What is it like to change culture truly? To affect the way people walk, talk, and dress? Andre Harrell was a pioneer long before words like curator and tastemaker could be seen as career options. He was an innovator, an artist, a producer and later, a successful multimedia mogul who breathed life into Hip Hop culture.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Andre Harrell’s career started in the early 1980s as one half the rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with childhood friend Alonzo Brown. The group was signed by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. Although their rap careers were short, Harrell and Brown’s attire made a significant style statement. The duo’s three-piece suits (mainly because they both had office jobs) were the opposite of 80s B-Boy stonewash jeans and ankle brace streetwear and planted the seeds of what was to come for the Hip Hop aesthetic.
Harrell first learned the music business as the group’s manager. He later became a vice president and general manager at Def Jam. Taking a behind-the-scenes role allowed Andre to be influenced by the flare of the Harlem Hustlers of the day who would come to Rucker Park in their high-class cars, tailor-made clothes, and with expensive champagne. Inspired, Harrell developed the idea of merging the creativity of the rap artist with the dress and swagger of the flashy street hustler—but without the danger. The result took Hip Hop culture to new heights. It was then that Harrell met a charismatic artist named Heavy D, and he became Harrell’s muse in envisioning the lifestyle later known as Ghetto Fabulous.
In 1986, Andre Harrell left Def Jam to start his own label, Uptown Records. With Heavy D, Harrell now had an artist who could exemplify Ghetto Fabulous, a way of life meant to champagne-toast going from rags to riches and to celebrate the come-up from poverty to prestige. Heavy D’s first single and video, “Mr. Big Stuff,” showcased his flare as the overweight lover. He moved and danced with a supreme confidence that translated into commercial appeal.
With a successful formula, Andre decided to do the opposite of Def Jam, who’d only worked with rap artists, and sign 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 later usher in New Jack Swing, his own Harlem-influenced sound had a significant effect on mainstream music). Now supported with a new multimedia deal from MCA, Andre Harrell’s Uptown Records was not only the label that controlled the radio and dance clubs—it was a movement that a younger generation wanted to join.
Ever since a young Sean “Puffy” Combs saw Andre Harrell in the “Uptown’s Kickin’ It!” video, he was in awe. To Combs, it was the first time someone who was in the business but behind the music was visible and looked like him. Puff was so determined to find his idol that he stalked Heavy D—even living in the same Mt. Vernon, New York, 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 in every task to impress Harrell whether it was running to carry a box of cassette tapes or an errand for an artist.
Comb’s ethic and enthusiasm took him from intern to 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 attire of suits in favor of the all-white, open chest jumpsuits and black combat boots seen in their video for the slow jam “Forever My Lady.” With the remix for “Come and Talk to Me,” fans continued to be captivated by the four R&B dudes who dressed like rappers but sang over a traditional Hip Hop beat.
Harrell later traveled to a Yonkers housing project to sign a singer he’d heard by demo. Her name was Mary J. Blige, and he saw her as an inspirational voice for everyday working women. And with that, Uptown records had created a new musical genre called Hip-Hop Soul with Mary J. Blige as their chosen queen. Blige, who used painful life experiences as fuel in her music, would inspire a generation of women (and men) who could identify with the hurt, struggle, and hardships of life. By the mid-1990s, Harrell had created music meant not just for dance clubs and celebration but that would connect to fans emotionally.
As the success continued to grow, so did Andre Harrell’s role. He produced MTV’s Uptown Unplugged, making them 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, 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 with characters who dressed and spoke with the same attitude as rap artists.
Musically his influence continued to expand by signing the Queens rap group Lost Boyz who’s single “Renee” became an instant classic. Harrell also hired the production team Trackmasters, who would go on to make hit records with artists such as Nas, LL Cool J, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and more.
Andre Harrell’s champagne sense of fashion and style took the perception of Hip-Hop culture from short-lived fad to seriously marketable genre. He pushed a sound that changed the musical landscape and visuals that connected to those from poverty who desired more—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 game—and the world.