With its new series, Inside the Label, BET has put its own spin on the music-genre series popularized by VH1’s Behind the Music and TV One’s Unsung by spotlighting the business and creative synergy behind the music that so many of us love. To kick off its first installment, the docuseries looked to Uptown Records, the label started in the mid-1980s that really hit its stride in the early 1990s, and which gave the world Al B. Sure!, Heavy D, Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and, yes, Sean “Puff Daddy/Puffy/P. Diddy” Combs.
The Root caught up with Uptown Records founder and chief mastermind Andre Harrell, who began his musical career as a rapper and is currently an executive at Combs’ musically driven cable channel Revolt, to chat about why Uptown is just now getting its due, how the magic of the ’90s fueled the label’s success and why it really all changed.
The Root: Why do you think it has taken so long for people to recognize how truly dynamic Uptown Records and that time were?
Andre Harrell: I think the public recognized it. I think the media took a moment … and we, as black people, we seem to be caught up with what’s new and not necessarily our history, and being that we are so creative, the new tends to take over. So I guess maybe the time became right because the [current] music is not generational right now. And when I say “generational,” I mean [it doesn’t] appeal to [the] young people of today as well as to adults.
TR: We’ve begun to see this period in shows like Behind the Music, Unsung, and even some film and TV projects, but we haven’t really seen it from a business point of view like with Inside the Label. Did that perspective appeal to you?
AH: I think more than just [the] economics, [Inside the Label] touches upon the cultural point of view, that this was more than a business, that it was a lifestyle, a way to be, and so many people were affected in that way, from the Mary J. Blige outfits to the Jodeci outfits, [and that’s] not disregarding the [impact of the] Guy grooves [or] the Overweight Lover.
The ’90s were like the black people’s ’70s. The ’70s were chic for [white] Manhattan, but the ’90s were especially chic for people of color in Manhattan and across the country. I think [Inside the Label] touches upon the special[ness] of not just the artist, not just the hit records, but the love that was in the music and the cultural value of what that was at that time.
Being that black people didn’t have a lot of control of the media, BET was our outlet in the media, and boutique labels were the first time that black people had any control of their video imagery. So, at Uptown, we were able to style the artists the way we thought they should be styled without any interference from a mainstream authority. It [filled the] void for us to be us for us.
TR: What made you think you could do it and, what gave you the balls to dare?
AH: I think because I was a rap artist [one half of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde] and I traveled around the country at an early age, I had a good sense of what the country was into musically. When I saw what Teddy Riley was doing when he made Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” when I saw what Keith Sweat’s sound was, that was the groove that I was [already] in. So it was just natural for me to gravitate towards that sound.
And then, once we started styling [our Uptown artists] in terms of what we would like to see the artists wear and what kind of visuals we thought they should have, it took the music to a lifestyle kind of thing, where people could see the videos and not only like the artists but also know how to do the dances the artists were doing in the videos, as well as like the fashion and [then] style themselves in that kind of cool. People bought into not just the music and the fashion, but also the attitude of the artists and of Uptown Records.
TR: But there was a lot of struggle, like crack, high homicide rates and a lot of other challenges then, too, so wasn’t it kind of the best and worst of times at the same time?
AH: Well, the black community always tends to struggle in some sort of way, but I do think we were at the height of our celebration at that period. There were opportunities in the ’90s for people to make money [legitimately] that didn’t seem [to be there] before. There were also opportunities for people to go more independent to make money and start their own companies in the ’90s than we had seen in the ’80s. I think that most of us came from either humble Southern backgrounds or humble urban backgrounds, and, finally, you had this first generation of college-educated, young-adult black people, who were basically coming under the auspices of that Martin Luther King era, [in which we believed] we can be what we want to be. And in the ’90s we took full advantage of that, to try to go as far as we could go and live the life we always dreamed of.
TR: What changed?
AH: Well, I think economics changed in music. I think that buying records at iTunes, record companies shrinking because the record business as we know it, in terms of people buying massive records, had dropped down a great deal, and the first department they seem to cut [in hard times] are the black music departments. And once you cut the black music departments, then you lose control of the image and the voice and you go back to what it had been like in the ’70s and the ’80s, when the mainstream was really controlling what we put out and how much money we put into it.
In the ’90s, there were a bunch of boutique labels [run] by a bunch of black brothers, whether it was Bad Boy [run] by Puff [Sean Combs], whether it was Def Jam [run] by Russell [Simmons], whether it was LaFace [run] by L.A. [Reid], whether it was Rowdy Records [run] by Dallas Austin, So So Def [run] by Jermaine Dupri. There were a whole lot [of options] before, and we don’t have that now. Black people were in control of the marketing and promotion of the music and, therefore, in control of the images that America got to see, at least on the musical level.
If you missed the Tuesday, May 17, premiere of Inside the Label featuring Uptown Records, Part 1 and 2, it is re-airing multiple times, including May 18. A new installment of the eight-part docuseries will air every Tuesday and will feature the labels Grand Hustle, Ruff Ryders, Loud Records, Terror Squad, Disturbing tha Peace and more.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.