In any history of hip-hop, one name keeps popping up over and over again: Andre Harrell.
From working alongside Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons to founding his own label Uptown Records, Bronx-born Harrell seems to be everywhere at once and, at 57, is not slowing down.
His current projects include the Revolt cable channel and music conference, the reality TV music competition “The Four,” and the Global Spin Awards for rap artists and DJs.
For the latest in Reuters’ Life Lessons series, Harrell talked about riding a pop-culture wave that took over the world.
Q: Growing up in the Bronx, what did your parents teach you about money and work?
A: Do something that makes you feel happy, so it doesn’t feel like working. My dad worked hard at the produce market in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, but he didn’t love it so he was unhappy. That experience made me move towards something I really wanted to do, because otherwise I would feel trapped like him. Sometimes negative experiences can lead you in a positive direction.
Q: Even as a kid did you have entrepreneurial spirit?
A: I remember I wanted to take a girl out from school, so I needed to make some money. I went to school in Manhattan’s West Village, and every day after taking the subway I would walk by a messenger service that needed help. So at 15, I became a messenger, just so I could be able to pay for a date.
I also used to sell candy for junior high school drives, and once I sold so much candy that I won a bike. I sold about $500 worth back in 1972, so in today’s dollars something like $3,000. It was at that moment I knew I had the gift of gab.
Q: At what point did you meet Russell Simmons?
A: I was working by day as an account executive in radio, and by night as a rapper in a group called Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. At that point I met Russell and became VP of Rush Management.
I was only making $200 a week, and when I hired Lyor Cohen (now YouTube’s global head of music), I decided to split my salary with him. We used to share a desk, and I could see his potential: He used to talk all day about hip-hop in his Israeli accent. I thought, “This dude’s going to be big, because he’s so in love with this stuff.”
Q: How did you handle the financial success that eventually came along?
A: As a young black guy in the inner city, the only other person of color I knew making any money was Russell. All the lawyers and everybody else were white. In the business they often extend to credit to young artists, so they just go out and buy anything they want. But that doesn’t help you understand money in the right way. You have to get through that early period, and get to the next level, which is when you can get serious about building wealth.
Q: You are famous for discovering Sean Combs. What was it you saw in him?
A: He was my intern, introduced to me by Heavy D. For two years, he went to Howard University and then commuted up to work with us. Everyone has different things that make them a star, and with Puff it was that he had tremendous drive and style. When he came into the studio and started working with excellent producers, he learned about all different aspects of the music business, and got to understand the tremendous power of culture.
Q: You are now vice chair of the cable channel Revolt, so what has that launch been like?
A: It is very exciting, because it feels like the final page of taking black culture into the mainstream. With music videos you might have four minutes to tell a story, but with a cable channel you can have documentaries that are an hour or two long. This year we went to 100 percent hip-hop and R&B programming, so it feels like the culmination of my life’s work.
Q: What life lessons do you pass along to your own son?
A: Right now Gianni is my No. 1 project. I try to tell him that youth is for doing it, and doing it right now. So figure out what you love, and then get to work. Then, when you are my age, you can sit back and call the shots.