Uptown Records

Uptown Records: (Founder & CEO) Andre Harrell - The Visionary

Founded circa 1987 by an entrepreneur named Andre Harrell, New York-based Uptown records served as the epicenter of New Jack Swing music throughout the era. Legendary New Jack acts such as Guy, Al B.Sure!, and Heavy D were among the label’s most successful acts. When the New Jack Era ended, Uptown continued to churn out Hip-Hop/Soul, largely thanks to the efforts of newcomer Sean “Puffy” Combs and the acts he developed, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. While Def Jam was blazing its trail in Hip Hop (Public Enemy, 3rd Bass, LL Cool J, etc), Uptown handled the side of “urban” music less likely to cross over to suburban audiences: Soul/R&B.

Andre Harrell started his career in entertainment as one half of a rap duo named Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in the early 80s. Then in 1983, Harrell met Russell Simmons and convinced Harell to work for him at Rush Management, where he helped launch the careers of artists like LL Cool J, Run DMC and Whodini. By 1986, Harell saw a void in how young Black culture was being represented in the marketplace, feeling that the raw street image that Def Jam (and other rap labels) represented did not fully reflect the young Black experience and lifestyle. Harell felt he could bridge the gap between “street” and upper class, by producing music that reflected the upwardly mobile Black experience – a sound that married the classy aesthetics of R&B to the edgy sounds of Hip-Hop. No artist fit the aforementioned description any better than Jamaican-born Dwight Myers, who would in a short time become better known as Heavy D.

Originally, Harrell wanted to sign Heavy D to Def Jam, but Harrell faces opposition from the label. But Harell strongly believed in Heavy D and the upwardly mobile “urban vibe” he represented, so he launched Uptown Records, securing distribution through MCA, and released Heavy D’s ‘Livin Large’ album in 1987; it went gold. Not long afterward, Al B. Sure’s ‘In Effect Mode’ would be released next (distributed by Warner Brothers) and his first single “Nite and Day” would reach #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and #7 on the Billboard Pop chart, making it a certified smash.

Teddy Riley had already been making a name for himself in the music industry – he’d produced Keith Sweat’s chart-topping smash “I Want Her”, and Heavy D’s whole ‘Livin Large’ album. With Uptown Records, Teddy would finally get his chance to get onstage with his group, Guy. With producer Teddy Riley as the chief architect of its sound, Uptown Records was leading the way in urban music by the end of 1988.

Uptown Records: (Chief Producer) Teddy Riley - The Man Behind The Music

In 1989, Heavy D’s ‘Big Tyme’ album would go platinum, fueled by the hits “We Got Our Own Thang”, and “Somebody For Me”. Guy was upstaging New Edition on their Heart Break tour. The New Jack Swing musical genre was heating up, and established producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were definitely taking notice, adding the New Jack style to their remixes of New Edition cuts, and Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ album.

In late 1990, Guy returned with ‘The Future’, while Heavy D unleashed ‘Peaceful Journey’ in 1991. Intern Sean “Puffy” Combs had arrived at the label at this time, and was helping to develop Uptown’s newly signed acts, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, while crafting the look and sound of Father MC. Meanwhile, Andre Harrell was busy producing ‘Strictly Business’, a film which featured early appearances by Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tommy Davidson.

By the end of 1992, Guy had broken up (with Teddy leaving to form Blackstreet at Interscope), Al B. Sure! was fast becoming a has-been, and Heavy D seemed to have worn out his relevance as a rapper in the wake of the New Jack Era’s demise. However, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige had incorporated a harder edge to their sound, keeping in step with the changing times. Uptown had also signed artist Christopher Williams, whose “I’m Dreamin” from the New Jack City soundtrack was one of the biggest songs of 1991. Then came 1993…

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