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.
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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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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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.”
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This was truly an overwhelming moment! My First week back to work and @badgalriri captured this pic which I will cherish forever!🙏🏽❤️ I want to say thank you & I love you to @badgalriri and our whole team/family for being there for me with open arms, love and amazing celebration as I got back in The Chair!! I love you guys and we makin 🔥 and history!!!
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)