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In a year that continues to be tumultuous, not only for the hip hop community, but the world at large, the latest tragedy comes in the form of the death of legendary music and film executive Andre Harrell, who passed away on Friday (May 8) at age 59.
Born September 26, 1960 in Harlem and raised in Bronx, New York; Harrell studied at Baruch College before transferring to Lehman College to pursue a degree in communications and business management. Initially intending to be a newscaster, Harrell’s would ultimately find his calling in hip hop, and first got his feet wet as an artist before joining forces with Russell Simmons and serving as president and general manager of Def Jam Recordings.
Leaving the label in 1986, Harrell founded Uptown Records, a highly influential and groundbreaking rap label that housed seminal acts like Heavy D & The Boyz, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Al B. Sure, and once staffed future entertainment and multi-media mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs as an intern turned A&R. Leaving Uptown Records to serve as CEO of Motown Records in 1995, Harrell spent two years at the label before moving on to pursue other ventures in music, television and film.
The vice chairman of REVOLT Media & TV at the time of his death, Harrell’s reputation as a trusted guardian within the culture was beyond reproach, and he will forever be remembered and missed. REVOLT celebrates his life and legacy by looking back at seven contributions that stamped him as a revolutionary figure in the hip hop community. Check them out below.
1. Leading The Charge For New Jack Swing and Hip Hop Soul
In today’s musical landscape, rap and R&B are intertwined like never before, with artists from both genres borrowing from the other. However, during the ‘80s, these two worlds were hesitant to accept and embrace the other, as gatekeepers on both sides of the coin shunning the other and created a stark divide within the culture. Harrell was among the first figures in the hip hop community to mesh these genres together, helping spearhead the New Jack Swing era by signing R&B trio Guy to his Uptown Records label. Led by New Jack Swing’s chief architect Teddy Riley, the group achieved commercial success in 1988 with its self-titled debut, as well as their sophomore effort, The Future, in 1990. In addition to Guy, Harrell would sign groundbreaking acts like Jodeci and Mary J. Blige to the label, which made him one of the earliest champions of hip hop soul, as well.
2. Helping Bring Hip Hop To Hollywood
Films like Krush Groove, Beat Street, Tougher Than Leather had put hip hop on the big screen; and artists like Ice-T, Ice Cube, Will Smith, Fat Boys, and Queen Latifah were crossing over into Hollywood during the early ‘90s. But, Harrell took things to the next level with his $50 million multi-media partnership with MCA in 1992. Serving as a producer on the 1991 comedy movie Strictly Business, he was targeted by MCA to help add his flair to various films and TV series under the company’s umbrella, most notably “New York Undercover,” the first prime-time drama to star two men of color in the leading roles at the time. The businessman also produced an episode for “Cousin Skeeter,” as well as the 2003 film Honey, and was working on a three-part mini-series documenting the rise of Uptown Records at the time of his death.
3. Being The First Rap Star To Become A Mogul
Harrell is most known for his contributions to entertainment as an executive. However, prior to becoming a power-broker behind the scenes, he got his first taste of the music industry as one-half of the early ‘80s rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. Comprised of Alonzo “Mr. Hyde” Brown and himself, the group, which was known for performing in business attire, gained notoriety for their 1981 single “Genius Rap” and went on to release Champagne of Rap, its lone album, in 1984. Launching Uptown Records in 1986, Harrell became the first rap artist to transition into the role of a CEO, which is a blueprint that has been emulated countless times throughout the years.
4. Putting A Spotlight On The Aspirational Aspects Of Hip Hop Culture
In the ‘80s, rap was seen as street music that spoke to and for the downtrodden members of society, with little glitz and glamour to offset its brashness and street-wise aesthetic. While moguls like Russell Simmons reveled in making Def Jam encapsulate the rebellion taking place in the inner-city, Harrell took a different approach, took pleasure in the opulence that was the hallmark of the hustlers and entrepreneurs making a name for themselves in Harlem and The Bronx. Inspired by the ostentatious flair of the affluent lifestyle usually reserved for the upper-crust of society, Harrell’s would influence the likes of Bad Boy Records and Roc-A-Fella Records.
5. Helping Put Mt. Vernon And Yonkers On The Map
When casual rap fans think of New York hip hop, the five boroughs usually come to mind as the central hub for the area’s greatest rap artists, producers, and moguls. Harrell, raised in the BX, helped change that by tapping into the talent pool of Mt. Vernon to discover Heavy D & The Boyz, who served as Uptown Records’ flagship act and brought the label to prominence with a succession of platinum albums including Living Large and Big Tyme. Another product of Mt. Vernon that Harrell took to stardom is R&B singer-songwriter/producer Al B. Sure, who broke out onto the scene with his debut, In Effect Mode. In addition to Mt. Vernon, the boss also played a part in marking Yonkers as a breeding ground for stars by signing Mary J. Blige to the label.
6. Discovering And Mentoring Sean “Diddy” Combs
Of the long list of talent that Harrell has had a hand in helping discover and mold, Sean “Diddy” Combs ranks as the most accomplished, as he’s grown from a humble, studious intern into one of the biggest forces the music industry has ever seen. Introduced to Combs through Uptown Records star Heavy D, Harrell took the ambitious upstart under his wing and later entrusted him with a vice president of A&R position. Combs, who helped develop star talent like Jodeci and Blige during his tenure with the label, would be ousted from his position with Uptown in 1993, although Harrell would keep him on payroll. This decision helped keep Combs afloat financially while launching his own imprint, Bad Boy Records, which would go on to become a behemoth in the rap industry with former Uptown Records signee The Notorious B.I.G. Combs.
7. Embracing The Unconventional Rap Star
In entertainment, the qualities that define a star have long been relegated to superficial standards that fixate on an artists appearance and body type, which are struggles that continue to be hurdles for many aspiring creatives today. Long before body positivity became a hot-button topic in society, Harrell stepped outside of the box and minted Heavy D, the self-proclaimed “Overweight Lover,” as the face of Uptown Records upon its launch. Marketing Heavy D as a sex symbol and ladies man, the boss broke the mold with future executives following his lead. This opened the door for everyone from The Notorious B.I.G. to Lizzo being able to embrace their sexuality and defy traditional archetypes of beauty.