Stitcher to the Pop Stars: Rihanna's Vocal Producer Reveals His Process
Kuk Harrell co-wrote "Umbrella," sweetened "We Found Love" and worked on Beyonce's Grammy-winning "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)."
Britney Spears could have had “Umbrella,” Rihanna can cut a hit in two takes and sometimes a background singer is just what a song needs. Those are just a few of the lessons espoused by master vocal producer Kuk Harrell -- the only person allowed to stitch together RiRi’s words. The former jingle writer (and cousin of Epic Records head of A&R Tricky Stewart), who's currently working on a video series that will "take people through my process from top to bottom," recently revealed his pop star checklist to The Hollywood Reporter.
1. All it takes is an hour and 15 minutes. “That’s the least amount of time that I need to make sure I got all my information. They do what they do and then I do magic by creating a more passionate performance out of everything we got. With Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love,’ she only sang it one or two times through. It was probably the easiest song we’ve cut together.”
2. If in two weeks, you haven’t finished a song, ditch it. “For the most part, it only takes three or four hours to get a song to a point where you can hand it off to an A&R person. If you’re going on two weeks, it’s not right. Scrap it. Don’t even mess with it.”
3. Avoid calling the artist back in. “There’s never a situation where I don’t get what I need out of a session because that would mean I didn’t do my job. You can put a background singer in to enhance what’s there, but sometimes, I do have an artist go back in to sing a line differently or if the writer wants to change a lyric. It happens every now and then.”
4. You snooze, you lose. “When Tricky and I came up with ‘Umbrella,’ we knew Britney Spears was about to do a new album. So we submitted it and never heard back. Then we gave it to Karen Kwak, [head of A&R] at Island Def Jam, and two days later, we were coming out to L.A. to cut it with Rihanna.”
5. Trust your gut. “I didn’t write [Rihanna’s] ‘Diamonds,’ but when I heard first the progression of those opening three chords, I said, ‘Done. This record is going to be a huge smash.’ And it was.”
6. Ixnay on the NDA. “I don’t do non-disclosure agreements because this isn’t a hobby, it’s professionalism, and one of the reasons superstars hire me is because they feel comfortable and we have a good rapport. I always say that the session has to feel like they just married a stranger -- even if we’re working together for the first time, like they’ve known me forever. All of that goes into the performance I get out of them.”
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