Andre Harrell has died. A record exec, film producer, and mentor to some of the biggest figures in modern music, Harrell is probably best known—among numerous other accomplishments—as the man who set Sean “Puffy” Combs on his road to mogul-hood. Born in New York, Harrell got his start as half of rap duo Dr. Jeckyll And Mr. Hyde—Harrell was Jeckyll—before moving to further success behind the scenes. His death was reported earlier this morning, cause currently unclear. Harrell was 59.
An early protege of Russell Simmons, Harrell got his start in the record exec side of the business in 1983, working his way up the ranks at Def Jam Records. A few years later he set out on his own, founding Uptown Records (later Uptown Enterprises), with an early focus on R&B that soon incorporated artists and influences from the rising hip-hop scene. Acts like Guy, Al B. Sure, and Heavy D and the Boyz were all early successes for the label, although some of its talent—most notably a young Mary J. Blige—only rose to prominence after they received development from a young intern-turned-AR guy/producer at the company: Sean Combs.
Uptown’s success in the late ’80s and early ’90s saw Harrell’s star rise with distributor MCA, which handed him a multimedia development deal that saw him also create the Tommy Davidson comedy Strictly Business and the Fox police drama New York Undercover. The label reached the apex of its success in 1993, taking over MTV Unplugged for a wildly popular acoustic set featuring Blige, Jodeci, Heavy D, Christopher Williams, and Father MC. Whether its subsequent decline can be directly traced to Harrell firing Combs in the middle of the year is a subject for debate; certainly, having his former employee poach The Notorious B.I.G. just months before the release of the artist’s quadruple platinum debut album couldn’t have helped matters. And while Uptown continued to score hits—most notably with Blige’s My Life (largely produced by Combs, despite the split) and the final album from Heavy D And The Boyz—it also began to go into a decline.
By 1995, Harrell was ready to move on, shifting over to serving as CEO of Motown Records. (Uptown would be fully disassembled by MCA a few years later.) Harrell served in the position for two years before being replaced by Mercury Records’ Danny Goldberg. After his departure from Motown, Harrell begins to fade into the background of the musical world a bit, although his influence continued to be felt. (And his later label, Harrell Records, continued to function as an arm of Atlantic Records.) Despite any previous tensions, he and Combs reportedly continued to be friends; Harrell’s most recent high-profile gig was as vice chairman of Combs’ Revolt media and music brand, organizing and leading numerous music conferences under the Revolt brand, and settling comfortably into his role as an elder statesman who set the stage for some of the biggest acts of the ’90s and 2000s.