Andre Harrell could talk you under the table. To put it in more regal terms, the influential music mogul, who died May 8 at 59, was the ultimate loquacious record man. The founder of Uptown Records, the late ’80s and early ’90s imprint that boldly merged rap and R&B for the clubs and the bedroom, wasn’t just an industry giant, he was the culture’s most sincere and adamant cheerleader.
“We threw the best parties. We had the chicks and we had the love music with the ghetto twist on it!” a nostalgic Harrell told me in 2007, looking back at a lengthy and expansive run that touched rap, soul, fashion, TV and film. If you scored an invite to one of those parties where the Harlem, New York, native held court, you might have thought he was just some chest-beating hype man. But a deeper conversation revealed a bold individual at the center of black pop culture’s post-’70s rebirth.
From 1983 to 1995, if it was unapologetically black and cool, Harrell had a hand in it. He oversaw the explosion of Teddy Riley’s new jack swing sound (personified on Guy’s eponymous 1988 debut), a swaggering, sexy amalgamation of soul and gospel that would attract the attention of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, a few years later.
Harrell signed a fun-loving rap crew from Mount Vernon, New York, billed as Heavy D & The Boyz, who were led by a charismatic, rotund emcee respected by both hard-core heads and parents who viewed hip-hop as too profane. More platinum hits came with R&B heartthrob Al B. Sure!
He recruited an around-the-way girl from Yonkers, New York, named Mary J. Blige, who arguably became the seminal female vocalist of her time. Between Harrell, the queen of hip-hop soul and a young Uptown intern-turned-starmaker named Sean “Puffy” Combs, they merged two stylistically clashing genres and made R&B cool again.
Demonstrating the breadth of his vision, Harrell then unleashed four Pentecostal church boys from the South onto the world. Jodeci was so raw that they could have easily fit in at Stax Records with the likes of Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and The Staple Singers.
Harrell wanted more than just gold and platinum plaques, of course. He injected his effortlessly cool mojo as a producer on the 1991 movie Strictly Business, starring Tommy Davidson and Halle Berry, and the television series New York Undercover, which ran for five years on Fox in the ’90s.
The joke around the biz was that even as a teenager Harrell dressed like a limousine-cruising label head intent on selling everyone a lifestyle and attitude he boldly coined “ghetto fabulous.”
He created the hip-hop duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde with a high school friend and soon moved into management. He joined Russell Simmons’ hip-hop imprint Def Jam from 1983 to 1986, quickly becoming the vice president and general manager before leaving to establish Uptown.
“Andre Harrell was always who he was,” recalled Dan Charnas, who wrote about the impresario’s rise in the bestselling 2010 book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “The kid in the suit on the cover of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde’s album? The Champagne of Rap? He was the champagne. He was always going to be who he was.”
And yet Harrell was overshadowed by his more famous peers. Simmons (who has faced accusations of sexual assault) gets more credit for making hip-hop a crossover art form, jumping from music (Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy) to television (Def Comedy Jam) to fashion (Phat Farm and Baby Phat) and media (Global Grind).
Harrell was never deemed as cool or influential as Combs. Following his infamous firing from Uptown Records in 1993, Combs established The Notorious B.I.G., anchored Bad Boy Records, eventually building a music, clothing, liquor and cable TV empire worth nearly $900 million.
And Harrell looked like a corporate suit compared with Marion “Suge” Knight, the feared head of Death Row Records whose two-fisted will helped transform gangsta rap headliners Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur into multimillion-dollar counterculture icons.
But in many ways it was Harrell who paved the way, seeing black empowerment in both capitalistic and cultural terms as hip-hop was replacing rock ’n’ roll as the dominant youth music. Harrell’s $50 million label distribution deal for Uptown with MCA Music Entertainment Group in 1992 was widely seen at the time as a groundbreaking move for black executives.
MTV would have to come to him. And it did. Tracy Jordan, the vice president of talent and artist relations, pitched Harrell the idea of an R&B Unplugged special featuring Uptown Records artists. The Grammy-winning MTV series had largely been a platform for rock acts ranging from Eric Clapton to Nirvana.
Harrell took the deal and in 1993 presented the blackest musical showcase arguably ever seen on the video channel. Jodeci sang a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” Blige left her soul on the stage with Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing” and joined Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey for the achingly barebones duet “I Don’t Want to Do Anything.” The pair were involved in a tumultuous love affair and it showed. Heavy D came through, as did handsome crooner Christopher Williams, who made the girls swoon with “Every Little Thing That U Do.”
Unlike Simmons, Combs or Knight, Harrell didn’t market himself. He was selling the unabashedly cool, unfiltered blackness of his artists and the scene.
“Part of the reason that Harrell doesn’t loom as largely in pop culture is [he], more than any of his contemporaries, was focused on speaking with particular intention directly to black Americans, and to the unique aesthetic of upwardly mobile yet politically conscious black people,” Charnas explained. “He was, in the highest sense of the term, a race man.”
Indeed, Harrell’s career trajectory became the playbook for Combs and an endless list of music executives and aspiring moguls. A two-year stint as CEO of Motown from 1995 to 1997 proved to be disastrous. But like any good record man, he dusted himself off and created his own label, Harrell Records. There, he developed unknown blue-eyed soul singer-songwriter Robin Thicke and reunited with Combs at his Revolt TV cable network, where he was named vice chairman.
“It is very exciting, because it feels like the final page of taking black culture into the mainstream,” Harrell told Reuters in a 2008 interview.
From music to movies to cable, Mary to MTV, Uptown to Motown. Now that’s a legacy.