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Label Spotlight: Uptown Records

by Mosi Reeves

Label Spotlight: Uptown Records

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Uptown Records defined an era in soul music. Founded by Andre Harrell in 1986, it emerged during a transitional period when R&B artists were shifting away from the "Minneapolis sound" and jazz-inflected quiet storm ballads of the late '80s, and the black music industry was struggling to adjust to an ascendant hip-hop sound. Harrell was a former rapper himself: As Andre "Jeckyll'" Harrell of Harlem duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, he scored a minor hit in 1981 with "Genius Rap," a rapped version of Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love." But he proved a far more successful business executive.

Uptown's artists set the direction in which soul music moved. In the late '80s there was Guy, the trio that virtually defined the New Jack hybrid of hip-hop and synthesized funk. Al B. Sure! was the pretty boy whose "Nite and Day" made him the idol of teenage girls. Heavy D. & the Boyz' family-friendly hits — they once made a song called "Don't Curse" — helped make hip-hop palatable to radio programmers initially wary of the genre. Later, in the early '90s, came Mary J. Blige, who earned her title as the "queen of hip-hop soul," and Jodeci, who proved that male singers could be just as rugged and masculine as their rapping counterparts.

The Uptown story is also remembered for the creative battles between Harrell and Sean "Puffy" Combs, who worked his way up from an internship to an A&R executive that helped produce records and mold the appearances of the label's young stars, while developing a massive ego to match. When Combs' increasingly flamboyant behavior got him fired, he launched Bad Boy Records with his new artist, The Notorious B.I.G. Uptown missed out on a multiplatinum superstar, while Combs began his ascent as one of the music industry's most powerful figures.

In 1995, Harrell sold Uptown to MCA Records and left to become head of Motown Records. The change was disastrous for all involved. Uptown went into a precipitous decline, even though Heavy D briefly ran the label and it had a few more successes like Monifah and the Lost Boyz. It was effectively dormant by the end of the decade. As for Harrell, he flamed out spectacularly at Motown. Today, he works at Combs' Revolt TV.

Meanwhile, you can find reminders of Uptown's legacy in Blige's continued success, Sebastian Mikael's virtual cover of "Nite and Day" on his hit single "Last Night" and, more indirectly, the way R&B men continue to growl like K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci. The label is a key marker in the evolution of contemporary R&B.

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