Hip-hop lost a visionary thinker and a lifelong tastemaker over the weekend in the late Andre Harrell, founder of the seminal hip-hop label Uptown Records, home to a number of the architects of the new-jack-swing revolution of the ’80s and ’90s and an integral stepping stone for black music icons like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, the Notorious B.I.G., and Mary J. Blige. Harrell’s impact on black music — and on film and television, as a multimedia deal with Uptown’s distributor MCA led to Strictly Business, the film that gave Halle Berry her first starring role, and New York Undercover, the gritty cop procedural that filmed in the inner city and showcased singers like Mary, Aaliyah, and D’angelo — is immeasurable.
A native of the Bronx, Harrell got his start in the ’80s gigging in Harlem as one half of the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (whose “Genius Rap” flipped the Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club’s disco hit “Genius of Love” years before smash records like Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” and Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” brought it back to the charts). Harrell split his time between rapping and working as a radio account exec until his group dissolved, and he took a job with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons’s Rush Management, where he brought a savvy Israeli finance major named Lyor Cohen on as an employee.
With a few years of music business experience under his belt, Harrell founded Uptown Records in 1986, saluting the expanse of New York City north of Central Park — including Harlem, the Bronx, Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, and beyond — that served as ground zero for the hip-hop explosion. Uptown’s aim was keeping hip-hop connected to its inner-city New York roots, giving black talent and executives a measure of power in a business structure they didn’t always have control of and bridging the growing gap between R&B and rap music. “I wanted hit records that make you feel a certain sexy way,” Harrell told New York in a 1995 cover story, “records that would get a pretty girl to dance with you at 2 a.m. even if you weren’t great-looking. Girl-meets-boy, boy-meets-girl records.”
Uptown’s front line included Mt. Vernon-based singer Al B. Sure! and rapper Heavy D, both talented producers, as well, Harlem polymath Teddy Riley and his group Guy, Yonkers vocalist Mary J. Blige, and a North Carolina band of brothers called Jodeci. Under Harrell’s leadership, alongside Combs’s vision, the label gave Def Jam a run for its money in its best years. Here’s a look at the impact of Andre Harrell through ten memorable Uptown records.
Heavy D and the Boyz, Living Large (1987)
The earliest Uptown endeavors are a grab bag of ’80s ephemera including the MCA compilation Uptown Is Kickin’ It, which featured a DJ showcase from Juice Crew co-founder Marley Marl, but the label found its groove on Living Large, the debut album from Heavy D and the Boyz, comprising rapper, singer, and producer Dwight “Heavy D” Myers and his partners G-Whiz, Eddie F, and Trouble T Roy, whose untimely 1990 murder was famously mourned in the Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth classic “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” Cuts like “Chunky But Funky” and “Mr. Big Stuff” introduced the formidable talents of Hev, hip-hop’s “overweight lover,” who paved the way for portly rhymers like Biggie and Cee-Lo. Living Large’s production, split between Hev and Teddy Riley with help from Marley Marl and Harrell, does for rap what Janet Jackson’s Control did for R&B in 1986, giving abrasive ’80s drum programming a more lively step.
Guy, Guy (1988)
Teddy Riley came to hip-hop as a church musician from Saint Nick in Harlem. He was a whiz with beats, producing Doug E. Fresh’s boisterous hit “The Show” as a teenager and forming the singing group Guy with neighborhood friends Aaron Hall and Timmy Gatling. Guy’s self-titled debut is a perfect pairing of Hall’s pleading, soulful vocals and Riley’s production, which matched swinging drums with lightning-fast bass notes and flashy synth noise. Singles like “Groove Me” and “Teddy’s Jam” made dance floors jump, but slow jams like the cuffing anthem “Piece of My Love” got just as much burn in the street at the time.
Al B. Sure!, In Effect Mode (1988)
High school football prospect Albert Brown’s choice to turn down a scholarship to play for the University of Iowa in the mid-’80s in order to study music at the Center for the Media Arts in lower Manhattan might have seemed strange at the time, but it paid off when his friend DJ Eddie F brought him to Andre Harrell, who secured him a distribution deal with Warner Bros. In Effect Mode, Brown’s debut album as Al B. Sure!, was released as a joint venture between Uptown and Warner in 1988. Gems like “Off on Your Own (Girl)” and “Nite and Day,” which hip-hop heads might recognize as the source of the airy bass line from Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak,” popped thanks to gossamer beats and an angelic falsetto. As a producer, he became Uptown’s ace in the hole, but subsequent solo albums wouldn’t match the multiplatinum sales of the first.
Father MC, Father’s Day (1990)
Brooklyn/Far Rockaway hustler-turned-rapper Father MC doesn’t get enough credit as one of the early rappers to crack the code making records that appealed to both sexes, an honor that usually goes to LL Cool J (and for good reason). After admiring the success of Al B. Sure!, Father MC came to Uptown in what he describes as a chance meeting with Harrell (although he’s widely believed to have been brought onboard by Puff). Father’s Day featured airtight love raps and lyrical exercises that silenced any complaints about the subject matter. “I’ll Do for You,” which sampled Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” introduced a young Mary J. Blige. “Treat Them Like They Want to Be Treated” is notable as the first appearance on record from Jodeci. Watch the video carefully and you’ll catch an early cameo from Puff; Father’s Day is the first of decades of releases to name the future Bad Boy founder as executive producer.
Jodeci, Forever My Lady (1991)
North Carolina singing group Jodeci, comprising two pairs of brothers in Dalvin and Donald “DeVante Swing” DeGrate and K-Ci and JoJo Hailey, came to Uptown on a lark after driving to New York City and successfully petitioning the receptionist at the label’s office for an audience with a bored label exec and lucking out when G-Whiz from Heavy D and the Boyz overheard the audition. G-Whiz brought out Hev, who brought Andre Harrell, who signed the group the same night. Under the mentorship of Puff and Al, the quartet fashioned an image that looked good on TV — all slick streetwear K-Ci would remove piece by piece at shows — and a sound that sweetened the quartet’s euphoric four-part harmonies without drowning them. Uptempo pickup jams like “Gotta Love” and “It’s Alright” proved Jodeci could hang with superstars like Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown, but the big ballads — see: “Come and Talk to Me,” “Stay,” and the title track — kept Jodeci’s debut Forever My Lady in the air deep into 1992 (and far beyond).
Heavy D and the Boyz, Peaceful Journey (1991)
Living Large put Heavy D and the Boyz on the map, and 1989’s Big Tyme proved the first album was no fluke, but it’s on 1991’s Peaceful Journey that the group got loose. Rebounding after the tragic loss of Trouble T Roy, the trio branched out in every direction, venturing into hip-house with Guy singer Aaron Hall in tow on the lead single “Now That We Found Love,” stacking soul and funk samples on “Lover’s Got What You Need” and the title track, logging another new-jack-swing classic in “Is It Good to You,” and honoring Hev’s Jamaican roots with the reggae track “Body and Mind.” The range is the function of a versatile brain trust; production was split between Hev, Eddie F, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, and Teddy Riley. Jodeci blessed the title track; that’s New Edition’s Johnny Gill crooning the hook on the foreboding story song “Letter to the Future.” “Don’t Curse” corrals Kool G Rap, Grand Puba, C.L. Smooth, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, and Big Daddy Kane for a legendary posse cut. Peaceful Journey is a family affair.
Mary J. Blige, What’s the 411? (1992)
Yonkers teen Mary Jane Blige’s big break came in 1989 when she stepped into a mall recording kiosk in White Plains, half an hour north of the Bronx, and made a tape of herself singing the Anita Baker classic “Caught Up in the Rapture.” Blige’s mother’s boyfriend passed the tape to Uptown signee Jeff Redd (“I Found Lovin’,” “Love High”), who alerted Harrell, who signed her after having her sing for him in person. Mary sang on Redd’s album A Quiet Storm and Father MC’s debut before teaming up with Puff to record What’s the 411?, her debut. 411 treated hip-hop, soul, and jazz like primary colors to be mixed and matched. “Real Love” rightly utilized the drums from Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” as the base for a killer new-jack-swing track. “Love No Limit” delivered jazz vocals as sturdily as Blige’s idol Anita. “Sweet Thing” flexed her chops over a tricky Chaka Khan song. What’s the 411? shifted the paradigm, setting the stage for a decade of creative evolution and launching a nearly 30-year campaign of excellence in hip-hop soul.
Christopher Williams, Changes (1992)
Bronx singer Christopher Williams, nephew of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald and cousin of Al B. Sure!, was built like a professional athlete with a voice every bit as brawny. Williams studied at Harlem’s High School of Music and Art and landed a deal with Geffen in his early 20s that produced his 1989 debut Adventures in Paradise, but it was in 1991, when he appeared in Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City and scored a hit on the soundtrack with “I’m Dreamin’,” that his career reached the stratosphere. Williams saw Uptown as a natural fit; Harrell needed a powerhouse solo male vocalist to round out his roster of rappers and R&B groups. 1992’s Changes modernized a sinewy singing style descended from ’70s and ’80s crooners like Teddy Pendergrass and Gap Band leader Charlie Wilson with state-of-the-art production. The singles “All I See” and “Every Little Thing U Do” returned to the well of deep male yearning that fed “Dreamin’.” Deep cuts like “When a Fool Becomes a Man” chronicled Williams’s journey to adulthood one mistake at a time.
Uptown MTV Unplugged (1993)
The same week Neil Young recorded his memorable appearance on the acoustic-performance show MTV Unplugged, Andre Harrell, Puff, and five of Uptown’s best acts descended on the soundstage at Universal Studios Hollywood for the show’s first and only label showcase. It was a master stroke. Hip-hop and R&B had been woefully underrepresented in the early years of Unplugged, with artists like De La Soul, LL Cool J, Shanice, and Boyz II Men getting crammed into two early-’90s episodes while rock acts enjoyed 95% of the face time. Uptown Unplugged was a reminder of what rappers and singers can accomplish alongside a big band. Father MC and Heavy D and the Boyz gave the crowd a rap workout. Christopher Williams slowed the tempo and shot the horny levels up. Mary and Jodeci sang for dear life, the latter cutting “Come and Talk to Me” with a sliver of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away.” It’s the covers that made the day. Mary hit the key change in “Sweet Thing” so hard you can see someone in the crowd jump out of their seat. Chris’s eight-minute rendition of the sultry Pendergrass standard “Come Go With Me” is a career highlight. K-Ci and JoJo’s powerful duet on Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” became Jodeci’s biggest hit.
Jodeci, Diary of a Mad Band (1993)
Forever My Lady is the Jodeci work that gets all the classic-album energy, but the followup, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band, is every bit as worthy. The group serves exquisite harmonies and killer talk-box hooks on the singles “Cry for You” and “Feenin’.” It’s here that DeVante steps into his greatness as a producer, zeroing in on the downtempo sound of the group’s big hits, swerving from the borderline G-funk of “Alone” to the bedroom soul of “My Heart Belongs to You” to the boom-bap backing of “Won’t Waste You” and “You Got It,” the latter of which features Wendy Williams, a host at New York’s R&B radio station Kiss FM at the time. Diary is also notable for the first appearances on record by Timbaland and Missy Elliott, members of DeVante’s Swing Mob collective, and for its enduring legacy as samples in songs by Drake (“How Bout Now”), Future (“Neva Missa Lost), Playboi Carti (“R.I.P.”), Bun B (“You’re Everything”), and many more.
Mary J. Blige, My Life (1994)
A rift arose between Andre Harrell and Puff as the latter began to make plans for his own label that ended in the Uptown founder firing his protege. When he left, Puff took Biggie, who’d released 1993’s “Party and Bullshit” on Uptown. He stuck around to oversee the second Mary album, which he produced alongside Chucky Thompson, soon to be a member of Bad Boy Records’s in-house production team the Hitmen. 1994’s My Life detailed the struggles Blige had run into in the wake of the whirlwind success of What’s the 411?, depression stemming from a long, toxic relationship with K-Ci and the dangerous self-medication and reckless behavior she resorted to as a result. In songs like “Be Happy” and the title track, My Life pours that pain into music. Writing for herself for the first time, Mary struck a nerve, cementing her spot as the queen of hip-hop soul and the singer you turn to, to this day, when you’re going through some shit.