Thaddis "Kuk" Harrell Credit: Angela Morris

Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell is one of the music industry’s preeminent vocal producers, in charge of coaxing unforgettable studio performances out of top-tier stars. He compares his process to a therapy session—to capture distinctive, compelling performances, he has to connect with musicians and dig into their emotional cores. Harrell has a gift for doing this, to judge by his resumé—it reads like a who’s who of the Top 40. He’s worked with Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Mary J. Blige, Jessie J, and Celine Dion, and he has prominent credits on every Rihanna album since 2010’s Loud.

Born in Chicago in 1964, Harrell grew up drumming and singing in a church choir, and he’s been a voracious music fan from an early age. Aside from his work with vocalists, he’s also an accomplished songwriter and engineer. He cowrote Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” cowrote and produced Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and earned a Golden Globe nomination for cowriting the Avatar theme song, “I See You” (sung by Leona Lewis). Harrell has won five Grammys, including one for his work with Beyoncé (Song of the Year for “Single Ladies” in 2010) and three for his work with Rihanna: Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for “Umbrella” in 2008, Best Dance Recording for “Only Girl (In the World)” in 2011, and Best Urban Contemporary Album for Unapologetic in 2014. More recently, he’s worked on two number one records: the 2015 self-titled LP from a cappella darlings Pentatonix and Rihanna’s Anti—an album he calls “groundbreaking” for her. “She had complete freedom creatively, and it shows,” he says. “It’s a great body of work.”

Harrell owes much of his success to his tight-knit musical family, who encouraged creative collaborations. His cousin is songwriter and producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, whose own impressive career includes work with Mya, Ciara, Mariah Carey, and Britney Spears; his mother and aunt sang in Chicago vocal group Kitty & the Haywoods, who backed Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield (among others) and in 1977 released an LP called Love Shock produced by the Ohio Players. Harrell lived in Chicago proper till fourth grade, then moved to Calumet City; he later lived in Evanston for a few years before heading to Los Angeles at age 26. After many years in LA—where his activities included serving as a children’s worship leader for a church called Christian Assembly—Harrell relocated to Atlanta in the mid-2000s.

For this Q&A (which has been edited for length and clarity), I spoke to Harrell as he was returning home after a rare week off, relaxing in Florida after Anti‘s release. His 2016 is already shaping up to be busy—he has a book deal, he’s working with Jessie J, and he’s mentoring a Netherlands-­based songwriting team called DFRNS (aka Hidde Huijsman and Massimo Cacciapuoti). Harrell also says he’s looking to connect with new talent using the hashtag #kukharrellswhosnext on Instagram (@officialkukharrell) and Twitter (@kukharrell).

Annie Zaleski: Were there any specific differences working on Anti compared to Rihanna’s previous albums?

Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell: Just her being more involved creatively was the biggest difference. She’s always involved from her side, as an artist. But musically, creatively, she really wanted to drive the direction of the album. I think that’s why she called the album Anti—she wanted to do something completely different than everybody else. Because we’re in a cookie-­cutter time of music. Every record that everybody does is a record that somebody else could’ve done, if that makes sense. It’s so awesome that she just stepped out and was courageous enough to stick to that and be that and do that.

When you were giving vocal direction, how was Anti different?

We’re always working on it together, but this time she was really meticulous about every line that we sang. Before—not saying that she wasn’t involved, but before, we would cut the record, and then I would comp it and put everything together. Then she would come in and listen and change a few things and go, “I want it to be like this.”

But this particular album, she was really, really specific about every single line. If there was anything that she heard that she felt wasn’t perfection in her eyes, she wanted to change. It was a lot, and I respect that. It’s hard, because I want to work quick and get stuff done and make it excellent, but now she’s like, “Listen, let’s up the quality level.” Let’s make sure we have the emotion, and make sure it’s a masterpiece. That was the mind-set for this one. You know, the other albums, they were, “Yeah, let’s make a great album.” But this time it was like, “Let’s make a masterpiece—a great body of work.” That was a big switch-up for me, and a point of growth.

It must have been inspiring working with an artist who wants to push herself. When I work with people who are in that mind-set, it pushes me as well.

Absolutely. A lot of people, if you’ve gotten to a point to where you’ve won awards, and you’ve got five Grammys, there’s a tendency—it’s easy, it’s just in human nature to get complacent or not push as hard. But with this particular album, it really taught me to keep pushing—that it’s OK to keep pushing and keep getting better, and not just rely on the fact that we’ve gotten awards before. It’s like we want to win the Super Bowl all the time.

How did you originally get into vocal production? What drew you to that aspect of the studio and recording?

My mom and her sister were background vocalists doing commercials, and they did records and sang backgrounds for Aretha Franklin and people like that. I was in the choir. My aunt was a choir director. We grew up in church, singing in choirs and stuff like that, so vocals have always been really dear to me, something that I love. I love harmonies. And then I also grew up watching my uncle produce jingles in Chicago. Me and my cousins used to call him a vocal master. He just had this ability to put together harmonies and make the vocals sound like instruments. That was a thing that sparked for me.

Then fast-forward to 2005, when I moved down to Atlanta with my cousin, Tricky Stewart. We decided to get back together and write. We all grew up together, but we had gotten to a point where we were really making it professional, making it our gig. I moved to Atlanta and we set our system up just like an assembly line, based on the example of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, how they used to work back in the day. Jimmy would do the tracks; Terry would do the vocals and the melodies and the lyrics. Then once they got the record done, they would give it to their engineer, Steve Hodge, and he would mix everything. It was an assembly line. We decided to set up our thing like that. Tricky was like, “Would you cut the vocals?” and I was like, “Absolutely. It’s no big deal.” I had been doing it for a long time, just practicing and all that kind of stuff.

Because we wrote so many records in that first year of me moving to Atlanta, it just became a thing where I got really good at making sure I caught passion on the performance and the notes. Tricky was extremely instrumental in teaching me the difference between making a demo and turning a demo into a record. That’s when you start looking into the passion in the vocals, because the vocal is the most important part of the record.

What exactly does being a vocal producer entail? What do you actually do in the studio?

As the vocal producer, I’m responsible for the performance that lives on for a lifetime. Creating, crafting, recording the vocal performance from the artist that lives forever. [Laughs.] That starts with listening to the record if it’s already demoed, listening to the record with the artist and going, “OK, we need to capture exactly what that demo is.” The artist goes into the booth, and we start from the beginning of the record, and then I’m coaching them as to whether or not they’re really getting it. “Sing a little more passionate here, or sing it louder here, or softer here, or make it sound like you’re mad when you’re singing this part.” It’s everything that it takes to make the vocals an emotional ride for the listener.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The most challenging part for my job as vocal producer is probably just always being in a mode where it’s not about me as an individual. If I’m cutting an entire album with an artist, even though we have a great relationship . . . we can take Rihanna, for instance. Just because we have a great day and a great moment right now doesn’t mean that we’re going to have the exact same kind of moment tomorrow. The superstars, they’re definitely in the moment, but they’re so busy. They have so many different things pulling at them, so depending on how close you are with them, it can kind of seem like, “Oh man, we’re buddies today,” and it’s like, “No, we’re not buddies. We have a job to do, first and foremost.”

To be a successful vocal producer, number one you have to be selfless—see yourself, and go into every situation, as an open canvas. It’s not my job to make them sound like me. It’s not my job to make them act like me. The only thing is just me saying, “Man, let’s get that.” The only time I can really shape and craft who they are and what they sound like is when they’re in the booths.

And not every personality type is cut out to play that role in the studio.

Absolutely not. I run into it all the time. I’ve had instances where I use engineers, and they sit in the room with me for a session or two, and then I find out a week later that they’re like, “Oh man, I can produce vocals.” They’re calling themselves vocal producers. I’m like, “No, you’re not.” First of all, it’s more than a notion. I’m not saying that to be a jerk, but the thing is, first of all, you have to have so much patience. Secondly, you have to be a people person. You have to know how to read people, because as the artist is in the booth, they go through so many different emotions. This is probably the second-­most vulnerable time in their life, or in their day, when they’re in the booth. I’m the only one that gets to hear how they sound when they’re warming up, when they sing bad notes. So they have to get extremely comfortable with me, and just feel like I’m with them no matter what. Like, “This is my guy, he’s not judging me.” That’s why it’s such a big deal when people get isolated vocals from the studio leaked or something like that. People go, “Man, listen to how he really sounds,” you know what I mean?

Out of all the studio projects you’ve done, which stand out to you as particularly memorable?

Number one, obviously, this Rihanna album [Anti], because it is such a body of work. The whole mind-set. The records that stick out for me the most are when we went into it thinking, “Let’s just do great work. Let’s not chase radio. We’re not trying to get radio hits. We’re not trying to make sure that we can have a song that anybody could sing.” So that’s what Anti is. Let’s just do good work, because we love doing what we do, and we get to make music to it.

Pentatonix’s album was completely creative—it wasn’t based on radio airplay, all that kind of stuff, although the label came to me. These records stick out for me, because even though that’s not the motive from the artist’s standpoint, we want the airplay and the notoriety and the pop culture to accept it. But there’s a thing inside where we have to turn that off and just be creative. That’s what happened with Pentatonix.

The Justin Bieber album, Believe, is very memorable. When I was the music supervisor for his film [Justin Bieber: Never Say Never]—extremely memorable. Obviously, first and foremost, it would be “Umbrella,” being a cowriter and producer of that record. And then “Single Ladies”—winning the Grammys for those. I would say every record that I’ve won Grammys for. [Laughs.]

“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” are obviously two of the biggest pop singles of the past decade. When you were in the studio working on them and writing them, was there a sense that they were going to be massive?

The only one was “Single Ladies.” That was after “Umbrella.” With “Umbrella,” we just had the sense of, “This is special. We love this. This is a special record.” It sounded different than anything that was on the radio at that time, and that’s what we were excited about. I don’t think Tricky or The-Dream—none of us [who wrote the song] knew exactly what it was going to turn into. That’s just not possible, because it’s not a formula. That’s the beautiful thing about it. We just knew that it was a special song, and we did our best on it. Then when it turned into what it turned into, we were like, “Whoa, this is mind-blowing.”

It was a phenomenon. And that’s important to point out, because there’s this tendency for people to want to say, “Pop music is a formula, and here’s what you need to do to get hits.” And that’s not true. You never know.

Not at all. You really don’t. There’s a part of that that is true—and it’s a bad thing, because that’s why music is in the state that it’s in right now. You can have a record that this person could cut, but these other two artists could cut it as well—the cookie-­cutter mode. We’re in that mode right now where everybody . . . you know how when disco was out, everybody did disco? Everybody did those records. That was a formula. But then you had Prince break out and do something, and it was just like, “What?” You had Prince. Then you had Madonna coming out. Then you had Janet Jackson coming out. You had Michael [Jackson] doing what he did. These are people who were doing stuff completely different than what everybody else was doing—all the disco shit. [Laughs.]

That’s the beautiful thing about where we are right now. It really spoke to me, watching Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. And her record coming out. We have people that are stepping out now, like Rihanna, taking that type of stance and going, “I don’t want to make what everybody else is making. I want to make what I want to make. I know my fans will love it because my fans are loyal to me, but if everybody else loves it, great. If they don’t, at least I know, as an artist, I’ve done what I want to do.” As opposed to what the label wants them to do, and the program directors, and the one guy that controls all the radio right now.

Absolutely. It’s hard almost to listen to the radio sometimes. You’re like, “Oh, it’s the same 20 songs, and they all sound the same.”

Exactly. It is extremely hard. People trip out if they get into the car with me and they go, “Man, I wonder, what does he listen to?” And they hear the same records I listen to: Huey Lewis, Steely Dan, and Fleetwood Mac. Anything classic rock, that’s what I’m listening to. That goes into what I grew up listening to—Earth, Wind & Fire. I mean, I listened to everything. I spent my young years just listening to music. That’s all I did. And I listened to such a vast array of music: Kiss, rock, Van Halen, all that stuff.

It gave me a great toolbox of colors. That’s how I see it when I’m producing vocals. It’s like I have an amazing toolbox of sonic colors that I sprinkle over all the records. It can be very simple things; it can be complex harmonies. But you definitely hear it, notice it, and get affected by it. That’s one of the shortages—I don’t know if that’s the right way of saying it—but one of the shortcomings that a lot of up-and-­coming producers have right now [is that] a lot of people didn’t grow up loving and appreciating and learning music. They came into the game where, first of all, they didn’t learn music in school, because all the music programs are gone in schools. So now what they do is they’ve got a sampler, and their entrance into the game was sampling music and figuring out how to create melodies and stuff on top of that. After a while, that’s very limited.

There’s a Steely Dan in-the-­studio DVD, and you watch them go through how they constructed their music. And it’s fascinating, because the music sounds so effortless, but there’s a lot of thought and deliberate action that went into that.

Absolutely, and you can definitely tell the difference. And that’s what I’m doing right now. I’ve signed some writers out of [the Netherlands], and [I’m] just really grooming these guys to tap into being musical again. Not two-bar phrases on a loop—it’s like, let’s do chord progressions. Because that’s what “Umbrella” was. And “Umbrella” really changed the game in music. It changed how people approached making a pop song.

So, Kitty & the Haywoods—is that the group featuring your mother and aunt?

Yeah, it sure is. My mom was Vivian. Kitty was her sister, who was my aunt, and Mary Ann is their sister. Later on, my sister sang with them. They were the number one background singers in Chicago that sang on all the radio [and] TV. They did general-­market spots, as well as all of the black spots with Burrell. They were there in the beginning of the Burrell advertising company. And this is how we all came into the game. They knew a guy named Charles Stepney, who was from Chicago, who produced Earth, Wind & Fire. [Stepney] was co­writer on “Reasons” and “That’s the Way of the World” with Maurice [White], and he was the person that actually got all of my entire family in the music industry. Our family’s history in Chicago as music people is ridiculous.

Kitty & the Haywoods backed up a lot of Chicago soul artists and worked on a Curtis Mayfield record, right?

Yeah. There were tons of commercials. It’s interesting because my cousin, who partners with me on my management team, him and his wife came and spent some time with us here on vacation. And we talked about that, like, “Listen, we have to capture and tell the story of what our family’s musical legacy is.” We just have to do it, first and foremost, for our kids and for their kids. But also for encouragement for people from Chicago who want to do the same thing that we’re doing, and see that it can actually happen, and see that it can happen in a family way. Not just Kanye or R. Kelly, solo artists, but it’s like we’re a team of people. When we left Chicago, it was a group of us. We’re all cousins. It was me; my cousin Laney [Stewart], who was the first one to really do records out of our generation; his brother Mark; his brother Tricky; and then our wives, which were our girlfriends at that time. We had like seven other people that were working with us and believed in what we were doing. We all packed up three trucks and six cars and hit the road from Chicago to LA.

Was it sort of a foregone conclusion that you were going to go into music?

Absolutely, because we grew up around it. Our whole family, that’s what they did. Music was our family, so I knew from the beginning that I would be doing music. I never knew for sure that the success that I have now was going to be what it is, but I knew that I was going to do music, and in the back of my heart hoped and prayed for success. And fortunately, it came. Most of the time, it just doesn’t happen. You have extremely talented people who never, ever see that type of . . . first of all, they can’t even get in the game, but then they never see real success.

Did growing up in Chicago shape you as a musician and the way you approach music?

Absolutely. Growing up you could go downtown and see live musicians. My uncles, at the time, they were session musicians, so they played on so many general-market spots. But they also had a band, and they’re still in existence today—they’re called the Chicago Catz. They would go downtown and play at the Back Room and all these different places. You could go down and see live jazz and live bands doing stuff. So that influenced us.

And having the ability to go in the studio and see commercials being written by my uncle, and then seeing him try to go and do records and stuff like that—that shaped us. That really let us know that there’s more than just records. When I was at home in my downtime, I listened to records. But having those other things let me know that music is a business. You don’t have to just try to write the next pop record—you can go into doing jingles. You can be a studio musician.

What else are you working on now?

Let’s see. The next project I’m probably working on is Jessie J, her next album—we’re starting with that. I don’t know exactly when, but that’s the next thing on the board. I have a book deal. I’m writing a book—a tutorial, a how to do what it is I do. The biggest skill set that you need is being a people person, so I’m tying it together with life skills. Eighty-five percent of what I do with the artist is all psychological. The music stuff is simple. But everything else . . . sometimes people go, “Man, you’re like a psychologist.” Like, yeah, that’s true, because the goal is to make sure that [artists] feel comfortable. That’s the main goal in the whole thing. And then we’ll get the music stuff. The music’s easy because that’s just what we do.

As you were describing what you do as a vocal producer, that’s exactly what came to my mind, that it’s almost like a psychologist. You have to make an instant connection and get to an emotional place. That’s not easy to do.

Yeah, especially when you’ve never met the artist before. A lot of my sessions are like that. Some years ago, I had to produce Sting on a song. He was on tour when the Police had done their reunion tour, and they were in Boston. They were like, “Well, we want you to come cut this record on Sting. He only has three hours, so you’ve got to get him. What you get is what you get. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it.” And I’m like, “All right, whatever.”

I’d never met him before. It’s easy to get caught up in, “Oh my God, this is Sting! Oh my God, I’m working with Sting. He’s Sting!” He got into the booth and started singing, and I was going, “Let’s get that one more time, you’re a little sharp. You’re a little flat—one more time for the pocket.” And the assistant that was in the room with me, he’s like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’re telling Sting that he’s out of pocket.” And every now and then Sting would snicker on the mike. After we got done, he’s like, “Man, this is awesome. Nobody’s ever told me that I was out of pocket or I was sharp. Thank you so much.” That’s what it is, and that’s what I mean by being an empty canvas. It’s not about who they are as an artist or anything like that. It’s about getting a great performance and a great job done every single time.

What is it about what you do and your personality that makes people want to come back and continue working with you?

I would say number one is my musical skill set. My knowledge of music. Not music artistry-wise, but my knowledge of notes and harmonies. And then the second thing—the confidence. Because I know that I know music and know harmonies and stuff like that. I don’t read music, but I just know what feels right, and I know what’s supposed to go together. It’s the confidence that I bring to that. And then it’s the comfort level that I help get them to. As well as we get it done in a timely fashion. That’s the most important part. We’re not in there messing around going, “All right, well, let’s just vibe on it” or “Let’s smoke a little bit” or “Let’s have a couple drinks and get at it.” It’s like, “No, this is a job, let’s go. You’ve got shit to do, I’ve got shit to do.” [Laughs.]

You’ve signed these writers from [the Netherlands]. What’s the biggest difference for you, playing that mentor role with them? What is the approach you’re taking?

It’s actually just passing on the exact same skill set that I have to create more of who I am and the people that I work with in the industry, as opposed to continually just watching beat guys be created in the industry and then call themselves record producers. I guess the way I can explain that is: You have anybody that has an Instagram page and can record a song in their bedroom, and they think that they’re an artist. Or all of a sudden they go, “Man, I’m in the record industry.” No, you’re not. It took years to learn what I’ve learned. The biggest goal in the mentoring thing is giving back. Giving back and sharing the wisdom that I have, so that there’s more great producers in the world—as opposed to just a bunch of beat guys, and then all we’re doing is the whole cookie-­cutter thing again.

Like you said before, people are coming up in a very different way. They weren’t listening to all sorts of diverse records. Or they see someone on Instagram and they’re like, “I can do that.” They’re not actually taking the time. There’s homework. It’s hard work.

Yeah. Absolutely. You’ll say something like, “Quincy did so-and-so,” and they go, “Who is that?” And I’m going, “Are you kidding me? How do you not know who Quincy Jones is? Or L.A. and Babyface? How do you not know that L.A. Reid used to be a songwriter—a part of one of the biggest songwriting teams in the game? How do you not know Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis history? How do you not know who David Bowie is?” You know what I’m saying?

If someone told me, “I don’t know who Quincy Jones is,” I wouldn’t even know how to react to that.

Yep. Get out of the studio and go learn. Exactly. That’s part of what my process is. I have an artist right now that I’m developing, and it’s the same thing. It’s just passing on that wisdom. When I say certain things to them, and they give me an answer, I go, “All right, we’re not cutting any records until I know that you understand what it is you’re shooting for. There’s no way you’re going to be an artist if you don’t understand what it means to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go do a radio interview and then have to go and get on a stage two hours later. For 60 days in a row.” v

Correction: This story has been amended to properly reflect Harrell’s year of birth.