Andre Harrell, whose Uptown Records is considered one of the key bridges between hip-hop and R&B, died of heart failure Thursday night at his West Hollywood home. He was 59 and his death was confirmed by his former wife. Harrell was a key to the careers of Sean Combs, Mary J. Blige, Heavy D & The Boyz, and Jodeci, among many others. His label, Uptown Records, is remembered as one of the R&B giants of the 1990s, finding a niche as a home for artists who were sophisticated and smooth, yet retaining its street edge.
Andre O'Neal Harrell was born in the Bronx on Sep. 26, 1960. He graduated from Charles Evans Hughes High School in 1978, and attended Baruch College and Lehman College.
Harrell's career started on the performing side. He was Dr. Jeckyll, half of the rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, with high school friend Alonzo Brown. They had several hits, including Genius Rap in 1981 and A.M./P.M. in 1984. Foreshadowing his later influence, the duo wore suits and ties.After the act ended, Harrell worked for Rush Management, run by Def Jam's Russell Simmons. Harrell rose to vice president and general manager, working with Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Whodini.
In 1986, he sent on his own to found Uptown Records. He targeted an upscale audience that would appeal to the hip-hop street and the upwardly mobile young adults. The result was a label that rode the rising tide of hip-hop and managed to carve out a lucrative niche. It partnered with industry giant MCA in 1988 and became a bedrock of success in the golden age of CDs.
Harrell hired Sean Combs as an intern in the early 1990s, bringing aboard another ambitious young man with an ear for talent. Although Combs was a hard worker, the two Alpha males clashed, and Harrell fired him in 1993. That inspired Combs to found Bad Boy Records, signing The Notorious B.I.G. as one of his first acts. The two later reconciled, and Harrell became a vice chairman of Combs's Revolt.
Harrell became chief executive officer of Motown in 1995, and remained there for two years. He also became a film producer, with Strictly Business and Honey on his resume. He was also an executive producer of the television police drama New York Undercover.
Last year, BET announced it was partnering with Mr. Harrell on a mini-series about Uptown Records.
"We are mourning the loss of a cultural icon, Andre Harrell, a chief architect of the modern hip-hop and R&B sound," said BET President Scott Mills. "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."
Survivors include Harrell's son, Gianni Credle-Harrell; a brother, Greg; and his father. No memorial service details have been announced.