“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.”
This was the manifesto of 32 year-old, newly-minted entertainment mogul Andre O’Neal Harrell, in conversation with the L.A. Times in 1992 about his $50M multi-media deal with MCA Records.
Harrell, who founded Uptown Records, died on Friday, May 8th of an apparent cardiac episode at the age of 59. As the music industry mourns this unexpected loss, a refrain keeps echoing through posts and tributes: Andre’s impact on music and culture was never properly celebrated.
In conversations about culture shifters and modern music moguls, Andre Harrell is often relegated to a supporting character role in the Sean Combs story. He’s the person who gave Puff a break, granting him an internship at Uptown; and who pushed him towards his destiny by later firing him from Uptown. Harrell has played a senior executive/consigliere role for Combs and other music insiders over the years through Bad Boy, REVOLT, and most recently Combs Enterprises; the sage voice of wisdom and reason behind the talent.
Tributes to Harrell across the internet since Saturday night include gratitude for advice, knowledge, resources and career guidance. In 2019, BET announced an upcoming biopic about Harrell and Uptown Records; sorely needed, because Harrell’s name should always be mentioned in founder conversations along with Russell Simmons or Combs, but isn’t.
Uptown’s — and by extension Harrell’s — impact spanned beyond making music to creating culture; and Harrell gave the world more than Heavy D., Jodeci, Mary J. Blige and Puffy. Uptown Records was often dubbed the new iteration of Motown; a label where Black artists were seen and nurtured, and Harrell the heir apparent to Berry Gordy. The label set trends and created moments that still reverberate today: It was the home of the New Jack Swing; the incubator for the marriage of hip-hop and R&B with hip-hop soul; the proof of concept for ghetto-fabulousness; the predecessor for labels like So So Def and Roc A Fella, and the direct parent of Bad Boy; and one of the first labels associated with party vibes and fly s–t. Uptown was the first urban lifestyle label, and Andre was the first executive to understand how to sell Black glamour that embraced, rather than ignored, its street edge.
The Bronx-born and bred Harrell’s vision and instincts were that of the rare, landscape-shifting music men, like Gordy, Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun. Uptown’s ethos came from Harrell’s combined experiences as a NY nightlife VIP; an ad sales exec; an early rap star in his own right as part of duo Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: European suit wearing, suitcase carrying lyricists who touted a style called Champagne Rap; and his experience helping develop burgeoning Def Jam talent like LL Cool J and Whodini as part of Simmons’ Rush Management.
He had a clear vision for the smooth, party-friendly fusion of hip-hop and R&B that became Uptown’s calling card, leading him to leave Rush and Def Jam and venture out on his own to start his company at 26 years old. Where Def Jam’s traded in raw hip-hop and grit, Dre had visions for a more aspirational feel of music. “Russell’s a suburban kid who likes extremes on the inner-city tip,” Harrell explained to Vanity Fair in 1993. “I’m an inner-city kid who knows the reality of being poor. I’m looking for escapism. Fun music. Good-time music.”
He also had a clear idea of his audience. In the same 1993 Vanity Fair interview, Harrell broke down his four echelons of Black consumers — he wasn’t concerned about crossover, at least not yet — based on class and lifestyle. His target audience for the aesthetic he alternatively called “ghetto fabulous,” “high Negro style,” and “ghetto glamor,” superseded self-identifying boxes. “The best of all these situations, from ghetto to color to elitist intellectuals, is to be black — when you can be who you truly are in any situation and feel good about yourself. If you don’t feel like you have to conform in your dress or your attitudes, you become a black person. You cross all boundaries. And that is the idea behind Uptown.”
It perhaps goes without saying that Harrell had an eye for talent, with a roster of artists that include some of the most impactful acts in both R&B and hip-hop. But he could see the potential where others couldn’t. A turning point in Simmons and Harrell’s professional relationship came when Russell dismissed an artist Andre was feeling: Mount Vernon rapper Heavy D. Heavy once recounted to New York Magazine: “(Andre) spent months trying to convince Russell that we could be a hit, and Russell was like, ‘But he’s fat,” and Andre would say ‘Yeah, but girls will love him.’” Andre built Uptown around Heavy, and “the overweight” lover was not only a consistent platinum seller for most of his recording career, but is credited as one of the rap artists that helped chart hip-hop’s path into the mainstream. He also took the helm as the company’s president once Andre departed.
Harkening back to the Gordy/Motown method, Harrell prioritized artist development. He knew how to sell the brand. He put new acts through camps that included styling, media training, and choreography; but also kept a close eye on them himself. “He’d talk to us after every show,” Heavy D once shared. “It was part pep talk and part critique.” Uptown’s first R&B star Al B. Sure, credited Dre for his heart throb status, “Andre taught me about style,” Al B. Sure told New York Magazine in 1995. “How to be a sex symbol. He put me in suits and coached me like a director; dress this way, smile that way, look at the camera from a certain angle.”
Andre had an understanding of who his artists were, where they came from, what they were facing as new stars, and what they needed to navigate pitfalls and succeed. When Mary J. Blige abruptly cut a 1995 New York Times interview short after a long day of press for her sophomore album My Life, Andre explained, on record, that the young singer was still unlearning trauma. “She lacks the self-confidence of someone of her stature because she grew up with someone telling her, ‘You ain’t nothing, and you’re never going to be anything.’ In the end, she turned out to be…something very special. But… she doesn’t know it yet.” As he was departing Uptown for Motown, he told Vibe of his artist relationships, “I talked to his mother, his girlfriend, his babies’ mother with the two children, dealt with his drug counselor, and whatever other… problems he has.”
He had a similar eye for executive talent; Harrell curated a company full of people who lived the very lifestyle Uptown was selling. The urban entertainment industry has been populated with Uptown alumnus as label executives, managers, stylists, creatives, etc, for the last 20 plus years, the most famous of which is Bad Boy Records impresario Sean (Puff Daddy, P Diddy, Diddy, Brother Love) Combs. Andre gave his staff latitude to wear multiple hats and work across disciplines of the business — latitude that ultimately led to him famously letting Combs go after the young, brash executive had become what all parties agree was unmanageable. But it was also Andre who told Puff to call Clive Davis for his next move, which led to Bad Boy as a JV under Davis’ Arista Records. Andre also let Puff walk away with newly discovered Biggie Smalls, because the rapper didn’t fit with Uptown’s party brand.
Also like Gordy, Andre saw a bigger picture for Black media and entertainment, and had massive plans for developing Black stories and content under his multi-media with MCA. His first movie project, 1991’s Strictly Business featuring a young Halle Berry in her first major role, was only a moderate success — which Harrell blamed in part on having to tone the storyline down to appease studio heads. He fared better with his first TV venture in 1994: New York Undercover, a collaboration with procedural drama god Dick Wolf. The series, following two young undercover NYC detectives, was the first police drama with two actors of color in the lead, and was perfectly set with the street fashion, lingo, and most critically the music of the day.
Unfortunately, other film and TV projects in development featuring Heavy D, R&B group En Vogue, and rap duo Kris Kross never came to screen. It was a disconnect that spoke to Dre’s biggest frustration: Black execs had a ceiling with creative control in a business were the top-level decision makers didn’t look like them, or come from where they came from. The $50M dollar Uptown Entertainment partnership was widely viewed as a bust in the industry, but those in the know said the fault wasn’t with Andre, but with MCA, who wouldn’t give him real autonomy or put the support Harrell felt was needed behind his projects for them to thrive. As a result, he was looking at a long game to put Black executives in decision-making roles, realizing that senior level corporate heads rarely saw the big picture.
Even in the mid-’90s, as the business of hip-hop was growing and joint ventures were being handed out left and right to serve as urban music pipelines for major labels, Dre saw the jig. Black executives were valuable while identifying and building the talent, but once artists reached star status, those execs were moved aside. 25 years later, his words to VIBE in 1995 still resonate: “Black music is becoming the music of the popular culture… But as Black music becomes more important, there should be more Black presidents and more Black chairmen. As soon as the Black executive’s artist reaches platinum, suddenly the artist and manager have to deal with the president…because he controls the priorities at pop radio. As (the Black executive’s) music gets bigger, his power diminishes. He’s more or less told, ‘Go find the next act and establish it.’”
In 1995, driven by conflicts both with parent company MCA and inside the label — Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, now the label’s most prominent acts, took on Suge Knight as management; and with Andre putting increasing focus on TV and film, new releases weren’t coming quickly enough for MCA — Harrell left Uptown to become the new CEO of Motown. Unfortunately, Harrell was stepping into a Motown far removed from the legacy label’s heyday: The biggest contemporary act on the imprint was Boyz II Men, and Andre was facing a massive rebuild. But Motown, itself in a struggle with former parent company MCA after accusing MCA of failing to promote its acts, was too deep in a hole for Andre to quickly turn around. Harrell estimated it would take him five years to turn the label around. He was there for two.
After a very public ousting, Harrell served as president of Bad Boy for a while, then co-founded Nu America Records with singer/songwriter/producer/label-founder Babyface, a vehicle through which he signed and helped develop a young Robin Thicke. He then ran his own venture, Harrell Records, for a while before rejoining Puffy in 2014 to help run REVOLT and Combs Enterprises, where he spent the remainder of the decade. All the time, Dre has poured into new talent, executives and entrepreneurs in the game, offering jewels on how to win while remaining authentic.
Kings are lauded, while kingmakers are acknowledged quietly, but Andre Harrell — kingmaker and culture-creator — deserves to be celebrated with all the fanfare and energy he made part of our lives. Telling us we didn’t have to code-switch or assimilate to be fly and fabulous. To celebrate the marriage of street and luxury, paving the way for the bling era. For making music fun. For giving us champagne and bubbles aspirations.
Andre’s legacy is well known and respected among industry insiders and those who were there to bear witness in real time, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and sharing of stories on the Internet, but he was never as big a public figure as label heads like Simmons, protégé Puffy or Suge Knight. Andre had expressed at various points his preference to stay out of the spotlight; the ease of it. But as Puff was becoming notorious for being “all in the (Bad Boy) videos… dancin’…” and Harrell was about to take the reins of Motown, he realized he’d leveraged some personal brand power by not putting himself in the front, but instead putting his energy towards creating avenues for new talent to shine – for both artists and executives.
“The thing that Berry Gordy led the way with was the idea that the label head becomes the image of the label,” he told VIBE in 2005. “Myself, I allowed whatever celebrity occurred in my career to happen through the artists. I was so consistent with the kinds of artists who were on my label, after a while it was like ‘Who’s behind all this?’ I was behind it.”