Before Kuk Harrell became the go-to hitmaker for pop heavyweights like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Celine Dion and Justin Bieber (among many others), the Grammy-winning vocal producer and songwriter experienced humble beginnings in his native Chicago. Growing up, his family exposed him to various genres — from Earth, Wind & Fire to Steely Dan — that later shaped his "audio toolbox" of sonic emotions.

"I was really fortunate that my mom and her two sisters were in the industry. They were background singers for TV commercials," Harrell tells Billboard. "Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Chicago was a huge hub for advertising. So they sang jingles for McDonald’s and later sang for Aretha Franklin, Ohio Players and Curtis Mayfield. Me and my cousins were really fortunate to grow up being in the studio with them, and I realized that was my passion from early on."

Chicago didn’t affect Harrell's style as much as his drive. Once the summer ended and winter took over the city for four months straight, he had no choice but to spend time inside sharpening his skills on the guitar and drums. The producer's talents soon led him right in the footsteps of his mother, as he also began recording jingles for kid's commercials for Kraft Singles, Cap'n Crunch and — just like his mother — McDonald's.

The iconic fast food establishment is woven throughout Harrell's story just as much as his love for music. After graduating high school, he began working there as a crew member before leveling up to manager. Fast forward to present day, and Harrell is now partnering with McDonald's “Where You Want to Be” campaign, where he mentors a young employee who also has dreams of entering the music business. "I learned about responsibility and people skills while working at McDonald's," Harrell explains. "I still use all of those tools that I learned there for what I do now. Teaming up with them now is significant to be because I get to pass on my wisdom to Ayana Lea."

Along with diving into mentoring — "my real passion," he says — with the fast food chain, Harrell continues to guide prolific artists spanning across genres to bring out their best vocal performances. Below, Harrell journeys through his career and shares the stories — in his own words — behind some of his most successful hits with Billboard.

2007: Rihanna, “Umbrella”

Me, my cousin Tricky Stewart [founder of Atlanta's music production company RedZone Entertainment] and The-Dream wrote “Umbrella." [Former Def Jam chairman/CEO] L.A. Reid heard it through Island Def Jam’s Karen Kwak. Rihanna just signed to the label and they knew right away that was a hit for her. A week later, we were in Los Angeles cutting this record. This was the first big artist I’ve ever worked with, and I wasn’t even technically considered a vocal producer at that point. I was like a kid in a candy store! But once I get in the studio, I’m not thinking about anytime except for making sure I get the best performance out of the artist. And once I’m done with a record, I don’t get into the science of, “Man, this artist is going to be huge!” I just stick to the emotions.

Rihanna wasn’t shy at all, she was a pro while still so young and one of the best artists in the game. That’s why she is who she is, because she’s been confident since she came into the industry. She was very cool and very welcoming because she understands the value of her team — we help her make the hits. [“Umbrella”] was my very first professional record, at 40 years old — fortunately the song blew up and got us where we are now. I had no idea it was going to be this huge, so I was blown away! Tricky had been in the industry for a few years, so I think he had an inkling for hit records. But I was the new kid on the block and really excited because I could take care of my family. Age doesn’t matter, as long as you’re consistent.

2007: Mary J. Blige’s Growing Pains album

Once we wrote “Umbrella" [for Rihanna], the doors were wide open and everyone was calling Tricky and Dream. Because I was working with them, they told [labels] that I was their vocal producer and should give me a shot. So [former Def Jam executive vp] Chris Hicks was co-managing her at the time and brought me in to work on a few songs for Mary’s album. 

This experience was incredible. Getting to a point [in my career] where I could be in a room with a legend. But it’s just going back to people skills. It doesn’t matter how extraordinary these artists’ gifts are — they’re still regular people. And the best way to get the best performance from an artist is to feel their personality. So for Mary, I just allowed her to be who she is vocally and not have her sounding like whoever was hot at that particular time. But I added a little bit of “current” sprinkles on it. On Mary’s first few records, they weren’t really fine-tuning the vocals. When I produced her, I just used a little bit of Auto-tune to bring her sound to a point where it was more polished, because that’s how records had evolved at that point. Everything was a little more clean and not as raw. 

It was the first time I won a Grammy [Growing Pains scored Best Contemporary R&B Album]. I think me and my wife went out to dinner to celebrate, nothing crazy!

2008: Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body" 

I did the engineering on this song alongside Tricky and The-Dream. So traditionally in the studio, I’d be off to the side directing the artist while another guy is running Pro Tools. He’s the one hitting [the buttons] “play,” “record” and making sure the mic levels are right. For “Touch My Body,” I did that myself and controlled the pace of the session because I know where the artist is emotionally. It was a lightweight session and a fun time. Mariah came in and quickly cut the vocals, and Tricky and Dream did the rest of the work off-site. She’s a superstar but also a super hard worker.

2008: Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”

I think Beyoncé’s dad, Mathew Knowles, first reached out to Tricky and Dream about working on I Am…Sasha Fierce. The vibe while recording “Single Ladies” was extremely electric and Beyoncé is absolutely incredible. Her work ethic is off the charts. Everyone was so charged up by the momentum that was happening with our careers, so the mindset going in the studio was capturing lightning in a bottle. How do we create something that’s crazy and will blow up?

“Single Ladies” was one of the songs that made me realize, “Woah, we’re really doing this thing!” Our success in the music industry is actually happening! After that, our phones never stopped ringing. I finally got to step back and process everything, and realized things were happening — not because we were constantly grinding — but because we let go of the reigns.

2010: Rihanna’s Loud album

I didn’t work on Rihanna’s Rated R album, they had another vocal producer for that one. But when they got to Loud, L.A. Reid asked me to work with her again. And I’ve been with her ever since. The first record that we cut was “S&M.” I was excited but nervous at the same time because I didn’t know how she would respond to me — I hadn’t seen her in so long. But she listened to the song and was like, “Yep, we’re good!” “Only Girl (In The World)” was also a fun one to record and we won a Grammy for it [for Best Dance Recording]. She was on tour when we cut this album so we were all over the place. I think we were in Miami when we cut that record. It was special because we both had listened to it separately for a couple of days and knew there was a high-energy magic we had to capture in her vocals. 

Any time I work with Rihanna, we always go for the best. We never cut something once and say it’s great. We dig in and make sure that every single word, syllable, breath and element of that vocal is gone over with meticulous detail. So it’s not difficult, we just work hard at it and have so many different takes of each song.

2011: Rihanna’s Talk That Talk album

We recorded this album in the middle of the Loud Tour, but the only thing intense about it was the moving around part. We’ll be in one city today, and the next day we get on a bus or airplane. Marcos [Tovar], one of our engineers, helped me set up a studio in the new place and we'd start recording. But once we get in the studio, it’s all good because we’re all doing what we love. Part of my job’s responsibility is to gauge how tired the voice is. So if she was tired one night, I would give her songs that were more vibe-y and didn’t have a lot of high notes. So it’s all about finding that sweet spot and making it work.

“We Found Love” was one of my favorite songs to record for the album; I think we were in Sweden. It wasn’t vocally challenging, but we had to reprogram our thinking because the song wasn’t in a traditional format. It wasn’t verse-chorus-verse, it was basically a hook. But the energy was so insane!

2016: Rihanna’s ANTI album

Rihanna has always known who she as an artist, but with ANTI she developed more of what she wanted her music to convey. For this, she drilled down in making sure she made the right calls for every single song. This particular album took three years to create, and that caused intensity because the fans wanted to listen to it so badly and kept asking when it was coming. I don’t focus on that stuff at all because you start to hear that [pressure] in your music. You can’t dictate feeling. So if you start calculating it, people will notice that. But we all just wanted to make sure that it was the right album and exactly what Rihanna wanted it to be. She led all of us to a great place.

Her vocals didn’t surprise me due to the fact that I’ve worked with her for so many years, so I always knew what she was capable of. I was excited when we were cutting songs like “Higher.” When she started hitting those high notes, I was like “Woah, we’re actually doing this!” We’re always pushing the envelope and doing something different; I wanted to bring out the best aspect of her voice in a way that isn’t too much. ANTI is absolutely her magnum opus — it was a game-changer. I think [the album] made everybody get back to a point where they took their craft seriously as opposed to the cookie-cutter rhythmic stuff. They didn’t just jump in the studio, put four bars together and sing a hook over it. In this album, you can hear that we focused a lot on detail.

2018: Cardi B, “Be Careful”

[General manager/svp urban A&R] Lanre Gaba and [chairman/CEO] Craig Kallman at Atlantic Records were working on Cardi B’s album, and they were getting to a point where she had to sing on a couple of hooks. Because of my expertise, they called me to work on “Be Careful” I had never met her before. And it was also a challenge because there was a high pressure for this song to become a single. She was a lot of fun to work with and definitely a hard worker. After we cut “Be Careful,” I heard her doing the adlibs for “Drip” [on Invasion of Privacy] and that’s when I realized she isn’t put together — she’s a legit artist. That was a huge moment for me.

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