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How Andre Harrell and Uptown Records influenced a generation

Ralph Bristout

 // Jun 7, 2018

On the left side of Uptown Records' famous logo is an animated cat in an anthropomorphic pose, sporting a tracksuit, dookie rope chain, and Nike Air Jordan 1s. Unapologetically black, this cartoon speaks volumes. Behind its flashy and fierce exterior is a culturally empowering message. For starters, it depicts the phrase "cool cat" (or fly cat), a popular term that started in jazz circles before becoming ubiquitous in the American lexicon. Then there's its use of the black cat — a worshipped symbol of riches and prosperity in ancient Egyptian society. What all these multiple layers represent, though, is the vision of Uptown Records' founder Andre Harrell, and it translates as so: black excellence.

Arriving at the tail end of the crack epidemic era, which Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer once best described as a balloon filled with water ("When it's squeezed on one end, it expands in another"), Uptown offered escapism for young black America — swapping out pain for champagne.

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Launched in 1986, following a joint venture deal with MCA, Andre Harrell's Uptown Records became the beacon of light (and vibration) for a generation looking to splatter some color into the blank spaces of the American Dream. "I'm an inner-city kid who knows the reality of being poor," he told Vanity Fair in 1993. "I'm looking for escapism. Fun music. Good-time music. So, Uptown." The label did just that.

Over the course of its run, the amount of chart-topping artists that came out of the musical powerhouse defied comprehension: Heavy D & the Boyz, Mary J. Blige, Guy, Jodeci, Soul for Real, Father MC. Each of the names helped mold what would come to be known as the Uptown 'sound' — and they brought platinum plaques for the home team, too.

As far as the Uptown sound goes, it can best be described as revitalized soul music, but "hip-hop soul" has a better ring to it. The music pumping out of this hit factory married hip-hop and R&B, and got thrown everyone's calling card. Harrell had help from groovemasters like Heavy D, Al B. Sure!, Eddie F, Teddy Riley, and a famous intern by the name of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs to mold this sound. From there came the art of the remix (word to Puff) and scores to countless theme songs from your favorite '90s sitcoms and films. Uptown was the pulse of black culture, and it controlled the attitude.

In 1987, they gave birth to New Jack Swing and made an icon out of Teddy Riley. By 1989, Heavy D went Big Tyme and Guy delivered the label's most important record at the time, "Groove Me." In 1991, the world got Jodeci, and 1992 welcomed in the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige.

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"When I heard what Puff was doing with her [Blige], I guess the lightbulb hit and it was my time."

But Uptown represented more than just a successful output of albums and stars. It was the groove on the dance floor, the fluttering to a pair of bamboo earrings, and clinking of the champagne glasses in that one scene from New Jack City.

While "ghetto-fabulous" was its linchpin, Uptown embodied black excellence in its truest form. It established a taste level and authentically spoke to black culture. Beyond establishing a soundtrack for a generation, Uptown elevated the black identity — in many ways like Berry Gordy's Motown Records did for a generation growing up in the 1960s. What Andre did was identify the beauty that lies within black art and aspiration idiosyncrasies, made America notice, and cracked open the door for larger opportunities. He foisted a new Black Renaissance into the mainstream and thus broke the glass ceiling for opportunities that would eventually arrive in the form of television shows ("New York Undercover"), film (Strictly Business), and multimedia entertainment empires (Uptown Entertainment).

Sugar Hill Records opened the door for Def Jam to come in and become a global powerhouse. Uptown laid the blueprint for black excellence. From Sean "Diddy" Combs turning Bad Boy into a multimedia empire (Combs Enterprises, REVOLT) to JAY-Z becoming a walking business..., man (Roc Nation, Tidal), and a new generation of vanguards like Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith with Top Dawg Entertainment, Andre's Uptown vision lives on.

"My goal is to bring real black America — just as it is, not watered down — to people everywhere through music, through films, through everything we do," Harrell told NY Times in 1992, shortly after he struck a sweet $50 million with MCA to make Uptown an individual entertainment entity. "When you have something that is really great, it can appeal to all cultures, not just subcultures."

As we continue to celebrate Black Music Month, we salute the living genius Andre Harrell and the indelible foundation left by Uptown Records.

Listen to REVOLT TV's 'Best of Uptown Records' playlist below.

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