Andre Harrell: The Party-Starter

The Uptown founder revolutionized the marriage of hip-hop and R&B, and served an expansive yet neglected audience.

Image: Andre Harrell (left) and Sean Combs in New York in 1995. Credit: Catherine McGann/Getty.

It might not normally seem appropriate to announce someone’s untimely death in the middle of a raucous DJ set. But when D-Nice, during one of his enormously popular Instagram Live broadcasts, shared the news that Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell had passed, the setting spoke to the power of Harrell’s legacy. Harrell died in Los Angeles on May 7 of heart failure. He was 59.

The only thing that might have seemed more cathartic was if D-Nice were spinning at some New York club filled with dancing people, revelers whose lives have been soundtracked by the hip-hop-inflected R&B that Harrell helped make ubiquitous.

“He redefined the party!” as Questlove put it in his remembrance of the magnate. “Def Jam was the artform. Bad Boy was the attitude. Death Row was the muscle. But without even knowing it? Uptown was ALWAYS the party.”

Harrell would have likely agreed with that sentiment. “I’m the king of the rah-rah,” he quipped in a 1992 interview with the Philadelphia Tribune. “I love to party, and I made a label that had music that set the party off.” The proof is in the Platinum records, which came fast and furious during Uptown’s early ’90s zenith — from Al B. Sure! to Guy to Heavy D & the Boyz to Jodeci to the label’s most enduring star, Mary J. Blige.

All of those records have seen a very recent renaissance thanks to the comforting nostalgia they’ve offered during the COVID-19 crisis, as deployed by DJs like D-Nice and even Uptown signee and pioneering producer Teddy Riley himself. But they never really left circulation, especially among those fans old enough to remember when there was no bigger label in R&B than Uptown and its eventual parent, MCA. Jointly they brought the music a degree of pop relevance it hadn’t seen since Motown (also an MCA property for a period, and Harrell’s later employer) in the ’60s and ’70s.

Harrell was never shy about expressing why he felt making music to party to was so important. Increasingly confrontational rap about the many very real problems facing African-Americans was ascendant, thanks to Death Row and Def Jam, the latter co-founded by Harrell’s early mentor Russell Simmons. But Harrell felt that his own experience, as a young black man who had grown up in Bronx projects in the late ’70s and early ’80s (in other words, the ground zero of hip-hop), wasn’t always reflected in those records. “There were other black subcultures that weren’t being catered to,” he told Newsday in 1991 of his days with Def Jam.

“Uptown is a place in every black community in America,” he continued. “It’s an inner-city environment with projects and tenements, but the kids who grow up in that environment envisage greater things for themselves.” Before he was on the label side, Harrell showed that perspective as the Jeckyll of rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde: On the cover of their 1985 album The Champagne of Rap, the pair wore business suits while insisting that they were anything but strait-laced on songs like “And You Thought That We Were Soft.”

“It’s basically ghetto music for people who don’t want to live in the ghetto the rest of their life,” he concluded in another interview with the Philadelphia Tribune. That idea, of existing where real and aspirational meet, was crystallized by the era-defining term Harrell popularized: ghetto fabulous.

Simultaneously, he sought to reshape the music industry so that the diversity that already existed in pop listenership was reflected behind the scenes. That meant not just making sure half his staff were black women, as he shared with Essence in 1992, but giving opportunities to savvy up-and-comers like Sean Combs, then known as Puffy Combs, who got his start as Harrell’s intern at Uptown.

Uptown’s staff and artists succeeded thanks to Harrell’s clear, unwavering mission. Together, they toed an impossibly thin line: making music that was authentic and in touch with the “uptown” sounds (that is to say, hip-hop) in the label’s name, yet slick enough to appeal to pop’s expansive base. “I hope people look at me as a black pop entity,” he told Billboard in 1991. “That I make things that are true to black people that are also for everybody.”

The numbers alone proved that Harrell had accomplished his mission. But more important was the groundwork he laid for the past 30 years of R&B and hip-hop-laced pop hits — today there almost isn’t any other kind. He dared anyone to not groove to “Real Love” or “Stay” while also insisting there was no way that all African-American fans could be served by one sound or one label. Of course, he was right — and thankfully he got to see the evidence a few last times as countless people vibed (albeit virtually) to the music he helped bring to the world, an audience he saw clamoring all those years ago.


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