11. Andre Harrell
Title(s): Founder of Uptown Records
Artists They Worked With: Heavy D & The Boyz, Al B. Sure!
If Russell Simmons hadn’t been such a poor A&R man, his employee Andre Harrell might never have started his own label, Uptown Records as a counterpoint to Def Jam’s “hard as hell” ethos. Simmons belittled Harrell’s idea that an overweight, limerick-tongued “lover” would have any kind of traction in the rap world. So in 1986, Harrell got himself and his MC, Heavy D, a production deal with MCA Records (now Universal).
Harrell won that particular debate in the marketplace. But Harrell’s greatest contribution to hip-hop wasn’t his rap roster. Harrell’s signing of young producer Teddy Riley’s band, Guy, launched the phenomenon of New Jack Swing, the folding of hip-hop style into R&B in a way that even now influences how we make music. Harrell was ultimately responsible for everything that flowed from that: from Al. B Sure, to two artists championed by his A&R man Kurt Woodley: Jodeci and Mary J Blige, who comprised stage two of Uptown’s R&B fusion movement, called hip-hop soul.
This evolution was aided by Harrell’s eye for executive talent. Harrell boosted an energetic Uptown intern named Sean “Puffy” Combs into the creative ranks of his company, and gave him Woodley’s portfolio of artists after the A&R man’s departure. Combs’ styling and studio suggestions imparted a degree of hotness to Jodeci and Blige, and in turn boosted Combs’ own stature in the industry. With that came the inevitable inflation of “Puff Daddy”’s ego, and his firing by Harrell.
Harrell’s own inability to morph his creative and business styles precipitated his eclipse by his protege. But in 2013 we’ll be able to judge his ears once more as we watch how his new group, Hamilton Park, fares.