Are you a fan of American Idol? Are you looking for something more realistic and less rehearsed? Well, four-time Grammy winner, Kuk Harrell has got something better. He doesn’t just launch stars, he launches superstars into the celebrity stratosphere like Cher, Usher, Katy Perry, Celine Dion, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Leona Lewis, Lionel Richie, Beyoncé, Rihanna, JLo, Lea Michele, and Justin Bieber - and now he’s doing it with “Kuk Harrell’s Worldwide Internet Talent Search” (also known as “Who’s Next?”) It’s a way for him to find the next superstar. Let me explain - but first, let me give you some background on this music magic making man.
So, as I sat in my office speaking to “the man behind the music”, as coined by The New York Times, for the first time on the phone, I was informed very casually that he was on his way to Cher’s house. Yes, Cher. And while most people would probably be sitting there and be partially star struck, all I could feel pulsing through my veins was that I have to knock this interview out of the ballpark – I have to make this one count more than ever. Why? Because this man, is becoming one of those names that needs no introduction, nor explanation, nor last name in the entertainment industry - and I want to say I knew it when…
“I believe that in my journey I'm supposed to be one of those people that finds superstars and releases them,” says Kuk Harrell in one of his YouTube videos. He can say that, too. He’s worked with the biggest names in R&B & pop and considered the best vocal producer in the industry.
“This is the season that Rihanna and Justin Bieber are on the road, so right now I’m working with the legendary Cher, and Lea Michele [of Glee],” said Harrell with much modesty. (Both Cher and Lea Michele are releasing new albums very soon.)
He speaks of his work with these superstars as if he does it every day; well – he does. There’s no time to get nervous or hung up on the fact that you are in the same room with highly successful people. I get it. When you are in an industry where you are a creator and instrumental to fostering the success of others, you constantly push yourself to the next level, and to do something more spectacular than before. You channel your energy into a tunnel vision focus and don’t even stop to ask yourself “Is this really happening?”
Harrell agrees with me - “Well, it’s the same as you. I know that I am considered an expert at what I do, so I know that there is a job to do; and more importantly the artist needs to feel comfortable - so I just keep my mind on the job at hand. I’m motivated by the fact that these superstars rely on me to bring out the best in them.”
This native Midwesterner goes by his nickname, “Kuk”, which comes from a show called “Kukla Fran and Ollie”. His family said that he looked like Kukla, back in the day, who was a little puppet. As a kid he watched his mom and her 2 sisters sing background for Aretha Franklin, so he knew from a young age he always wanted to work in the music industry.
Since then, he’s come very far as the founder of Suga Wuga Music, Inc. (an artist development company), a song writer, vocal producer, album producer, and he has won four Grammys for “Umbrella” (Rihanna) (He co-wrote it.), the “Growing Pains” album by Mary J. Blige, “Single Ladies” (Beyoncé), and “Only Girl in the World” (Rihanna). Since he’s been surrounded by these talented people, his eyes and ears have been trained to hone in on the “it” factor for people that can become superstars.
“I always wanted to be big in the industry, but never knew when or how it would happen. I knew my career had taken off when I realized that the top artists were calling me to capture magic with their voices. I decided to go out on my own, because I feel like everything changes; and in order for me to do all of the things that are in my heart to do, I had to be the person making the decisions about my career, and moving out on them when I felt it was time to move…to make sure I was moving with the times...always taking advantage of all of the new technology at hand,” says Harrell about his own aspirations to excel as a superstar launcher in the music industry, and what the turning point in his career was for him.
"A lot of producers can find artists, but I'm looking for superstars. There's an "it" factor in Rihanna, There's an "it" factor in Justin Bieber.
Harrell wants to discover these artists, hone in on their talents and develop them, and take them to brand companies. His goal is to cut out the middleman, and put himself, and Suga Wuga Music, in that place, and give companies an artist with great music and let that run.
“This is the YouTube generation. People are going out there and recording their own music and getting a million hits. But we don’t have the development. No one has the passion to develop the talent anymore. That’s where I come in,” says Harrell on YouTube.
All of this is what has led him to the culmination of “Who’s Next?” a.k.a. “Kuk Harrell’s Worldwide Internet Talent Search” - a web production where anyone can perform a song in a YouTube video, and then tweet @KukHarrell the link to it with the tag #WhosNext. He views it, and then he determines who makes it to final groups. He looks for people in his Worldwide Internet Talent Search who have a distinct quality to their voice. (You know, you can close your eyes and hear someone sing and know who it is right away.) Once he has selected final groups, he conducts a web cam interview with everyone in those groups chosen and posts it on YouTube.
This is the first season of the series, and it is underway.
“It’s a game changer. The internet struck a blow to the industry because the industry wasn’t ready for it. This [Worldwide Internet Talent Search] gets rid of the big old machine that gets in the way of the talent that really should be heard,” says Harrell.
“I have a Slogan for Suga Wuga Music, and that is "Who's Next?" And It's not just who's next as an artist, but it's who's next as a person that is in charge of what I call a gatekeeper for the industry,” he continues on YouTube.
“…at this point I am the only judge/mentor for Who’s Next. It’s really important to me at this point, because that’s what’s missing in the industry right now…someone who is actively making records now, with a hit track record, that has a true desire to not just judge aspiring artists, but mentor and develop them. After the interview with all the contestants, I ultimately find my one artist that I want to sign to my Suga Wuga Entertainment, [and] mentor them through the artist development process. Me and my team will write a record for them, release it worldwide, and have them debut on “Marie” - Marie Osmond’s talk show on the Hallmark Channel. There are: Submissions to Top 20, Top 10, Top 5 then the final 1.
The first season is in full swing and you can follow “Kuk Harrell’s Worldwide Internet Talent Search?” on Kuk Harrell’s YouTube Channel, and catch up on past contestants, too. He always gives updates on Twitter when a new performance is on deck.
“All of my top 20 are special to me because I see things in them that other people don’t - but it’s too early to reveal who are my special picks thus far,” Harrell says when I ask him if he’s got his eye on a particular shining star that he’s seen perform so far.
He does look for certain qualities in those competing.
“First is the way they are with people. Do they know how to interact with people well? Then the gift, confidence, and the ever popular swag! Do they get everybody’s attention when they walk in the room?”
It’s the total package, I think. You need more than talent. It all has to come together, like with the Savannah Van Band (Savannah Van, Matt Kwa, Nico Aranda, Ronnie Manaog, and Alex Strahle).
The Savannah Van Band recently contracted with Suga Wuga Music and is one of those talents just waiting to break the barrier with Harrell’s finely tuned artist development skills. (Check out their new single "Maintain" - LOVE IT! This song speaks to me!)
- Savannah Van Band / "Maintain"
It may seem obvious that people can’t just knock on Kuk Harrell’s door and expect him to take them on as clients. You’d have to take a seat behind Cher, and Rihanna, for example. He’s got agents contacting him on behalf of well-known artists, and he’s also selecting new talent via “Who’s Next?”. His advice for those trying to make it into the music industry and get noticed is to use the new model for anyone wanting to get discovered – social media!
With everyone wanting to grab that next Grammy, you might wonder how he selects from among the already big names out there who to work with next when they come to him.
“More than anything I look at personality. Even though the artist is a superstar that doesn’t mean that we will get along in the studio. A very important part of what I do with the artist is creating an environment of comfort for them. When we get into the process of recording, the artist and I become very like-minded. That’s how I get the best out of them. If our personalities don’t work, I usually pass on the project because the fact that we don’t mesh shows in the final product.”
It makes sense. People either “click” or they don’t, and if you want to create something amazing, there has to be chemistry.
Harrell told me that the most fun projects he’s worked on in the past are, “For starters the co-writing of “Umbrella” - then Bieber’s Christmas album, Believe, and all of Rihanna’s last three albums.”
It would be hard to narrow his list down! So much star quality music!
He does say that he would love to work with Rihanna again if he could pick someone.
“I always love working with all my clients, but I would have to say Rihanna. I love how we come together to create great work. She does her part and she trusts me. She doesn’t micro manage,” he says.
Kuk Harrell has been quoted as saying he “takes an artist vocally to where they’ve never been before” – so that may leave you wondering exactly how does he do that? It almost sounds magical. The people he works with already have extraordinary talent yet he pushes that limit so the artists exceed their own expectations. This is something very unique to Harrell.
Harrell explains that, “Because I’m a vocalist as well, I know what I’m listening for. When the artist sings that perfect performance, I hear it, call it, and move on to the next section or line. Having vocal ability, and having listened to so many singers all my life, I have a deep understanding and a deep mental and sonic library of what a performance should sound and feel like.”
That’s like “when you see it, you’ll know it” – or in Harrell’s case – when he hears it, he just knows it. That is his talent – just knowing that star quality. He’s the man with the golden ear and the expert eye for spotting the next musical artist to make it big.
The “it” factor is not just having talent, but having the drive to keep at it, and the direction to steer yourself in, too. You have to have the combination of looks, talent, confidence, and drive to become well-known; but to become a superstar, you need to be able to tap into that formula for success and repeat that magic over and and over again – like Madonna, Cher, Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, Sting, and Rihanna. If you can’t repeat the “magic” when you have that “It” factor, you become a one-hit-wonder.
“My “it” factor is first and foremost the fact that God gave me the gift, talents, and desires to do what I do! With that viewpoint for me, I stay focused on the job at hand, not who I’m doing it with,” shares Harrell, when I had asked him what makes him magical.
Harrell does what he does because he loves it. That’s when you know you have found your true calling. So what’s next? for him? He told me that he will keep on nurturing and discovering superstar talent for the rest his life.
“… I will! Because not only is it what I love but it’s my calling, destiny!”
“And I would say for Suga Wuga Music, I'm next. Being the next person to discover talent and launch them.”
You can follow Suga Wuga Music and "Kuk Harrell's Worldwide Internet Talent Search" at: