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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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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Courtesy of Level.com

Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.

 

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