My Dinners and Debates With Andre Harrell

My Dinners and Debates With Andre Harrell

Over more than 30 years of friendship, I saw a man trying to do it all — and succeeding

May 12 · 7 min read

Taken at Moomba sometime in the ’90s. Pictured (L-R): Andre Harrell, Nelson George, Selwyn Hinds, Steve Stoute, Carol Kirkendall, Mya, and Darryl Brooks. Photo courtesy of the author.

I put on GUY’s self-titled first album before I wrote this piece — crying like a baby during “I Like” and “Piece of My Love,” listening to Aaron Hall sing, thankful for the culture Andre Harrell fostered, and sad as hell that he’s gone. If you have no idea who GUY is then you probably should stop reading this now. Anyway.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. It could be 1986 or 1989 or 1991. We meet at the Eastern Athletic Club in Brooklyn Heights or Chelsea Piers gym in Manhattan for full-court basketball. The core group was me, promotion man Gary Harris, Def Jam president Russell Simmons, and Andre Harrell, the Uptown Records honcho who was always late. Over time, the posse grew with young, aggressive dudes from the music business coming to network and ball. The quality of play varied, but what was consistent was trash talk, crazy shots, the odd near-fight, and a smattering of defense as we brought ghetto swag to upscale health clubs.

Afterwards we’d hit the steam room and plot the next move. If we were in Brooklyn it was an Italian spot on Montague Street. In the city, it was Lucky Strike on Grand Street, Coffee Shop on Union Square, or Time Café on Lafayette. Once we got seated nobody talked about who had won. The conversation was more likely a continuation of what was talked about at Nell’s, M.K., PayDay, the Soul Kitchen, or any of the other clubs we frequented. For years, it was always the same conversation — what was “hot” that week in music, film, and style. Denzel or Wesley? LL or Kane? Naomi or Tyra? The debates were endless, the opinions passionate, the information essential. If you got beat down one week, there was always another day to be right.

At the center of these debates — arguments, really, even sometimes shouting matches — was Andre, a man I viewed as much a cultural critic as a music executive. Andre, who died on May 7 of a heart attack in Los Angeles at age 59, never wrote a line of prose. Yet he was one of the most insightful and effective interpreters of cultural shifts I’ve ever known. Aside from founding Uptown Records in 1986, grooming an inexperienced young Sean Combs to be an executive, signing the iconic Mary J. Blige as a recording artist, and releasing the first records made in the “new jack swing” and “hip-hop soul” styles, Andre broke down trends with the nuance of a sociologist.

Andre’s superpower was understanding the undercurrents of Black culture, and finding talents who reflected not just their personal experience but a community’s.

Andre was the proof that to be a truly great cultural gatekeeper, whether as a record executive, book editor, or film producer, you have to possess a refined aesthetic that guides who you sign and how you cultivate their talent. His superpower was understanding the undercurrents of Black culture, and finding talents who reflected not just their personal experience but a community’s. Andre wasn’t just interested in hit records (though he loved having them), but songs that expressed the unspoken.

At those post-basketball sit-downs, as well as at clubs, studios, and offices, Andre would expound on why an artist was “aspirational,” how they could “define the culture,” and why their development “would lead their fans with them” to new experiences. It was these sessions with Andre, and the crew, that sharpened me as a historian. Through Andre’s eyes I saw firsthand the passion, vision, and will essential to shaping a musical movement. What I was doing for a living was making judgments on art, making distinctions between what was important and what wasn’t. Andre was doing the same thing, except he had to do the hard work of turning raw talent into singers, rappers, and executives. His success with Uptown was in turning his philosophy into action.

Early in Mary J. Blige’s career, Andre proclaimed that she would be “the new Aretha Franklin,” which to my soul-music-loving ears was blasphemy. But he wasn’t saying that Blige’s vocals would ever match the Queen of Soul. He felt that Blige’s persona (wounded urban woman who was resilient and wise) would evolve so powerfully that the singer would become a powerful symbol of Black womanhood. Nearly 30 years after Blige’s debut, there’s no doubt that Andre was right.

Part of Andre’s charm was that he was constantly making up words and phrases — some of them comical, many of them brilliant, and all of them driven by a desire to interpret the world. At a gathering of old-school MCs in the ’90s, he was impressed because they were acting “grown man-ish.” “Butter wavy” was his designation for the cute, middle-class girls hood dudes sought out as co-conspirators in their upwardly mobile dreams. I lived in a community of Black artists in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood in the ’80s and ’90s; Andre, amused by pretension and impressed by our drive, called us “crazy Brooklyn bohemes.” So, in 2011, when I made a documentary on the area, you know what the title had to be.

I’m not sure if Andre came up with the phrase “ghetto fabulous” or heard it in the street, but he embraced it, especially as it spoke to an attitude that connected uptown ambition with high-fashion elitism. For him, the phrase connected Dapper Dan’s Harlem-based reinvention of designer brands with his friend Naomi Campbell, an international supermodel who would rock a runway and then pull out a bottle of hot sauce at the after-party. To him, “ghetto fabulous” wasn’t a slick marketing phrase, but the definition of a lifestyle he lived. Though Andre started as an MC playing in Bronx schoolyards, he admired the debonair Saturday-night cool of classic R&B stars like the Temptations, Sam Cooke, and others who projected pre-hip-hop Black elegance. If you Google images of Andre you’ll find very few where he doesn’t look, in his words, “suit and tie fly.”

Famously Andre elevated an intern named Sean Combs to A&R executive at Uptown, starting him on a historic career. What’s not known is how many of Andre’s longtime pals Combs had leaped over to claim that spot, sparking resentment from many at the label. This wasn’t a comfortable decision for Andre; many doubted his protégé. But Andre was convinced of Sean’s potential, sticking with him through a rough early period of mismanaged funds and wasted studio time that drove distributor MCA to regularly audit Uptown’s books. While Sean (aka Puff Daddy aka Diddy aka Love, etc.) is Andre’s most famous acolyte, he had mentored scores of executives, writers, DJs, publicists, promoters, and other non-boldface names. This weekend, in the wake of Andre’s death, you could find social media testimonials to that mentorship from ex-interns, people he met in clubs, fashionistas, hood dudes, folks from high and low. Andre was a talker, a dreamer, and, perhaps most crucially, a teacher. Though he is rightfully viewed as a champion of Black culture, his mentorship wasn’t race-based — he championed White soul man Robin Thicke and celebrity DJ Cassidy Podell because he believed both were committed to extending Black culture’s reach.

On first meeting Andre, I figured he was in the Nation of Islam; in an era of unlaced sneakers and backwards baseball caps, he wore suits and white shirts. But early-’80s Andre was living several lives: He sold air time on local radio stations, worked at Simmons’ growing Rush Management, and rhymed in the rap group Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. From the beginning, the hustle was relentless: opening for Run-DMC at a mid-’80s Madison Square Garden show, after which a waiting car would take the duo to performances at after-parties in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx — after-parties that Andre was promoting.

One night at a party at Uptown’s first office, a duplex in Brooklyn, a nerdy friend of ours tried to kick it to a woman who was rocking the house with her fierce dancing. The scene amused Andre — and with him leading the way, that small moment evolved into a script I co-wrote with music video producer Pamela Gibson. In the resulting film, Strictly Business, an ambitious mailroom clerk played by Tommy Davidson guides an uptight buppie through New York nightlife in pursuit of a gorgeous “it” girl played by Halle Berry. While the character Davidson portrayed wasn’t named Andre, his aspirational defiance sprang wholly from our friend’s drive and humor.

After the furiously productive years at Uptown, which included films and television ventures, Andre spent much of the last decade working for Sean Combs’ Revolt network and planning a BET series based on the launching of Uptown. For years, when he would spot me, he’d greet me as “the mighty Nelson George,” which always made me laugh. From other people it might have been sarcasm, but Andre didn’t really traffic in negativity. Whatever dark side Andre had, it rarely appeared in public. When he wasn’t upbeat, Andre would turn quiet; it wasn’t his natural move to the basket, so you knew something was wrong.

The weekly basketball games ended decades ago, so when Andre moved to Los Angeles full time in the early 2000s, we lost a bit of contact, communicating mostly through mutual friends. A couple of years ago, though, I got a place in L.A., and the proximity brought us back together. We’d meet up for dinners with friends. We came together once to give some tough love to a wayward peer. We mourned when Gary Harris, an original part of our crew, died tragically. There are a great many expat New Yorkers throwing parties in L.A. nowadays, so we’d meet up to see old faces and have quieter versions of our old debates. All winter, we had been talking about doing an old-school club crawl of downtown L.A.

Andre died suddenly in his West Hollywood apartment on Friday night, another sad moment in a year that’s been too full of them. But I’ll always remember his apartment fondly. Last June I sat there with Andre and his son Gianni to watch the NBA Finals. The Harrells were rooting for the Warriors, while I was down with the Raptors. That my team won was beside the point. It was enough just to vibe with my old friend. Wish I could do it again.

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