Since breaking out with Rihanna’s 2007 smash hit, “Umbrella,” five-time Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Kuk Harrell has worked with some of the industry’s top voices, including Beyonce, Usher, Celine Dion, Shakira, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, among others. It’s hard to believe that the musical savant was once making ends meet by holding down a job at McDonald’s. Together with the fast food chain, Harrell has partnered for the “Where You Want to Be” campaign in which he’ll mentor a young employee interested in pursuing the entertainment business. Variety spoke to Harrell about how he made it.
You grew up in Chicago singing in the church. Is there a gospel song you sang as a child that sticks with you today? “Amazing Grace.” That was an impactful record as a kid growing up, and it’s really impactful now as an adult and having a full understanding of what that song means, and what grace means.
What led you getting a job at McDonalds as a kid?
I was graduating high school and knew I was musically gifted to play guitar and play drums. I wanted to pursue a career in music but people always say you got to have something to fall back on. Success isn’t guaranteed in the music industry so for me, I was, like, let me do something that I know I can make a schedule and make money. My mom said to go down to McDonald’s and get a job. So I did. When I started working, I saw it was more than just making money — it was about responsibility and teamwork, and I really got into it. Management saw that and end up promoting me. All of the things I learned there I still use. They groomed me into the entrepreneur I am now.
You specialize in vocal production — what drew you to that field specifically?
That I could be a part of creating a performance that will live on forever.
Can you share a bit about working with Cardi B on her recent album? How did you help her grow musically?
Though I only worked on two songs on the album, this was Cardi’s first time singing on a record, and, due to my expertise, her label wanted me to be the one to usher her into this new realm. It’s about instilling confidence in an artist to get the desired results. It was incredible having Cardi sing and know that we were breaking new ground.
You could say the same of your work with Rihanna?
When I produced Rihanna’s vocal on “Umbrella,” which I co-wrote, that was my first time meeting her. It was a moment that changed my life and the music landscape in a powerful way. [Since then], she’s become a real sharp shooter. She knows what she wants and what’s right for her!
Is there another instance where you felt an especially strong connection with an artist?
One that comes to mind is Justin Bieber. Justin was 14 when I began producing his vocals. Though he was a naturally good singer, he grew to be an amazing vocalist, and in turn my vocal production got even better. When it’s a team effort you always come out with magic.
With talent in general, how do you help them through the process?
My main objective is to have fun in the process. My philosophy is that we are blessed by God to make a living at doing what we do l, so if it’s not enjoyable, I don’t want to do it. Not to say that there won’t be difficult times in the studio but they all shouldn’t be a struggle or a grind. The second thing I like to impress is the balance of life. We don’t have to kill ourselves working to make music. Live your life. Spend time with your family, do other things. Don’t just live in the studio. Don’t box yourself in to having regrets about spending time with family because once those moments are gone, you’ll never get them back.
Who is at the top of their game as far as songwriters or producers?
A producer at the top of his game is DJ Camper. He wrote and produced nine songs on the H.E.R album that just won Best R&B at this year’s Grammys!
Where do you stand on women’s struggle to get more work and recognition in the music business?
I am all about workplace equality, and in fact, I work alongside women every day in every facet of my career. This includes my management team, my protege Simone Torres (vocal producer/engineer) and working for some of the top A&R and creative talent themselves. I know it’s still a struggle for females in the industry, and change can be slow, and I am proud to be a part of supporting total inclusion because we are all winning in the end. These talented individuals are a part of being able to create culture.
What advice would you give to your 17 year-old self?
To not give in to anxiety, and to believe in the path you’re pursuing. It took me a long time to get to the point where I was comfortable with my path and not buying into someone else’s. Figure out who you are as a person. Be the best Kuk Harrell you can be.