In 1986, a gifted visionary named Andre Harrell began laying the foundation for a new record label — one that would change the direction of music and culture.
At the time, Harrell already had minor success as an artist. He was part of a flamboyant rap duo called Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, alongside partner Alonzo Brown. The duo released two minor hits in the early 80s, “Genius Rap” and “A.M./P.M,” which was produced by pioneer Kurtis Blow. In 1985, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde released their only album, The Champagne of Rap. It was a commercial disappointment, selling less than 100,000 copies, and the two rappers disbanded. Both went to the business side of music to make their impact. Harrell would join Russell Simmons’s Rush Management, working with talent like Whodini and Run-DMC. (Brown would go on to have a high-ranking role at Cold Chillin’ Records.)
So, when Harrell launched Uptown Records in 1986, the 25-year-old record executive, was already a vet. With Uptown, Harrell sought to bring a groundbreaking sound to the forefront of not only black culture but pop culture. He wanted to center his label around Black people who enjoyed a flashy, fun lifestyle. While searching for talent, he signed his first protégé, Heavy D. & the Boyz, who were from Mount Vernon, New York. The group would eventually kick off the Uptown reign by leading off the Uptown Is Kickin’ It compilation album.
After the group was signed, one of Heavy D.’s high school football teammates and best friends wanted to join him at Uptown Records. His name was Albert Brown, better known to the world as Al B. Sure! Despite having a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, he made the decision to pursue music. Alongside his cousin, Kyle West, Al B. Sure! began collaborating on music. Due to the music they were making, Al B. Sure! transformed from a rapper into a singer within months. Shortly thereafter, he was the first R&B act signed to Uptown Records.
During the recording phase of Al B. Sure!’s debut album, In Effect Mode, West worked with a teenaged Teddy Riley; Edward “DJ Eddie F” Ferrell from Heavy D. & the Boyz; young background singer Terri Robinson; and Harrell. Under their tutelage, Sure! and West gained invaluable knowledge about producing and recording songs. Within the same time frame, Sure! entered into the Sony Innovators Talent Search. He was selected as the winner by the legendary Quincy Jones. With the successes of Janet Jackson’s Control (1986), Heavy D. & the Boyz’s Living Large (1987), and Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever (1987), New Jack Swing became a new movement dominating the music scene. By the spring of 1988, the stage was set for Al B. Sure! to leave his mark on the industry.
On May 3, 1988, Al B. Sure’s! In Effect Mode was released as a joint venture between Uptown Records and Warner Bros. Records. The album would spawn four hit singles, including two number one hits: “Nite and Day” and “Off on Your Own (Girl)” and “If I’m Not Your Lover” and “Rescue Me,” which peaked at number two and number three on the Billboard R&B chart, respectively.
In an effort to honor the recent passing of Andre Harrell and his grand legacy, we were able to speak with producer Kyle West about the pivotal role he and Harrell played in constructing Al B. Sure!’s classic debut.
How did you and your cousin Al B. Sure! began collaborating on songs?
I dabbled in music as a kid and Al was a rapper. He liked the attention, and he just needed to find something to do. We actually met and grew up with Eddie F. of Heavy D. & The Boyz. We all grew up in the same city. I was still in college at the time. I had a [Roland] Juno-106 keyboard, and I really didn’t know much about music or record-making to have a direction. Rap was definitely bigger than R&B in the mid-’80s. Once I began creating music, I told him, “You can’t rap over this, you’re going to have to do something else.” So, Al B. Sure! began teaching himself how to write songs, follow melodies, and write strong lyrics and arrangements. He also taught himself how to sing. To this day, that still amazes the hell out of me. He learned all of this on the fly. Singing was not his passion. His passion was rapping, which he was very good at. But after listening to my stuff, it was so musical that he had to do something else.
This process started toward the end of 1986. We already had our music, but it had no direction and wasn’t really polished. I remember we had a song that he was rapping on, and we played it for Andre Harrell and Andre felt that it would be better to sing it. Al was a big Michael Jackson fan, so he tailored everything to be smooth like Michael Jackson. The only thing he really had to work on was his lyrical skills because he was good with melodies. He knew how to use his voice so lyrics were the thing he had to master. We really didn’t have enough background in knowing what to do and what not to do. So, it kind of helped us. There were no boundaries and it allowed us to do what we wanted naturally.
How did you all approach Andre Harrell to get a record deal with Uptown Records?
Al played football with Hev, and he was just pretty much following behind Hev and Eddie F. and hanging out with them. I was still in college, so I wasn’t even in New York. Al just kept saying, “I got to get some stuff.” He would tell Eddie, “You got to play this for your manager.” When I would come home from school on breaks, I already had the music ready. Al would try to create as much as he could, so that he had something to give to Eddie, and Eddie got it to Andre. Every show that Heavy and Eddie went to here in the city, Al would take the train [to]. He knew that he was going to see Andre. Al kept making demos from our music and then when he got the chance, he would just give it to Andre. Andre pretty much kept us at a distance for a little bit, until it just made sense to take a look at us and put us in the studio.
You only worked on creating music when you came home from college?
Yes. During Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, and the summer. My dad helped me get a keyboard. Al had the four-track recorder and the drum machine, and I was just pumping out tracks. Believe me, they weren’t even good, but you could see that there was creative talent. I just needed to have better equipment and some direction. I didn’t know I could do it, either. I had been playing music for like 10 years. I played as a kid, and then I didn’t play. When Heavy released his record here in Mount Vernon, everybody was trying to do demos all over this little town. That’s when Al came to me and said, “Yo, we could do this, too.” I said, “Yes, we could, but I don’t know anything about rap. You’re going to have to sing.” I just had the right song. Our motivation was seeing Heavy D succeeding in this industry. He was really was the impetus for everyone here in this small town to see if they had musical talent.
I remember you saying that it took Al. B Sure! six months to transform from a rapper to a singer.
What came first was the songwriting for Al. The vocal ability took some time because he wasn’t someone who could really blow. He was able to put together creative thoughts in a song. Then musically, my tracks were so crowded with instruments. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, but Al was smart enough to follow the melody of one of the instruments, and that’s how he came up with his melody for his songs. Then, when he would write it, that instrument that he followed, we would take it out. I helped him with the melody, but what really grabbed me, was this dude could write a song. Andre Harrell didn’t care about the singing too much. He felt the image was what was going to really grab people, but his songwriting really stepped out in front of everything else, and then we were pumping the songs out. Making a track was easier for me, and Al had to keep up. He would come over, and we were able to demo a lot of work. Was all of it great? Obviously not. I will say, those first four singles — “Nite and Day,” “Off on Your Own (Girl),” “Rescue Me,” and “Naturally Mine” — we wrote when we had no equipment, no direction, and no nothing. Those records we wrote before we had a record deal. He was writing songs. Again, the singing wasn’t the best, the production wasn’t the best, and my playing wasn’t the best, but we were focused and determined to make it.
Do you remember the first time you and Al B. Sure! met Andre Harrell?
It was Christmas of 1986. [I was home] for my Christmas break. Al and I really were pumping out some songs over that Christmas break. As it was getting closer to mid-January, I had to go back to school. So I asked him, “Where’s this Andre guy? I’m going back to school in two days.” That night was the night when we had that conversation. Al called Andre at home, he said, “Look, you got to meet my cousin because he’s leaving for school.” Andre said, “All right. Come meet me at the MCA building tomorrow.” I was excited and Al was like, “Meet me down there.” I get down there, and I didn’t know anyone. He told me what office we were supposed to meet in, but I didn’t know Andre. So, I went to this office and this guy just treated me like a stepchild. He was like, “Who are you? Get out of my office. I don’t know you.” I was so embarrassed. I came downstairs in the elevator and here comes Al walking through the door. I was like, “Yo, dude. I just got kicked out this dude’s office. Where were you?” He said, “Andre’s not here. We got to go to a studio in Queens. We got to go meet him there because he’s recording.”
They were recording the Uptown Is Kickin’ It album. He was working with Marley Marl there. We met Andre at the studio in Queens. It was a real quick meeting, to be honest. He wanted the nine songs we did. I gave him like 11 of the tracks, and Andre said, “Look, I think you guys can do something. I think you guys can really create something good and special.” Just from that interaction, I said, “All right. I am going to take one semester off from school.” I had to beg my family to let me take one semester off from school. Well, we met Teddy [Riley] two months later, and then two months after that, we were in the studio, and two months after that, Andre got us a deal with Warner Bros.
God looked out for us.
What was it like meeting Teddy Riley for the first time?
He was living in the projects in Harlem. He was just a local producer. Teddy already made local rap records. He wasn’t big yet. So, we had to go to his house, and he was going to do his version of “Off on Your Own (Girl).” He really gave it a street vibe. It was just exciting. We were saying, “Who is this guy?” [laughs] I remember it came out great musically. I remember we were walking out the door and he asked, “So what are we going to do next?” My cousin Al said, “Oh, that song. It doesn’t have a title yet.” It was “Nite and Day.” Musically, the demo wasn’t tight. All Teddy said was, “Oh, that Michael Jackson sounding record? That’s a great record. We got to do that next.” That was the only session we had with Teddy at his house because we pretty much demoed everything at my house.
Then, Andre took us into the studio. I can’t remember what artist it was on Uptown, but they canceled a session, and Al was there at the studio. Uptown had to pay for the session anyway. He said, “Well don’t waste it. Let me and Kyle go.” I got a call, and I was way out at my house in upstate New York. I had to rush down to Chung King Studios, and that was our first session in the studio. This was in 1987. I had no idea what was going to come of this stuff, but it was so damn exciting to be in a real recording studio recording our song. We weren’t looking for any level of success. We didn’t care if we sold one record. Just to be able to say we were in a studio recording our stuff to share with the world was enough.
Did you all record this album mainly in Chung King Studios?
We only recorded in Chung King during the month of May in 1987. Chung King was a rock studio. They didn’t have a lot of keyboards there and reverb. That’s where Def Jam created all of those classic 1980s records, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. It was for rock. It was dirty but had a great sound. Then one day, Al met this guy, and he said, “Yo, there’s this other studio that we could work at.” The guy was an engineer. His name was Les Davis. He was a local producer also. He said, “Why don’t you all come up here?” We went to Unique Recording Studios. That was the summer of 1987. It was just a totally different world than Chung King. It was clean and had all these keyboards. As a keyboardist, I loved seeing all the keyboards. That was our home. That’s where we recorded from then on, from the summer of 1987 to early 1988.
During the recording process, what was your typical studio routine?
Al liked to sing at night. I would cut tracks from 2 PM to 10 PM. That’s usually where we would track stuff. Singing vocals would happen at night. We would start at 8 PM until whenever we finished. We would leave out of there at 4 or 5 AM and jump on the dangerous subway. Andre gave us money to where we could do pretty much all the pre-production at my house. When we saw the keyboards that they were using in the studio, he gave me the money to go get the exact same keyboards, so that we could practice and do the pre-production at my house, and then go to the studio, because, by then, we knew exactly what we were going to do. We would sometimes do that the night before we had a session. Al would practice his vocal and pre-produce his vocal at my house. We didn’t have the recording capabilities that would have been available to us today. You don’t even need to go to a studio today. We didn’t have that then. Everything we did in pre-production, we had to redo again in the studio. That was very time-consuming, but it was almost like practice.
Can you describe the process of demoing these songs before playing them for Andre Harrell?
We really were making the records and these demos for us. I wasn’t that tight with Eddie back then. I knew Eddie since junior high school, but being in the music industry was not my drive. I was a college student, and I was just making the music. My father played music, my brother played music, my grandfather played music, which is Al’s grandfather also. I was just doing it to be doing it. That was my motivation. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, but I was making music. Then Al would come in and teach himself how to write and sing a song. When we gave Andre the songs, as I said before, there was no direction and no production. It was just me playing and Al singing.
Andre picked two or three songs he really liked. He would tell Eddie, “I need this recorded better.” Eddie had a little studio in his house. I would do the music and then Al would go to Eddie’s house to do the vocals and Andre hand-picked the songs that he wanted to hear a little better. I think that was “Nite and Day,” “Rescue Me,” and “Off on Your Own (Girl).” He kept saying, “I want to hear this in the demo and I want this vocal better. I want the melody of this song different.” He would tell Eddie, and then Eddie would tell us. That was pretty much Andre keeping us at a little distance, but getting us to work. Then in March 1987, he said, “I want to put you guys with this local producer, and he’ll get that together for you guys.” That happened to be Teddy Riley.
Andre definitely knew what he wanted to hear. Those first demos didn’t give him that. The music was there, but it didn’t have the identity and the sound that he wanted. That’s why he brought Teddy in. I will add this, Eddie F. kind of did what Teddy did with the drums. We felt Eddie would help us with some beats, and then I had to get a little bit funkier with my music and Al had to tighten up his vocals. After that one session with Teddy, we didn’t work with Teddy again. The three of us, we got that sound going for the demos. Then when Andre said, “I think we got something,” he gave Al the deal with Uptown. It was all on Al. He got us in the studio, and he got us in Unique Recording Studios. That’s when we met Roey Shamir, who was the engineer and the mixer, and Les Davis. Les Davis let us know what new keyboards were out, and they helped us with the sound, especially Roey Shamir. He really helped us with the engineering side of what it was supposed to sound like. Again, between myself and Al and a little bit of help from Eddie, we got the production tight.
How meticulous was the process of recording the background vocals for this album?
Very meticulous. I got to mention my girl Terri Robinson. She was a young 16-year-old girl from Harlem. She knew Teddy before we knew Teddy, and she was a senior in high school. She was a singer. She had no confidence in her songwriting. She had no confidence in anything else other than being a singer, but she was very melodic. So, there would be times where we would be in the studio, me and Al. Al was trying to do his backgrounds, and I would always give him the melody notes. He would come up with these other harmony notes, but it was hard for him. Terri Robinson had a knack for coming up with harmony notes. He would page her and she’d be at school, and she would call back. Al would say, “Listen to this.” And he would play what we were doing in the studio over the phone. She would give the harmony note from her lunchroom in school.
She sang background on a few of those songs on the first album, but she really helped us with coming up with some of those background notes. She was a very integral part of that. Al knew what he wanted to hear. Harmony-wise that was his thing. I just wanted the melody to be straightforward, a few harmony notes, but he could really branch that thing out and it became meticulous for him. At that time, Michael Jackson’s Bad was out, and that was pretty much what we listened to. Al studied that, and I studied that. I said, “That’s the effect that we want.”
Let’s go in-depth about the making of the songs for this album, starting with “Nite and Day.”
It was put together in early 1987. I just came back from college, and I was messing around on the keyboard and I came up with the basics of the track. It definitely wasn’t the finished version, but I composed the music in January of 1987 and the music sat in a shoebox. When Al finally heard it a month or two later, he wrote the hook for the song and that’s all we had. So, when we played the demo for Andre, there was only the track and the hook, no verses. Andre and Teddy Riley called it the Michael Jackson song, but the hook was very smooth. They could see where it was going.
This was the first record we worked on, and everybody who heard it knew that it was going to be the main record. Even before the other eight songs came about, everybody knew that was going to be the song. We had the chance to cut the song in Unique Recording Studios in New York City. The first day in the studio is when the finished track started to come together. The next day the guy who was giving us studio time for free said, “Come on in at 8 AM.” And we got there and Al still didn’t have verses for the song yet. So that same guy told us to go grab some breakfast and to come back in an hour. Within that hour is when Al wrote the lyrics for the song. He wrote them on a napkin when we were sitting and eating at McDonald’s. Once we returned back to the studio, he put down the verses and that completed the song.”
“Off on Your Own (Girl).”
“Off on Your Own (Girl)” stuck with Andre after he first heard it. He made us go back and fix it. We didn’t know what he was talking about, and we said we’re not doing it over any more. From demo to how the song ended up sounding, there isn’t much difference. Andre kept saying, “No. Bring it back. Do this, fix this, fix that.” Andre kept saying something was missing and he couldn’t tell us what he had envisioned for the record. I remember one time we had to bring it in to Eddie F. to ask him what was Andre hearing that we weren’t. The one-time Al rapped on the track; I think that’s what made Andre feel that this was it. Once we came to the final version, it was never touched again.
There were a lot of different versions for “Rescue Me” before the final version. We just couldn’t nail it down. One day, Al was in the studio and came up with the beat for it. I was in a studio session at another studio in the city, and I came back uptown and he told me this should be the new beat for “Rescue Me.” It took me an hour or two to rework all of the music and that ended up being the final version for the song. The hook and verses never changed throughout the process. The fifth version, which ended up being the final version, took us a while to get there, but it was worth it in the end.
“Oooh This Love is So.”
“Oooh This Love is So” was the fifth track we put together for the album. It’s my favorite song by Al B. Sure! because there’s so much behind it. After we got our record deal and the four major songs that were on our demo, we received some money from the label and we were able to buy better equipment. Once we set everything up, I composed the basic track. Al was supposed to record the vocal at Eddie F.’s studio. I told them we had to get the song done before a certain time because I had another studio session to go to. So, they rode around the city wasting the whole day. I told them I was leaving, and after I did my one track I left, and they were pissed. [laughs]
So, I get a knock on my door at about 5 AM and it was Al and Eddie. They came in and played the vocal Al laid down hours before. I was in a session with a girl group, and I played it for them and they started crying because they thought it was so beautiful. The song came together in one day. When we went back to the studio, I added the bells and strings to the track, and we had some singers do the background vocals for us. Al was so in love with his lead vocal from the demo that it’s the same one that’s on the album today. Al wanted us to find a way to get his vocal from the demo version to the final recording, and he was so right in thinking that way. We started the song at 7 PM and finished it the next morning. To me, it’s the most magical record we ever did.
I had the music for “Naturally Mine” in that same shoebox I spoke of earlier. Al wrote the song straight out first and it was one of the easiest ones to do. One day, when we went to Chung King Studios, we recreated the music and I remember everybody at the Uptown offices talking about the music and saying how good it was sounding. There were no vocals on it at all, and because everyone was talking about the music so much. It let Al know that he had to finish that song in the same night. He ran through those vocals so quickly and it was one of the quicker vocals he ever did. We never went back in to remove or add anything, so it was one of the easiest songs we’ve ever done together.
“If I’m Not Your Lover.”
“If I’m Not Your Lover” is the one record on the album that I did not have any part on. Teddy Riley produced it. Andre was going to put out the first nine songs we did. We were putting out as much as we could being a first-time artist and producers. When we got to six songs, Andre said, “I got to get this thing out.” Because “Nite and Day” was already out, Andre needed to get the album done. So, Al went to record “If I’m Not Your Lover” with Teddy. Then there was a problem because Guy was on MCA, and they didn’t want Teddy giving away songs to Warner Bros. Teddy said, “Keep it. No biggie. You keep the record and just take my name off.”
“Killing Me Softly.”
With “Killing Me Softly,” Andre wanted to do a remake. This was totally all Andre here. I’ll give him credit. I was a new producer and composer. I didn’t have the confidence that I could take someone else’s song and do it as well. The song he wanted to do first was “Natural High” by Bloodstone. That was one of his favorite records and he said, “If you do this, this would be a great Al B. Sure! song.” Me and Al went back to my house, and we demoed it and it came out perfect. This was an updated version of “Natural High.” I got the track right, but we couldn’t nail down those backgrounds like the original.
We just couldn’t get it right, and we just didn’t have the confidence. So Andre was like, “OK, well, let’s move on…I got another idea. What about [Roberta Flack’s] “Killing Me Softly?” I responded, “You know, that was a dope record. I remember that when I was really young.” Andre knew he had to get somebody’s blessing. He was at an event, and he met Roberta Flack. So, he had her information, her number, and then when he came up with the idea and Al had the deal with Warner Brothers, he called her and asked, “Could we come talk to you?” I think they went to her house. She was living in The Dakota where John Lennon lived. Al and Andre went to her house in The Dakota and said, “This is my artist. He’s going to be big and he’s on Warner Brothers, and we want to know if we could do your song.”
Then, Al came back to my house, and I couldn’t nail those cords right. Al was on the four-track punching in and punching out on my mistakes, and I was like, “This song got the best of me.” Al was on my new drum machine. He said, “Let me try a beat.” He was just learning programming, and he came up with this beat that just racked my brain like, “Oh my God, I can’t listen to this. It’s all over the place.” When we finished it, we brought it to the studio the next day. Eddie F. was there, and he said, “That is so crazy that it’s kind of dope. It’s totally different than the original.” I was like, “We didn’t try to do that, but, yes, it really is.” That night we recorded it again, punching me in on all of my mistakes. When we heard it in the studio, it had a totally different life to it. Al made it sensual, and we got the backgrounds right. His performance on that record was beautiful. It definitely came together. When the album came out, the radio stations across the country were riveted by that record. They started playing that record and it wasn’t a single. In New York City, it was the number one requested song. That song was a magical song.
“Just A Taste of Lovin’.”
“Just A Taste of Lovin’” was the last record we completed for the album. Honestly, the album was done, and we weren’t in a real creative mode and it was kind of just thrown together. But we let the talent come out and Terri Robinson, pretty much came up with the hook for this song. We put that song together fairly quickly, but it didn’t have what the rest of the songs on the album had.
What was it like working with Andre Harrell while watching his vision for his label and movement come to fruition?
I have to give a lot of credit to Andre. He wanted to put out a product that was a little different from what people were used to hearing. The New Jack Swing movement was an infusion of youth. This is in no way any disrespect to the pioneers of R&B music, but towards the mid to late 1980s, R&B music was getting long in the tooth. There were older artists and songs that we loved, but Andre’s focus was to make music a little bit more youthful and create this different sound and energy. But where I give even more credit to Andre is his vision when he put together ideas for music videos. He actually went and got video directors and stylists from Europe. There was no one doing that at the time. The music really looked different, and I think that is what really catapulted Uptown Records to the next level.
Andre had one goal in mind. He wanted to make records for the hood and for uptown. He wanted to reflect Harlem culture by the way we used to talk, walk, and dress. But it took on another life, especially when Al B. Sure!’s album came out. And more so with Heavy D. Heavy D crossed over to the mainstream, and he wasn’t just considered hood. Popular culture audiences really got into him all over the country. Credit goes to Andre because he knew where to take it next because that’s where things could have really gotten messed up. New Jack Swing became bigger than what we initially thought. Andre had the genius to know how to keep the movement going. He wanted to keep it true, hood, and New York. But at the same time, he didn’t want to turn away pop audiences. Andre was able to package the product to reach every type of audience. It was just an amazing job on Uptown’s behalf and a real testament to Andre as well.
As you look back on the making of the album, what are your feelings about being part of making history during the early days of Uptown Records?
When we were starting out, which included getting the deal with Uptown and Uptown getting the deal with Warner, we were starving. We didn’t have no money. The future generation of artists need to know this. My parents were able to give me a car with a tank of gas so we could get places. I was one of the oldest. I was 20. Everyone else was younger than me, and we were so excited just to be recording an album. Everyone was making demos in their house. We were actually making an album. Not having food some of those nights, riding on public transportation to get there, and then to go home. There was no flossin’ and no entourage.
We were totally focused on making records and getting the best out of us that we could. Unique Recording Studios was a really nice studio. We were very fortunate to work in a nice studio. When you’re starving and hungry, it seems like that’s when your best work comes out. That’s exactly how we lived working on that first album. We were sharing a personal pizza between three of us. Warner Brothers was kicking up no money at the beginning and Uptown didn’t have any money. We were there for love.
Chris Williams is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Red Bull Music Academy, EBONY, and Wax Poetics. Follow the latest and greatest from him on Twitter @iamchriswms.
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