Home Interviews Exclusive Interview With The Music Mogul: Andre Harrell
Exclusive Interview With The Music Mogul: Andre Harrell PDF Print E-mail
Written by Patricia Turnier   
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 17:13

Andre Harrell was born in Harlem in 1960.  His parents were a supermarket foreman and a nurse’s aide.  He grew up in the housing projects of the Bronx, New York and attended Lehman College where he majored in Communications and Business Management. 

His plan was to become a newscaster, but after three years he dropped out and went to work for a local radio station.   This was a propitious move on his part, coming on the cusp of the emerging Hip-Hop movement which had genesis in the South Bronx in the mid-70s.  A young generation was creating a new beat from those in old funk and disco records. It was the dawn of rap music.  In addition to the fun and braggadocio, it was telling the story of social deprivation in America’s urban communities. 

Harrell became the first half of the successful hip-hop duo Dr. Jeckyll (Harrell) & Mr. Hyde (Alonzo Brown, a high school buddy).  This rap duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde enjoyed three top 20 hits, “Genius Rap,” “Fast Life,” and “AM/FM.” 

The group was known for its corporate business image, wearing designer suits and ties during their performances. They first performed under the name "Harlem World Crew" and recorded on Tayster in 1980.   In 1983, Harrell met Russell Simmons, the founder of Rush Communications, a company that launched the careers of cutting-edge black “street” artists like Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Whodini. He went to work for Rush and within two years became vice-president and general manager. Harrell quickly gained a reputation for having a “golden finger on the pulse of what’s hot in the music industry.”   After a few years at Rush, Harrell moved on and founded Uptown Records, where he was responsible for discovering and hiring Sean "Puffy" Combs. Uptown Records was created to fill a void in urban black music by holding it to a higher standard.  Uptown Entertainment focused on the development of a full slate of film and television projects, many featuring Uptown recording artists. For example, it was not long before Uptown Entertainment sold a pilot to Fox Television starring Heavy D as a rapping dad.

A drama called Flavor, a variety/comedy show similar to In Living Color, and a feature film starring the soulful singers En Vogue were also soon in the works.  By 1988, MCA Music Entertainment Group was courting Harrell and offered him a $75,000 label deal. His first release under MCA, a compilation of works by then-unknown artists, was a huge success. Harrell then produced Heavy D’s platinum album, Livin’Large and built on these successes with hit albums for Al B Sure! and Guy(1). It was almost commonplace to see Uptown releases go gold or platinum as the enterprise became a major force in the music industry.  In 1988, Mary J. Blige recorded an impromptu cover of Anita Baker's "Caught Up In the Rapture" at a recording booth in a local mall; which caught the attention of Harrell’s entourage. Harrell met with Blige and in 1989 and signed her to the label.  She became the company's youngest and first female artist. 

Circa 1990, Andre Harrell also produced the film "Strictly Business" and its soundtrack.   In 1992, MCA offered Harrell a multimedia deal which involved film and television productions.  It was a seven-year, $50 million deal to produce multimedia projects with MCA Music Entertainment Group and Universal Pictures.  This astounding deal was rivaled only by those offered to megastars Michael Jackson and Madonna. The nearly unprecedented arrangement opened up Harrell’s creative vistas to include film and television projects like “New York Undercover” and major motion films like “Honey” and “Strictly Business”. 

In 1992, Uptown Records was renamed Uptown Entertainment; its records were featured in productions for Universal Pictures and Universal Television. Uptown’s musical prowess was celebrated in 1993 when Music Television (MTV) showcased its artists, such as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, on the cable network’s popular acoustic show, Unplugged. This was the first time the show devoted that entire time slot to artists of a single record label. The show was such a success that it was released as a video.  By the end of 1994, according to Billboard, "Uptown ranked second among all labels for number of charted R&B singles.” 

In October 1995, Harrell was appointed CEO and President of Motown Records, a deal reportedly worth some $20 million.  It was an effort to update that labels image and utilize Harrell’s considerable skills in spotting new talent. His new responsibilities were overseeing all of Motown’s operations: marketing, publishing, creative development and sales for all of Motown’s music labels and other business interests such as film and television, animations, video productions and multimedia productions.  After two years at Motown, Harrell resigned because of particular challenges in supervising all of the label’s operations.  He decided instead to focus his expertise on identifying and developing new talents while supporting established ones.  Harrell’s entrepreneurial savvy and business acumen were reflective of his street-fighter sense of survival, his success stemmed from fierce determination. Following his tenure at Motown, Harrell formed Harrell Entertainment and returned to doing what he does best - working and consulting with new artists.

In the fall of 1998, Sean “Puffy” Combs, founder and CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, hired Andre Harrell to take over the Chief Executive duties at the company. After a brief stint he departed Bad Boy in 2000 and created a marketing firm called NuAmerica to help big brands (such as Pepsi) target young urban consumers.  In addition, he teamed up with his one-time protégé Babyface to launch NuAmerica Music, a music management company.   In an interview with Vanity Fair, Chris Albrecht of Home Box Office (HBO) Independent Productions told that Harrell’s business edge was reflective of his street-fighter sense of survival. 

Throughout his career, Mr.  Harrell has been profiled in Magazines including Black Enterprise, Vibe, Upscale, Jet and others.  Andre Harrell’s string of success continued in 2009 when he inked another major distribution deal with Atlantic Records for his newly developed Harrell Records. He had to maintain his presence and influence in the record industry searching for the next R&B superstar and struggling to stay healthy while recuperating from quadruple bypass surgery.

To conclude, Mr.  Harrell credits his success to being both a rap artist and an entrepreneur. Several projects that he touched, turned into gold.  He also has an eye for discovering the right people - talent and executives.  Throughout his career, Harrell has worked with the entertainment elite for decades.  He launched the career of Mary J.  Blige, Puff Daddy, Halle Berry (who got her first starring role in "Strictly Business", produced by Harrell), Jodeci, Heavy D, Christopher Williams and so on.  Andre Harrell’s influence reshaped the music industry in the early 90s when he scored a number of chart-topping hits with a more ‘Hip-Hop Soul’ sound.  From the heart throbbing sexy crooning of Al B. Sure and Christopher Williams to the Hip-Hop smooth sounds of Father MC.  In 2002 he discovered a young White kid from Bel Air who sang and admired the sultry sounds of Marvin Gaye, Robin Thicke. Andre Harrell is a lifestyle entertainment mogul who uses things he observes in different trends whether it is Rock ‘n’ Roll, Punk Rock, Hollywood, Ghetto Fabulous, Country Hip and so on.  In other words, his style can be eclectic.   Andre Harrell has years of experience in the music industry primarily as an executive.  Every Sunday, he can also be heard on the radio (New York's 98.7 WKRS FM) hosting his show "Champagne and Bubbles.   

In 2011, after a nation-wide search, he signed the up and coming talented quartet Hamilton Park as the first act on his new label.  One of the Harrell Records’ major current projects is about finding the next soul music superstar.  In this regard, Mr.  Harrell set up last fall a Superstar Soul Search.  It is an online and live competition to find the next big discovery in the R&B/ Soul music scene.  The winner will be announced January 10th 2012.  We spoke to Andre Harrell last fall.  Here he talks about this contest and he shared with us his professional journey.

[As of January 10th 2012, the winner of the contest is Guy Furious:  http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/19684189]



P.T.  Growing up, you were inspired by whom musically? In addition, how old were you when you realized that you had a passion for music and wanted to be part of the industry?

A.H. I was inspired by Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, the Isley Brothers and Diana Ross.   The sounds of Michael Jackson and Barry White were fabulous, it was like Black disco.  The work of Stevie and Marvin were sounds of love and struggle.  The contribution of these artists in the music industry is profound and they raised the bar.  I became interested in the entertainment industry when I was 14 after I saw Busy Bee Starsky at my junior high school dance.  I was hooked from then.

P.T.  Did you have a mentor when you became involved in the music business?  In other words, who influenced you?

A.H.  In my early twenties, my mentor was Kenny [a.k.a Kenneth] Gamble from Philadelphia International Records.  He had a lot of experience.  His label signed prominent bands such as the O’ Jays.  Gamble with Leon Huff produced The Jacksons' first two albums for Columbia/CBS after the group left Motown in 1976.  So, Gamble is a veteran and he taught me about the music business and how to influence the milieu artistically.

P.T.  In the early 80s what made you trade your microphone for management and executive positions in the music industry?

A.H.  In 1985, I was the road manager for LL Cool J.  We did a show in New Jersey.  At the time, his first album Radio was released and had critical acclaim with its hip-hop ballads and hybrid sounds.  It appealed to a younger music audience who were instrumental in the LP’s success.  I thought it was interesting that he became one of the first rappers to crossover.  The album went platinum. The record helped establish both with Def Jam as a label (with a distribution deal with Columbia Records the following year) and LL Cool J as a rapper.  Seeing the commercial success of the LP made me realize the benefits of being in the business side of the industry.  In addition, Radio contributed to the displacement of the old school hip-hop by the new school genre (where artists tended to compose shorter with a self-assertive style). This pivotal moment in the history and the culture of rap made me see that it was time to go behind the camera and find a new style for my future artists.

I want to add that during this period I drew upon my early experiences of surfing the uptown Harlem club scene.   I was convinced that I had more of an understanding of what this vibe was all about than any other major label executive I knew.  I felt that I could bridge the gap between “street” and middle to upper class in music by branding new artists.  In that sense, I wanted to use my strategic ability to package and market young black singers.

To finish, despite my early success in the music industry, I had other career aspirations and continued to pursue my studies by attending Lehman College in the Bronx. There, I majored in Communications and Business Management. 

P.T.  Black music in America is an over $1 billion dollar industry.  What do African-Americans need to do to create a music conglomerate holding company such as Vivendi to obtain more control over their music?

A.H.  They need to own their publishing companies like Motown and have boutique labels.  Historically, Black music often dominated the charts and still does. There were few black executives in large conglomerates ran by the mainstream.  The number needs to be increased in the major companies from the mainstream and African-American labels.

P.T.  What is your opinion of the 360 deal?

A.H.  The 360 deal is really for boutique labels and enterprises, which have expertise in diverse niches.  The 360 works for companies that have a stake with different areas like clothing, perfumes and so on.  These relations in diverse products can be lucrative if they are used to enhance the artists’ brand and make them famous. If the 360 deals are in the hands of an established star maker who launched the career of a Mary J.  Blige, a Puff Daddy or a Robin Thicke, it is great.   Otherwise, it is not advantageous to the entertainer.  In summary, the star maker needs strong relationships in diverse realms, for instance the movie industry,  to make it profitable for the artists he is representing.  So, the 360 deal has value if strong partners from different fields are included.  An excellent 360 deal will help an artist to progress rapidly and rise to the top more effectively and expeditiously.

P.T.  How is your latest label Harrell Records different from Uptown Records?  In addition, you said to the media that your new company’s (Harrell Records) mission is to put love back on the radio.  How do you intend to do that?

A.H.  I intend to do that by encouraging my artists to talk authentically (as much as possible) about their lives and their relationships.  I want to put out there more young men singing love songs.  I think there are fewer males doing this than females.  So, I want young men, solo or  groups, doing this on the Soul scene.  I intend to put out there music on love which will reach a wide audience.  It is important to think globally and use the variety of new technologies to showcase the work of the artists.  My new label was created to market a music which reflects a more mainstream black lifestyle, with a subtle sound coming from the marriage of rhythm and blues with hip-hop. I believe that love is the most positive force in the universe. We need it in our music and in our lives.

P.T.  You launched a talent search this fall via www.blazetrak.com(2), a paid service.  The winner will be announced on January 10th 2012.  Tell our worldwide readers about this event and share with us how this contest came about. Also, let us know about the opportunities that the winner will gain from the contest.

A.H.  The goal of the contest is to find young artists who are multi-talented.  It is an asset if they can rap, sing and produce.  I am looking forward to building my publishing company, my record company and my arsenal of hip producers.  If I find someone truly talented on any level, I will definitely work with him/her.  I will offer him/her a record deal and a production/publishing deal.  I will have to keep looking until I find above par artists.

Regarding the 2012 winner, we are looking for a talent who will be inspiring and moving.  The next soul music superstar will sign a major distribution deal with Atlantic Records. We are looking for people all around the country who can submit a clip of themselves singing an original piece.  The ultimate winner will get a big record deal with my label.  The contest is a global search for the next superstar.  I want to add that we accept auditions via Blazetrak which is a web platform that provides direct video access to the world's top professionals.  We invite the contestants to submit their best original music and/or performance of a cover (via audio or video) through the Blazetrak platform.  They can send me two or three demos. I will personally review each and every submission during the month of December (2011).  All entrants are guaranteed a video response directly from me, including my critique of the submission. The winner will be announced via a live Ustream event.

P.T.  Do you think that Hip-Hop should be a reflection of what is or a reflection of what can be?  In other words, what is your assessment of rap’s evolution since its beginning in the ‘70s?

A.H.  When I started rap in the ‘70s it was about what could be.  I wanted to build the lifestyle I dreamed of during my childhood.  People at the time were rapping about the visions they created for themselves.  The kids from inner-cities were rapping about the big time they were going to have and about how successful they were going to be.  I believe that this trend will continue as long as artists refine their craft while incorporating poetry.  I think that hip hop can play several roles and not focus mainly on tough realities.  It can talk about a vision for the future and about the reality of today.  In my opinion, rap can be both.

P.T.  Do you think that rap has to be more conscious?

A.H.  It could be.  I believe what is happening today is the fact that people follow what is mercantile.  They can put emphasis on the artistry, creativity and quality.  I think it would be uplifting to bring positivity for the future.  Originality is important and I don’t believe that there is one formula to follow.  There is room for many things.  The music scene is best served through diversity of thought, and many voices have value.

P.T.  What hurdles did you encounter throughout the years as an entrepreneur that you can share with us, and how did you overcome them?  Also, what is the most important thing you have learned as an entrepreneur throughout your career?

A.H.  I learned that it is very important to hold on to your vision and maintain your point of view.  Your goals have to be really clear.  You need to know your plan and you should not be deterred.  Like I said earlier, I want to put back love on the radio.  It is important to have some philosophy in order to have a specific plan and brand yourself correctly.  You need to know how and when you will achieve the next levels.  One of the greatest challenges in the music industry is to follow the next trend and be aware of what appeals to the next generation.  The milieu changes very fast and you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on.  You always need to be current, relevant and fresh.  It is important to find the balance which will help you stay true to your core.

P.T.  You probably had naysayers during your professional journey.  How did you manage to not let them deter you from your dreams and continue on your path?

A.H.  You have to have a strong belief in yourself and you need a team that share your vision.  It is important to get rid of any bad apple that creates a negative influence.  Personally, I believe in a certain kind of hip-hop and R&B so I have to surround myself with people who have the same point of view.  I need to stay true to myself artistically and it has to be the same thing with my team.

P.T.  I think that it is very interesting when you say it is important to believe in yourself because in the early ‘70s and ‘80s nobody knew that hip-hop and rap would be as big as they are now.  It didn’t become a temporary success as some people predicted at the time.  This genre has longevity and it has been embraced worldwide.

A.H.  Definitely!  It was a new style that we were leading in our immediate circle in NY.  We knew it would be the next big thing and we knew we had a jewel.  We wanted to be different and we loved this new trend.  We were not necessarily thinking about making it profitable.  We were enjoying it so much that we were willing to make it for free.  The public feels it when it is real.

P.T.  In the past, you produced movies such as the lovely romantic comedy "Strictly Business".  Do your future projects include producing another film?  If so, what would it be about?

A.H.  I am in the process of making a deal for a musical film the middle of 2012.  Until I close the deal, I am not allowed to give details to the press. 

P.T.  To conclude, what message do you have for up and coming artists and for people interested in creating a record label? 

A.H.  The artists have to ensure that they possess a high level of knowledge by always being in a learning process if they wish to achieve longevity.  This is one key factor for an artist to develop professionally.  It is helpful to find an experienced mentor in the industry who will guide and help you avoid the pitfalls in the field.  The performers need to always strive for higher standards.  Also, it is important to stay true to what you love, which will bring authenticity. I encourage young artists to explore, take chances and go outside the box.  They have to be original and bring something new to the table.  In other words, you won’t set yourself apart from others if you don’t bring originality to the music scene and if you follow a formula with simple gimmicks. 

The people interested in creating a record label need to have a keen entrepreneurial instinct with leadership to attract excellent talent.  Also, they have to stay abreast of the sounds which make the public go on the dance floor.  It is imperative to have the right producers who will know how to create these sounds.  In other words, they have to know what the new flavors are. The music business is driven by A&R (artists and repertoire).  So, building an excellent team (with the A&R  division, a marketing department and so on) is a must to have a successful label.  The head of the record company must have an excellent rapport with the artists in order to become a great ally.  Personally, I stay in touch with young producers and vice-presidents who keep me connected to the pulse of the urban African-American lifestyle. I believe also that as an artist and/or entrepreneur you need to always make sure you put the consumers first by listening to them.  To conclude, whatever your path, staying positive and confident is very important because you will always meet naysayers on your journey.  It is imperative to not let anybody deter you from your dreams.  Success has to stem from fierce determination.
P.T.  Thank you Mr.  Harrell for this great interview.  It was an honor to interview you!



Selected Artists who worked with Andre Harrell :

• Al B. Sure!
• Christopher Williams
• Father MC
• Finesse & Synquis
• Guy
• Groove B Chill
• Heavy D & The Boyz
• Horace Brown
• Jeff Redd
• Jodeci
• Little Shawn
• Lost Boyz
• Mary J. Blige
• McGruff (rapper)
• Monifah
• Nesto Velasquez
• Soul for Real
• The Brothers Black
• The Gyrlz
• Woody Rock (rapper)

Official Web sites:  www.andreharrellmusic.com , www.harrellrecords.com and www.blazetrak.com

Mr.  Harrell in brief:

Personal Information:  Born Andre O'Neal Harrell, c. 1962.  He was married to the music attorney Wendy Credle.  They have one son.

Education: Attended Lehman College.

Career:  With Alonzo Brown, formed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (rap duo); Rush Management, New York City, Vice President and General Manager, c. 1985; Uptown Records, New York, NY, founder and president, 1987-92; Uptown Entertainment, New York, NY, president, 1992-1995; Motown Records, president and CEO, 1995-1997; Bad Boy Entertainment, consultant, 1999-.


Strictly Business (1991):  Movie, producer
New York Undercover (1994) (TV series) (co-executive producer - 50 episodes, 1995-1997) (executive producer - 26 episodes, 1994-1995)
Honey (2003):  Movie, producer
Borrow my crew (2005):  TV documentary, executive producer
Black and White:  A portrait of Sean Combs (2006):  TV documentary, executive producer
Fair Game:  Documentary, 2010
James Brown: The Man, the Music, & the Message (video documentary) (special thanks) (11 titles)
2011 The Hot 10 (TV series) 
– Episode #1.29 (2011) 
 2011 Way Black When: Primetime (TV series) 
– Episode #1.7 (2011)
2009 Good Hair (documentary)
2007 4th Annual VH1 Hip-Hop Honors (TV movie)
 2006 E! True Hollywood Story (TV series documentary)
– Sean 'Diddy' Combs (2006)
 2006 The One: Making a Music Star (TV series)
– Results Show (2006) 
– Episode #1.1 (2006)
 2005 Made You Look: Top 25 Moments of BET History (TV special documentary)
 2001-2004 Intimate Portrait (TV series documentary)
– Missy 'Misdemeanor' Elliott (2004)
– Mary J. Blige (2001)
 2001 Behind the Music (TV series documentary)
– Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs (2001)
 1995 The Show (documentary)
1985 Krush Groove


(1) Harrell worked as a producer for Guy when Teddy Riley was part of the group. It is important to note  that Riley influenced the modern soul movement with the inception of the new jack swing sound called swingbeat, a fusion genre which seeped into pop culture along with hip-hop.  It was the definitive sound of the inventive Black New York club scene, which became extremely popular from the late 1980s into the mid-90s.

(2) Blazetrak.com provides direct video access to the world's top celebrities and industry professionals. The global web-based platform connects consumers with successful professionals across a variety of verticals including Music, Television, Film, Sports, Lifestyle, Fashion, Business and others. Blazetrak has over 500 Professionals connecting with their registered users in over 202 countries.