Last March, vocal producer Kuk Harrell held a six-hour virtual session in Los Angeles with his engineer in Atlanta to figure out a remote way to record and produce vocals. They played around with various plug-ins, Facetime and AnyDesk software, and combined everything into a ProTools session. Harrell could then ship a recording kit with a microphone, headphones, stand, MacBook, and audio interface to wherever the recording artists are, walk them through the installment, and recreate what would’ve normally taken place in a recording booth.
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Because COVID-19 forced so many recording studios to shut down indefinitely, the five-time Grammy winner was determined to not let the pandemic put him completely out of business. In fact, Harrell, who owns a recording studio, Paradise Sound, in Los Angeles, says his business actually doubled once word got around about his innovative recording technique.
“In the last 10 minutes [of that meeting], we hit it,” the upbeat Golden Globe nominee remembers. “Nothing has slowed down for me. I’d been thinking for over a year there was a way to produce remotely with all of the technology we have. As long as we have a solid wifi connection, then we’re good.”
Harrell, 55, is one of the music industry’s most sought-after yet inconspicuous talents. As a vocal producer, he vibes in sessions with the performers to get a better sense of how they want to convey their energy on records. His optimistic, easy going demeanor encourages the artists to bring their personalities to their vocals.
Rihanna has called on Harrell for every project (sans 2009’s Rated R LP) since her 2007 chart topper “Umbrella.” Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Usher, Sting, Mariah Carey, Chris Brown, Celine Dion, Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, and Justin Bieber are just some of the A-list clientele that have called on Harrell to push them towards their best selves on wax. Now that he’s primarily producing artists from his home in Florida, Harrell says his formula for drawing good performances in the studio hasn’t altered one bit.
“The relationship between a vocal producer and the artist is really an intimate thing,” he said. “I’m there to draw and create excitement. The artists can still feel that energy on Facetime. My goal is to take what they do as artists and we work together to create magic as opposed to me just pushing buttons on the console.”
The Chicago native born Thaddis Laphonia Harrell grew up a studio rat along with his cousins, producers Laney and Tricky Stewart. They watched and studied their mothers and aunts up close record commercial jingles beside their uncle, late composer Morris “Butch” Stewart. Starting out playing guitar and drums in his teens, Harrell began to produce his own ad tunes.
“We’ve always been around music,” says Harrell, who owns a record label, Suga Wuga Music, “so it was a natural thing knowing that this was what we wanted to do.”
So Harrell and his cousins moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to try their luck as producers. They booked minor session work, but Harrell became increasingly impatient with the pace of landing his big break. “Things would get to a place where they were about to blow up, and nothing ever really blew up,” he said. “I was getting tired of that process because it wasn’t fulfilling and not fun. We spent all of these hours in the studio with all of these artists. It was a grind more than anything.”
Now feeling the pressures of being a family man, Harrell became the first youth worship leader for the Christian Assembly in Eagle Rock, California. He stayed in that job for 12 years, but at times still felt unfulfilled.
“God didn’t want me to be in a place where I was born to chase down gold records, Grammys and artists,” the deeply spiritual arranger and engineer said. “I’d done it my way for so long and hadn’t gotten anywhere, so I dove into that moment of letting God open doors for me, and I took it to heart.”
Another lifestyle change came calling. Harrell moved to Atlanta in 2005 to reunite with his cousins, Mark and Tricky Stewart, whose company, Red Zone Entertainment, started landing a slew of song placements with various artists. They met Terius “The-Dream” Nash shortly after Harrell moved and began actively collaborating together.
After “Umbrella” became a monster hit two years later, all of their phones, especially Harrell’s, wouldn’t stop ringing.
“It was magical going into the studio as a blank canvas with no expectations other than being creative,” the pancreatic cancer survivor said. “That’s the foundation; just let it happen. You just go in, let the spirit and vibes move with the intention of coming away with something finished, but the bottom line is letting it flow. It’s scary, but once something starts, I’m coming away with something.”
The success of “Umbrella” also marked the beginning of Harrell’s and Rihanna’s professional relationship. “I just love going in there being the best that I can be, and we feed directly off of each other’s energy,” he said. “I follow her lead with what it is she wants to do, and I take what she wants to do, mold it, we shape it together, and we’re fortunate that it wins all of the time.”
“I’m the fortunate guy with the ability to have my life connected to her career,” adds Harrell. “I’m good at what I do, but she is absolutely phenomenal and off the charts with what she does. We both truly see it as we’re blessed to be on this ride together. I told her directly before that I am so grateful and fortunate to produce the swaggiest female artist in the game for over 10 years now. It’s extremely humbling.”
Harrell’s passion to inspire the next generation of talent remains constant. Prior to his cancer diagnosis in 2017, his nonprofit, Kuk Harrell Foundation, frequently hosted workshops and clinics in metro Atlanta schools to expose young people to various career opportunities in the music business. He continues to develop and groom aspiring vocal producers under his company, KORE Management.
Rather than emphasizing the latest technology or software program, Harrell likes to drive home one basic principle with the producers. “Understand the value of relationships for the artists and people you’re doing business with, how to talk to people, and notice their reactions,” he warns.
“This generation is so social media driven. Everybody wants to be famous, known, or want people to think they’re ballin’. They don’t know how to interact, have conversations, or look you in your eyes. If you can’t have a conversation with somebody, don’t even think about trying to produce them in a way to get passion and emotion from them.”
Harrell continues, “Value your journey and the people on that journey, so that when you do get there, people know they can trust you,” he said. “I’m proud that I still love what I do and I’ve been able to create careers for so many other people.”
Harrell is in the process of cutting records for singer Normani, K-pop act Monsta X, and boy band Why Don’t We. He’s also curating a playlist for TIDAL that will feature his entire production discography accompanied with stories behind each song.
Selective now more than ever about the projects he takes on, Harrell believes curating the playlist reinforces how fortunate he is to have a successful career in the music business despite the constant, abrupt changes.
“I don’t think about it everyday, but I’m in the moment all the time,” Harrell said. “Once those moments are gone, I just like moving on to the next.”