Hired by Def Jam, Harrell quickly worked his way up to vice president and general manager of the label, but left shortly thereafter to start his own New York City-based label: Uptown Records. The label quickly rose to preeminence in late-'80s hip-hop and R&B with early hits from rap group Heavy D & The Boyz, R&B singer Al B. Sure! and New Jack Swing outfit Guy -- the latter of which helped bring eventual super-producer Teddy Riley to stardom.
But Harrell's greatest discovery at the label wasn't a recording artist -- at least not yet. Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, later to be known as Diddy, started off at Uptown as an intern of Harrell's, and eventually worked there full-time as a talent director, where he helped develop '90s R&B megastars like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, even producing the popular "Hip-Hop Remix" of the latter's 1992 hit "Come and Talk to Me." (Harrell fired him from Uptown in 1993, leading to Combs starting the epochal Bad Boy label with friend The Notorious B.I.G. as his marquee artist, but the relationship remained amicable: "I knew it was time for him to grow," he explained to the Wall Street Journal in 2014.)
The '90s saw MCA, Uptown's distribution partner, offer Harrell a multimedia deal, through which he executive produced the hit TV show New York Undercover (originally titled Uptown Undercover) and the 1991 film comedy Strictly Business. In 1993, the label also recorded the first-ever label showcase edition of MTV's enormously popular Unplugged series, featuring performances by Uptown artists Blige, Jodeci, Heavy D, Father MC and Christopher Williams -- an episode that quickly proved iconic for '90s R&B, and produced one of the label's biggest chart hits with Jodeci's cover of Stevie Wonder's "Lately," reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
With the rise of hip-hop and the departure of Combs, Uptown began to slide from relevance in the back half of the '90s, and Harrell left the label in 1995 to become CEO of Motown. But Harrell's time at the legendary label was short and largely unsuccessful, and he was fired in 1997. Harrell's work in R&B continued well into the 21st century, as he was instrumental in kickstarting the career of a young Robin Thicke in the '00s, and in the early '10s launched Harrell Records, though the new label failed to produce hits or stars on the level of his earlier ventures.
Harrell and Combs remained friends through the years, leading to Harrell accepting a position as Vice Chairman of REVOLT, the music television network and multi-platform brand started by Combs in 2013. At Revolt, Harrell was responsible for the creation of the REVOLT Music Conference, which began in 2014 and lasted for a half-decade before being rebranded the REVOLT Hip-Hop Summit.
In December, it was announced that Harrell would be working with BET to bring the Uptown Records story to life as a 2020 three-night scripted miniseries. "I am thrilled to partner with BET Networks and Jesse Collins Entertainment to share my story, the rise of Uptown Records and successful black entrepreneurship, and the management and cultivation of some of the most iconic artists to come out of the late '80s and '90s hip-hop, R&B and soul music era,” said Harrell to The Hollywood Reporter.
“We are mourning the loss of a cultural icon, Andre Harrell, a chief architect of the modern hip-hop and R&B sound,” said BET President Scott Mills in a statement following the exec's passing. “Andre was tremendously excited about sharing the origin story of Uptown Records, and its pivotal role in the urban music landscape. With his tragic passing, BET is committed to ensuring that the Uptown limited series event tells both the Uptown story and Andre’s story -- that of the incredible music innovator, man and friend to so many.”
"We mourn the loss of Andre Harrell, the founder of Uptown Records, one of R&B and hip-hop’s most significant labels, where he molded a distinct sound and launched the careers of many seminal artists who continue to influence music today," reads a statement from parent label Universal Music Group about Harrell's death. "UMG and the entire music industry have lost a truly visionary member of our community and we extend our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones."