Andre Harrell gave us the Real Black Culture
By Jean Petit Jean
Andre Harrell, a one time rapper and half of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde was an innovative music executive who in the late 1980s founded Uptown Records, a formidable link between the hip-hop and R&B worlds.
“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,” Andre Harrell told The Los Angeles Times in 1992 after signing a $50 million deal with MCA for a new company, Uptown Entertainment.
Andre Harrell— a one time rapper and half of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde— was an innovative music executive who in the late 1980s founded Uptown Records, a formidable link between the hip-hop and R&B worlds. He gave Sean Combs (Puff Daddy) his first career break, setting the young upstart and future founder of Bad Boy Entertainment, the definite force in East Coast Hip-hop in the 80s and 90s, to become one of hip-hop's signature moguls and global ambassadors.
Uptown Records was an American record label, based in New York City. Founded in 1986, the label was a leader in R&B and hip-hop from the late 1980s into the early 1990s. During the 1990s, aided by its A&R worker Sean Combs, Uptown led the fusion of R&B with hip-hop.
Harrell’s label is responsible for many R&B and Hip-hop genre defining successes, most notably, Mary J Blige. Harrell paved the way for Blige to become Queen of Hip-hop soul. The American singer-songwriter, actress, and philanthropist, began her career in 1991 when she was signed to Uptown Records. She went on to release 13 studio albums, eight of which have achieved multi-platinum worldwide sales. Blige has sold 50 million albums worldwide and 80 million records worldwide. She has won nine Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, twelve Billboard Music Awards.
Mary J Blige’s breakout album, “What’s the 4-1-1?” inspired confidence in a generation of Lagosians whose teenage years began in the early 90s; these kids internalized the words and street style from the hit singles "Real Love" and “You Remind Me”. As they explored a new world of house parties and secondary school socials, the style and message in Mary J Blige’s music set the foundation for young girls growing up in Lagos to define authentic positive identities for themselves.
Andre O’Neal Harrell, who died on May 7, 2020, at his home in West Hollywood in California, USA, at the age of 59, was born in The Bronx, New York City, on September 26, 1960. His father, Bernie, worked at a produce market in Hunts Point; his mother, Hattie, was a nurse's aide. In 1978, he graduated from the Charles Evans Hughes High School. As a teenager, Harrell and Alonzo Brown, a friend from high school, formed a rap duo, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde The group had the hit songs "Genius Rap" in 1981 and "AM/PM" in 1984. Harrell studied at Baruch College, then transferred to Lehman College, where he studied communications and business management with the intention of becoming a newscaster.
Harrell was interested in more than just music. He wanted to shape culture. That was the drive behind setting up Uptown records. Harrell wasn’t satisfied with just making music as a rapper, he wanted to shape the culture of cool around the world. The success of juggernauts like Mary J. Blige and Sean Combs are clear markers of Harrell’s vision, and he can also be credited with paving the way for Jodeci and Heavy D, and BIGGIE who left Uptown for Bad Boy entertainment at the same time Puffy Daddy was leaving.
Following repeat successes in music, Harrell set his sights on movies, producing the cult classic, “Strictly Business” in 1991 with the backing of MCA. The comedy directed by Kevin Hooks, brought visibility to actors Halle Berry in a leading role and Samuel L. Jackson in a supporting role. Its comical portrayal of the complexity of black on black race relations in the United States resonated with audiences, earning the film $7m+ in the box office.
In 1992, Harrell signed a $50 million deal with MCA for a new company, Uptown Entertainment, which spanned music, film and television. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times about the deal, MCA chairman, Al Teller praised Harrell, “Ultimately, this business is about instinctive creative judgment, and Andre’s instincts about artists and music and what audiences want are absolutely superb. His track record of success has positioned Uptown to become the black entertainment company of the 1990s.”
Uptown records reign began to decline at the height of the 90s, with the departure of Puff Daddy, and acts like Mary J Blige and Jodeci signing directly to MCA in search of greater independence. After a series of purchases that led MCA to become part of Universal Music Group, the Uptown era finally came to an end. Harrell moved on to MoTown records as CEO; and in the later part of his career worked as Vice-Chairman on his protege, Diddy’s REVOLT digital music network, extending Harrell’s vision and cultural influence from the mixtape and VHS era into the streaming era.