Andre Harrell opened the doors for Black ownership and creativity in all forms of entertainment. We take a look back at his legendary three-decade career.
When it comes to pioneers who have significantly impacted Black culture in profound ways, undoubtedly, Andre Harrell’s name has always ranked among the upper echelon of cultural icons. His innovative work in music, TV, and Film made him one of Black culture’s preeminent moguls, paving the way for fellow visionaries to follow the trail that he blazed. Always dressed to the nines, he was hip-hop but in a bespoke tuxedo. His motif of style, class, and business acumen set a high standard as he continuously broke down barriers in stunning fashion. His sudden passing on May 9th, due to a heart ailment, sent shock waves throughout the entertainment industry. At the time of his death, Harrell, who was 59, was working on his latest project, a mini-series chronicling the history of Uptown Records, the label he founded.
Born in the Bronx on Sept. 26, 1960, Harrell always believed that he was destined for greatness. “I grew up thinking wonderful things could happen,” he told Vanity Fair in 1993. “I always believed I’d have a wonderful life.”
His first major break in the music business came while he was still a high school student as a part of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, with his partner Alonzo Brown. The duo had a major buzz in the early 1980s, with their signature hits “Genius Rap” in 1981 and “A.M./P.M.” in 1984. After releasing several songs and their debut album, The Champagne of Rap, in 1985 they appeared in the cult classic Krush Groove.
After Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde disbanded (The two remained close throughout their lives) Harrell began his career as a successful record executive becoming the first rapper to transition into the corporate boardroom. He worked with Russell Simmons’s Rush Management and at Def Jam in the ’80s, rapidly ascending as an executive and played a major role in building the careers for the likes of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Whodini. The acclaim he received at Def Jam was a foreshadowing of the influence he was about to have upon Black culture and music with his own imprint.
At 25 years old, he founded Uptown as a joint venture with MCA which would ultimately be his enduring legacy. His first project was the compilation album, Uptown Is Kickin’ It, featured Heavy D, DJ Eddie F, and Marly Marl. From its inception, Uptown was more than just a boutique label. Harrell was cultivating a brand, a lifestyle that celebrated the beauty of Blackness and the aspirations of the “good life.” At the helm of his own company, he was well on his way to revolutionizing hip-hop and R&B.
Uptown, a term New Yorkers use for Harlem, was a brand built on the glamorous life. From the days of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Metropolis in Manhattan had represented upward mobility, Black artistry, and Black entrepreneurship. Harrell’s mission was to establish a modern-day oasis of Black excellence. If Def Jam catered to the streets, Harrell saw Uptown as a lifestyle brand that promoted the high-life of partying, champagne popping and being fly. He offered his motif of sophisticated Blackness to the masses and the results were legendary. “I’m an inner-city kid who knows the reality of being poor, “ Harrell said in that Vanity Fair article. “I’m looking for escapism. Fun music. Good-time music. So, Uptown.” Now at the helm of his own company, he was well on his way to revolutionizing hip-hop and R&B.
The true brilliance of Harrell was revealed in the music that Uptown produced. Uptown was the house of “New Jack Swing” a fledgling genre curated by Teddy Riley that combined elements of R&B, hip-hop, Funk, and dance. New Jack Swing was the personification, the literal soundtrack of the Black luxury brand that Harrell envisioned in Uptown. Featuring acts such as Heavy D and The Boyz, Al. B. Sure, Guy, Jeff Redd, Christopher Williams, and a plethora of others, Harrell was marketing Uptown directly to the Black consumer and was convinced that the Black culture would eventually become pop culture. In an interview with Upscale Magazine, Harrell observed, “I’m promoting the whole spectrum of black lifestyles, from the teenage street hip-hop lifestyle to an adult, upwardly mobile black lifestyle.”
Harrell’s eye for talent was at its zenith when he tapped a 19-year old Sean “Puffy” Combs to be an intern at Uptown. Recommended by Heavy D, Diddy traveled back and forth between DC and New York City, revealing the grit and determination that would fuel his success. Young Sean Combs would soon elevate from intern to head of A&R at Uptown. Under Harrell’s tutelage, Diddy’s star rose as an up-and-coming mogul as he began to create massive hits for Father MC and Jodeci, drastically transforming the trajectory of Uptown.
Another seismic shift in Black music took place when Harrell discovered a singer from Yonkers named Mary J. Blige and, along with Diddy, created another defining genre — hip-hop soul. A subgenre of New Jack Swing, hip-hop soul highlighted soulful vocals over hip-hop breakbeats and samples. Once again, Uptown bequeathed to the music world another gift from the pool of Black musical brilliance. Exemplifying this new direction in Black music, with classic albums such as What’s The 411? and My Life, Mary J. Blige was and still is the unquestioned Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Harrell could claim to have had a hand in developing two genres of Black music that would shape the culture for the next 30 years and counting.
Inking a $50 Million dollar deal with MCA and under the umbrella of Uptown Entertainment, Harrell partnered with Dick Wolf (creator of Law & Order) and launched New York Undercover in 1994. The hit crime drama was part of Fox’s popular Thursday night lineup of Black TV shows alongside Living Single and Martin. New York Undercover, which ran four seasons, was the first police drama that starred two people of color (Malik Yoba and Michael De Lorenzo) in the lead roles. Undercover also featured live performances from the hottest acts in hip-hop and R&B. Harrell proved the acceptability and profitability of Black culture in all sectors of entertainment.
After leaving Uptown, Harrell had a brief stint as CEO of Motown Records from 1995 to 1998. In a full-circle moment, he would go on to work with his mentee Diddy as president of Bad Boy Records and later as Vice-Chairman of Revolt TV and Media.
Without question, Andre Harrell opened the doors for Black ownership and creativity in entertainment. Because of his template, labels such as Bad Boy, LaFace, So So Def, Roc-A-Fella, No Limit, Cash Money, and others were tremendously successful. He helped to launch the careers of Heavy D, Al B. Sure, Teddy Riley, Guy, Halle Berry, Sean Combs, Jodeci, The Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and more. Harrell created the blueprint as the ambassador of Black culture. Speaking to the L.A Times, Harrell noted, “My goal is to bring real black America — just as it is, not watered down — to people everywhere through music, through films, through everything we do.”
Andre Harrell fulfilled his mission and then some. He was unapologetically Black and unashamedly fly. He was the official ambassador of Black culture and we are forever indebted to him.
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Rashad Grove is a writer from NJ whose work has appeared on BET, Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, High Snobiety, Medium, Revolt TV, The Source Magazine, and others. You can follow him at @thegroveness for all of his greatness.