Gary Harris is a Record Man and a&r who has been shaping the sound of black radio since the early days of hip-hop’s existence as an industry with the foundation of Def Jam as a label, ushering in a new era of soul with the signing of D’Angelo. In 1990-1991, he was instrumental in shaping the soundtrack to New Jack City, lending his golden ear to the services of Executive Producers George Jackson, Doug McHenry, Benny Medina and Cassandra Mills and producer/arranger Teddy Riley (of Guy) to make the music as timely, authentic and well, sexy, as the film itself. Mr. Harris was gracious enough to sit with Okayplayer to share an inside player’s history of the soundtrack, the DVD extras, if you will. What follows is The Secret History of New Jack City’s iconic soundtrack in Harris’ own words, as told to OKP’s editor-in-chief Eddie STATS. Read on, player:
I started with Def Jam in ’84. Actually, I joined the company in ’85 but I had been hanging out with Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons]–well, certainly Russell–five out every seven days in the clubs in New York. Rick was hanging out with us three of every seven days and I saw the first Beastie Boys show at the Roxy with Russell. They gave us a limousine ride back to a drug dealer party in Queens. It was in October of ’84 and by the winter of ’85 George Jackson and Doug McHenry had decided to do a deal. Russell did a deal with them to do Krush Groove through Warner Brothers. I met Doug and George through Krush Groove.
The reason why I had to join Def Jam officially was because Russell was on the set everyday and Rick was producing records for the soundtrack, and they were both in the movie. There was no one to tend to the day-to-day business of Def Jam. By this time LL put out “Dangerous” and I was working “Party’s Getting Rough.” I went on and left Def Jam and went with Andre [Harrell] to form Uptown Records and then I had a period of independent promotion. One of the records that I worked as an independent was Teddy Riley’s first credited production for Julie and Roy Rifkind, who had a label called Spring Records. I had become a force in in independent promotion where you were signing records cooler than you were capable of getting played. I could get you on KISS, Chuck Chillout, Red Alert. I’d give Mr. Magic and Marley Marl your record and then I could translate the energy from club retail and mix show, and I could articulate the need for a programmer to put your record on in regular rotation which at that time was called daytime. In my experience as a promotion guy I met Doug and George, I worked Teddy Riley’s records, and I met Andre Harrell when we were both working for Russell and he started Uptown. That was really the beginning of New Jack, because Andre Harrell was that label was the first best New Jack Swing label essentially.
It was music that was aimed at a very fast urban–and when I say urban I don’t mean like with Rush. Def Jam was a downtown art alternative sensibility that was exploited at college radio. College radio meaning white colleges. Whereas Uptown was a black sensibility that was aimed at more of the drug dealer shit; fast, champagne spilling, party music. Through Barry [Michael Cooper]’s article in the Village Voice, Teddy was identified as the progenitor of the New Jack sound, whereas Andre was the primary marketing force behind it. People were saying “New Jack” in the street but Barry came up with the idea of the New Jack Swing in his piece in the Voice on Teddy Riley.
In the street, New Jack was certainly about freshness and newness and a first time an emergence of post-Reagan clean era of upward mobility, to whatever extent that was possible. That was the soundtrack and the underpinning. It was hip-hop based, and hip-hop derived, but it was more about economic freedom, decadence, fun, party music.
I think it was in ’88 [that] George had called me and asked me did I know who Barry Cooper was? I was like, “Yeah he wrote that dope shit in the voice, follows the crack beat, whatever. He’s hot.” I’d never met Barry but I had read his stuff. Then he sent me the script for New Jack City and I was like, “This is better.” Whatever the fuck it was. I had a promotion job as the East Coast director of promotion for Wing Records. Then one of Russell’s former paramours, a woman named Cassandra Mills, was named head of black music at Irving Azoff’s start up label Giant Records. She knew me and brought me in the do a&r. At the interview, she flew me out to LA and in 20 minutes I got the job. So I said, “What’s our relationship with Warner Brothers?” This is the very beginning of ’90, actually. He [Irving] says, “Well they are a part of it.” Giant was a joint venture with Warner Brothers. I said, “Look, there’s a film that they currently have in development and if we get control of the soundtrack, it will launch us in the black music business…”