What is it like to change culture truly? To effect the way people walk, talk, and dress? Andre Harrell was a pioneer whose career started in the early 1980’s era before words like curator and tastemaker could be seen as career options. He was an innovator, an artist, producer, and later into a successful multimedia mogul who breathed life into Hip Hop culture.
Born and raised in the Bronx, NY Andre Harrell’s career started in the early 80s as one half the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with childhood friend Alonzo Brown signed under Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. Although their careers were short, Harrell and Brown’s rap attire was opposite of the 80s BBoys stonewash jeans and ankle brace streetwear as the duo wore three-piece suits (mainly because they both had office jobs) which would plant the seeds of what was to come. Harrell first learned the music business by being the group’s manager then later becoming a vice president and general manager at Def Jam. Taking the backseat role allowed Andre to be influenced by the flare of the then Harlem Hustlers who would come to Rucker Park in their high-class cars, dressed in tailor-made clothes while drinking expensive champagne. Harrell later developed the idea of taking Hip Hop culture to new heights by merging a rap artist with the dress and swagger of the flashy street hustler without the dangerous risk. It was then that Harrell would meet a charismatic artist named Heavy D, who would become his muse to push the lifestyle vision later known as Ghetto Fabulous.
In 1986, Andre Harrell would leave Def Jam to start his label called Uptown Records. With Heavy D, Andre Harrell now had an artist who could exemplify the Ghetto Fabulous lifestyle. A rags to riches way of life that meant to champagne celebrate the move-up from poverty to the upper class while enjoying the finer things in life. Heavy D first single/video Mr. Big Stuff showcased his flare as the overweight lover moved and dance with supreme confidence that earned commercial appeal. With a successful formula, Andre decided to do the opposite of Def Jam, who only worked with rap artists by signing R&B singer Al B. Sure to the label’s roster. He also signed a singing trio named GUY, which included a young producer named Teddy Riley, who would usher his brand of Harlem influence with the New Jack Swing sound had a mainstream effect on music. Now supported with a new multimedia deal from MCA, Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records was not only becoming a label that controls the radio and dance clubs but a movement that a younger generation wanted to join.
Ever since a young Sean “Puff” Combs saw Andre Harrell in the Uptown’s Kickin It video, he was in awe. To Combs, it was the first time someone from behind the music business was visible and looked like him. Puff was so determined to find his idol that he stalked Heavy D, living in the same Mt. Vernon, NY neighborhood multiple times to get his opportunity. Once Heavy D set up the meet and greet, Puff became an ambitious intern who famously went above and beyond to perform all tasks, whether it was running to carry a box of cassette tapes or an errand for an artist to impress Harrell. Comb’s enthusiasm eventually provided the chance to become an A&R whose first assignment was to work with a recently signed R&B group from North Carolina named Jodeci. Andre, who was a believer in the youth, encouraged Puff to bestow his style of clothing onto Jodeci by rejecting the traditional R&B suit attire in exchange for the all-white open chest jumpsuits and black combat boots for the slow jam Forever My Lady video. Fans continued to be captivated by the four R&B dudes who dressed like rappers but sang over a traditional Hip Hop beat on the Come and Talk to Me-remix. Harrell later traveled to a Yonkers, NY, projects to sign the singer of a demo he heard by the name of Mary J. Blige, who he saw as an inspirational voice for everyday working women. Uptown records had created a new musical genre called Hip Hop Soul, and Mary J. Blige would be their chosen queen. Blige would use painful life experiences as fuel in her music, which would inspire a generation of women(and men) who could identify with the pain, struggle, and hardships of life. By the mid-1990s, Harrell had created music not just meant for dance clubs celebration but a culture that would connect to fans emotionally.
As the success continued to grow, so did Andre Harrell’s role. He produced MTV’s Uptown Unplugged, which was the first black-owned label to have an entire artist roster perform on the broadcast as well as the movie Strictly Business that featured Halle Berry in her first starring role. His producer credits grew with New York Undercover, which was the first police drama to star two people of color. The show is credited as the first(and maybe last) tv drama to make cops look cool as the characters dressed and talk with the same attitude of a rap artist. Musically his influence grew by signing the Queens, NY rap group known as the Lost Boyz who’s single Renee became a classic Hip Hop story. Harrell also hired the production team Trackmasters, who would make hit records with artists such as Nas, LL Cool J, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and more.
Andre Harrell champagne’s sense of fashion and style took Hip Hop culture perception of a short-lived fad to a marketable genre taken seriously. He pushed music that changed sound with visuals that provided a lifestyle connected to those from poverty who desired to advance to a higher class with the same dazzle and flash as the neighborhood hustlers. Harrell’s legacy is a gift of feel-good music and a fashionable lifestyle that inspired young minds to change the world.