Andre Harrell, the veteran music executive who died on May 7 of heart failure at the age of 59, played an enormous role in creating the world-changing culture that hip-hop is today — and, by extension, all R&B, urban and pop music. Over the course of his 30-plus year career, and particularly during the golden era of his Uptown Records, Harrell helped bring upward mobility to hip-hop, launching the careers of Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and New Jack Swing titans like Guy and Heavy D, but also Sean (a.k.a. “Puff Daddy” and “Diddy”) Combs, with whom he worked for many years, most recently at the Revolt network, and as political activists, on both President Obama’s campaign and more recently, in the run-up to the 2020 election. (Diddy posted a moving tribute to Harrell on Monday, and public figures ranging from Mariah Carey to Kamala Harris did so over the weekend.)
Kevin Liles, cofounder and CEO of 300 Entertainment (where he’s helped to launch the careers of Young Thug, Megan Thee Stallion, Migos and many others) was close with Harrell for more than three decades. Harrell was a mentor and a role model to him — both began their careers as rappers — and although they never actually worked at the same company, they were allies professionally, throughout Liles’ years at Def Jam, Warner Music, as an artist manager and now at 300, but more importantly as friends and mutual fans. “He was a few years older and achieved a lot of things before me,” Liles says. “But he’d always say, ‘It’s your show — I’m just in it.’”
Liles remembers his friend below (as told to Jem Aswad).
There have been a lot of great directors of our culture, but the Martin Scorsese of cool was Dre. He was so passionate about cool — “Oh, no, you can’t have that color on without something complimenting it” — and what “ghetto fabulous” meant and how it needed to be presented to the world so that the average person would understand it. If he was sitting right here and you said, “Explain ghetto fabulous,” he would say, “Well, I’m gonna take you back to 1920-whatever” (laughing).” I am not saying he created any of it, but he might have coined the term and he definitely coined it as a way of life. “It’s okay to be in Harlem, but you’ve got to be in St. Barts too!” Dre’s energy is in every hip-hop and R&B record that’s been made since the ‘80s.
Andre had this trait — you didn’t just see him, you felt him. He didn’t just have a conversation with you, he told a story; he wasn’t just in the room, he was the room. I was a huge fan of his when he was in [Harrell’s ‘80s rap group] Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, but the first time I met him was through [Def Jam Records cofounder] Russell [Simmons] and Puff — I can’t really talk about Andre without talking about them too. It was through their friendship and their gifts to each other that I really learned what it means to be loyal, to have arguments and then discuss them, and to be true, lifelong friends. We might have worked at different companies, but we were all one family because we were spawned by the same thing: hip-hop.
One of his greatest gifts was writing the script: Who, what, how it is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. Don’t put yourself in positions where you can’t be who and what you are. “No no no, Kev, no, that just don’t work.” Then, when it did work, “Oh my goodness! Did you see how he walked into the room?”
During the Obama campaign we created a crew we called the Super Friends — Dre, Puff, Russell, Jay[-Z], Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, me and a whole slew of others. When we had the opportunity to work on the campaign to turn out African-American voters in swing states, Dre said, “Now, this is ghetto fabulous at its finest!” (Laughter)
Most recently, he was tirelessly working for the political agenda of African-Americans and to make sure we have a voice going into the 2020 election — to his last breath, amidst all the hell that’s going on, it was his mission. The last time I talked to him was about the election, we were realigning our goals and how none of us should commit to any candidate without having an agenda for us. He was adamant, “How many more of us have to die? This is not about tomorrow, this is about now!”
These times are extra hard for everybody, but Dre always said, “However the times are, we’ve got to find a way!” And in that, I find inspiration and love and guidance.