No one could have predicted what was to come of this Harlem-born, Bronx-bred lyricist in a slick suit, one half of the duo, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, proclaiming himself a “champagne rapper” so rich, so supernatural, so grand, mere mortals could never compare.
But Andre O’Neal Harrell knew things.
He knew that he was of a particular world—one that was concrete and grit and hard times, sure, but one that was shiny and glamorous and desirable, too. He was always clear that he was (we were) of that world, but bigger than it, too—that Blackness wasn’t some condition to overcome, but a state of mind to be embraced. Celebrated. Out loud.
And so, when Andre found his “in,” when he parlayed that flash of a rap career into a burgeoning business behind the music scenes as the head of Uptown Records, when he introduced his “grit-meets-glamour” aesthetic to a world that refused to see bigger for us, he won.
And we did, too.
We won when Andre discovered and introduced a young Mary J. Blige, straight from the projects in her baggy “Too Blac” baseball shirt, backwards cap and Timbs, stomping her “Real Love” onto our favorite music video shows, making it so that Black girls with rough edges and big hearts were seen.
We won, too, when Jodeci, equal parts corner boy and country, singing sexy songs with those early Sunday morning church vocals, bull-dozed past the bubble-gum boy bands of the time, bringing hood love—a love unexplored and underappreciated—to the airwaves, and Harrell protiges Al B. Sure, Christopher Williams, Heavy D., Soul 4 Real and the like made the make-you-dance-and-make-babies Hip Hop-R&B sound of New York City every bit as much a staple on the airwaves as Motown was to Detroit.
And my God, when Andre let songwriter and producer Teddy Riley loose, New Jack Swing created a musical sound that made clear our kind had something to say. Something to share. A feeling that, to this day, rocks deep in the bones. In the sinew.
Indeed, Andre’s Uptown, wrapped in his business acumen and dripping with his vision, became a musical explosion, with shrapnel that permeated every corner of the entertainment industry. Without Uptown, there is no Sean Combs, Harrell’s business protege, whom Harrell hired as an intern and unceremoniously fired for getting a little too big in the britches, giving “Puffy,” nee “Diddy,” the wings he needed to fly off and create Bad Boy Records, the label that dominated charts from the 90s through the 2000s with hit after hit from powerhouses like the Notorious B.I.G., Faith Evans, Total, 112 and the like. Without Uptown, there is no New Jack City, and a young Wesley Snipes, shining a light on the nuances of the crack epidemic and, at the same time, ushering in an entire genre of hood gangsta films.
In Living Color, A Different World and other shows that spoke to a generation of young African Americans previously unseen, unheard and deeply misunderstood, also came to the fore when Andre opened that door. Even our embrace of the Spike Lee canon—all of it was touched, in some way, by the magic that was Uptown.
And we learned from him. Not just the living large part—drinking that champagne, attending the hottest parties, flossing the prettiest arm candy, living lavishly, being “ghetto fabulous,” a phrase Harrell coined—but also the business part. Andre, always dapper in his pinstripes, turtlenecks and custom-made suits, made moves that shined a light on the underbelly of the music industry—made it so that we could see beyond the singing and dancing and rapping as an option and envision ourselves as moguls. Running things. Signing checks rather than hustling to get them. Puffy, Heavy-D, Jay-Z and all your favorite rappers with labels had Harrell as the shining example.
He was the Berry Gordy of our generation (and eventually stepped into Gordy’s shoes when he was named the president of Motown Records in 1996), but also, with a $50 million contract with MCA—a contract that saw him do good business in the television and movie industries—Harrell showed us how to stretch beyond even our wildest dreams.
Andre knew he had it in him. And he knew we had it in us, this generation, this mindset he introduced to the world.
Andre was a visionary. A shining star who loved us, celebrated us—who required nothing more from us than that we be our authentic selves because Black is… beautiful.
Black is life.
And that makes Andre Harrell, gone from here far too soon, immortal.
Denene Millner is a New York Times bestselling author of 31 books and the editorial director of Denene Millner Books, a children’s book imprint at Simon & Schuster. Her latest book, penned with Will Smith, is “The Fresh Princess.”
Photo: Michael Benabib Photography