So as I started this piece I literally just got the news that Andre Harell passed away. For people in my age group, Andre Harell was a real pioneer in the music business. What Andre started in the 80s with Uptown Records would birth careers of some of the biggest rap and R&B artists of the 90s and a sound that carried on long after. Andre was there when rap music began to get a foothold and helped steer it towards becoming a presence on a radio or TV in every household.
Andre (back left) with several early rap luminaries including LL Cool J, Whodini, and Russell Simmons.
Andre started out as a rapper himself, part of the duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (he was Jekyll) and they were briefly onscreen in the movie Krush Groove. Andre would work at Def Jam under Simmons before starting his own label, Uptown Records. If you remember the old Video Jukebox channel then you may remember this, the coming out party of sorts for Uptown:
I must have seen that video a million times between 1987 and 1990 for sure. Uptown was the launching pad for acts like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Heavy D and the Boys, Father MC, Guy, and several artists that I listened to in my teens and early 20s. It was also the place where one Sean Combs aka Puffy/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy got his start, and the two remained friends even after Diddy got fired and went on to start Bad Boy.
Andre wasn’t just a music mogul, though. He had eyes on expanding into TV and movies and would pull that off when he produced the movie Strictly Business and the TV Series New York Undercover. The former was where a lot of us were introduced to Halle Berry and the latter got the TV careers of names like Ice-T and Malik Yoba off and running. What separated Andre from a lot of his contemporaries was that by his own words he sought after black audiences as an ongoing goal, not as a gateway to reach white people by becoming the hot new trend and then leaving them behind. Putting the white audience on a pedestal is something that not even Berry Gordy and Motown avoided, but reading or listening to Andre’s own words it was clear his MO was that white people were welcome to enjoy it, but they weren’t going to be catered to and that black people’s money was every bit as green when they spent it.
Andre with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs
Now that may sound divisive to you if you’re not black, or even if you are, but understand that black audiences are almost never catered/pandered to in entertainment. Usually we end up ‘sharing’ a space that is 90 percent occupied or targeted towards white people, or we’re exploited as a means to gain credibility or hipness until the real (translation: white) audience can be eventually chased after. Often it’s both! And this goes on while the powers that be in entertainment continue to believe that there is no money to be made from us, even in the face of myriad success stories. So yeah when somebody comes along, says they’re not gonna do that and then follows through it’s special and is gonna be held up in high regard. Or at least it should be. Quite frankly if you’re a consumer of entertainment, which we all are to some degree or another, then whatever groups you are a part of should get catered to at least sometime. And yes, the norm of showcasing mostly white performers and employing white people in behind the scenes roles is catering to white people. Just because it doesn’t jump out at you that way doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
But back to Andre. I felt the need to say something about him myself because he’s one of those figures who doesn’t get the credit or recognition that he deserves, and is in danger of being lost to the dustbin of history if those of us who were around for his work don’t say anything. Andre Harrell was the man behind a wholesale reinvigoration and redirection of black music as we knew it. At the time Uptown got rolling rap music was in it’s earliest stages of growth but R&B had been relegated to urban radio and BET with a bunch of artists that were virtual unknowns outside of those circles. There was little to no ground between hitting the pop charts and needing a name tag to be recognized to anyone outside of that deliberately constructed niche market. Uptown did a whole lot of the heavy lifting towards bridging that gap with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci and Heavy D and Guy, among others. In marrying present day music production and beats with both contemporary and old school R&B vocals they forged a new trail that’s still being walked by present day artists in 2020. There’s no Bad Boy or Notorious BIG, or anyone who was inspired by them either, without Uptown. That’s nothing short of phenomenal. That Andre was not out loud and out front all the time should not diminish what he led.
Uptown Records and it’s artists were a big part of the soundtrack to my teens and twenties, as they were for my entire generation, and for it’s time they were as important to us as the pioneers of every other genre of music in every other time period were for the people who were there to witness them. From watching Heavy D’s videos on the Video Jukebox and BET to buying Mary J Blige’s and Guy’s first albums on cassette tape and their follow up albums on CD to all the other songs I listened to on the radio or watched the videos for, this music was playing all throughout my high school and college years, and still evokes great memories from those times. It’s high time that we carve out that space to honor them and keep their music in the rotation not just for ourselves but for our kids and grandkids. And that begins with giving proper credit to the man who spearheaded it all, Andre Harrell. Thank you everything and RIP brother. Much love.