Legendary record producer Andre Harrell knows good music when he hears it. After putting his own rap career on hold, he signed Heavy D in 1986 and created Uptown Records, the label that made us bop, sway and do the running man before it was a challenge. Harrell is also responsible for bringing us artists like Mary J. Blige, Guy and Jodeci, as well as cultivating the career of Diddy when he was still student at Howard University.
Harrell went on to become the president of Motown Records and currently serves as Vice Chairman of REVOLT, his former protege’s music cable network. Now a new BET docu-series called “Inside the Label” is giving us a behind-the-scenes look at how Harrell and other music pioneers built empires which would define an era. Harrell spoke with theGrio about Uptown Records’ influence and how to make today’s music great.
Uptown Records, which you founded, shaped and defined a whole generation of R&B and hip-hop. How would you say your label changed music?
I think Uptown Records, like Motown Records, was a lifestyle label, where the artists not only made songs that resonated with the community but they also had fashion and attitude that people wanted to emulate. And to be that kind of cool that they saw in like a Mary J. Blige video, where she came out with the bubble coat, the Timbo boots and the ram earrings. I would walk around from city to city, and I would see girls walking down the street who were totally transformed into looking like Mary J. Blige or Jodeci.
So they were culture shapers in a way; they came from the culture. How did you cultivate these artists? A young Mary J. Blige — how did you get her to be the star that she is?
Well, when I first went out to “Slow Bombs” projects in the Yonkers and I heard her sing, she had this pain in her voice that I had never heard. It was almost like a young Gladys Knight. I remember thinking that she would represent a generation of young women who felt like they didn’t receive the love that they wanted to receive in their life. And she would be the role model for that and work her way in her real life to finding love. And hopefully her life imitated her art, and hopefully it would do the same thing for folks at home, going through the same kinds of things.
Someone else you cultivated as an artist is ‘Puff Daddy’ [a.k.a] Diddy. There’s all these infamous stories about how you helped him to spark his career and at the same time had to let him go (but obviously stayed close). How do you think Uptown helped to shape him as a leader in music?
For Puff, it did everything for him. It empowered him, like, what we were doing at Uptown Records was a lifestyle. We were representing like an urban chic, which we called ‘ghetto fabulous,’ and he loved it. He loved it so much he would be walking around in the office with no shirt on, Timberland boots and jewelry… He was art imitating life.
He was really good. After he was introduced to all the producers, Jodeci and Al B Sure, he took to it. He learned how to produce. And then he always had style. He was able to take his style and give it to the other artists, shape and mold them, especially Jodeci. He came up with the sagging pants and the boots. He also did the first hip-hop soul remix; the “Come and Talk to Me” remix was really important at that time. He did that.
Why do you think the stories of these different labels, everything from Uptown to Ruff Ryders, are important to look back on?
Well, the interesting thing about that period is you had black music executives in charge of the promotion, marketing and budget of all the black products. And so in that period in the 90s, you had all these boutique labels who were shaping culture. Whereas now without the boutique labels, you don’t have artist development.
You don’t have specific kind of marketing for a specific lane. Like Uptown Records was a ghetto fabulous company. Def Jam was a hip-hop company, So So Def was a Southern Hip-Hop Company, Bad Boy was a younger version of Uptown. So you had all these people who had a point of view and had these artists who represented a point of view.
So I think that there was a lot more artist development. And you could see it in terms of the artists’ style and the music they made. And it made for stronger artists.
…Now the records come up on their own. Meaning if somebody makes a record and it gets played in a local market like Cleveland, the record company guy in New York hears it. He buys the record, he starts to distribute it through the big system like Universal. But if they don’t train the artist, they don’t train the executive so that the artist has more than a record, they have a full career, that’s what you miss.
Looking back on what we did then, it’s the blueprint for how we do it again.
One of the greatest things about a series like [‘Inside the Label]’ is the nostalgia. You get to look back, you get to hear your favorite songs and see clips from a time that was really special. Can you tell us one of your proudest moments as the founder of Uptown?
I remember when we were making Heavy D’s video for his first album. It was a Teddy Riley record called “We Got Our Own Thing,” and we worked with this Czechoslovakian director who went on to direct Michael Jackson. And he came with some different kind of ideas for hip-hop.
He had penguins in it… a bunch of different kinds of things that hip-hop artists didn’t do. I remember talking to Heavy D and the Boyz and explaining to them why I thought it worked, and they were willing to try it.
I remember when we were shooting the video, Russell [Simmons] came down. And when you go to a video shoot, it can be a long, boring day… He stayed there for five hours, and I knew we were doing something special.
‘INSIDE THE LABEL’ re-airs its Uptown Records Episode on BET, Saturday May 21st at 9:15 AM ET. Tune in for future episodes Tuesday nights at 9pm ET to see Ruff Ryders, Murder Inc., Slip-N-Slide Records and more.