When Andre Harrell founded Uptown Records in 1986, he quickly honed the label’s musical approach. “Andre saw in the late Eighties how the hard-edged drama of rap music… was not incorporating all the rich cool smoothness and bright musicality that had built the house of R&B,” the longtime music executive Steve Stoute wrote in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. “The question he asked was, how can we make this less rough around the edges… the answer turned out to be very basic: melody.”
By 1994, only one label was launching more R&B singles onto the charts than Uptown, according to Billboard. Harrell’s success was so emphatic that Al Teller, chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, credited him with “revitaliz[ing] soul music.” “[Harrell] made it popular again,” Teller told Vanity Fair.
Harrell’s hot hand in the Nineties was largely thanks to two of the artists he signed and developed: Mary J. Blige, who was dubbed the “Queen of hip-hop soul” by a young P. Diddy, and Jodeci, a group whose surging harmonies were as overpowering as their thwacking, bass-heavy production. Jodeci scored a pair of Number One R&B singles in 1991, then passed the baton to Blige, who had two of her own chart-toppers in 1992. The next year, Jodeci released their masterpiece, Diary of a Mad Band, which opens with a remarkable 30-minute sequence of slow, blasting ballads. The tear-your-hair-out juggernaut “Cry for You” went to Number One, while the ecstatically lusty “Feenin'” reached Number Two.
K-Ci Hailey’s gravelly roar anchored many of Jodeci’s best songs. Following Harrell’s death on Thursday night from heart failure, Hailey paid tribute to the executive who launched his career.
The first time we met Dre, my group went to New York to get a record deal. We wanted it to be from Uptown Records. At the time, Dre had our favorite artists. He had Guy. He had Heavy D. That’s where we wanted to go.
We got to New York one morning, and we just took a chance. We went through the Yellow Pages and looked up Uptown Records’ address. We went over there. We saw Dre when we were in the lobby waiting, but we didn’t get a chance to speak to him. He was getting on and off the elevator, but we didn’t say nothing to him, we were just waiting to go back there. We waited a whole six hours. The A&R director at that time finally listened to our demos, and he was like, “I don’t think my boss is gonna like that.” He was talking about Dre. So we took it on our rebel selves to say, “Hey, you don’t know what your boss is gonna like unless he hears it himself. Get him in here.”
Andre came in and listened to our demo. Then he asked me to sing it a cappella. So I sang “Come and Talk to Me” a capella. Next thing I know, Dre looked at Heavy D, rest in peace, and Heavy gave him, like, the OK — “you better mess with these guys or I will.”
Dre said, “Where y’all staying?” We said, “we don’t have no money for a hotel room, so we’re going back to North Carolina.” He said, “Stay here.” He took us out to dinner. 45 minutes later we had an agreement with him.
He groomed us the way he wanted us, but let us have our freedom, too. This was when R&B was coming back in the Nineties. He knew Boyz II Men were coming out. That was our kind of rival right there. Dre and Puffy, at the time, they didn’t want Jodeci in the suits like Boyz II Men. They wanted us to have that hip-hop edge. Dre marketed us like that, called us bad boys, but we wasn’t bad boys — that was just part of the image he put us in. That was clever. We stood apart from Boyz II Men — or any group that came up before or after Jodeci. He knew how to make you into a star.
He would come by the studio, and if he wanted to have input on a song, we let him have that. He knew what he had — he had a good ear. He’d say, “I don’t like that,” or, “I need another ballad.” He went and got Al B., because he thought Al had the right drum sounds for our productions. [Al B. Sure co-produced half of Jodeci’s debut, Forever My Lady, including all three hit singles.] He had Al come in and do some co-writing with us, that was his idea. On the second album, Dre really let [another Jodeci member] DeVante [Swing] spread his wings on the production. At that point, he trusted us. We loved Dre, ’cause he listened.
Another clever idea was the MTV Unplugged show with Uptown. That had never been done for a label, and it was all his idea. Dre asked us to cover [Stevie Wonder’s] “Lately” [for the show]. We were like, “we can sing, but you’re talking about Stevie Wonder.” He’s like, “Y’all can do it.” He went and bought the CD for us himself and made us listen to it two or three times. We recorded it for the Unplugged album and it did exactly what he said it was gonna do. [“Lately” became the biggest hit of Jodeci’s career.] Not only that — there’s another song that was his idea for me to re-record, Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now.” That went big too. That was Dre’s vision.
All of us were in L.A. rehearsing that whole week. That whole week was fun. That was the thing about Uptown, it wasn’t just a label. It was a family thing. Dre made sure of that. He would check on us all the time. He was the big brother, the uncle — a Berry Gordy for Uptown.
He used to tell me something that sticks to me to this guy. He’d say, “K-Ci, I love the group, but you’re gonna be a star.” He would always say that. “Why you say that, Dre?” “I love your energy. Your showmanship. Your voice. You gonna be a star. You are a star. You my star.”
That would amp me up! I’d say, “I’m gonna kill ’em Dre. I’m gonna kill ’em.” When I do what I do now, I’m gonna have Dre in the back of my mind, reminding me: “You bad.”