Founded circa 1987 by an entrepreneur named Andre Harrell, New York-based Uptown Records served as the epicenter of New Jack Swing music throughout the era. Legendary New Jack acts such as Guy, Al B.Sure!, and Heavy D were among the label’s most successful acts. When the New Jack Era ended, Uptown continued to churn out Hip-Hop/Soul, largely thanks to the efforts of newcomer Sean “Puffy” Combs and the acts he developed, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. While Def Jam was blazing its trail in Hip Hop (Public Enemy, 3rd Bass, LL Cool J, etc), Uptown handled the side of “urban” music less likely to cross over to suburban audiences: Soul/R&B.
Andre Harrell started his career in entertainment as one half of a rap duo named Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in the early 80s. Then in 1983, Harrell met Russell Simmons who convinced Harell to work for him at Rush Management, where he helped launch the careers of artists like LL Cool J, Run DMC and Whodini. By 1986, Harell saw a void in how young Black culture was being represented in the marketplace, feeling that the raw street image that Def Jam (and other rap labels) represented did not fully reflect the young Black experience and lifestyle. Harell felt he could bridge the gap between “street” and upper class, by producing music that reflected the upwardly mobile Black experience – a sound that married the classy aesthetics of R&B to the edgy sounds of Hip-Hop. No artist fit the aforementioned description any better than Jamaican-born Dwight Myers, who would in a short time become better known as Heavy D.
Originally, Harrell wanted to sign Heavy D to Def Jam, but Harrell faces opposition from the label. But Harrell strongly believed in Heavy D and the upwardly mobile “urban vibe” he represented, so he launched Uptown Records, securing distribution through MCA, and released Heavy D’s Livin Large album in 1987; it went gold.
Not long afterward, Al B. Sure’s In Effect Mode would be released next (distributed by Warner Brothers) and his first single “Nite and Day” would reach #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and #7 on the Billboard Pop chart, making it a certified smash.
Teddy Riley had already been making a name for himself in the music industry – he’d produced Keith Sweat’s chart-topping smash “I Want Her,” and Heavy D’s whole Livin Large album. With Uptown Records, Teddy would finally get his chance to get onstage with his group, Guy. With producer Teddy Riley as the chief architect of its sound, Uptown Records was leading the way in urban music by the end of 1988.
In 1989, Heavy D’s Big Tyme album would go platinum, fueled by the hits “We Got Our Own Thang,” and “Somebody For Me.” Guy was upstaging New Edition on their Heart Break tour. The New Jack Swing musical genre was heating up, and established producers like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were definitely taking notice, adding the New Jack style to their remixes of New Edition cuts, and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album.
In late 1990, Guy returned with The Future, while Heavy D unleashed Peaceful Journey in 1991. Intern Sean “Puffy” Combs had arrived at the label by this time, and was helping to develop Uptown’s newly signed acts (Jodeci, Mary J. Blige), while crafting the look and sound of Father MC. Meanwhile, Andre Harrell was busy producing Strictly Business, a film which featured early appearances by Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tommy Davidson.
By the end of 1992, Guy had broken up (with Teddy leaving to form Blackstreet at Interscope), and both Al B. Sure! and Heavy D were beginning to transition into more “behind-the-scenes” roles in the wake of the New Jack Era’s demise. However, Jodeci and Mary J. Blige had incorporated a harder edge to their sound, keeping in step with the changing times. Uptown had also signed artist Christopher Williams, whose “I’m Dreamin” from the New Jack City soundtrack was one of the biggest songs of 1991.
By the spring of 1993, it was clear that Uptown was once again leading the way in urban music. In many ways as a matter of fact, it was the only record label that was putting out innovative R&B at the time, the suburban backlash of 1991 decimating the R&B rosters at the major labels. While the Who’s The Man soundtrack wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves, one song in particular made urban heads pay attention: “Party and Bullsh*t” by a new rapper by the name of B.I.G…
MTV Unplugged (recognizing the impact of Jodeci and Mary J. Blige in particular) taped an Uptown Unplugged special, releasing the session on home video and on CD. It was the Unplugged special that launched Jodeci’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” into a top ten hit on the Billboard Pop chart; the only Jodeci song ever to do so. The Uptown Unplugged special also featured performances by Father (who had dropped the MC at this point), Heavy D, and Christopher Williams.
Around 1994, Sean “Puffy” Combs was fired from Uptown by Andre Harrell. Tension existed between Uptown and its key acts Mary J. Blige and Jodeci because they were being enticed out of their contracts by Marion “Suge” Knight of Death Row Records. Without Puffy’s keen vision, Uptown began to suffer, but not without releasing Mary J. Blige’s My Life in 1994, and Soul For Real’s Candy Rain in 1995.
By early 1996, Andre Harrell was offered the chance to revive Motown Records; he took it, but the label folded despite his leadership two years later. Not long afterwards, Uptown folded when Heavy D decided that running the company was not for him, choosing instead to pursue acting and performing. Looking back, it is clear that for Sean Combs, being fired by Uptown was one of the best things that could have ever happened to him; alternately – that may have proved to be Uptown Records’ biggest misstep.
In closing, it cannot be denied that between the years 1987 and 1991, Uptown Records was clearly the musical leader of the New Jack Swing Era. In the early 90s, Uptown Records evolved New Jack Swing into Hip-Hop/Soul, to be emulated by non-label artists such as SWV and R. Kelly. During its heyday, the Uptown sound was an innovation in urban music – period. And in 2021, BET Networks will release a miniseries entitled The Uptown Story to celebrate the groundbreaking work that took place at the label.
Editor’s Note: On November 8, 2011, Dwight “Heavy D” Myers passed away suddenly at the age of only 44, due to a pulmonary embolism. And on May 7, 2020, Andre Harrell passed away suddenly due to an ongoing heart condition at only 59. We at NJS4E salute both of them for contributing so much to the culture. May they both continue to rest in peace.