When Andre Harrell first met Sean Combs, the future Puff Daddy was but a wide-eyed intern at Uptown Records, the urban label Bronx native Harrell, 56, founded in 1983 that launched future R&B/hip-hop queen Mary J. Blige. Thirty years later, it was Combs who hired his former mentor to help him run fledgling cable TV network Revolt. But trading hit records for ratings hasn’t been easy for either music veteran at the year-old company. With a programming slate that includes music videos and news programs, Revolt, one of about 10 channels chosen by Comcast for carriage (in fulfillment of a 2011 agreement when the cable giant bought NBC Universal to provide more diversity across the dial), is trying a formula that some argue died the day MTV took the word “music” out of its name. With competition minimal (Fuse, somewhat ironically bought by Combs’ ex Jennifer Lopez, is the only player other than MTV’s digital offerings to deliver 24-7 music programming) and viewers elusive, Harrell is learning, as the net, owned by Combs Enterprises and JPMorgan subsidiary High Bridge Principal Strategies, struggles to reach a fraction of the 25 million homes potentially available through Comcast.
How slow growth will factor into Revolt’s place vis-a-vis the proposed Comcast/Time Warner merger could prove tricky, but the company continues to invest, with a 175-person-strong staff, 30 of whom Harrell oversees, an 80,000-square-foot studio in Los Angeles’ Hollywood & Highland complex and the inaugural Revolt Music Conference in Miami (Oct. 16-19).
Harrell’s history as a former artist himself (half of designer-suit-and-tie-wearing teen rap duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde in the ’80s) and as the man who discovered Robin Thicke (Harrell declined to discuss the suit filed by the Marvin Gaye estate alleging “Blurred Lines” ripped off Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”) has given the Los Angeles-based Harrell a unique perspective into being a purveyor of culture. The father of a 19-year-old son talks to Billboard about his next act.
Combs is among your most famous proteges. What caught your attention?
Puff had just started as an intern and I gave him a tape to take to Unique Studios, about 10 blocks away. By the time I finished the phone call I was on, he came back — his tie was sideways and behind his back — and I asked, “How did you get there so fast?” He said, “I ran there and I ran back.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, this kid is going to be a problem right here. He’s eager to go.” And I don’t mean a bad problem — a force to be reckoned with.
What do you remember of first working with Mary J. Blige?
I first came to visit Mary in Yonkers [N.Y.]. I remember wearing, like, a cheetah shirt and sky-blue pants and pulling up in a BMW. That was a lot for a project neighborhood. I’d already heard Mary on a tape, so I told her mom, “Your daughter is going to sing for rock kings, for royalty. Her voice communicates so much emotion, she’s going to touch so many souls that she’s going to become royalty herself.” And Mary just started laughing and smiling like a child.
Paint the picture of a typical Revolt viewer and what they’re looking for.
We’re aiming for millennials. The kinds of artists you’d see at Coachella, including the big ones like Jay Z or Kanye West or Churches or Disclosure, you can see all that on the network. It’s like a festival experience on television.
Is Fuse your main competition?
Fuse plays top 40; we play stuff that might be from a hot new mixtape. So in terms of discovering music, we have no competition, because we’re first on music. Radio can’t even compete with how early we are on records. If it comes into our record meeting and we like it, even if it doesn’t have a record deal, we play it. We try to take the politics out of the music. If your record’s a hit, we’ve got enough record men sitting around there to call it.
Reports claim Revolt TV is struggling to attract a bigger audience. What is the strategy to get into more homes?
We’ve built it to be a platform that works on all devices. Soon, the phone is going to be the TV, so our programs have the ability to go from television to the telephone – we put a lot of money into technology so that when changes come, we will be able to make them in an expedient way.
What’s Combs’ involvement?
Diddy sets the tone. He has wanted a multigenre network that looks edgy and feels young. It’s his vision we’re executing.
With so many industry events these days, what’s the conference’s aim?
It’s time to look at what we need to move forward in the music business, in terms of delivery systems and technology. Today’s A&R person might not know about music; they might know about making apps. I want young people to understand that the big boys are listening to the new model. We’re not people from Mars anymore.
Several previously announced speakers, including Twitter head of music Bob Moczydlowsky, have pulled out of the Revolt conference.
Bob pulled out because Twitter is putting out a new product that week and has to be close-mouthed. I asked if someone else could come but he said no, all hands have to be on deck. So now for social media we’re looking to Facebook and Instagram. Insomniac’s Pasquale Rotella has to be out of town on business, as does Google/YouTube’s Robert Kyncl. But without a doubt, the conference is a must-attend event.
You worked with Thicke during his formative years — what are your thoughts about the fan disconnect following his album Paula?
Robin was sincere wanting to proclaim his love for [wife] Paula [Patton]. He wanted to work that out. But bringing more attention to that made the audience feel they needed to choose sides. And women chose to be mad because Paula isn’t with him. So they felt they can’t be with him either…He’s going to take a breather. But Robin is one hit away from being popular again.