The passing of veteran music executive Andre Harrell hits hard. He will go down in history as the founder of Uptown Records (responsible for Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Guy, Al B. Sure!, and many more); original mentor to Sean Combs; coiner of the phrase “ghetto fabulous”; former CEO of Motown Records; and the unmatched power broker of urban sophistication. Harrell was clearly all those things, but putting a finger on how someone shifted culture, arguably twice in a row, is more difficult to explain. Andre Harrell did that.
Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde was an early ’80s rap duo with only one album, The Champagne of Rap, and a reputation for rocking tailored suits in a scene full of Lee jeans and tracksuits. Andre Harrell was Dr. Jeckyll. The pair performed at the first concert of my life, on stage with peers like LL Cool J and Slick Rick at Madison Square Garden’s Krush Groove Christmas Party. (Two men were shot and six more stabbed that night; 150 officers had to regulate a mob of concertgoers.) Run-DMC led hip-hop culture by the nose back then. Their shelltoed adidas and all-black everything reflected an audience that dressed the same as they did, a move away from the leather outfits groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five wore, emulating funkateers like Rick James. Andre Harrell already wanted to point hip-hop in a smoother direction. He got his wish.
“I’ve known Andre since my days at The Source magazine but got to know him even more closely when we began work on the Uptown miniseries for BET,” says writer and producer Carlito Rodriguez. (Last December, BET ordered a three-episode series on the history of Harrell’s Uptown Records label, from the executive producer of The New Edition Story and The Bobby Brown Story.) “As recently as the very day before he passed, we’d been texting about Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde performing at the Latin Quarter, and he urged me to remember that in telling the Uptown story, his story, I’m writing his legacy—and enshrining his code for all the world to know: ghetto fabulous plus grown and sexy equals black excellence. Andre was all three, and his life’s work was to ensure we, too, could be that and more.”
For anyone new to Andre Harrell’s legacy, it helps to regard him as the prototype for the high-style, black excellence refinement Sean Combs shoots for, or the brother-from-another of original rap mogul Russell Simmons. Putting Dr. Jeckyll on ice, Harrell took a gig with Simmons’s Rush Management, rising to vice president and general manager before launching the Uptown Records label in 1986. Uptown marked cultural shift number one for Harrell. When it came to hip-hop, Simmons used his own Def Jam Recordings as a middle finger to the bourgeois tendencies that most R&B singers (and black radio) represented at the time. But at Uptown, aspirational style was a central element.
“Andre understood that by connecting R&B and hip-hop to fashion, lifestyle and aspiration, it would have an impact on the culture overall.” - Barry Michael Cooper
Heavy D & the Boyz put “Nike” on their Living Large debut, a year after Run-DMC’s adidas lost major streetwear cred to Air Jordans. Full of production from Teddy Riley and Harrell himself, Living Large made the case for everyday fly black boys who weren’t the outsize superheroes of Def Jam’s rap stable. The billowy suits and shoes they wore on the cover of their Big Tyme follow-up marked the trend: Uptown Records had swag. If hip-hop reflected a culture, then a large part of that culture related to, for example, Slick Rick pairing his Bally shoes with Gucci socks and Polo cologne. The street style ingenuity strip-mined by haute couture fashion houses was reflected in Uptown acts like Guy, Father MC, Jodeci, and Mary J. Blige. Harrell called it ghetto fabulous, and the term eventually encapsulated the 1990s’ whole black style aesthetic.
I remember (unsuccessfully) hunting down a Motown sweatshirt Andre Harrell wore in Vibe magazine when he took over as president of the legendary label in 1995. I remember getting a haircut in midtown Manhattan around the same time and, when Harrell walked in, feeling like I was in just the right cool-anointed barbershop. Paying attention to details like the hang of Harrell’s bow tie was like tuning in to Grown-ish just to see what model Luka Sabbat wears every week. Being young, black, rich and famous (or rich and famous adjacent) in the ’90s was a lifestyle, and Andre Harrell may as well have published the manual.
So even before JAY-Z commanded “Change Clothes” and fans followed suit, Andre Harrell had been invented that grown and sexy space. The other time he shifted culture was also as an arbiter of taste, this time musical. Producer Teddy Riley hyped up so many of us for his recent Verzuz battle against Babyface, because he single-handedly invented new jack swing, which soundtracked so much of the ’90s. Harrell brought that to the world, distributing Teddy Riley’s three-man group Guy on Uptown Records releases like Guy and The Future.
Harrell also famously mentored Sean Combs, the former Uptown intern-turned-producer who eventually led his own explorations into hip-hop soul with modern-day legend Mary J. Blige on What’s the 411? and My Life. Uptown’s Heavy D helped set the blueprint for Combs in crafting the image of the Notorious B.I.G. (who was initially signed to Uptown). Professionally, Harrell spent his final days as vice chairman of Combs’s Revolt TV cable channel.
“Andre understood that by connecting R&B and hip-hop to fashion, lifestyle and aspiration, it would have an impact on the culture overall,” says Barry Michael Cooper, a writer on BET’s Uptown. “He worked in the advertising department of the news station 1010 WINS. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, he knew that the right marketing could marry hip-hop and R&B and impact fans of both LL Cool J and Luther Vandross.
“So Heavy D became the Overweight Lover, a big guy who could make women swoon while being an advocate to the everyday dude,” Cooper continues. “Mary J. Blige became the around the way girl who was an empath to all of the around the way girls who had no voice and wanted something better than just the street life. Jodeci became church boys who could not only sing at the altar of the Baptist church on Sunday morning, but who could wild out in the club on Saturday. Puff became the sonic Fellini, who could visualize Andre’s concept of ghetto fabulous in the production of the music and the five-minute cinema of a Hype Williams video.”
Harrell’s list of career accomplishments also include executive producing the Fox cop series New York Undercover (known for its trailblazing music sequences) and producing films including Strictly Business and Honey.
Asked what he’d done to get invited to a White House dinner, the late jazz great Miles Davis once answered, “I changed music five or six times; what have you done?” By introducing new jack swing and hip-hop soul, Andre Harrell helped change music in two directions that have impacted all our memories and many of our lives. His flowers were long overdue.