Gary Harris Remembered: The Record Man Who Signed D'Angelo & Got 'Rapper's Delight' on the Radio

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Courtesy of Gary Harris Family
Gary Harris

Harris, who died Jan. 15 at the age of 57, helped hip-hop move from the New York underground to the national forefront.

Gary Harris was a record man. He was a music business player, a man with ears who could hear a demo and know how to make it into a great record or maybe even a timeless career. Someone who knew how to get along with creative people and accept all the turbulence that creative genius fosters and help them make the best music they could. And more than just a record man, he was part of the first generation of record men who helped hip-hop move from the local New York underground club scene to the national forefront. Gary was all about culture and for most of his adult life he was working at the center of it. Wherever he went, he knew the doormen, he knew the execs and he knew the stars. He truly was the Inside Playa.

On Jan. 15, he died at the age of 57 from natural causes. He is survived by the culture he loved so dearly, the community he nurtured, the conversations he had, the ideas he sparked and the music he made.

Like an old school full-service record man, Gary mastered every part of the music executive skill set -- he could scout new talent, he could get acts signed, he could A&R their record, he could shape their branding, he could market and promote their project, he could get their songs played at radio and in clubs. And after the album was released, Gary would stick around, advising artists over many years and helping them grow. And if they fell into real trouble he would rescue them. He was someone who people turned to when they were lost and struggling and he was always there for them. He always knew how to help and he always had time for a friend.

Gary was also a renaissance man, a bon vivant, a cosmopolitan player, a walking encyclopedia of music history, a writer, a blogger, a DJ and more. He was a sophisticated man of the world who closely followed politics and obscure indie films and every record he could get his hands on. He knew every cool spot in the city. He was a killer at backgammon and often beat the house at blackjack. He loved giving carefully curated iPods to friends and family. He read avidly and broadly, loving everything from Toni Morrison to Moby Dick to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Dick Morris. He was a true intellectual who always seemed to be up on everything going on in the world and a huge sports fan who especially loved basketball. He was a diehard New York Knicks fan who watched every game.

Gary loved trying to read the Zeitgeist and figure out which way the cultural winds were blowing. He did more than participate in the culture business, he helped shape the culture. He was the first person to walk "Rapper's Delight" into a major radio station, WBLS, and get it played. He was immensely proud of the fact that he was the first to put a rap record on mainstream radio. He was a longtime advisor to A Tribe Called Quest. He put together the New Jack City soundtrack, which became a classic celebration of New Jack Swing. He gave "I Wanna Sex You Up" to Color Me Badd and helped them sell millions of records. And his crowning achievement in the business: As an A&R man at EMI Records, Gary signed D'Angelo. He saw D'Angelo's potential when he was raw and helped him become a generational artist. This was proof he could be part of both finding and grooming an icon. It was proof that he had ears and vision and taste to match the best of them. But the journey to making Brown Sugar was not easy.

With Brown Sugar, D'Angelo had set out to change the sound of R&B and soul. He wanted it to sound more hip-hop than R&B normally did. Gary had to understand D'Angelo's vision, help him articulate it and help him find people who could bring it to life. Gary also had to get everyone at the label to buy into it. That took all of Gary's interpersonal skill and music business experience to pull off. The album turned out to be one of the seminal albums of its day and it reshaped the sound of modern soul music. Just as Gary had been part of the creation of hip-hop, here he was once again part of creating another important part of modern culture.

Gary loved culture deeply and felt it was an important part of life. He loved all sorts of music. He wasn't just a fan of hip-hop and R&B, he loved jazz, punk, hardcore, new wave, pop, anything with a beat. He revered creative people of all sorts and counted among his close friends rappers, actresses, writers, singers, poets and more. He was also a consigliere to many of the leading music executives of his time -- including Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell and Ed Eckstine. But he had a special love for hip-hop because, as he would say, he was there at its birth.

Gary Juan Harris was born at Englewood Hospital in Englewood, New Jersey, on April 26, 1960, to James Colson and Althea Harris Rudrow. His father was a chemist and his mother was an elementary school teacher in the Bronx. Gary grew up in Englewood, New Jersey, a place he loved and he nicknamed Soul City. He attended Shiloh AME Zion Church in Englewood and learned to read at a very early age. As a child he loved reading, writing, music, movies, cooking and the Knicks. Some things never change. He attended Dwight Morrow High School and Northeastern University, which he loved. He got his first DJ job there at Northeastern's student radio station WRBB 91.7. He went on to DJ at North Carolina A&T State University's WNAA 90.1 and then at Greensboro's WQMG 97.1 and WEAL-1510.

After college, he moved to New York City and got hired to do record promotions at Sugar Hill Records under Sylvia Robinson. He went on to work in promotion at Def Jam, Uptown, Jive and Wing Records. In 1990 he moved into A&R at Giant Records and continued in A&R at EMI and then ArtistDirect. They say Gary worked at every record label ever created and it might be true. When not at a label he worked in independent promotion and consulting and remained a critical industry connector, linking artists and companies, reporters and subjects and people who should be friends. 

In his later years Gary left New York for North Carolina in order to take care of his mother and grandmother in their final days. He was very close to both of them. But even then, he stayed close to the industry and continued working on his book about the musical history of his beloved hometown Englewood, New Jersey, which produced Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Wilson Pickett, Sugar Hill Gang, Lil' Kim and more. In his last years, Gary was an announcer and co-conspirator on Q-Tip's Beats 1 show, Abstract Radio. Into his final days all sorts of creative people continued seeking Gary's counsel because he was brilliant, he had great taste and he loved to talk. Gary was a world class conversationalist.

Gary looked at a conversation the way an artist looks at a canvas. He could talk to anyone about anything for any length of time and never have an awkward pause. His calls were legendary. They could easily last hours. They were filled with opinions, advice, wisdom, connections, gossip, inspiration, music business stories, ideas on how to brand and position artists, his discussions of important new books, movies, shows and, of course, music. A typical conversation late in the life might start with the joys of watching Giannis Antetokounmpo aka the Greek Freak from the Milwaukee Bucks and then flow into a deep dive on Ta-Nehisi Coates's book and then touch on the positioning of the upcoming Black Panther movie and the insanity of Trump and the joys of Virginia rapper Bay Bay's underground hit "Massagin." He loved high and low culture and more than that he loved people. He enjoyed seeing their potential and nurturing it, telling them how great they were and figuring out how much better he could help them be. It was as if he were being an A&R man for all of his friends as they made albums out of their lives. He loved to say, "Every conversation is an opportunity for growth." All the growth was ours, Gary. Thanks for everything. Love you.

He is survived by his cousin Cliffodine Beatty, his cousin Michelle Beatty-Schofield, his two godchildren Sydney Beatty Schofield and Sammy Koppelman, his godbrothers Leondis Long and Gordon Cureton, his special cousins Evelyn Brisbon, Sonya Kirkland, Charles Gooch and a universe of brothers from other mothers and sisters from other misters. He is also survived by the culture he loved so dearly, the community he nurtured, the conversations he had, the ideas he sparked and the music he made.