Andre Harrell was a foundational figure in urban music and the pioneer of hip-hop soul. Through his label Uptown Records, he created the architecture for the modern urban music landscape.
Andre O’Neal Harrell was born in The Bronx, NY on September 26, 1960. While growing up in Bronxdale projects, Harrell’s father, who worked at the local Hunts Point Market, encouraged him to do something he loved for a living. Harrell took that to heart, and cultivated his entrepreneurial instincts throughout high school, raising money with candy drives and picking up extra jobs with a local messenger service. After graduating from Lehman College, he started climbing the ranks as a junior executive in radio, first at a gospel station and then in ad sales at WINNS. However, he later said his real education and career training came once he managed to get on the guestlist for NYC hotspots of the era like Bentley’s; clubs where he learned everything about the music business and politics.
From artist to exec
Harrell had an inside view of hip-hop’s formative days as one half of duo Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with childhood friend Alonzo Brown. The group gained local notoriety and garnered success with their 1981 hit ‘Genius Rap’. The suit-clad rappers were an early precursor to the lifestyle hip-hop Harrell’s Uptown Records would later popularise. Soon after, Harrell met and became fast friends with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, who encouraged him to join the Rush Management team. Andre quickly rose to Vice President, and grooming superstar acts like LL Cool J prompted him to retire his own artistic pursuits and focus on developing and promoting talent instead.
The discovery of Mt Vernon rapper Heavy D, whom Simmons was uninterested in signing, spurred Harrell to form his own company, and he founded Uptown Records as a subsidiary of MCA in 1986. The hip-hop scene was bustling with young rap labels like Def Jam and Tommy Boy Records, but Harrell was an R&B aficionado, and saw the future of the genre in the emerging new jack swing sound. Uptown was created as a place to merge hip-hop and R&B – not just the music, but the cultures – to capture the unfiltered “ghetto fabulous” style and energy of Harlem.
Changing the face and look of R&B
Uptown quickly put out hit releases from hip-hop group Heavy D & The Boyz, R&B singer Al B Sure and R&B group Guy, led by new jack swing producer Teddy Riley. The young label wasn’t just selling music, but a lifestyle. Like his idol, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Harrell had an acute instinct for artist development and imaging. Heavy D’s affable “overweight lover” persona and innocuous lyrical content primed the rapper for the first wave of mainstream crossover. Uptown-crafted imaging was later a central part of newcomers Mary J Blige and Jodeci changing the face and look of R&B by mixing in hip-hop and street style.
Harrell expanded Uptown’s reach to film and TV in 1991 with Strictly Business, a movie starring In Living Color’s Tommy Davidson and Halle Berry in her first major role. The film’s success led MCA to grant a $50 million multi-media deal with Harrell in 1992, propelling the 32-year-old into an exclusive circle of Black entertainment moguls. “A guy like Andre doesn’t appear on the scene but every once in a while,” MCA chairman Al Teller told the LA Times at the time. “Ultimately, this business is about instinctive creative judgement, and Andre’s instincts about artists and music and what audiences want are absolutely superb.”
In the next two years, Uptown was the leading urban record label under Andre’s leadership. He brokered the first label-centric MTV Unplugged special and album (which hasn’t been done again since); launched a TV show called New York Undercover, a hip-hop spin on Miami Vice co-produced with procedural veteran Dick Wolf; and mentored a young, ambitious intern-turned-A&R executive named Sean Combs, who was learning a formula he would soon emulate as founder and CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment.
A “lifestyle entertainment entrepreneur”
In 1995, Harrell left Uptown Records to step in his idol Berry Gordy’s shoes at the helm of a struggling Motown. He stayed in the role for two years, and then joined Bad Boy Entertainment as President, lending his wisdom and expertise to the quickly growing label alongside Combs. In the years that followed, Harrell co-founded Nu America records with singer/songwriter/producer and fellow label founder Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds, and, proving he still had the instinct for talent, signed a young Robin Thicke. When Combs founded REVOLT, he tapped Harrell as Vice-Chairman, where Harrell remained until his death.
Last year, BET announced a mini-series based on Harrell and Uptown Records’ legacy. The careers Harrell helped launch; including Mary J Blige, celebrity stylist June Ambrose, movie producer Brett Ratner, hip-hop producer Pete Rock, and Sean “Diddy” Combs are just part of Andre’s impact.
In an interview with Upscale, Andre Harrell referred to himself as a “lifestyle entertainment entrepreneur;” he was the first executive to see the value in highlighting all aspects of Blackness for entertainment rather than segmenting based on audience. He saw that edge complemented polish, in both aesthetics and music. He saw a future when hip-hop culture would be mainstream culture.