“Did you see that hug Cardi gave me?” Ken Ehrlich says, beaming.
Ehrlich — 76 years old yet dashing back and forth all day between run-throughs for the 61st Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and rehearsals for a separate Motown tribute show in an adjacent building — has just climbed gingerly off of the Grammy stage, where he was reassuring the rapper about how her choreography looked on camera. “She’s nervous,” Ehrlich tells me. “Scared. I said, ‘You just do what you do.’ That’s what I am. I don’t know if I’m good at anything else, but I understand artists.”
For the last four decades, the Emmy-winning producer has been the wizard behind the Grammys, wrangling together performances, collaborations, tributes and a slew of infamous on-camera celebrity encounters known collectively in the zeitgeist only as “Grammy moments.” The 61st Grammys, though, may be one of his last orchestrations: Ehrlich’s contract with the show expires after next year, and given that Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is also exiting, the awards ceremony may well be in the hands of a new maestro team after next year. Rolling Stone spoke with Ehrlich — between run-throughs, lighting tweaks, and whirls between buildings on golf carts — about what’s most on his mind this year.
What’s most exciting about this year’s show to you?
I don’t like to single out performances, but I think the mix of artists this year is particularly fresh. It’s young and yet it’s balanced. You have a lot of first-time Grammy people. I like that. I love working with young acts. On the other hand we’ve got a Dolly Parton tribute, an Aretha Franklin tribute, Diana Ross performing. It’s both ends of the spectrum, chronologically or demographically, and that’s what this show is all about.
You’re 76 and have been running the show for 40 years. Why are you still doing it? What drives you to come back every year?
I love the music. The joy for me is showing up. There’s still enough music that I thrive on. That’s it. Crafting the show is always a challenge, but honestly it’s the music. H.E.R. has this new song that she did with us a few months ago, but it wasn’t ready for performance yet, and we’ve helped her turn it into something that is spectacular and I think is going to change your life on Sunday night, I really do. So it’s those kinds of things.
Do you ever feel like the old guy hanging out with the kids?
I try not to. I let my hair go white a few years ago so I’ve probably inherited that mantle. But I’ve always said, and it’s true, even away from all of this — when we’re away with friends of ours and they have their kids in the 20s — I feel more comfortable with the kids than with the adults a lot of the time. It’s such a cliche to call music a common language, but it’s true. I tell you what I do feel: I do it unconsciously where I say to people, you have to listen to this older stuff, and they do and they love it. Pharrell came to our office a year ago and I showed him the New Orleans second line, I played him some Professor Longhair and Allen Touissant, and he went out and got all these records and said it inspired him. I loved that. I do that with everybody.
What’s the biggest difference working with younger artists today?
I think there is so much more pressure on young artists today. There’s so much pulling at you. I’m not sure the stakes are any greater, but, we used to work with artists who would come into our shows and have a week and say, “Hey, let’s do this.” Now it’s like: “We can give you between 3pm and 5pm on a Thursday…” so it’s difficult. I actually feel bad for some of them. The timeline is compressed. If you don’t “make it” in six months, whatever project you have gets out there and it doesn’t happen — it’s gone. It used to be that artist development was true artist development.
What’s the secret to persuading artists to do something?
You can’t generalize. Some never will. But for the most part, I get to [talking about the] music right away. That’s what does it. I try to approach it being casual. It’s hard to explain… It’s not that I’m not serious about what I do, but I never let it get to be serious. I try to be disarming in a way that’s not threatening. I don’t say to people, “This is what you should do.”
What happened with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Donald Glover? There are rumors they all declined the performances. Did those talks get far along before they dropped out?
No, there wasn’t a lot of that, frankly. I would’ve hoped they came, because Donald Glover last year was great, for example. We really had a terrific time with him — but I don’t second-guess them. Kendrick, we’ve had great things with him. I’m not sure, but I think he had his heart set on the Oscars which I’m sure he’s doing, so maybe that canceled it out, I don’t know. I have people asking me all the time, “Why do you think this happened?” I never know.
But they’re not boycotting the show intentionally.
No, I don’t think so. Drake — we have had a Drake problem, and it’s a shame because Drake was on the show at least a couple times. But I don’t know what the problem was.
The Recording Academy has gotten a lot of heat over the years for not having a diverse enough show. What’s your feeling on that?
I’d probably stay out of that. This year’s show is really strong, in terms of female representation, diversity. And the show — it’s always been gender-free, age-free, genre-free. Maybe once the show is together, I’ll look at it and say do we have enough of this or this. Bt it’s not built that way. It’s built to reflect what happened in music.
You said you feel younger artists these days have more pressure on them. Do you also feel more pressure yourself to keep making the Grammys bigger each year?
Yeah. I mean, there’s a premise: We put on performances and we give out awards. That’s the box. It’s what you do within it that changes. I never like repeating myself, and I love the action. For instance, this show: We have Travis Scott and we’re doing something I don’t think we’ve done anything like before. It’s got like 80 extras on stage, it feels like it looks — loose, unstructured. Then there’s Cardi and precision, everything choreographed to the hilt. The show should have room for everything.
You mentioned in another recent interview that you booked a last-minute act you feel was the “sleeper hit” you were looking for.
Yes, that was Dua Lipa and St. Vincent together. It was the last thing we booked. And I booked it because even though we were really tight on time, I realized we didn’t have anything that was quite as edgy as that could be. So I put the two of them together. I liked both of them. Sometimes it’s like trying to fit together two people that really don’t belong together. I’d only seen Dua live once and Annie a couple of times. But the more I thought about it… On the surface, you say, “Does this fit?” And then you see it. I went to an off-site rehearsal with them on Wednesday, which was the first time they had gotten together. And the two of them, who’d never met — it was really right.
Have you decided whether you’ll come back to the Grammys after your contract ends?
Beyond next year? Don’t know yet. Still looking at it.
What’s your dream show? The one you haven’t been able to do yet.
I have lived my dream for 39 years already, I really have. This is my life. I’ve done the Emmys five or six times. But it’s not as fun as this. This is the Rose Parade. The floats line up. I’ve thought about doing documentaries, but I’ve never really pursued it because people who work on documentaries work for years. I’m more the get-in-and-get-out kind. Not that these are quick hits, but I really like going from one to the other. I’m a gypsy. I produced a couple of series, and that was fun, but it was a job: Get up in the morning, work all day, blah blah blah. It got old. There’s something about the freshness of the Grammys. It’s all I know. I don’t think I’d be a very good Uber driver. But I’ll do this.