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How Uptown Records Founder Andre Harrell Sharpened Changed Hip-Hop (Guest Blog)

Andre was on the cutting edge of hip-hop or sharpening it even as the music industry first dismissed the nascent cultural force

Andre Harrell, whose death over the weekend at age 59 stunned the hip-hop world and beyond in show business, was wary when I met him in the early 1990s.

After all, I was a reporter. Because I was from the big white news publication Newsweek (Andre never stated this so bluntly), he wasn’t about to let his guard down merely because he and I were black. Only after assessing that our interests were more mutual than not did Andre decide the risks of engagement wouldn’t be intolerable. This 1995 story, which starts out with Andre, was a result.

I think Andre began to welcome me because I proved that I was interested foremost in the business of show business. Historically, the show, especially in the arena of American music, perpetually wrote itself. By and large, American music — gospel, blues, jazz, rock, R&B, soul, funk — was rooted in Black gift and Black struggle, the whole of a people’s singular American experience.

The show’s economics was a history of exploitation, appropriation, racism, corruption and self- destruction that siphoned off the extraordinary financial value of Black cultural contribution and away from its creators, pioneers and impresarios.

Andre would be a principal in a 1990s vanguard intent on bending the arc of the industry’s pecuniary history. He became an irrepressible influencer on hip-hop’s explosive evolution, emanating from Black America and becoming a defining global culture beyond music and dance. Hip-hop stirred fashion, design, branding, mass marketing, language and more.

One inflection point in hip-hop was a cautionary tale Andre volunteered to me for the 1995 story. It was about Uptown Records, the label that launched giants like Mary J. Blige, Heavy D and the Boyz — and Andre’s big first success.

“I had fake control,” he said, furnishing me the quote.

I never asked Andre why he wanted to own his plight so publicly, and have pondered the possible reasons ever since. Maybe he wanted music’s status-quo powers to hear loudest that he knew he was in onto their game. Maybe he wanted his loudest truth not to be missed by his protégé, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and others in his orbit like Jay-Z, both of whom have accumulated pieces of the action. Maybe his revelation was not so loud, but the faint sound of history’s arc beginning to bend.

I reported on the media industry during an era of tectonic shifts in the global entertainment economy. From disruptive new technologies and emerging business models to ascendant moguls/visionaries and evolving consumer demographics, paradigm shifts proliferated. The entire cornucopia of converging trendlines merited extensive coverage. Yet, none was more important to me personally than the story where Andre’s and my interests intersected, although we didn’t always see things exactly the same way.

From all I saw, Andre was on the cutting edge of hip-hop or sharpening it even as the music industry first dismissed the nascent cultural force, regarding it merely a lucrative flash in the pan. It would be an unforgivable for anyone to underestimate Andre’s hand in the rise of hip-hop.

Johnnie L. Roberts has covered the media and entertainment industries for two decades for outlets like Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and TheWrap .He is the author/editor of "The Big Book of Business Quotations: Over 1,400 of the Smartest Things Ever Said about Making Money" (Skyhorse Publishing, 2016). Roberts, who lives with his family in Williamsburg, Virginia, currently is writing a memoir.

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