Interview: Andre Harrell Talks 'A Mary Christmas' Special With Mary J. Blige And More
Andre Harrell is more than just a musica mogul. He started Uptown Records back in 1996 after working with Russell Simmons on Rush Communications, which was a company based around artist management. Harrell signed and developed tons of stars on Uptown – most notably, Jodeci, Heavy D & the Boyz, and Mary J. Blige. The man we now know as Diddy was just a young A&R under Harrell in the early ‘90’s. And, we all know how that story went, Fast forward to today and Diddy has become a worldwide mogul of his won and is now knee-deep in REVOLT TV, of which Harrell is vice chairman.
For the holidays, REVOLT is doing it big with a special Christmas event revolving around none other than the original Queen of Hip-Hop Soul – Mary J. Blige. “A Mary Christmas” premieres tonight at 9PM Eastern Time on REVOLT TV, and we got a chance to sit down with the legendary Andre Harrell to see why people should tune in, how Mary has remained a star for two decades, and what to expect from REVOLT in the future. --Max Weinstein
What can viewers expect from REVOLT TV’s “A Mary Christmas” special?
They’re going to get what they usually get from us, which is totally unexpected. Mary J. Blige is a twist of excellence in terms of musical performance. She always was a great soul singer, but David Foster produced a Christmas jazz album [called A Mary Christmas] in the same way that he produced Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable”. When [Mary] sings “Rudolph the red nose reindeer”, she sings it with a jazzy, swingy kind of feel, like a big band style. You’ve never heard Mary like that.
The experience is going to be a musically heartwarming, uplifting kind of Christmas special from an artist that you’ve known since you were young who has totally grown into an elegant songstress. All of the songs that she has, they’re classics, they’re standards. They’re songs that everyone loves and you grew up in your house singing, like Ella Fitzgerald.
How have you updated Mary from being the Queen of Hip-Hop in 1992 to still being a star twenty years later?
What we were able to do was frame her honesty. She was feeling unloved and it was during the era of the crack generation. A lot of parents were not involved with their kids in a certain way, and daughters especially were growing up feeling unloved, and didn’t really have a good relationship with men. So we just framed that with the music of that time, and at that time R&B was dying out for young teenagers and New Jack Swing had came. So we took from New Jack Swing, and Mary’s voice was such a soulful voice that we knew we had to put soul into New Jack Swing, and it ended up graduating into Hip-Hip Soul. So Mary J. Blige became the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, and that was basically a whole generation’s take on R&B. So her graduating to singing a Christmas jazz album produced by David Foster is just a testament to the fact that she’s such a great vocalist that she can move through time effortlessly.
You and Diddy are working together at REVOLT now, but he started under you at Uptown Records early on. What do you remember about a young Puffy in the 90’s?
Puff was always a hard worker. He went the extra mile to get things done, always. He did things a certain way. He always had style since he was young.
I heard he always came into the office wearing a suit, correct?
He didn’t always come with a suit, sometimes he would come in with what he thought was a suit, and that actually became what Jodeci ended up looking like.
Puff would wear a suit with a hoody under the suit jacket, no shirt and tie, and he’d have on combat boots with the pants tucked into the boots. It was very stylish, and I was like, “It ain’t a regular suit, but you should dress Jodeci just like how you dress, because that right there is a catch.” And that became their look.
What’s unique about REVOLT’s “A Mary Christmas” special? Why should people tune in?
It’s all about seeing Mary. Seeing Mary in this light with the level of production that we gave her…this is the first production [of this kind] that we’ve done. It just makes sense that Puffy’s network brings Mary J. Blige on with her brand new Christmas album. He’s a brand new type of executive from what he’s been in the past. He’s taking it to a whole new level. Now with the television network and starting off with Mary J. Blige, we’ll show artists what we’re capable of doing.
It’s a well-produced show. It’s natural, it’s organic. When I say well-produced, I don’t mean T-Pain and produced vocals. I mean lighting, the feeling. Queen Latifah is the host, so it’s personal. Tyrese was just in a movie with Mary, “Black Nativity”, so he comes on to sing a duet with her and he kills that. David Foster, the musical producer, plays the whole time. Kim Burse, our musical director, is the conductor. She works with Beyonce and she did an excellent job of putting a string section together, a horn section, everything. It was serious! We haven’t seen young artists graduate to this level. She was at Carnegie Hall singing a jazz Christmas album produced by David Foster, just like Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson.
What are your fondest memories of the golden days at Uptown Records?
My fondest memory is when we did Madison Square Garden with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. I remember Puff had on a farmer’s suit and he had just cut his hair bald like Onyx, and he wanted to introduce Mary J. Blige, so I said okay. He got up there and jumped around and he was like, “Ladies and gentleman! I want you to put your hands together for Mary J. Blige! GIVE HER A ROUND OF APPLAUSE!” [Laughs] He kept running back and forth and I was just standing there like, “If you don’t get your butt off that stage…” And then he came up to the stage and stood by me, and I didn’t say nothing for a minute, he was waiting to see what I said, and I said, “I don’t have nothing to say.” [Laughs]
Puff always wanted to be a star, always. Him and his son Christian, he wants to be a star too. He reminds me of his father, they’re both the same person. So that was my fondest memory of the Jodeci, Mary J. Blige era.
After running Uptown, you transitioned to being the head of Motown and eventually the president of Bad Boy. How were those jobs different for you?
Puff has a much more intense pace than I do and when I went to Bad Boy, I had to keep the pace up, but I also had to give people more information on how things work and why things should work this way. Sometimes when you’re moving real fast because you’ve got hot stuff, people have to learn on the job, but sometimes they learn in silos as opposed to learning in the open space and knowing how to utilize each other because we know clearly that your skill set is marketing, we know clearly that your skill set is keeping account of the money, we know clearly that you have the best taste in style. When I came [to Bad Boy], I had to try and help define people’s roles a little bit so we worked better as a machine.
When you introduced Mary J. Blige to the world, how did you see the rest of the music scene change and adjust because of her impact?
The first thing I remember is that the attitudes of R&B changed in terms of the dress code and the way they carried themselves. Mary took R&B all the way to hip-hop, from Timbaland boots to the level of aluminum coats and shades. She was what being down with hip-hop looked like. So I started seeing girls walking down the street, whether it be New York or DC, looking like Mary J. Blige. So I realized that it was deeper than the record. She was part of a whole lifestyle changing thing.
You would see more mainstream girls like Paris Hilton doing the same thing as Mary J. Blige. You saw her effect on a mainstream level, an inner city level, and an international level. She became an icon of a way to be and there’s not a lot of icons of a way to be. When you walk around, you see somebody that’s clearly been inspired by a music star’s style.
How do you see REVOLT evolving and growing as the channel moves forward into the future?
Sooner or alter we’ll have reality shows on the air based on music and only music. Specialty programming, whether it be variety music shows, festivals, superstar concerts, music gameshows, documentaries about famous musical legends. We might do Gamble and Huff or Jermaine Dupri or Sex Pistols or a young Rod Stewart. We’re gonna give you a kaleidoscope of information about what makes the stars so great, why we’re playing music that we think people need to discover.
Tell us when we can see “A Mary Christmas” on TV.
The first airing is 9PM Eastern Time, Thursday on Thanksgiving. So as soon as you finish the macaroni and cheese and cranberry sauce and you’re sitting by the TV, just turn on REVOLT if you’ve got Time Warner or Comcast and you’ll have “A Mary Christmas” hosted by Queen Latifah.
Mary J. Blige’s “A Mary Christmas” album is now available on Verve Records.