Andre Harrell, the innovative music exec who founded Uptown Records and discovered a young Sean “Diddy” Combs, has died. He was 59.
The news of Harrell’s death was announced during DJ D-Nice’s nightly Club Quarantine Instagram Live mix. The cause of Harrell’s death is currently unknown.
Harrell’s vision helped bring the sounds of New Jack Swing to a wide audience in the late-1980s, working with the likes of Terry Riley and Heavy D. After a brief career as an artist in the group Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in the early 1980s, he decided to become an executive, first under Russell Simmons at Def Jam. After stints as general manager and even Vice President of the famed label, he left Simmons and embarked on creating his own label.
He founded Uptown Records, a play on the fabled Motown Records in 1986. Emphasizing that the sound of the label was “the party,” he helped usher in the era of New Jack Swing, starting with Guy, Heavy D and the Boyz, Father MC and Al B. Sure. In the ’90s as New Jack Swing’s popularity began to wane, Harrell coined the term Hip Hop Soul, introducing acts such as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. Blidge’s career, in particular, took off in 1992 under the guide of Sean “Diddy” Combs, who arrived to Uptown as an intern.
From New Jack Swing to Hip Hop soul, Uptown was responsible for introducing two different eras that pop culture adapted to. “I don’t think there’s any difference between R&B-New Jack Swing or hip-hop-New Jack Swing when you talk about [artists] like Heavy D, Guy or Bobby Brown,” Harrell said in 2017 about the sound. “It all made you hit the dance floor and start dancing hard and sweaty.”
Following his time at Uptown, Harrell transitioned to being the head of Motown Records in the ’90s. He brought success to the label in a new era before venturing on to other projects such as MCA Enterprises, which developed the hit ’90s NYC cop drama New York Undercover.
A three-part miniseries based on Harrell’s life, “Uptown,” was scheduled to air on BET later this year.