisance cold. But the East Oakland native’s energy switches from laidback to zealous as we discuss her lead single “Still I Am” for Got It Made, her long-delayed forthcoming project dropping February 21.

 

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After almost 4 years I present to you my project “ Got It Made “ 2•21•20 the wait is over we going up and this mutha fucka slap 💁🏾‍♀️ flood my comments with 500 ☂️’s and I’ll drop a song tonight 👀 (Presave link in my bio)

A post shared by Kamaiyah🧿 (@kamaiyah) on Feb 3, 2020 at 11:00am PST

On the CT Beats track, the go-to producer for her hypnotic g-funk sound, she earnestly raps, “I done took plenty losses/ That's why I feel like I deserve to keep flossin'/ This shit is exhausting/ When you boss up and run your own office.” The verses point to her departure from Interscope Records and YG’s 4 Hunnid Records and the launch of her new label GRND.WRK (pronounced groundwork), in partnership with Empire last August. She decided to dip after the release date for her project Something To Ride To was pushed back multiple times. This makes Kamaiyah one of few women in hip-hop, and perhaps the first from the West Coast, to run her own shop.

“It's very important and vital because a lot of people feel you need a man to make you an artist,” Kamaiyah said. “You need a man to mold you into what you need to be.” But Kamaiyah — who has been rapping since she was 9, recording in the studio since she was 11, and dropped a critically acclaimed mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto (2016) before she was signed to a major deal — already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be before she signed on the dotted line.

In the months since she left the label, she began building her office in the upstairs area of her loft; finished recording, mixing and mastering Got It Made, a project she was planning before she parted from Interscope; and her manager Brandon Moore became her partner on her new venture. 2020 will be the first year Kamaiyah has full control of her career since breaking into the mainstream hip-hop world in 2016. This was always part of her master plan and why the previous arrangement did not fit her.

“I signed too fast, but I never wanted to sign,” she reflects. “I was always the artist that was like, 'I don't want no deal.' I wanted to hustle because I knew where I come from. Everybody does it independently. But at that time it was the best decision for everybody. I took that L for the team and we learned a lot. It was like four years of music business school.”

Kamaiyah wants to carry on in the spirit of Bay Area hip-hop legends like E-40, known for their independent spirit of hustling their CDs out of their car trunks. But she also wants the pop accolades of hip-hop superstars like Drake, Missy Elliot, and Oakland’s original hip-hop icon MC Hammer. Her biggest hit to date is YG’s "Why You Always Hatin?” also featuring Drake, which charted at no. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. But she wants more. Success for Kamaiyah means Grammys, Billboard No. 1's, and gold and platinum plaques. Partnering with Empire, a digital-first independent distributor, and a label launched by San Francisco native Ghazi Shami in 2010, could be her winning ticket. In the past decade, Empire’s launched several successful hip-hop projects such as Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album and Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu. This partnership can give Kamaiyah the independence and support toward the mass appeal she’s seeking. Having dealt with project release delays in the past, her strategy going forward is consistency.

“Great quality music at a rapid rate...People just want to see you [working]. And if they know you consistent, they gon’ consume the music.” Kamaiyah also wants to use her platform to sign new talent, especially in the Bay Area, where she said artists can benefit from music business education when their records go viral. “Once they get the traction and the record, it becomes this egotistical thing and it's like ‘I made it cause I'm cracking out here.’ But they don't realize it's a whole world to build towards.”

Her first project Got It Made will be the blueprint for GRND.WRK. The project is feel-good music her fans “can shake their asses to and vibe out to and ride out to,” she said. For instance, she teamed up with veteran Trina for the f**k boy revenge track “Set It Up.” They role-play as two women who have been cheated on by the same man. “We get together and we go against the ni**a instead of us going against each other,” Kamaiyah says. On “Get Ratchet,” which she calls a “modern bounce” record, she taps DJ Espinosa, a San Francisco native known for winning Red Bull Music’s 3Style DJ competition, to spin at the end of the track. For “Digits,” a song about getting someone’s number, she brings on fellow Oakland rapper Capolow, a newcomer she’s excited to give a bigger platform to. She describes the track as “magical gangsta sh*t.” On past projects, Kamaiyah sampled '80s and '90s R&B (i.e. “I’m On” and “Leave Em”) but says the only track on Got It Made that has a sample is “1-800-IM-HORNY.” She intentionally avoided the high cost of clearances, an obstacle contributing to past project delays. She won’t mention names but says she enlisted “legends who created those records that we’re sampling” to shape the project's sound. Fans can expect Kamaiyah to begin touring the project in April.

Although she’s finally releasing her project, her fans might be curious about the status of her other promised records such as Woke and Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. Will they see the light of day? “Anything I did at that part of my life I have PTSD from,” Kamaiyah said frankly. “It was done with good intentions, but then it became something negative and when you put that out, the world is going to feel that. And energy is transferable so I'm not putting out that shit.”

While Kamaiyah was facing career obstacles in recent years, she witnessed the impact of tragedies close to her community. The death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was murdered at a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2018, hit close to home as Kamaiyah has family close to Wilson’s family. (John Lee Cowell, who is accused of stabbing Wilson to death, is currently on trial.) “Do I feel like he should be convicted? Absolutely. To the furthest extent. You took this woman's life. She barely got to live.” Then there was Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019. Kamaiyah said she had a long talk with Nip a month before he was killed last March. He wanted to see her reach her full potential, especially as a woman representing the Bay Area. “He’s telling me, ‘What you mean to our culture we never had’,” Kamaiyah said. That last conversation put the battery in her back when she was on the fence about her music. “I'm frustrated career-wise and that's a person that was like, ‘Don't stop because we need you in this culture.’ So I gotta hustle 10 times harder ‘cause other people see the long end of the vision.”

Justice Davis, Kamaiyah’s A&R, is ready for Kamaiyah’s vision to come to life. Davis began working as Moore’s assistant and after giving input, moved up the ranks. As a Los Angeles native, Davis said she brings the knowledge of her city’s culture together with Kamaiyah’s Oakland hustle. She wants to see Kamaiyah grow as a businesswoman, artist, and for their team to prosper. “[I hope] for people to see her talent and know she really is the queen of the West coast."

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Jack Dempsey for Crown Royal Apple

Joe Freshgoods Put On For Chicago With Royal Apple Goods Collection & Pop-Up

The Windy City's chilly air seeps into the building as the main door cracks wide open. Busy crew members scurry between rooms, ensuring every fixture and branded display is arranged perfectly before the clock strikes 3 o'clock. A group of focused workers huddles nearby to go over loose ends and delegated tasks. Throwback hip-hop jams float throughout the warehouse, teasing the chill vibes to come. Time is of the essence and it's almost showtime; Confirmed guests will soon start trickling into Moonlight Studios in the next hour or so. It's the calm before the storm at The Royal Pop-Up, a two-day event curated by Crown Royal Regal Apple and its creative director, streetwear designer extraordinaire Joe "Freshgoods" Robinson.

In the first room to the right, a crew of black, swagged-out mannequins stands tall in the middle of the room, rocking yellow hoodies, black and white tees, pants and bandanas etched in J-F-G, Crown Royal, and red apples. With the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend serving as the backdrop, fashion and basketball enthusiasts alike are set to get an exclusive glimpse of the limited-edition capsule collection, Royal APPLE GOODS, designed by Chicago native Freshgoods in collaboration with the Canadian whiskey brand.

Not too far away stands the DJ of the night, fellow creative and entrepreneur, Vic Lloyd, setting up his station as he prepares to set the musical energy for part of the day. To the left of him, a pair of workers in all-black prep the tote bags they'll be pressing with APPLE GOODS' design and logos. In another room to the far left, nail artists Tacarra "Spifster" Sutton and Slay Lewis are settling into their stations where they'll be taking manicure appointments to deck out the nails of anyone looking to add an extra flair to their fit. Two barber chairs are about 20 feet away for attendees down for a fresh cut or a quick line-up by the South Side's own Roger “Rodge” Williams of Raw Cutting Room.

Staying true to his hometown has always been Freshgoods' wave. While getting his feet wet as an intern at Leaders 1354 and working at Fashion Geek, he started his own apparel brand Don't Be Mad, eventually co-founded Fat Tiger Workshop with Lloyd and others, and caught the eye of major brands like adidas, McDonald's, New Era, and more. So it's no surprise that Freshgoods hand-selected some of his home city's top creators and makers to help make the pop-up experience that much more authentic and true to Chicago.

In the last room, friendly bartenders are preparing the Regal Apple Bar where specialty cocktails will be served in golden cups. On the opposite side, a sneaker cleaning station is ready to keep guests' kicks crispy, while two framed, Crown Royal Regal Apple-themed backdrops are perched in front of a brick wall, perfect for those looking to capture the moment in the form of a picture.

In an unused room in the back of the studio space sits Joe Freshgoods, relaxing on a black, plush couch, rocking the hoodie from the Royal APPLE GOODS collection, a pair of loose-fitted, tie-dye pants and his latest, sold-out New Balance 992 collaborative shoe. Despite the craziness that is All-Star Weekend and a jam-packed schedule of appearances and connecting with friends, Freshgoods is chill, present, and ready to chat about working with Crown Royal, Chicago’s underestimated fashion scene, his favorite '90s fashion trend and more.

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Tell us about the Royal Apple Goods capsule collection. What inspired the designs?

Royal Apple Goods was pretty much inspired by basketball, my love of lettering and a bit of my colorway. I wanted to make cool basketball merch. Just stuff that you can go to the gym in and rock. I just wanted to make it a dope basketball-themed collection.

We noticed that you decided to work with some fellow Chicagoans for different parts of this pop-up. Why was that important to you?

Oftentimes, when these big activations pop up in different cities, they never really tap into the community. It was pretty dope to be able to have my people around town who I collaborate with —a lot of the barbers, DJs, artists, nail techs, people that are moving and shaking in Chicago. Everybody that's working in each booth [at this event] is someone that people respect. I think if we're doing a project in a city as big as Chicago, you want guests and people to recognize, "Oh, that's [Spifster] the nail tech." Because a lot of these people are really booked. You don't often get to see these artists in one room at one time. Like Rodge, you’ve got to book him two weeks in advance. I know with Spif, she's booked six months in advance. It's rare to be in an area where you can just go from station to station, get merch from me, get your nails done by the hottest nail person, get your hair done, and listen to good tunes. It was just important to just tap in with the local community. It just made sense.

With your style mantra being "Clothes is art defined by the times," how do you define today's time in fashion?

I think for me, you hear that streetwear is dying and that it's always like a thing where I still thrive on the art of, "Oh, wow." I love merch related to a time, you know? Everybody that gets my merch today and tomorrow, it's going to be dope to say, "Yo, I went to this event that Joe helped put on, and he had merch."

I love making clothing like concert merch. That's my whole vibe. If I was a rapper that did a show in Chicago, this would be my merch for that show, you know? That's how I approach a lot of my products with different brands. This is what I wanted to do with Crown that made sense for the community. Right now, I've got the hottest shoes dropping today, but I'm doing something different with Crown Royal. I like to give some stuff away, so this feels good.

If you were to create say a retro '90s fit, what would that look like? What's Joe wearing from that decade?

I was always a fan of the Naughty By Nature overall. I don't know. I like that rugged Timberland...I just like that real rugged, man-man, streetwear look, you know? Obviously, I love to dress colorfully, but I've always been a fan of that construction worker wave of the early '90s. That was with all the sweatsuits and all. That's always been my wave. Yeah, real Treach, Naughty By Nature vibes.

In a recent interview, you mentioned how Chicago kind of plays the little sister to other cities and is often overlooked or left out in different ways. What do you think this week means for your home city when it comes to fashion, the culture, and everything?

I think this week is very important. When Chicago first got the news that there was going to be a very big basketball week, it was pretty dope. This is one of the first times since being a kid to have all these people from out of town here. Since I've been an adult, there hasn't been a Super Bowl here or anything. I don't know, and we had this big thing about Chicago where it's like, "Am I safe here?" But it's a beautiful city.

The Royal Pop Up was a vibe during #NBAAllStar weekend. Here's what you missed: https://t.co/etxoU0pPnp pic.twitter.com/gVS4nmmUHt

— Vibe Magazine (@VibeMagazine) February 20, 2020

I think it's one of the top food cities to me, in my opinion. Yes, it's a cold city, but it's pretty awesome to see all these events going on. All this positivity. Complex Con was here. That was big, but this is bigger. It's so cool to see all my peers doing their projects, and everybody supporting each other. There's no beef. Everybody's about community. It feels good. With this big basketball weekend, I'm glad so many people are getting to experience Chicago for the first time like this.

It's insane and to imagine the last time All-Star Weekend was here a little over 30 years ago? It's a sigh of relief for Chicago to be a city of attraction where people are comfortably out and about versus being in Cali or Los Angeles.

Exactly.

With the NBA All-Star game set to honor the late Kobe Bryant, what’s one of your favorite memories of Kobe?

Kobe was so serious on the court. He performed to the highest level. Every time he stepped off the court, and you saw Kobe in commercials, it was like whoa. I was always a big fan of his commercials, especially the one with Kanye. When he was dancing with Tony Hawk...it was always dope to see that, "Oh, he’s human," even though he was a shark on the court.

Every time Kobe would just make people laugh. In certain in-game moments, he would dance a little bit. He was so stern on the court, but every time Kobe showed personality, every time he was a comedian, it was just funny because it was coming from Kobe.

As a man of many talents, can we expect you to indulge in any other endeavors? What's next? Joe Freshgoods: The Movie? 

Not yet (laughs). I'm really just trying to expand the brand. Right now, I'm building a really great team. I think teamwork is so key to movement. For so long, I was so used to doing things myself, but within the last three, four years of just having a team, it's felt like there are endless possibilities. I'm just kind of expanding. I'm really big on pop-up shops. It's something that I've honed in on as my thing, being able to connect with different communities across the world. I kind of want to get bigger at that. That's the goal for the next few years is to just kind of expand on these pop-up moments, and make them live a little longer in different cities.

What inspired you to take the pop-up shop route with your brand?

It's pretty simple. It's like the Master P formula when it comes to going from state to state selling your mixtape as opposed to having your mixtape in Target, or Best Buy, or in Sam Goody. For example, I could make more money going to New Orleans. No brand ever goes to New Orleans to show love. But with me, I pull up with my team, we do a pop-up in NOLA and actually get to touch the community.

Traditional retail is kind of dying in the sense of going to New York and opening up a big store. That whole model is changing to the point where now I can go to a certain area and pop-up for five days, and do well, go to L.A. and then go to Houston, you know? With that formula, a lot of brands can't do that, but I can and I'm going to keep doing it.

Lastly, if the Royal APPLE GOODS collection had an accompanying playlist, what three songs would be on it?

Ooh, that's a really good one. Aw, man. The Bulls theme song (“Sirius” by the Alan Parson's Project). That's one, that's just a vibe right there. Man, I need a toxic Future song (laughs) Okay, "March Madness" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile." Yeah, I like that.

Additional reporting by Obehi Imarenezor

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Scotch Porter

Scotch Porter Founder Calvin Quallis Talks New Haircare Line, Self Care Beyond Products

Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts  in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.

This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.

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VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?

Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.

VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?

I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.

VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?

At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.

 

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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. ⁠With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 11, 2020 at 10:01am PST

VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching. 

We’re launching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.

VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?

I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.

VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?

Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.

VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.

It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.

VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.

Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.

 

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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:55pm PST

VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?

On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.

VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?

One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.

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