Harrell’s label launched the careers of Mary J. Blige, Teddy Riley, Diddy, and more.
Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Harrell began his music career as one half of the duo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1982, the group scored their first hit with “Genius Rap,” a flip of Tom Tom Club’s iconic “Genius of Love.” It peaked at No. 31 on the Hot R&B songs chart, but it wouldn’t be long before a chance encounter with Russell Simmons reshaped his trajectory.
After a brief, but impactful, tenure at a still young Def Jam Records, Harrell founded his own label, Uptown Records, launching the careers of Mary J. Blige, Teddy Riley, Heavy D & The Boyz, Al B. Sure!, and Sean “Diddy” Combs (who served as an intern for the fledgling label.) In the 90s, Harrell was offered a multimedia deal from MCA Records (Uptown’s distributor,) which landed him the executive producer role in a number of big and small screen productions, including the 1991 comedy Strictly Business and the hit Fox police drama, New York Undercover. With boom-bap and gangster rap cornering the hip-hop market, Uptown began a gradual decline. In 1994, Harrell left the label he founded to step in as CEO of Motown Records, a position he held through 1996, overseeing releases from Boyz II Men, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Gil, and The Temptations.
In the following decade, Harrell leaned into his TV and film production, before reuniting with Diddy at REVOLT, where he served as a chairman and organized the network’s annual Hip-Hop Summit.
Last December, Harrell announced he was working on a scripted mini-series for BET based on the Uptown Records story. But it’s unclear whether that project will move forward.