MUSIC / Respect, just a little bit: Andre Harrell has big plans for Uptown Records. So an Unplugged showcase should do him no harm. Joseph Gallivan reports

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The Independent Culture
'YES. It's a black thing.' Andre Harrell, 32, the president of fashionable Uptown Records label in New York, is talking about how the company has just become the first complete record label to showcase on MTV's Unplugged acoustic slot.

'It's a love of black music thing too.' On the TV show and the subsequent CD are the cream of a roster which has sold 12 million records - Mary J Blige, Jodeci, Father MC, Heavy D and the Boyz, and Christopher Williams - the darlings of the American soul scene. In Britain they are less well known, but play to a similar 99 per cent black audience ranging from screaming schoolgirls to dressed-up young adults, all reared on hip hop and soul.

Uptown's music is the kind of fast, formulaic soul made famous by Guy and put in the charts by the likes of Bel Biv Devoe, Boyz II Men and Wreckx-N- Effect. Mary J sings over hip hop beats, Jodeci mix street attitude with sensual soul tunes, while Heavy D, Father MC and Christopher Williams are fairly straight rap and soul acts, and full-on ladies' men.

As the name Uptown suggests, there is an upmarket feel to the music which puts it above the stereotype of the ghetto, but it's still black culture coming from black territory - the uptown areas of New York City.

Harrell, who is from the Bronx, exudes the sort of class he has located in his Uptown market. On a hot night he looks cool in a grey wool suit, cashmere waistcoat, designer army boots and designer shades. He's going after the 'young-adult (people aged 20 to 26), urban, cool vibe . . . people who don't have to pay mortgages or car notes, whose parents are paying their tuition - or, if they have a job, they've just got to figure out who to take out, and what clothes to buy'.

What he sees around him in the USA is a polarisation among young blacks. 'I think some young people are getting smarter. The ones who don't want, they don't want shit. The ones who want, they really want a lot, such as independence in their ownership in business . . . there's a spirit of black ownership going across, the ability to achieve it and a sense of the importance of having it.

'Yes, that's a Spike Lee thing, a Public Enemy, Andre Harrell, Russell Simons thing - people that young adult black people respect. There are other entrepreneurs coming through: Michael Bivins from New Edition, and Sean 'Puffy' Coombs who has a label called Bad Boy distributed through Uptown MCA.'

He also has Motown's Berry Gordy on his mind. Harrell has produced a 'romantic comedy' film called Strictly Business, which cost dollars 4.5m. 'I want to extend the opportunities available to Uptown artists, the way that Gordy made Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany with Diana Ross. Film is a natural progression from the music world, music stars are now much bigger than movie stars in the black community . . . you got one big star, maybe, Wesley Snipes, but when Heavy D or LL Cool J or Chuck D walk the street as many people will get as excited at them as about Wesley Snipes . . . Thanks to video, pop stars - and black music is pop - are ready to go straight into film.'

Or at least, the next best thing, MTV's Unplugged. From humble beginnings in 1990 with two Squeeze guitarists jamming with Eliot Easton of the Cars and Syd Straw, the show has become the vehicle all artists are gagging to be on. It's the Old Grey Whistle Test of its time. Many of the shows later come out on CD, and sell well. Mariah Carey surprised everyone last year when her pop came out like a Gospel session, and some rappers (notably LL Cool J and Arrested Development) thrived on the return to the basics of percussion and voice.

Uptown Unplugged, as the record is known, certainly shows that the singers can sing. It's just that JoJo, DeVante Swing, K-Ci and Mr Dalvin (the four members of Jodeci) sound a lot better with the lush production of the recording studio where their four-part harmonies stand out. The muffly live sound is bearable when JoJo is there in the flesh, baggy jeans coming down over his boxers, but it's not so rewarding over the family stereo.

Similarly, the crisp sound of synth on DAT is much fresher than the two pianos and an organ they use on Unplugged. As Father MC runs through his stuff, the parping horns dilute the menace. You get the same feeling with Heavy D when he does his big hit 'Is It Good to You?' - this is jeep music, with bodywork-bashing rhythms that should be crisp and precision machined, not warm and humane like jazz. These are all vocalists on display, so it's not the same pleasure as marvelling over Rod Stewart's banjo playing.

But what Harrell gets is the world's most desirable showcase for the five best artists on the label of which he is president. It's like getting into the rock'n'roll Hall of Fame to Come - and that's a smart thing.

(Photograph omitted)