Andre Harrell has always been a trailblazer. Be it as one half of early 80s rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the pair rocked sharp suits as opposed to the obligatory jeans, sports jerseys and baseball caps. And then in the mid 80s-mid-90s as president of Uptown Records, an imprint on MCA, which kick started the whole ‘ghetto fabulous’ movement and assisted in ushering in the mainstream’s unapologetic love affair with black culture as we currently know it, from the music, the fashion, the lifestyle and the swag.
The label also changed the music industry forever by introducing acts such as Mary J Blige, Jodeci, Guy, Heavy D and the Boys and Al B Sure, who, aside from becoming a success in their own right and carving their place in music history, became a blueprint for countless acts who followed. Uptown was also where Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing sound first began to thrive. Andre is also responsible for giving Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs his start in the music industry when he hired him as an intern at Uptown Records in 1993. And contrary to urban myth he didn’t fire him, that was Uptown’s then General Manager Mark Siegel – but that’s another story for another time.
But back to Andre, who also bought us blue-eyed soul crooner Robin Thicke, and his most recent carnation as CEO of the relatively new Harrell Records, where acts include r&b male quintet Hamilton Park.
The primary reason for doing this interview is he is currently on the look out for some more acts to add to his stable. Which is why he has embarked on a fantastic and innovative global talent search project with Blazetrak, a web platform that provides direct video access to the world’s top professionals. From now through to November 30th, 2011 Andre will be accepting auditions via Blazetrak.com from artists and aspiring producer/songwriters. He will personally review each and every submission, and all entrants are guaranteed a video response/critique directly from Andre himself. Then, after reviewing all the entries, on 10 January, 2012 he will announce the winning recipient of a record deal or production/publishing deal. Already, the talent search is gaining some serious buzz, with multiple tweets going out from Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Jermaine Dupri, Russell Simmons and Robin Thicke on Twitter. Here’s what Andre had to say about the project, his history and impact in the music industry and the many artists and figures whose careers he is responsible for kick-starting.
Tell me more about the competition you are involved in with Blazetrak?
Well Blazetrak is like a new way to do A+R. The way we normally do A+R is managers or lawyers suggesting talent. This way gives up-and-coming talent an opportunity to get to us (label heads) until they get further along the line in their professional career. This allows performers to have a video conference with me, play me four minutes of music, even making a video where you tell me about your musical journey and your hopes and dreams, and I reply back with 45 seconds direction of what I think you are good at, where I think you can improve and whether I’m interested in sign you – so I can do 20 meetings in one day with people from all over the world.
Do you think this is the way forward for labels to sign acts in the future?
Anything that is pioneering, it takes some time for the best talent to figure out how to move away from the conventional way and give this a try. As soon as people start to get signed and it becomes a success then that will be it, then you’ll have a floodgate opening of people who want to do it this way.
What has the feedback been like so far?
I’ve been getting entries from all around the world, quite a few from the UK actually and they are talented people.
What are you looking for?
I’m looking for a young male singer, something soulful as well as crossover. I’m looking for something that’s modern sounding.
Why do you think Uptown Records is looked at as very iconic by music fans?
Uptown came along at a very special time when hip hop and r&b were merging, and we created a bridge effect where we bought something for the Motown fans, something for the hip hop fans and introduced it to a multi-cultural kind of energy. We had the right brand and energy to take advantage of the natural current that was going on.
Uptown discovered Mary J Blige almost 20 years ago, and since then she has gone on to enjoy a phenomenal career. What was it about her that made you want to sign her in the first place?
I knew the first time I heard her demo, as she was expressing a pain that whole generation could relate to, those who had grew up in the crack epidemic and fatherless homes. I knew with her singing and subject matter she would not only go on to heal herself but women around the world. She is a very authentic artist and she always was.
And of course there was Jodeci, one of the biggest r&b music acts of the 90s. What made them special from the start in your opinion?
I remember being in my office having a meeting with Heavy D and I kept hearing the records Forever My Lady and Come and Talk to Me coming out of Hercules’ office, who was my A+R at the time. We immediately stopped what we were doing and walked over to hear it. It was the harmonies that stood out. They had so much gospel and church experience. They had such a seasoned approach on how to utilise your vocals, whether it was the raspiness of K-Ci Hailey versus his brother’s smooth falsetto, and then Devante as the producer who knew how to take what they did and really use it to the maximum with his songwriting and the marrying of their vocals to the verses and choruses. It stood out like nothing I’d ever heard before.
Uptown wasn’t just know for the music but for the fashion and lifestyle, where did the ethos for that come from?
Uptown coined the phrase ‘Ghetto fabulous’, which was the desire for those who came from humble beginnings to have a better life, and we knew what the style of that better life was. That became aspirational. Our videos became commercials not just for the artists but for the kind of lifestyle Uptown was representing. Very New York, very Harlem, very Washington DC, any big city with an urban area. Most young people from those places, they wanted a Louis Vuitton bag, they wanted gold earrings, they wanted jewellery. They wanted it to be that you didn’t necessarily have to wear a suit and tie to look as if you were successful. They wanted to wear sneakers and boots. We represented that kind of attitude, and so it was this youthful definition of success that came across and swag, that kind of Frank Sinatra ‘I did it my way’ kind of swag.
What about Diddy, or Puffy’ as he was when you hired him as an intern at Uptown? How did he ceom to Uptown?
What I saw in Puff was someone who loved the culture. At the time I met him he was going to the University of Howard up in Washington DC. He use to throw parties at Howard University. I always liked people who could create a tempo, almost like a modern day circus and make people come to it. He was also a dancer, which gave him a sense of music, so I could see all the possibilities. What I had was a blueprint for Uptown Records, and Uptown Records was named really as an ode to Harlem, coz out of all the boroughs in New York City Harlem had the most style. Puffy then came along and he added to what I was trying to do and he would represent. I would also hire people around me, almost as muses, to represent the culture. And I think what I taught him was being black and how being on top of black culture would exceed the universe. I empowered all those young black people at the time that you didn’t have to dial your blackness down; you had to dial your blackness up in terms of attitude, fashion and with music. I used to say to them that ‘black people are the new Europeans of America’. I guess I taught him to be proud.
It is well documented that he bought a lot to Uptown in terms of the ‘swag’ – tell me more about that?
With Jodeci I remember we were at a photo-shoot and it wasn’t coming out well. MCA were trying to tell us what to do, and I was looking at the pictures and then I said to Puff, ‘Listen, dress them how you dress’. So I would totally give Puff credit for Jodeci’s fashion. Now for Mary J, we had an in-house stylist for her. Puffy’s assistant, Sybil Pennix, she was really the stylist who put together downtown and Uptown to put together Mary J Blige’s look. She was from where Andy Warhol was from and she kind of bought that sensibility to the company.
Teddy Riley was another talent that came up under Uptown. What were those early days working with him like?
I’d know Teddy since he was 12 years old. When I was a rapper performing at the Apollo, Teddy would be playing for his brother-in-law, so I had always seen him around and then when Teddy made The Show with Dougie Fresh, for me that was the first New Jack Swing record. It was a whole new sound that Teddy created. I remember being on tour with Chris Rock and Al B Sure and we would only play Guy and Al B Sure’s records, and every radio station we went to for promo, Al B Sure would take about his record but then he would be like, ‘but have you heard Guy, and their Groove Me record?’ I remember when I used to play Guy for people and they didn’t catch it at first and I used to look at them and say, ‘don’t worry, you’ll get it.’ That was record I would never tried to argue about it, I just used to say, ‘ just play it a few times, don’t worry’. I never saw anybody make a record as fast as Teddy Riley. We’d be in his living room in the projects. I would watch him find the bassline and make the record in like 20 minutes.
You worked alongside Russell Simmons at Rush Management back in the day, before Uptown. What did you learn while there?
With Russell we used to hang out downtown, go to clubs and listen to some hip hop. I knew black culture was becoming a more crossover scene. I knew if I made r&b with a beat and a hip hop tone and an attitude it wasn’t just gonna be black music, it was gonna be youth music and youth music around the world. I guess I learned about artist development and how to put on a great show. The thing I probably added to most of my artists would be dance. I didn’t want them to just be walking back and forth on the stage rapping on a microphone. With Heavy D, I would say to him ‘We have to do everything in our power not to make people focus on your size, and the first thing we have to do is make you look light on your feet’. So we called in Rosie Perez, who later went on to choreograph and work in movies, but her first job was working with me and choreographing Heavy D and the Boyz. Next I looked at the wardrobe. Before [specialist stores for big and tall men] became really big across the nation, any clothes for bigger guys in stores would be two seasons behind or more of a ‘family man’ style, so I would go and get Heavy D’s clothes specially made, so he could have the latest Giorgio Armani or the latest of whatever was fashionable, so nobody ever looked at him like he was wearing these ‘old fat-guy’ clothes that were not in style. I made sure he was fashion forward.
What do you think is missing from the music industry today?
When we look back at the 80s and 90s there were so many cultural movements happening, there was hip hop, new jack swing, hip hop soul, so right now there is nothing that the 20 year-olds are creating. Right now we have a lot of music that doesn’t really have a soul. I think it is a lot harder to find something that you can build a female artist, a male artist and a group around – for example, for hip hop, you could have a girl, a guy and a group, for New Jack Swing, you could make a girl, a guy and a group, the same with hip hop soul. Now everybody is repeating themselves with the same producers so you have to work that much harder for somebody who sings extraordinary, had an extraordinary image and has a great way of selling their story on an LP. It is much harder, and it doesn’t help that people can get music for free! I think people aren’t trying. There hasn’t been a universal cultural music to come along for this generation yet, but I am sure one will be coming.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m most proud of black music becoming international music and black people becoming an international people to be looked up to and admired for their contribution to culture for this generation.
Do you feel you get the respect you deserve?
What I do is a thing that white culture notices last. Whenever you do a upscale black scale experience that is the last black experience the mainstream starts to notice, dig into and figure out who lies behind the true value of. They always seem to figure out the field hand Negro stuff first as opposed to the thing that really started to attract white women and get them dancing to black music and want a black husband, and the idea of a successful black man being in business and running for president. What I did was not to present a stereotype of one thing. It wasn’t like everybody had to be hard. You can be hard, you can be sexy, you can be smart, you can be an individual and everything you want to be and you can successful and mainstream about it and you don’t have to change for anybody.
When I’m walking down the street, I get so much love from black men, it’s ridiculous – so black people, they know. It’s also telling that the people that I helped put on top speak of me to the highest level, from Mary J Blige to Puffy. I think after they get finished with Russell they will get to me (Laughs).
What did you learn during your time as CEO of Motown Records?
The one thing I learned is the past can’t be recreated. I think Uptown was the Motown of the 90s and when I got offered the president role – I tried to bring that experience to Motown. I think it is difficult to bring something that happened in the 60s into the 90s as it is a totally different experience and a totally different branding style. The only way you can relive the past is to play the records.