We didn’t give Andre Harrell his flowers.
When we talk about hip-hop’s earliest labels, we often talk Sugar Hill Records, Tommy Boy, and Def Jam. But Uptown was kickin’ it, too.
And who founded Uptown Records in 1986? Andre Harrell. In some ways, the passionate and visionary music executive’s dream for Uptown married together hip-hop and R&B.
Harrell, 59, died of heart failure late Thursday night. But I can still hear his heart as I listen to “Candy Rain” by Soul For Real. I hear it in each “diddy-diddly-diddly-dee” Heavy D spits and wonder if they are reminiscing together in the spirit world. His heart pounds in the bass of Guy’s “Groove Me.” The rhythm of his heart paints “Stay,” by Jodeci and Mary J. Blige’s “My Life.”
When Al B. Sure! sang “Nite and Day,” an 8-year-old me begged my mom not to bring home the tape like she usually did. I wanted to go to the record store. And I wanted to go every week.
At the heart of it all was Andre Harrell. He saw the beauty in us as we are and when you heard music he had his hands in, you felt seen.
When we talk about how we’re spending quarantine, logged into Instagram Live watching D-Nice and Questlove spin records, know there’s not a night that goes by where you don’t hear an artist touched by Harrell. When we’re waiting for the Verzuz battles between legends like Babyface and Teddy Riley or Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, understand Riley slept on Harrell’s couch back in the day. Know Harrell is mentor to Verzuz cocreators Timbaland and Swizz Beatz. Harrell took a chance on the architect of New Jack Swing in Riley and innovator of hip-hop soul in Diddy. He was mentor to creators of the culture.
Uptown Records and the music it led to, the artists that it touched, shaped the sounds of the ’80s and ’90s in groundbreaking ways. Name another label that had an entire MTV "Unplugged” special?
Uptown had classics. We’re talking every artist I mentioned above, plus The Lost Boyz, Anthony Hamilton, Christopher Williams, and the list could go on — but I will stop with just one name: Sean “Puffy” Combs, otherwise known as Diddy, who founded Bad Boy Records and forged a multifaceted movement that forever changed the game.
It’s because of Harrell letting Diddy be Diddy that we got Mary J. Blige as herself, Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, a voice of a certain kind of Black girl, Black like girls like me, all around the world. And it’s because of Harrell that we got The Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie was Diddy’s artist. Together, they were at Uptown. But distributor MCA didn’t want that raw hip-hop on Uptown.
“It wasn’t up to me, I felt, to tell a generation what they could and could not do artistically,” Harrell told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “I told Puff he needs to go and create his own opportunity.”
Harrell pushed Diddy out the door at Uptown, but never left his side. Harrell kept him and his artists on payroll until Diddy launched his own label, Bad Boy Records, and could finally feature Biggie as himself, in all his Coogi sweater, playboy swag that would forever change music. When “Ready to Die” dropped, it gained critical claim without compromising. TIME magazine named it one of the best All-TIME 100 best albums ever made.
Perhaps we’ll see how heavy the Harrell effect is later this year, when BET releases a three-part miniseries, “Uptown,” to tell the story of Harrell’s label. It’s a story that touches all of your favorite artists’ favorite artists.
Harrell, like another legend we lost, Little Richard, gave us permission to be ourselves. They gave us nuance, they gave us joy, they soothed our souls, and they gave us their all in music that cannot be contained and will never die.
There are people who won’t understand how I see Harrell and Little Richard through the same lens. Little Richard is a founding father of rock 'n' roll. But think about it: Harrell is a founding father of the culture that birthed me: hip-hop.
And I’m yet to dig deep into the crates of Harrell’s legacy.
As a teen, Harrell started a rap duo featuring himself, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. He went on to become LL Cool J’s road manager. Eventually, he climbed the ranks at Def Jam all the way up to vice president and general manager. Music and creativity were his life.
Thanks to Uptown, Harrell brokered deals that led to “New York Undercover," a groundbreaking cop drama of the ’90s. We openly celebrate “Martin,” “Fresh Prince,” and “Living Single,” but never forget about the hip-hop and R&B version of “Law & Order,” (and yes, Dick Wolf was co-executive producer). Harrell was so involved, the show was originally going to be called “Uptown Undercover.” And every episode featured a musical guest at a club called Natalie’s. If I close my eyes, I can still see Mary J. Blige singing a cover of Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” from a place in her soul so broken and real I still get chills.
And Halle Berry, one of the biggest beauty icons and Black actresses of our era, the only Black woman to win the Oscar for best actress, got her first starring role in the Harrell-produced “Strictly Business.”
Harrell never faded from view. Eventually, he and Diddy reunited. Harrell would become president of Bad Boy after a short stint running Motown. And when Diddy launched Revolt TV & Media in 2013, he made Harrell his vice chairman. That was his current role, helping develop and strategize content that was unapologetically hip-hop.
He was always for the culture and its people, never trying to change the youth, only ever trying to amplify them and give them some wisdom. He gave us a lifetime of music and then some.
We didn’t give Andre Harrell his flowers. But he gave us a garden that will bloom forever.