Kuk Harrell's Experience As Rihanna's Vocal Producer Will Inspire You To Work Harder – EXCLUSIVE
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When you think about Rihanna's music, you're mostly just thinking about Rihanna. Behind-the-scenes work doesn't typically cross the mind when you're bopping along to "This Is What You Came For." But have you ever stopped to think about who's behind the scenes of some of her greatest hits? Rihanna is basically a hit factory, after all, with 14 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. One of the people helping Rihanna get to that success is vocal producer Kuk Harrell, and Kuk Harrell's comments about working with Rihanna are so validating for all of you RiRi stans out there (which, let's be real, should be all of us, at this point).
Kuk Harrell and Rihanna have been making music together for 10 years. He tells Elite Daily he's one of those producers who happily stays behind the scenes of the music creation process, loving his place as someone who's responsible for setting the emotional tone of a recording session, on top of coaching the best work out of the artists he works with. He says that fame has never been something he was vying for — that letting the artist stay in the spotlight while he gets to do what he loves brings him all the joy he needs.
There’s nothing about her that isn’t authentic.
As a vocal producer, his role in the studio is to get the best vocal takes out of the singer as possible. Songs are rarely recorded in one take — it's usually a bunch of separate takes spliced together to make one big piece of magic. It's his job to essentially get to know his artists well enough to know what their voices are capable of and have the ear to know what kind of vocals a song needs and where. And Harrell's gotten it down to a science, as his five Grammy wins can attest to.
After years of getting to know some of the world's most popular singers, Harrell can attest to the fact that the whole, "celebrities — they're just like us!" line is true.
"As consumers, we build them up to be a to have a certain aura," Harrell says, "but you realize that they’re regular people. They’re amazing, regular people. They do everything just like everybody else, but they have this extraordinary gift."
Without even knowing it, you've been bopping to Harrell's work for a while. He worked on Rihanna's "Umbrella," Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," tracks from Justin Bieber's Believe album, Ariana Grande's My Everything, DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller's "Wild Thoughts," and more. Most recently, he was the vocal producer on Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy, which just won Best Rap Album at the Grammys.
I’ve always said in a lot of interviews that some of the best training that a young person could get would be from McDonald's.
The New York Times once described his job in the music studio as "part vocal coach, part cheerleader, part sound engineer, part therapist." Speaking on the phone with him, it's clear where the NY Times got that therapist vibe. The man radiates positive energy even over the phone. And he credits his success in the music industry to the first job he ever had: a crew member at McDonald's.
In his hometown of Chicago, Harrell first spent a few years as a crew member and then worked his way up to a management position for another couple of years.
"I’ve always said in a lot of interviews that some of the best training that a young person could get would be from McDonald's," he says. That McDonald's experience has come full circle, as he recently worked with the fast food company on its "Where You Want To Be" campaign.
As part of the campaign, he took current McDonald's employee Ayana Lea to his studio for a day so she could shadow his work. Lea, who wants to work in the music industry one day, got a firsthand look at what it's like to be a vocal producer, and she and Harrell also met with Harrell's former manager at McDonald's, according to a press release about the campaign.
Harrell says he wouldn't be a successful producer if it weren't for the skills he learned during his time at McDonald's.
"The biggest thing I picked up from all that training was the systems of how to be consistent — make things consistent to lead to success." I guess that's what happened with Rihanna, as they've consistently made hit after hit together over the years.
He tells me that having created so much top-charting work together over the years has brought the two of them very close.
"When you realize that for 10 years you can capture lightning in a bottle, consistently creating things that everyone around the world loves, that brings a closeness," he says. I mean, fair.
And he knows that her success is largely to do with the fact that "there’s nothing about her that isn’t authentic."
"She is the absolute coolest person that you could ever encounter," Harrell says, affirming all of my RiRi dreams. "I think that’s why everybody across the board loves her because they can tell that she’s authentic."
Their performance is the thing that’s going to live on forever.
I ask him if he's ever had an awkward moment with the singer in their years of working together, and without missing a beat, he says, "Nope! None," and laughs. He says he and Rihanna have worked together for so long now that studio days with her are some of the easiest he has because they already have a long-established flow.
But every time he works with a new artist, he says the biggest challenge is figuring out how to inspire them.
"What the job is as a vocal producer is to make sure that I inspire people so that we can get the best performance out of them," he says. "Their performance is the thing that’s going to live on forever."
He continues, "Every time I go in the studio with an artist — even if it’s with the same artist for weeks straight — every single day it’s a different experience, so I have to be an empty canvas to make sure that I’m able to connect with them right where they are at that moment."
And while he says it's the people skills he learned from his McDonald's training that helps him connect with artists, what's really the most important is that he's self-aware and focused. Because he can't get that kind of energy out of singers if he doesn't lead by example.
He says, "The biggest challenge for me is just making sure that I’m looking at me — that I keep my focus on making sure that I’m an empty canvas so that I can meet the artists exactly where they are to be able to make them feel comfortable. It’s hard ... to look at yourself and make sure that your ego isn’t in the way."
Harrell says he gets to the studio two hours before the artist for every session. He gets himself comfortable, he makes sure the mic and all of the other needed equipment is working, and he works on himself so he can set the tone of the whole day. Then the rest is music magic.