Black American Dream: Andre Harrell and the Uptown Effect (Part 2)

Andre Harrell and Uptown Records trailblazed a movement that continues to influence the culture today. Style, fashion, and soul have become ingredients as vital to Hip-Hop stardom as the artform itself, and the legacy of the Ghetto Fabulous lifestyle ushered in this evolution from subgenre to mainstream pop culture. 

Amongst all of Harrell’s contributions, the most famous is the firing of his protégé Sean “Puffy” Combs from Uptown Records. He noticed that young Puff was out of control, so Harrell felt the need to let him go, so that he [could] become his own man. Despite no longer being an employee at Uptown, Harrell kept Combs on payroll while helping to negotiate a label deal with Arista Records on Puff’s behalf. That label was called Bad Boy.

Bad Boy Records would mirror the Uptown blueprint by signing both Hip Hop and R&B artists to create a roster that was almost identical to its predecessor. R&B group 112 picked up where Jodeci left off. Remember their racing jackets and harmonies in the Hummer truck riding through Times Square? Carl Thomas was a singer/songwriter, same as Al B. Sure, and the vocals of Faith Evans, the label’s First Lady, were fueled from the same emotional energy used by Mary J. Blige. Puff took the style and flair of Heavy D and transformed the black-hoodie-wearing, rough-edged Brooklyn MC Biggie Smalls into a suave, sophisticated, all-white-suited don named The Notorious B.I.G.

Combs also borrowed from his mentor’s early days as one half of the rap duo Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; the homage is evident in the album cover of his debut No Way Out, a commercial success that turned Sean Combs the executive into Puff Daddy the global superstar. Uptown’s style continued to live on through Puff’s clothing line Sean John, which became a popular urban wear brand and won multiple fashion awards. Thus, Bad Boy yielded the first fruit of the Uptown tree further showcasing Andre Harrell’s forward-thinking genius, and the crop of talent that followed was plentiful.

FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2010 file photo, media executive Andre Harrell, right, presents an award to Sean “Diddy” Combs at the Warner Theatre during the 2010 BET Hip Hop Honors in Washington. Harrell, the Uptown Records founder who shaped the sound of hip-hop and R&B in the late ’80s and ’90s with acts like Mary J. Blige and Heavy D and also launched the career of mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, has died, several members of the music community revealed late Friday, May 8, 2020. He was 59. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Jodeci member DeVante Swing was also the group’s songwriter and producer, and under his own company, Swing Mob Production, he featured Missy Elliot and Timbaland. All were under the influence of super-producer Teddy Riley who started at Uptown records. Missy became a songwriter in high demand whose reputation for making other artists’ hit records would boost  her own career into transcendent stardom. Missy’s innovative style, evidenced by her trash bag outfit as she danced off-beat and on-beat in her debut video “The Rain,” captivated audiences, showing again the importance of imagery in the culture. She was rapping, singing and dancing—all  while sporting the finger-wave hairstyle worn by her young fans.

Timbaland became known as a versatile producer whose sound could be performed by any rap, R&B, rock, or pop artist. Timbaland’s “Cry Me A River” with Justin Timberlake is just as classic as his “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” collaboration with Jay-Z. Like Riley, both Missy Elliot and Timbaland changed the culture. They became not only the producers that fans wanted to hear, but the superstars they wanted to see and emulate—just as Andre Harrell had envisioned.

Andre Harrell’s vision that Mary J. Blige would be an inspiration for young girls became a reality as her influence is clearly heard in the next generation of artists such as Keyshia Cole. Cole’s emotional notes were direct from the school of Blige, whom she credited as an inspiration in several interviews. She’s even channeling her inner Mary in the video “Let It Go”, which shares the same musical blueprint as the Blige classic “Real Love.” Singer K. Michelle followed the recipe of both Blige and Cole by using heartbreak vocals over Hip Hop beats. Years later, Mary J. Blige still reigns as queen of Hip-Hop soul. Her guest appearances on songs are considered anointments in the culture, and the respect from peers and a lifetime fanbase has proven to be limitless.

Today, the influence of Uptown Records reverberates in labels such as Young Money whose two stars, Drake and Nicki Minaj, merged the ingredients of Ghetto Fabulous and Hip Hop soul to become living icons. Both artists are equally liable to approach a song as MC and/or singer, and that is thanks to the flashy, soulful blueprint created by Mr. Harrell. Early in her career, Minaj’s fashion choices consisted of Marge Simpson wigs and big, bright, colorful dresses. At the same time, Drake (whose IG name is Champagne Papi) always enjoys the champagne lifestyle of celebrity—in every famous club, on every popular social media platform.

Andre Harrell’s vision of the inner-city artist living the rags-to-riches life is an all too common sight today. Contemporary artists have become more focused on song making in melody by blending their rapping abilities with a more harmonic sound. While most old-school fans criticize the new school for placing more effort into their look than their craft, Harrell always believed that to stop listening to the youth meant to stop evolving and growing. At the time of his passing, BET networks were developing an Uptown mini-series based on his life, which is a testament that the legacy of Andre Harrell’s genius will continue to exist forever and a day.

j hall

@jhallradio