We need to talk about Uptown Records, because the legacy is worthy, but doesn’t get nearly enough love.
Uptown was founded in 1986 by Andre Harrell, formerly of the rap group Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it took a couple of years to find its groove. The original label kicked off with female rap duo Finesse & Synquis, Marley Marl, Groove B. Chill, and Heavy D & the Boyz.
Heavy D & the Boyz quickly became the break out stars. (And we’re gonna come back to Heavy a few times, because he’s the Peter of the Church of Uptown).
Before Big boasted about pulling ladies despite his size, the Overweight Lover from the Money Earnin’ was outchea killing ’em. Also, THE FASHIONS.
Uptown was bolstered by another star act along with Heavy, though. Light Skin Hall-of-Famer Al B Sure had your auntie throwing her draws.
Side note, please realize Puff picked up the idea of solidifying your brand as the label head by being all in the videos from Andre.
Al B. Sure kept acid wash denim and light skin negroes with curly hair in fashion as we closed out the ‘80s.
He also deserves a special shout for successfully cloning himself through his son Quincy.
Al was also an integral part of creating the sound of Uptown, as one of the label’s main writers and producers, but we’ll come back to that. First let’s talk about another foundational producer. After establishing a hit sound with Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, and Johnny Kemp, Teddy Riley was launching his own group.
Guy was Uptown’s next hit act. With them, the label officially became home of New Jack Swing, and the party music label.
I want to pause here and talk about the culture of Uptown. Andre named the label after New Yorkers’ term for Harlem, The Bronx and Mt Vernon. Uptown folks were flashy, fly, and about a lavish lifestyle. Dapper Dan’s shop was Uptown. Puffy’s from Uptown. Mary’s from Uptown. Go out on a Friday or Saturday night in Harlem right now and you’ll find ten women over 35 dancing just like Mary.
Dre wanted the culture and feel of the label to reflect the party vibe of Uptown. That’s why when you talk Uptown artists, or watch their videos, you gotta get into all of it. They were selling you the culture.
Uptown was the Motown of the hip hop generation, and just like Mr. Gordy, in time Andre began branching into TV & film, starting with the movie Strictly Business.
Strictly Business — about a corporate square whose indoctrinated into the Uptown way of life — introduced us to a young Halle Berry, an as yet unreleased Jodeci, and an all time classic Uptown NY anthem (Hey, Big Lez).
Also around this time, Andre hired an enterprising young Howard student named… Oh, hell ya’ll already know.
Before we get into Puff’s legendary Uptown story, however, let’s go back to Heavy for a sec. “I Need Love” gets all the “classic sappy hip hop” accolades, but Heav & Al B had a gem…
The story of Puffy and Uptown is industry lore by now, but let’s talk about why. Puff was a wonderkin with the perfect combination of drive, swag and ideas.
This was still the era of using an existing act to break a new act, and Puff’s always been adept at this. Through his first signing for Uptown, Father MC (where is Father MC?), Puff got in some basic training for Jodeci.
Oh, and did ya’ll peep that Puff is one of the dancers in this video?
And then introduced us to little baby Mary J Blige (look at her face!!!)
Mary and Jodeci changed r&r. Street style and swagger with hip-hop beats. The industry had never seen anything like it. (Hey, Big Lez)
Before Jodeci, our “edgy” r&b was Bobby Brown and BBD. Then came these negroes in combat boots. Boys II Men once called them their evil twins.
And like Uptown was our Motown, Mary and K-Ci were Uptown’s Tammy and Marvin. (Also I still love this song. LOVE).
Let’s talk again about the fashions. If you’re between 40 and 45 you probably had a minimum of two baseball jersey fits (and lol at this pool look).
Young Misa Hylton was giving Jodeci and Mary J. all the b-boy and b-girl realness you could stand.
Jodeci was even out here inspiring Disney stars, man. Legendary.
We all know this part: Puff starts acting like… a Bad Boy (ha), Andre fires him, and he starts his own company….But first he introduced us to a new artist out of Brooklyn named Biggie Smalls, who he threw on Uptown’s “Who’s the Man” soundtrack.
Another Heavy break (they’ll all make sense later). This one isn’t even an Uptown track, I just had to add it because of AJ Johnson and Gerald’s jeans.
Anyway, Uptown was merging fashion, music, and culture in a way that was groundbreaking then. And then they applied it to… a cop show.
NY Undercover made music a full part of the show. They had the greatest R&B cover performances every week at nightclub “Natalie’s”.
And NY Undercover had legendary cold opens. I couldn’t find the one I really wanted with “Luchini”, but this’ll do.
As Al B Sure was now more writer/producer, Uptown signed Al B Sure 2.0
Christopher Williams never had the rabid fan base Al B Sure did, but he had such a great voice.
Al B Sure, meanwhile, wrote and produced a lot of Jodeci’s first album, Tevin Campbell’s first album, and of course still worked with Heavy
Side note: During the Big Tyme tour, Heav’s dancer “Trouble T Roy” Dixon dies after an accidental fall at 22 years old. Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You” is for him.
Skipping back ahead, it’s ‘93. Uptown is the leading Urban label. Mary, Jodeci and Heavy are selling and charting, and NY Undercover’s a hit. The label then did something I think Uptown stands alone as a collective for today: Uptown MTV Unplugged. We’re also given a glance into the future of Jodeci.
Over the next couple of years, we get Mary singing on mountains…
We got Jodeci singing in the desert…
And even after Puff is out, his fingerprints are still all over Uptown’s biggest artists. Meanwhile, Bad Boy is coming for Uptown’s spot. Everything that Uptown was for the culture, Bad Boy was now the younger version. They were quickly ascending to be the urban lifestyle label.
Andre leaves Uptown in ‘95 to head Motown (also then an MCA label). He brings shelved artist Horace Brown along. I had to include him (because this is a jam).
Oh! Almost forgot: Lost Boyz always get left out of Uptown narratives. Shouts to Mr Cheeks, Freaky Tah (rip), Pretty Lou, my man Sprigg Nice. They walked a great line between head nodding boom bap and party rap.
Finally, let’s address all the Heavy D breaks I’ve been including: As the elder statesman of Uptown, when Andre leaves, Heavy steps in. He’d already brought in Soul 4 Real
And the little fellas (or, actually, HOW OLD were they???) had a couple of hits (RIP to NYC skating rinks, though).
And then there was Monifa, who also had some jams and a couple of hits, but whose career didn’t quite curl all the way over the way it could have.
But Mary and Jodeci left Uptown and moved over to MCA proper, and Heavy didn’t really want to run a company. So the Uptown era was done by ‘99.
I’m gonna end this thread with Heav, because it feels appropriate. Uptown his ENTIRE career. So glad a new generation got to see why he was so beloved.
PS: I don’t know what they were eating at Uptown, but Quincy Brown, Christian Combs & Gianni Harrell need to form a clone club with O’shae Jr.
There’s more! Check out my story on Uptown’s influence as the original lifestyle label for Boombox.
Remembering Uptown Records: the First Lifestyle Label
25 years after Uptown Records appeared on MTV's Unplugged, we pay homage to the history of Uptown Records, its artists…