On TV, the Grammys look like one big party, but behind the scenes, it takes a team of dozens of individuals more than half a year to put the whole show together. From booking talent to accommodating requests for resources to scheduling rehearsals and so much more, creating music’s biggest night is no easy task.
While it’s a lot of hard work to make the Grammys appear so effortless, producer Raj Kapoor loves it. “I’m a big Grammy nerd,” Kapoor admitted during a recent call less than two weeks before the big event. He explained how early the group has to get started, detailed the struggles the fans don’t see, and even shared some of the most compelling moments from his decade-plus working with the Recording Academy.
While his credits include many live TV specials, many of which are centered around music, Kapoor insists that there really is nothing like the Grammys. “It’s stupid to say,” he began at one point, smiling, “but it’s a dream come true.”
The sixty-fifth annual Grammy Awards will air live from Los Angeles, CA on CBS on Sunday, February 5.
Hugh McIntyre: I was looking at your IMDB and this is your twelfth Grammys, right?
Raj Kapoor: I think it’s my twelfth. I basically started as an intern.
McIntyre: You have to start somewhere. In the decade-plus since you’ve been there, how have the Grammys changed?
Kapoor: They have changed a lot, and especially in the past three years. Fulwell 73 and Ben Winston have completely restructured the show. Us having to deal with Covid allowed us to be very creative and allowed us to completely reimagine what was possible. With us not having a live audience that first year and then having to stop and move the entire show to Las Vegas last year. We’ve had so many challenges, but I think it’s forced our team to come up with really creative solutions and challenge ourselves to think differently and to not do what was expected.
Our mission is to continually evolve and change the show. We don’t want the show to be the same every year. We want to tell different stories. Our underlying mission statement is it’s not just about music, it’s not just about awards–it’s about storytelling and the way that we help humanize artists and make them feel in our space and this community that we are building. We’ve done so much outreach between Ben [Winston] and Jesse [Collins] and Patrick Menton of opening the door and letting artists perform songs that they really want to perform. [We have] an open door policy. Anything is possible. We will give you all the tools to help bring your vision to life and create these Grammy moments.
It’s a different way of thinking, and I think people are feeling that. Last year our nominee area was such a huge success because people are fans of each other. We gave them the opportunity to interact with each other and take selfies with each other and for Lady Gaga to help SZA up to accept an award.
We look at our show as being very aspirational. You should feel honored to work on the show. You should feel honored when you get an invitation to perform. You should feel honored even when you get to present an award. We want to celebrate with you.
McIntyre: You want the show to be familiar, and of course it follows a format, but you also want it to be new. How do you and your team go about creatively coming up with ideas to make it different, but still the Grammys?
Kapoor: It’s always based on the year of music, and the music is changing so fast. This year, one of the stories that we will tell is that we have some of the biggest artists on the planet all nominated against each other. So when you look at Record of the Year, when you look at Album of the Year, when you look at Song of the Year, they’re so diverse. You root for all of them, because they all have their own individual merits and they put out such an amazing body of work. I’m super excited to see who those awards go to because they’re all on my playlist.
McIntyre: What separates the Grammys from the other major award shows is the performances. I can only imagine the negotiating and the discussions and all of that. Can you talk to me a bit about how you actually make all of that work?
Kapoor: It is constantly changing and evolving, and lots of times the show actually does not lock until right before we start rehearsing. Sometimes there is a last minute request or a last minute addition. Last year, Justin Bieber got added to our show three days before. There was not really room in the rundown, but when all of a sudden Justin finds a way to come to the show and wants to perform, you make room. This year we have some really big numbers. Some of them have not been announced yet. There is a performance in the show right now that will have upwards of 12 artists in it, all of significance, telling a major story. We are rehearsing that offsite a week from Friday, and to coordinate that many people’s schedules…it is mind blowing how that’s coming together. It’s like every 30 minutes there’s an update. It is constantly evolving.
There’s a lot of fluidity, and so some of these discussions started the same day nominations came out. Some of those conversations continue all the way until they actually show up on our stage.
The first year that Fulwell did the show, we honored closed music venues across the United States and had them present awards. Last year we honored touring personnel and told their stories. This year we’re continuing that narrative.
Telling those lovely stories of family and teachers and expanding what you think a typical award show is like, that is our mission. It’s not just about performances. It’s not just about the awards. How do we make people feel something? Our challenge is to always do something a little different and hope that it registers.
McIntyre: You just mentioned that nominations come out and you are immediately reaching out to people and booking talent. But I imagine you begin producing this long before that.
Kapoor: We start on this show in the beginning of summer. There’s some, some creative discussions. We start some production design. We start talking about what might influence the overall look of the show.
I think music research starts months before that. I think everybody on our team constantly listens to music and tries to think about what the big stories are going to be this year and what the big nominations are going to be. We always get stuff by the labels. And again, that awareness of constantly being informed of what’s happening in the music world. That’s a 365-day job because I think all of us are invested in what this show means to the music community.
McIntyre: What is the toughest part about producing the Grammys?
Kapoor: Well, honestly, one of the hardest parts is saying no to people. It’s hard when we don’t have a presenter spot open and somebody wants to come in or somebody you didn’t think we could get or somebody wants to premiere something new on our show. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, this would make such a great Grammy moment,” and we don’t have room for it. Because we have spaces that we reserve for last-minute items that come in, you don’t necessarily have the room to make that happen. Like, we still have Covid, so if somebody is actually not able to perform, what does that mean to our show?
The year that Whitney Houston died and Jennifer Hudson honored her, that was all last minute. And Kobe Bryant! We deal in real life. It’s live entertainment. We always have to have the flexibility to continue to adapt and modify as we need, because things can even change during the actual show.
McIntyre: Having now spent more than a decade with the Grammys, is there a particular performance or moment that stands out to you that you are particularly fond of or particularly proud of?
Kapoor: There’s been a lot of great Grammy performances that I’ve been a part of, from Macklemore and gay marriage to Pink’s aerial performance to having Dolly Parton back on the show to Silk Sonic presenting their single for the first time.
The biggest moments that I’m the most proud of have been behind the scenes. The work that Harvey Mason Jr. has done since he’s been at the [Recording] Academy is so transparent and it’s that trickle down theory. It’s Harvey and Ben changing what the Grammys mean and their continuous outreach to artists that might feel like they were slighted in the past or feel like they haven’t gotten their due.
Everybody on our team, and Harvey and the Academy, has been reaching out, and hopefully people feel like the Grammys is for every single genre of music, and that they are important, that they do matter. We can’t control what the nominations are. We can’t control who wins. But come be with us to celebrate musical excellence.
We are not the past. We are not the old guard. We care. We want to be perceived as having an open door.