Andre Harrell, who founded Uptown Records and launched many careers, dies at 5

5/14/2020, 6 p.m.
Andre Harrell, the Uptown Records founder who shaped the sound of hip-hop and R&B in the late 1980s and 1990s …
Mr. Harrell

NEW YORK Andre Harrell, the Uptown Records founder who shaped the sound of hip-hop and R&B in the late 1980s and 1990s with acts such as Mary J. Blige and Heavy D and also launched the career of mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, died Thursday, May 7, 2020. He was 59.

Diddy’s REVOLT company confirmed Mr. Harrell’s death, but no other details were immediately available.

Mr. Harrell was vice chairman at REVOLT.

“Everyone in the REVOLT family is devastated by the loss of our friend, mentor and Vice Chairman. Andre’s impact on Hip Hop, the culture and on all of us personally has been immeasurable and profound. May he Rest In Peace.” Roma Khanna, CEO of REVOLT Media & TV, said in a statement.

Mr. Harrell launched his New York City-based label in 1986, eventually dominating the urban music scene with multiple hit songs and platinum-selling albums.

He first found success in the late 1980s with debut albums from Heavy D & the Boyz, Al B. Sure! and Guy, the R&B trio that also included megaproducer Teddy Riley, the leader of the New Jack Swing movement.

In 1990, Diddy entered Mr. Harrell’s office. He received an internship at Uptown and quickly rose through the ranks after finding success with just-signed acts, including R&B group Jodeci and Ms. Blige, who was dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul with the release of her 1992 debut, “What’s the 411?”

Uptown also released Notorious B.I.G.’s first single, 1993’s “Party and Bull----,” which was featured on a film soundtrack.

Diddy often credits Mr. Harrell with giving him the tools to find success in music and life, even saying Mr. Harrell was like a father figure to him.

“Andre Harrell influenced me the most and I don’t know if that will ever change,” Diddy said in an interview with HipHollywood.

In 1993, though, Mr. Harrell let Diddy go from Uptown. Mr. Harrell said one of the reasons he fired Diddy was because MCA Records, the label’s distributor, didn’t want to release B.I.G.’s debut album because of its raw and rough subject matter about street life.

“I didn’t want to sit there and be the one confining Puff because the corporation was telling me to do that. I’m not built that way,” Mr. Harrell said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “I told Puff he needs to go and create his own opportunity: ‘You’re red-hot right now. I’m really letting you go so you can get rich.’ ”

Diddy quickly launched Bad Boy Records, taking B.I.G. with him and releasing his classic album “Ready to Die” in 1994. “And Biggie Smalls ended up becoming my favorite rapper,” Mr. Harrell told WSJ.

Mr. Harrell was born in Harlem on Sept. 26, 1960. He was part of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, releasing several songs before dropping their debut album, “The Champagne of Rap,” in 1985.

Mr. Harrell began working for Russell Simmons at Def Jam in the 1980s, quickly becoming an executive and helping build the careers for acts such as Run-DMC and LL Cool J.

“So many can say they are successful because Andre Harrell gave them their start. He was so beloved because he made his living uplifting others,” Mr. Simmons posted last Saturday on Instagram. “We celebrate him in his passing because we were so blessed for his presence... He gave everything he had. God makes the best plans R.I.P @andreharrell.”

Mr. Harrell left to launch Uptown, where he also had success with Soul for Real, Lost Boyz, Christopher Williams, Monifah and Father MC. Mr. Harrell’s talent even extended to television and movies. He executive produced the hit 1990s TV police drama “New York Undercover,” which ran for four seasons. He also produced the 1992 Halle Berry comedy “Strictly Business” and 2003’s “Honey,” starring Jessica Alba.

“My heart is breaking and I can’t stop crying. He was an amazing friend and I will miss him forever,” Mariah Carey tweeted.

Questlove of The Roots wrote an emotional post, calling Mr. Harrell’s death “a staggering loss.”

“He gave you the best soundtracks of your life man and you didn’t even know it. We never gave him his flowers,” he continued. “He redefined the party!”

Mr. Harrell was president and CEO of Motown Records from 1995 to 1997.

BET announced it is producing a three-part television series about Mr. Harrell and Uptown Records that will premiere sometime this year.