Andre Harrell, a veteran music executive best known as the founder of Uptown Records, where Sean “Puffy” Combs got his start in the business, who later went on to head Motown Records, has died. He was 59.
News of his passing first began to reach the public Friday night when DJ D-Nice revealed it while spinning on Instagram Live for his popular Club Quarantine series. The New York Times subsequently reported that Harrell had died late Thursday night at his home in West Hollywood, California, and that his ex-wife, Wendy Credle, had given the cause of death as heart failure, nothing that he “had had heart problems for some time.”
A native of New York, Harrell started his career in music as an artist, one-half of the early rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, whose single “Genius Rap” was a minor hit in 1981. In 1983 Harrell teamed with Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, and had one of his early experiences in the business working as a vice president and later GM of the label.
He left to start his own record company, Uptown Records, in 1986. Stylish, sophisticated and fashion-forward, the label played a key role in the development of the New Jack Swing style of R&B, courtesy of acts like Guy (featuring the hugely influential producer-performer Teddy Riley), Al B. Sure and Jodeci, as well as crossover hip-hop via Heavy D and the Boyz and Father MC. Harrell also signed the teenage Mary J. Blige in the late ’80s, though her career at the label didn’t fully take off until the early ’90s, with help from Harrell’s enterprising former intern, Sean “Puffy” Combs, who was quickly elevated to an A&R position at Uptown.
Combs’ A&R gig led to him discovering the demo tape for a rapper named Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. As the story goes, Diddy was fired from Uptown in 1993 after which he launched Bad Boy Records and promptly signed Wallace to a deal with his own label.
Harrell would later find a home for Uptown at MCA where he simultaneously developed multiple projects in film and television in the 1990s, including the movie and soundtrack “Strictly Business.” In 1995, he went on to run Motown Records as president and CEO for a brief period not long after the label’s acquisition by PolyGram.
Harrell and Combs remained longtime friends and business associates and Harrell served as vice chairman of Revolt, Combs’ multi-platform music network, and a producer on its panel show “State of the Culture.” Harrell also launched the Revolt Music Conference, where, in 2017, he interviewed his former mentee Combs. (Watch the illuminating talk below.)
A pioneer of hip-hop and R&B and black entertainment in general, serving as executive producer of the series “New York Undercover,” Harrell could be seen at many red carpet events on both coasts. He appears in Diddy’s 2017 documentary “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story” and had been working on a TV miniseries about Uptown that was in the development phase at BET. The three-part miniseries titled “Uptown” had Harrell on board as executive producer and was scheduled to hit the airwaves in 2020.
A statement from Universal Music Group was issued on Saturday, May 9. It reads:
We mourn the loss of Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, one of R&B and hip-hop’s most significant labels, where he molded a distinct sound and launched the careers of many seminal artists who continue to influence music today. Andre’s countless contributions to Universal Music Group include serving as President and General Manager of Def Jam Recordings, CEO of Motown Records and as a successful film and television producer at MCA. UMG and the entire music industry have lost a truly visionary member of our community and we extend our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.
BET president Scott Milles also commented:
“We are mourning the loss of a cultural icon, Andre Harrell, a chief architect of the modern hip-hop and R&B sound. Andre was tremendously excited about sharing the origin story of Uptown Records, and its pivotal role in the urban music landscape. With his tragic passing, BET is committed to ensuring that the Uptown limited series event tells both the Uptown story and Andre’s story – that of the incredible music innovator, man and friend to so many.”