The music community is still reeling from the loss of founder and entertainment mogul Andre Harrell, who died on Friday at 59 years old.
Harrell is best known as the founder of Uptown Records—the home of Heavy D, Al B. Sure, Guy, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and the training ground for a young Sean “Puffy” Combs. But Harrell’s impact was bigger than introducing those pivotal artists and creatives to the world.
A former rapper himself, the Bronx-native was a regular in the bustling New York City club scene. He was one of the earliest Def Jam employees, working with talent on the Rush Management side while sharing an apartment with best friend Russell Simmons.
If Simmons is the godfather of hip-hop, Harrell is the godfather of modern-R&B. With Uptown, Harrell sought to capture, package and present through music the flair and flavor of Harlem—the energy, the style, and the parties. Uptown was the home of dancefloor jams. “I wanted hit records that make you feel a certain sexy kinda way,” Harrell told New York Magazine in 1995. “Records that would get a pretty girl to dance with you at 2 a.m. even if you weren’t great looking.”
In tribute to Harrell, who was the quintessential energy regulator and master of ceremony, we’ve put together eight songs that captured and defined both his and Uptown’s brand, sound and spirit.
1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “Genius Rap” (1981)
Hip hop duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde foreshadowed the musical energy Harrell would capture through Uptown. Rap was still in the braggadocio era: boastful lyrics, MC challenges, etc. But Harrell and partner Lorenzo Brown wore Italian suits and rapped about girls, jewelry, money and champagne—almost 20 years before the bling era. The act dubbed their style “champagne rap.” It was hip-hop you could party to.
2. The Uptown Crew “Uptown’s Kickin’ It” (1986)
When Harrell approached MCA Records about a label deal, they gave him a budget to make a compilation as a test run. Uptown’s Is Kickin’ It featured original label acts Heavy D & the Boyz, Groove B. Chill, Marly Marl and Finesse & Synquis.
3. Heavy D & The Boyz “The Overweight Lover’s in the House” (1987)
Harrell wanted to sign Heavy D. & the Boyz from their first listen at Rush Management, but Simmons wasn’t on board. He passed because of his plus size but Harrell saw the charm, the energy—he knew this was a hit act. So, Harrell took Heavy’s demos to shop for his deal, thus becoming Uptown’s bedrock artist. Before there was Biggie and Big Pun rapping about pulling the ladies, there was the overweight lover Heavy D (née Dwight Myers). His infectious party-rap songs, disarming lyricism and incredible footwork made Heavy D. & the Boyz a platinum act.
4. Al B. Sure “Night and Day” (1988)
Heavy D. introduced fellow Mt. Vernon native Al B. Sure (née Al Brown) and cousin Kyle West to Harrell as producers for the label. However, when Heavy missed a recording session, Sure asked Harrell if he could use the studio time to work on a song. The result: “Night and Day,” Uptown’s first No. 1 single.
5. Guy “Groove Me” (1988)
The run-away success of Keith Sweat’s Teddy Riley-produced debut album, Make it Last Forever, caught Harrell’s attention. Riley was a young producer from Harlem translating the energy of St. Nicholas Avenue to a signature sound. When he was looking for a home for his own group, Guy, Harrell signed them. He considered them Uptown’s answer to Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band. With Riley in-house, Uptown was now the official New Jack Swing label, and “Groove Me” could genuinely have been the company’s theme song.
6. Jodeci “Forever My Lady” (1991)
Al B. Sure’s success prompted two sets of singing brothers to pile in a car, drive to New York City and sit in Uptown’s lobby waiting for a chance to sing for the label. Jodeci’s debut album, produced by Sure, not only cemented the label’s place in music history but marked the beginning of a new era in R&B. Sure penned “Forever My Lady” for Uptown staffer Kim Porter, who was expecting their first child, Quincy.
7. Mary J. Blige “My Life” (1994)
What’s the 411 officially created a new R&B subgenre: hip-hop soul. Thanks to numerous features, soundtrack placements plus a remix album, Blige felt like a firmly established artist going into her sophomore outing. But while 411 showed us Blige’s B-Girl excellence, My Life revealed the range of emotion Harrell heard in Yonkers’ Schlobohm projects as young Mary sang Anita Bakers “Caught Up in the Rapture.” He signed her immediately.
8. Robin Thicke “Wanna Love You Girl” (2007)
In 2011, outlet Life + Times asked Harrell what projects he’d want to be remembered by. He named “Groove Me,” “My Life,” “Forever My Lady,” and The Evolution of Robin Thicke. Harrell always kept his ear to the street, watching for new trends and talent. He’d signed and worked with the new-millennial, blue-eyed soul singer through Nu America, his label with Babyface. But the Pharrell Williams produced “Wanna Love You Girl” was Thicke’s breakthrough.
Naima Cochraine (@naima) is a cultural critic and founder and curator of Music Sermon.