Remembering Uptown Records: the First Lifestyle Label
It’s May 1993, and the key acts on Uptown Records' roster – Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Heavy D., Christopher Williams and Father MC – are assembled at Universal Studios for a major moment in the label’s history. After groundbreaking shows from Eric Clapton, LL Cool J, Mariah Carey and others, MTV’s award-winning Unplugged series is, for the first - and last - time, featuring an entire label. At the time, Uptown was the number one urban label, and not only were they being featured on a key MTV vehicle when the network's core audience was far from urban, but it was also the first time some of the artists were performing live on a mainstream platform. This was a stamp of credibility for the still young company. But rather than being a sign of bigger and grander things to come for the label acclaimed as the new Motown, this was the apex. Uptown’s descent started almost immediately after Unplugged. However, the label’s impact during its height is largely unsung.
Uptown was the first urban lifestyle label. It laid the blueprint for JVs to come, such as So So Def and Roc-A-Fella, and it birthed Bad Boy. Uptown introduced new music trends and sounds, lead the hip-hop soul movement, and blurred the lines between hip-hop and R&B. Uptown’s impact also reached further throughout not only the music industry but the culture, than the label gets credit for.
Uptown and its legacy starts with Andre Harrell. If Russell Simmons is the godfather of hip-hop, Harrell is the godfather of modern R&B. In fact, he began his career with Simmons. Harrell was part of rap duo Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (he was Jeckyll) when he started working at Rush Management/Def Jam. Jeckyll and Hyde offered a glimpse of the flavor Harrell would later infuse into Uptown: they were rappers wearing tailored suits with ties and carried briefcases, and called their first album Champagne of Rap, with song titles such as “Yellow Panties” and “A Rapper’s Love Song.” At a time when hip-hop was aggressive (LL, Run DMC) and R&B skewed older, they were selling a different side of urban music: aspirational hip-hop. Party rap.
In 1986 Jeckyll & Hyde split up (although Harrell and partner Alonzo Brown remained close for the remainder of their careers), and Harrell left Def Jam to start his own label. At 25 years old, he founded Uptown as a joint venture with MCA.
The label’s name was taken from the term New Yorkers use for Harlem and points north, including The Bronx, Yonkers, New Rochelle and “Money Earnin’” Mt. Vernon. Brooklyn and Queens had reputations for being tough and grimy, but Uptown was flashy and flossy. Style and attitude were the key elements; the flair we now call “Ghetto Fabulousness.” A prime example is designer Dapper Dan’s creations. His atelier has always been in Harlem. Uptown, full of legendary live music venues, lounges, and restaurants, has also always been about a high life mentality. Regardless of your actual social and class station, you were going to look and live like somebody important. Simmons focused on the street side of urban music with Def Jam, but Harrell saw the potential to package and sell flyness; to bring ghetto-fabulousness to the masses. “I’m an inner-city kid who knows the reality of being poor,” Harrell told Vanity Fair in 1993, explaining his choice for the name. “I’m looking for escapism. Fun music. Good-time music. So, Uptown.” Harrell is from The Bronx. Al B. Sure, Heavy D., and Diddy are from Mt Vernon. Mary J. Blige is from Yonkers. Teddy Riley is from Harlem. All representative of the brand Harrell was creating.
From the beginning, Uptown’s anchor was Dwight “Heavy D.” Meyers. Harrell wanted to sign Heavy to Def Jam, but Russell gave a hard pass. He didn’t share the vision for the charming, affable, overweight rapper who could pull the ladies. So, Harrell took Heavy plus some other demos he’d been working on to MCA. They gave him a small budget to put together a compilation album. The compilation, Uptown is Kickin’ It, included the initial Uptown roster: Heavy D. & The Boyz, Groove B. Chill, Finesse & Synquis and Marley Marl. The video for the title track opens with Harrell busting into a boardroom of stuffy white label executives, bringing all his artists in behind him. A new era in music was here.
Heavy D. brought a cadre of his crew from Mt. Vernon to Uptown with him, including The Boyz, DJ Eddie F., Pete Rock, producer Kyle West and producer Al B. Sure. Sure wasn’t signed to Uptown as an artist. He started as a rapper but was working with West, his cousin, on R&B tracks instead. One day Heavy missed his studio session and Sure asked Harrell if he could use the time. Harrell told him to see what he could come up with. The result was “Night and Day,” Uptown’s first No.1 hit and first platinum single. A hero for light-skin, acid wash denim-wearing brothers everywhere was born.
By its second year, Uptown was making a mark as the new Motown. Harrell and Al B. Sure called each other “Baby Berry Gordy” and “Baby Quincy Jones.” They had tight, in-house writing and production teams, and had garnered their first gold and platinum albums with Mr. Big Stuff and In Effect Mode. Uptown was also staffed with young black executives who came from the lifestyle the label represented; they walked the talk. The parties were as significant to the label as the music.
In 1988, Harlem’s Teddy Riley was establishing a new sound in R&B that writer Barry Michael Cooper (New Jack City) coined New Jack Swing. After he scored hits with Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), Johnny Kemp (“Just Got Paid”), and triple-platinum success with Keith Sweat’s debut, Make It Last Forever, Harrell grabbed Riley up to work with Heavy D. and Al B. Sure. Riley was in the process of putting together an R&B group of his own. Harrell gave them a listen, and Uptown added the '90s iteration of The Gap Band their roster: Guy. With that addition, the label was now the unofficial home of New Jack Swing and the official party label. Uptown artists made music that was celebratory and fun. Music that made you want to get on the dance floor.
As Uptown was hitting its stride, an ambitious intern changed the direction of the label - and R&B music. The story of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ rise from intern to mogul is already industry legend. Fellow Mt. Vernon native Heavy D. helped Combs land an internship in Uptown’s A&R department, and he initially commuted back and forth between D.C. and N.Y. His can’t-stop-won’t-stop determination was quickly recognized and rewarded by Harrell, who likely saw glimpses of himself in the 19-year old. Diddy had made a name for himself at Howard as an architect of the hottest parties in D.C., along with his roommate Mark “Gucci” Pitts, who later co-founded ByStorm Entertainment and is now the head of Black Music for RCA. Diddy was quickly brought on as a full-time A&R and had success with his first signing, ladies-man rapper Father MC.
In 1990 Uptown was solid, as they say, "in its bag." Following In Effect Mode’s platinum sales; Guy’s self-titled album debuted at No.1 and was certified platinum; Heavy D. & The Boyz’s sophomore album, Big Tyme, debuted at No.1, generated three Top 5 hits, and was certified platinum. Plus, the group was one of the first acts tapped for Sprite’s hip-hop-centered “Obey Your Thirst” campaign, and Heavy D. was the voice behind ground-breaking sketch comedy hit In Living Color’s theme song.
Harrell started moving Uptown into the film and TV space in 1991, again following Berry Gordy's blueprint, with Strictly Business, a movie about a corporate square who levels his boring life up by soaking up some Uptown flavor. The film starred a young Halle Berry, featured an as-yet-unreleased Jodeci, and was accompanied by a soundtrack including Mary J. Blige’s “You Remind Me” almost a year before the song was released as a single. It was a modest success, but combined with the established track record Uptown had with music, enough for MCA to give Harrell a $50 million multimedia deal.
At the same time, Uptown was taking New Jack Swing’s genre-blending sound and pushing it further with Jodeci and Blige, creating a new genre: hip-hop soul. New Jack Swing incorporated breakbeats and more a more rhythmic tempo with R&B, but young A&R phenom and burgeoning producer Combs was using full hip-hop samples and instrumentals for R&B tracks. Jodeci’s “Come and Talk to Me” remix is probably the first real example.
However, Diddy didn’t just oversee the music and recording process as an A&R. He was hands-on for every aspect of artist development. He translated his own high and low mixed street style to his artists and brought then-girlfriend, 17-year old Misa Hylton, on board as an image consultant and stylist. Although Harrell initially resisted, Misa and Diddy crafted Jodeci and Mary J. Blige’s edgy, street-meets-soul aesthetics to match their street-meets-soul sound. No one had ever seen or heard this marriage, this way, in R&B. “At that time the look for R&B singers were hard bottom shoes and suits," Hylton told Billboard, “but we had what was then considered a crazy idea: to put these singers in leather, combat boots, hoodies and baseball caps that were turned backwards. Harrell immediately said ‘hell no,’ but after about two hours of going back and forth, we convinced him to give us this opportunity, and after this transformation, Jodeci's career catapulted”
Jodeci was an R&B group that looked and moved like rappers. They even had Jodeci chains! Before them, R&B’s gritty, edgy “bad boys” were Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe, and now here were these two sets of brothers singing church-house harmonies in combat boots. Then came Mary’s Aretha Franklin-esque soul and grit over Audio Two’s “Top Billing,” mixed with Patrice Rushen’s two-step classic “Remind Me,” while she sported pantsuits with a backwards baseball cap and Timberland boots with street-girl swagger. Craziness! And genius. Both acts made an indelible mark on the culture from the gate. Jodeci’s debut album spawned three No.1 hits, starting with Al B. Sure’s tribute to expecting Uptown admin Kim Porter, “Forever My Lady,” and eventually certifying platinum sales. Blige’s debut, What’s the 411?, went triple platinum and is considered by many to be one of the '90s most important albums. Mary was crowned with the still-enduring title, “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” Diddy had the Midas touch, and the success went to his head. He was still a young man of 21, who’d had a meteoric rise, and by all accounts he was uncontrollable. Harrell was focusing on Uptown Entertainment and developing shows, including a pilot for Heavy and the procedural police drama that would become New York Undercover, but Diddy wouldn’t take direction from any other executives at the label. Harrell has said it was like having yet another artist to manage. At the same time, MCA was pushing back on the musical direction of Combs’ new signee, Notorious B.I.G.
The rise of gangsta rap was moving hip-hop in a different direction, but Uptown’s parent company was used to the fun, “safe” material of Heavy D. and Father MC, and wasn’t comfortable with Biggie’s content. Harrell recognized that they just didn’t get it, and told Diddy he was letting him go. Not just because he was becoming a handful, but because he needed the freedom to grow and, Harrell has repeatedly said, so Combs could “get rich.” He helped Diddy secure his deal for Bad Boy with Arista, and while it was a crucial development for the culture, it was the beginning of the end of Uptown’s era.
Now we’re back to June 2, 1993. After consistent No.1’s and platinum albums, Uptown Unplugged was the label’s mainstream Cinderella moment. A live album and VHS followed, and Jodeci’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” was released as a single. Harrell hoped it would be Uptown’s answer to “End of the Road,” and while it didn’t hit those heights, it performed well. It was No.1 at R&B, and Jodeci’s highest charting song at Pop Radio, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Jodeci and Mary’s sophomore albums, in '93 and '94 respectively, noted a growth in stature and budgets, featuring Jodeci singing in the desert and Mary singing on a mountaintop in their debut videos. Combs still had his handprint on both projects, directing Jodeci's "Cry for You" video and serving as Executive Producer for My Life, and both albums debuted at No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Heavy D. & the Boyz bounced back from the tragic loss of dancer Troy “Trouble T. Roy” Dixon near the end of the Big Tyme tour (Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” is in memory of Dixon) with the album Peaceful Journey, and while it didn’t match the success of Big Tyme, the album did reach platinum sales.
Harrell and Uptown Entertainment partnered with the king of procedural dramas, Dick Wolf (Law & Order) and launched New York Undercover in 1994. The show was part of Fox’s popular, super black Thursday night lineup alongside Living Single and Martin. Undercover was the first police drama with two people of color in the lead roles, and incorporated black music and fashion in a way that hadn’t happened before in a network drama.
Bad Boy was quickly taking over Uptown’s spot as the label influencing the culture. Just as Diddy was a younger version of Harrell, Bad Boy was a younger version of Uptown. Diddy had taken lessons from Harrell, including making himself the face of and driving force behind the brand, and expanding the brand beyond the music into all aspects of lifestyle (Diddy remained, for years, undefeated in the party space).
Meanwhile, tensions were growing at Uptown due to Mary J. Blige and Jodeci signing with Suge Knight for management. In 1995, Universal moved and promoted Harrell to head Motown. Heavy D., then EVP of the Uptown, stepped up as chair. Mary J. Blige and Jodeci were shifted over to MCA proper. While Heavy D. kept the label going for a couple more years with his signees Soul 4 Real, Monifah, and others, he never really wanted to forego being an artist and creative to sit in the executive chair. He stepped down in 1997, and Uptown was absorbed into Universal as an imprint in 1999.
Without Uptown, there would have been no Diddy and no Bad Boy. That’s reason enough to acknowledge the label’s legacy. But it also deserves acknowledgment for setting a standard for the influence a label could have beyond music. Then there are the artists: Mary J. Blige and Jodeci changed R&B. Billboard credited Blige as the most successful female R&B artist of the last 25 years, and Jodeci has “sons” running all around music, such as Chris Brown and Trey Songz. Harrell is still influencing culture. Combs has kept him close, hiring him as President of Bad Boy after he was let go from Motown, and later naming him Vice-Chairman of Combs Enterprises and REVOLT (one of Harrell’s plans had been to create an Uptown network that would compete with BET). He also established another label, Nu America Music, under which he discovered and signed Robin Thicke.
25 years later, the Unplugged moment is still unmatched. We're also patiently waiting, in this era of reboots, for someone to revive New York Undercover. Salute to Andre Harrell for breaking barriers, and being arguably as influential as Berry Gordy, even though he doesn’t get the credit.