meta-scriptAndre Harrell, Uptown Records Founder And Role Model To Sean "Diddy" Combs, Dies At 59 | GRAMMY.com
Andre Harrell attends the Recording Academy/Clive Davis Pre-GRAMMY Gala in 2019

Andre Harrell attends the Recording Academy/Clive Davis Pre-GRAMMY Gala in 2019

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

news

Andre Harrell, Uptown Records Founder And Role Model To Sean "Diddy" Combs, Dies At 59

The New York-born record executive and his influential label were pivotal in mainstreaming hip-hop and R&B music and culture in the mid-1980s while bridging both genres closer together

GRAMMYs/May 10, 2020 - 01:08 am

Influential music executive Andre Harrell, the founder of the pioneering hip-hop and R&B label Uptown Records who's credited with giving Sean "Diddy" Combs his first career opportunity in the record industry, died Thursday (May 7) in his Los Angeles home. He was 59.

The New York Times reports that Harrell, who suffered from heart problems, died of heart failure, as confirmed by his ex-wife, Wendy Credle. 

A former rapper himself—he released original music as a founding member of the hip-hop duo Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, alongside his high school friend, Alonzo Brown, across the '80s—Harrell brought the artist perspective and highlighted the artistry of rap during his various executive roles throughout his career. This firsthand know-how would prove pivotal to his success and long-standing career as an executive: When rap was just beginning to establish a major commercial foothold within the U.S. music industry in the mid- to late-'80s, Harrell capitalized on the then-burgeoning hip-hop genre and culture, using his insider experience to champion the sound and bolster both an artist community and committed listener audience through his trailblazing Uptown Records. 

<style>.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }</style><div class='embed-container'><iframe src='https://www.youtube.com/embed//PNDqGDgxrPg' frameborder='0' allowfullscreen></iframe></div>

Harvey Mason jr., Chair and Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, shared a touching message about Harrell's passing on behalf of the organization.

"Andre Harrell was a pioneer who defined culture and created an indelible legacy in music," Mason jr. said. "His influence and impact transcends time and Andre's contributions will continue to inspire generations of musicians for years to come."

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1960, Harrell first broke into the music scene as an artist. His hip-hop duo, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, released several successful singles in the early '80s, The New York Times writes, including "Genius Rap" (1981), "The Challenge" (1982), "A.M./P.M." (1984) and "Fast Life" (1984). The group released its debut album, The Champagne Of Rap, its sole full-length, in 1985 before disbanding in 1987. 

Following stints at two NYC radio stations, Harrell began working with Russell Simmons' Rush Management in the early '80s, where the former worked with the company's marquee acts, including Run-DMC and LL Cool J, among others. Simmons, himself a legendary record executive, was also co-founder of the iconic rap label Def Jam Recordings; Harrell quickly rose to become Def Jam's vice president and GM, according to Variety. (Simmons would become one of the first patriarchal figures in a long line of black hip-hop executives that connected Harrell and Sean "Diddy" Combs and opened doors for today's generation of leaders, like Top Dawg Entertainment's (TDE) Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith and Quality Control's Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas.)

Harrell launched his own record label, Uptown Records, in 1986; within two years, in 1988, the imprint entered a partnership with the major label, MCA.

Like his mentor Simmons and Def Jam, Harrell's imprint saw the potential of hip-hop's growing fan base, particularly black audiences, and cultural reach before others could even understand the music itself.  As The New York Times points out, Harrell "understood his target audience intimately," digging into his deep understanding, rooted from his own rapping days, of both the music and its surrounding culture. 

"Andre thought he could deliver entertainment to the black audience in a full and total way," Al Teller, former chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, told Vanity Fair in 1993. "He had tremendously clever insights into the audience and how to connect the dots. He was talking like an advertising executive who knew everything about music."

Uptown became a breeding ground for artists who blurred the line between hip-hop and R&B, with acts like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Al B. Sure! and Guy leading the label's roster. With the help and musical innovation of Teddy Riley, the label was pivotal in the formation and popularization of New Jack Swing, a hybrid genre mixing hip-hop production with R&B influences, which dominated the U.S. charts throughout the  mid-'80s and early '90s.

The label was also influential in mainstreaming crossover hip-hop music via artists like Heavy D & The Boyz and Father MC, Variety notes. Blige, who Harrell signed to Uptown in the late '80s when she was a teenager, would go on to embody the hip-hop-meets-R&B formula: Her 1992 debut album, What's the 411?, for Uptown/MCA earned her the moniker, "Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul."

<style>.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }</style><div class='embed-container'><iframe src='https://www.youtube.com/embed//nXiBUgOzgVQ' frameborder='0' allowfullscreen></iframe></div>

During his tenure at Uptown, Harrell also discovered a then-young Sean Combs, who joined the label as an intern before rising to become the imprint's talent director and A&R man. (For his part, Combs would continue Harrell and Uptown's hip-hop/R&B hybrid sound through the former's own influential Bad Boy Records via acts like Faith Evans, 112 and Lil' Kim.) 

While Harrell ultimately fired Combs from Uptown due to a power dynamic in 1993, according to The New York Times, the two reconciled and remained close throughout the years. Harrell served as president of Bad Boy as well as Vice Chairman of Revolt, the music-oriented multi-platform TV and digital network Combs launched in 2013. 

During his speech at this year's Pre-GRAMMY Gala and GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons event honoring him, Combs paid tribute to Harrell at length. 

"I want to take the time to thank Andre for being a big brother, for believing in me ... I'm only standing up here because you gave me the chance, you gave me the opportunity," Combs said. "But most importantly … as a black man, you took me underneath your wing ... You taught me what it was to be a record man."

"Even to today," he continued, "you still teach me. And I call you my big brother, but tonight I got to tell you the truth. I told you my father died when I was 2-and-a-half. Andre, you've been my father for the last 30 years."

In 1992, Harrell secured a multi-million-dollar, multimedia deal with MCA. The contract helped the executive span into film and TV—he executive-produced the hit FOX TV show "New York Undercover" and produced the 1991 comedy Strictly Business—with Harrell subsequently rebranding the company as Uptown Enterprises

In 1995, he became the CEO of Motown Records, where he worked for two years.

Later in his career, he remained active in R&B circles. He was pivotal in developing the career of a then-young Robin Thicke in the 2000s, according to Billboard. Harrell later launched his own Harrell Records in the early 2010s.

The legacy of both Harrell and his Uptown Records will see new life via a three-part scripted miniseries, called Uptown, set to debut on BET this year.

Harrell is survived by his son, Gianni Credle-Harrell, his brother, Greg, and his father, The New York Times reports.

2020 GRAMMYs: Clive Davis And The Recording Academy Celebrate Sean "Diddy" Combs With Industry Icon Honor At Star-Studded Pre-GRAMMY Gala

Denzel Curry press photo
Denzel Curry

Photo: Giovanni Mourin

interview

Denzel Curry Returns To The Mischievous South: "I've Been Trying To Do This For The Longest"

Over a decade after he released 'King of the Mischievous South Vol. 1,' Denzel Curry is back with 'Vol. 2.' The Miami rapper details his love of Southern hip-hop, working on multiple projects, and the importance of staying real.

GRAMMYs/Jul 17, 2024 - 01:10 pm

Denzel Curry isn’t typically one for repetition. His recent run of critically acclaimed projects have all contrasted in concept and musicality.

The Miami Gardens native has cascaded through boom-bap, synth-soaked trap metal, and cloud rap throughout his catalog. But on his upcoming project, King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2, Curry returns to the muddied, subwoofer-thudding soundscape that he captured on the first installment back in 2012. 

Curry was just 16 when he released King of the Mischievous South Vol. 1 Underground Tape 1996]. "I was a kid, man," Curry tells GRAMMY.com. "I was just trying to emulate my favorite rappers at the time who really represented the South. That was pretty much what I was on at the time – the Soulja Slims, the No Limits, but mostly Three 6 Mafia. And then I just put Miami culture on top of that."

Curry first explored the rough-cut "phonk" of Southern acts like DJ Screw and Pimp C as a teenager. His first mixtape, King Remembered Underground Tape 1991-1995, caught the attention of then-rising rapper and producer SpaceGhostPurrp. He shared Curry’s project on his social media accounts, making him an official member of South Florida’s Raider Klan.

Read more: A Guide To Southern Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From The Dirty South

The now-defunct group is well behind Curry, who’s ascended from the infancy of his early SoundCloud days to mainstream success. But the rapid-fire delivery and hazy, rough-cut sounds of early Southern rap are still soaked into his musical fibers.

Reignited by the same musical heroes that led to Vol. 1, Curry is comfortable in old sonic form. Vol. 2's lead singles "Hot One" (feat. A$AP Ferg and TiaCorine) and "Black Flag Freestyle" with That Mexican OT fully capture the sharp-edged sound that stretched from Port Arthur, Texas to the Carolinas.

The rapper wanted to go back to the KOTMS series nearly a decade ago, but other projects and outside ventures derailed his return. "I tried to do this thing multiple times," Curry tells GRAMMY.com. "I remember revisiting a [social media post] from 2015 that was like, ‘KOTMS Vol. 2055 is now going to be called Imperial.’ I’ve been trying to do this for the longest." 

A string of bouncy, syrup-pouring, and playalistic Southern trap songs led him back to familiar grounds. The new 15-song capsule features Juicy J, 2 Chainz, Project Pat, That Mexican OT, Maxo Kream, and others inspired by the same pioneers that fall below the Mason-Dixon line.

GRAMMY.com sat down with Curry before the release of King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2 on July 19. The "Ultimate" rapper revealed his "Big Ultra" persona, his ability to crank out hits from his bedroom, and his recent discoveries being "outside." 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

What inspired you to revisit the 'King of the Mischievous South' series?

I was making two projects at once, and there was a through-line from the second half of the project. The second one I was working on kind of just manifested itself into what it is today, 12 years later. And it’s called King of the Mischievous South Vol. 2 because it has the same sonics as the first one.

You mentioned Three 6 Mafia being a big inspiration for Vol. 1. But what about Vol. 2? 

The first KOTMS was obviously Three 6 Mafia, and then Lord Infamous was really the person I looked up to, God rest his soul. I get my rap style from him — the rapid flows and stuff like that. You can even hear it on "Walkin’" and "Clout Cobain." But since I’m from Miami, I’m talking about stuff that predominantly happens in Miami. And  I’m influenced by Soulja Slim, Master P, DJ Screw, UGK, Trina, Trick Daddy, and Rick Ross.

How did you juggle the two different projects at once?

When I wasn’t working on one project, I was working on the other one. Sometimes I would be working on the same two projects on the same day. I was like, If this one won’t see the light of day until next year, this one has to hold fans over. And the one that was supposed to hold fans over ended up having a crazy through-line.

What were the studio sessions like?

When it came down to the production, I was just making these songs on the fly. A couple came out of Ultraground sessions, but the majority of the songs were made in my bed — just how it was with the first one. "Hot One" was made in my house downstairs, and "Hit The Floor" was made in a random room in an AirBnb. And I think the rest of the songs were made in an actual studio.

I was just flowing, doing my thing, and figuring things out. I was working on one project, and when I wasn’t getting called back to the studio, I was working on another one on the side. The grind didn’t stop.

Was there an element or feature that you really wanted to explore?

I just knew I wanted certain rappers to be featured on [project]. When I was working on "Set It," I originally wanted PlayThatBoiZay. But he didn’t get the record done or whatever the case may be. So, I sent it to Maxo Kream, and he ended up just doing it. And when I made "Wish List," I got Armani White on it.  Me and him came off of doing "Goated," so getting that record done was really simple. He pulled up to the studio and he said, "This is tight," and then jumped on the record.

Some stuff didn’t make the cut because we couldn’t get certain people. But the majority of the stuff that made the cut, we were like, "Yes, we did that." Then having people like Ski Mask the Slump God, 2 Chainz, Project Pat, and Juicy J — all these guys played a role. I’m getting people from the South, whether they’re from Texas, Florida, or the Carolinas. And even people outside of the South,  like A$AP Ferg and Armani White, they’re all influenced by the same artists. 

Learn more: A Guide To Texas Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Events

Your persona on the album, "Big Ultra." Break that down for me.

This is how the name came about — my boy’s nickname is Mr. Don’t Fold. It’s kind of a play on "Mr. Don’t Play," so we came up with "Big Ultra" because I’m doing "ultraground" stuff. It wasn’t on some superpower s—, it’s just me, pretty much. It’s how I wanted to be presented on this tape. It’s just me at the end of the day, it’s no persona.

You’ve been in the rap game for a while. Do you consider yourself a veteran?

I think I’m mostly in a formation period because my best years haven’t even happened yet. I feel like I’m just getting my reps in, preparing myself for my 30s. You know, going through the bulls—, having good times, having bad times.

By the time I get to 30, 35, and 40 — God willing — I could have a fruitful career and not be backtracked by dumb s—. I see myself as someone with a lot to offer because I’m still young.

Do you care about garnering more fame or acclaim? Or is there no need for it? 

All my projects are critically acclaimed. The main thing is staying good at what I do. That comes with a lot of effort, a lot of studying, and a lot of work. I take pride in my job and I have fun making music.

I think the hardest part is putting myself out there and being visible. I’m starting to understand that’s what I had to do. I got asked the same question five times in a row about when my album was dropping. I’ve been saying July 19 for the longest. Like, people really haven’t been paying attention? C’mon, bro.

What do you feel is the next step?

I’m just trying to be more visible where the younger generation is at. Most people know me for "Ultimate," "Clout Cobain," or the [XXL Freshman Class] Cypher if I’m being totally real with you. But in due time, everybody has blessings in certain parts of their career. And I’ve been blessed to have a career this long.

All I have to do is just deliver, be real with myself, and do what I have to do. I got to lean into being outside. I didn’t know who messed with me or who liked my stuff until I started going outside and talking to people. You never know who rocks with you until you're outside.  

As far as the music and experience, where does the album rank for you?

I didn’t think about where I’d rank this. We had a whole decade of producing great records, and people look forward to the album experience more than the single when it comes to me. This is what it is, and I just want people to enjoy it. It’s not something to put too much effort or thought into. It’s something you can bump into the club, or you could go to a show and turn up to it. That’s where I’m at with it. 

Are there any other sounds or genres you want to explore?

It’s going to happen when it’s supposed to happen naturally. But I do want to explore pop and R&B a year from now. I want people to be able to sing my songs and stuff like that.

Latest Rap News & Music

Sade in 1985
Sade Adu poses in Chicago in 1985.

Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

list

8 Ways Sade's 'Diamond Life' Album Redefined '80s Music & Influenced Culture

As Sade's masterpiece 'Diamond Life' turns 40, see how the group's debut pushed R&B forward and introduced them as beloved elusive stars.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 04:34 pm

"I only make records when I feel I have something to say," Sade Adu asserted in 2010 upon the highly anticipated release of Sade's GRAMMY-winning Soldier of Love album, which arrived after a 10-year hiatus. "I'm not interested in releasing music just for the sake of selling something. Sade is not a brand."

This lifetime of dedication toward achieving musical excellence helped Sade — vocalist Adu, bassist Paul S. Denman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman — gain prominence in the mid-80s, also garnering enormous respect from fans, critics, and peers alike. Formed in 1982, the English band is one of the few acts that can still be met with a hungry audience after disappearing from the spotlight for multiple years.

In an industry where churning out a new body of work is expected every couple of years, the four meticulous members of Sade move on their own time, putting out a mere six studio albums since 1984. Every project becomes more exquisite than the last, but it all began 40 years ago with Sade's illustrious debut album, Diamond Life. Ubiquitous hits like "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King" appealed to listeners young and old — offering a unique blend of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and pop that birthed a new sound and forced the industry to take notes from the jump.

As Sade's Diamond Life celebrates a milestone anniversary, here's a look at how the album helped push R&B forward, and why it's just as relevant today.

It Helped Set Off The "Quiet Storm" Craze

By mid-1984, Michael Jackson, was riding high off of winning the most GRAMMYs in a single night (including Album Of The Year) for his blockbuster album Thriller, Madonna celebrated her first top 10 hit with "Borderline," and Prince's Purple Rain was just days away from its theatrical release. Duran Duran, Culture Club, Billy Idol, and the Police were mainstays, while "blue-eyed soul" in particular had also hit an all-time high thanks to Hall and Oates, Wham, Simply Red, and others. What's more, many Black artists like Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston opted for more of a pop sound to appeal to broader audiences during MTV's golden era. 

Diamond Life was refreshing at the time, as it fully embraced soul and R&B. The album offered a chic sophistication amid the synth-heavy pop and rock music that ruled the charts.

Singles like "Your Love Is King" and "Smooth Operator" introduced jazz elements into mainstream radio. In turn, Sade helped usher in the "quiet storm" genre — R&B music at its core, with strong undertones of jazz for an ultra-smooth sound. Sade and Diamond Life also laid some of the groundwork for neo-soul, which saw a surge in the '90s à la Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu.

It Made GRAMMY History

In the 65-year history of the GRAMMYs, a small number of Nigerian artists, including Burna Boy and Tems, have won a golden gramophone. In 1986, a then 27-year-old Sade Adu made history as the first-ever Nigerian-born artist to win a GRAMMY when she and her band was crowned Best New Artist at the 29th GRAMMYs. Still, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg had to accept the award on Sade's behalf — signaling Adu's elusive nature as she rarely attends industry events or grants interviews.

Since then, Sade has gone on to earn three more GRAMMYs, including Best Pop Vocal Album in 2001 for their fifth studio album, Lovers Rock. The win signified their staying power in the new millennium.

It Birthed The Band's Signature Song…

While Diamond Life spawned timeless hits like "Your Love Is King" and "Hang On to Your Love," "Smooth Operator" became the album's highest-charting single — and remains the most iconic song in their catalog. The seductive track about a cunning two-timer propelled the band into international stardom: "Smooth Operator" skyrocketed to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

Even non-Sade fans can identify "Smooth Operator" in an instant, from Adu's unmistakable vocals to that now-iconic instrumental saxophone solo. As of press time, it boasts over 400 million Spotify streams alone, and has remained a set list staple across every one of Sade's tours.

…And It Houses Underrated Gems

"Smooth Operator" may be Sade's commercial classic, but deep cuts like "Frankie's First Affair," "Cherry Pie," and "I Will Be Your Friend" are fan favorites that embody the band's heart and soul.

"Frankie's First Affair" offers a surprisingly enchanting take on infidelity: "Frankie, didn't I tell you, you've got the world in the palm of your hand/ Frankie, didn't I tell you they're running at your command." And, it's impossible to resist the funky groove that carries standout track "Cherry Pie," which served as a catalyst for some of Sade's later, more dance-oriented hits, including "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Paradise." Some of Sade's most poignant statements about lost love, including "Somebody Already Broke My Heart" from 2000's Lovers Rock, can be traced back to "Cherry Pie."

Diamond Life's penultimate song, "I Will Be Your Friend," offers both solace and companionship — another recurring theme throughout Sade's music, from 1988's "Keep Looking" to 2010's "In Another Time."

It Was The Best-Selling Debut Album By A British Female Singer For More Than Two Decades

Sade has sold tens of millions of albums worldwide, but Diamond Life remains the band's most commercially successful LP with over 7 million copies sold. Most of Sade's other platinum-selling LPs, including Diamond Life's follow-up, 1985's Promise, boast sales between four and six million copies.

The 7 million feat helped Sade set the record for best-selling debut album by a British female singer. She held the title for nearly 25 years until Leona Lewis' 2008 album Spirit, which has sold over 8 million copies globally.

It Introduced Sade Adu As A Style Icon

When we first met Adu, her signature aesthetic consisted of a long, slicked-back ponytail, red lip, and gold hoops. Sade's impeccable style is front and center in early videos like "When Am I Going to Make a Living," in which she sports an all-white ensemble paired with a pale gray, ankle-length trench coat and loafers.

Adu rocked the model off-duty style long before it became a trend. Her oversized blazers, classic trousers, and head-to-toe denim looks were as effortless as they were chic and runway-ready — proving that less was more amid the decade of excess.

"It's now so acceptable to be wacky and have hair that goes in 101 directions and has several colours, and trendy, wacky clothes have become so acceptable that they're… conventional," Adu, who briefly worked as a fashion designer and model before pursuing music, told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I don't like looking outrageous. I don't want to look like everybody else."

It Shined A Light On Larger Societal Issues

While most of Diamond Life leans into love's ebbs and flows, a handful of tunes deal with financial strife coupled with a dose of optimism, as evidenced by "When Am I Going to Make a Living" and "Sally." The latter song characterizes the Salvation Army as a young charitable woman: "So put your hands together for Sally/ She's the one who cared for him/ Put your hands together for Sally/ She was there when his luck was running thin."

Meanwhile, Adu, a then-starving artist, scribbled down portions of "When Am I Going to Make a Living" on the back of her cleaning ticket. The soul-stirring "We are hungry, but we won't give in" refrain emerges as a powerful mantra in the face of adversity and still holds relevance in 2024. Similar themes appear throughout Sade's later work, including unemployment ("Feel No Pain"), unwanted pregnancy ("Tar Baby"), survival ("Jezebel"), prejudice ("Immigrant"), and injustice ("Slave Song").

Diamond Life closer "Why Can't We Live Together" is a well-done cover of Timmy Thomas' 1972 hit about the staggering Vietnam War deaths. The band wisely doesn't veer too far from the original recording, but Adu's distinctive contralto voice brings a haunting quality that's reminiscent of Billie Holiday.

It Ignited The Public's Ongoing Fascination With Sade Adu

Since 1984, Sade has only released six studio albums, and a remarkable 14 years have passed since the group's last offering, 2010's Soldier of Love. Ironically, that scarcity — both in terms of music and access to the artist — has actually added to Adu's appeal. Case in point: Sade's sold-out Soldier of Love Tour grossed over $50 million in 2011, and the band still brings in close to 14 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Adu's striking beauty, mysterious persona, and knack for letting her music do all the talking has earned the admiration of her peers across genres and generations. Everyone from Beyoncé to Kanye West to Snoop Dogg have sung her praises. Drake even has two portrait-style tattoos of the singer on his torso. Prince reportedly described 1988's "Love Is Stronger Than Pride" as "one of the most beautiful songs ever." Metalheads Chino Moreno of the Deftones and Greg Puciato of the Dillinger Escape Plan have also cited Adu as inspiration — showing that her influence runs far and wide.

In 2022, reports circulated that Sade was recording new music at Miraval Studios in France. But upon Diamond Life's 40th anniversary, "Flower of the Universe" and "The Big Unknown" from the respective soundtracks to 2018 films A Wrinkle in Time and Widows stand as Sade's latest releases.

Whether fans get new music anytime soon remains to be seen, but the impressive repertoire of Adu, Denman, Hale, and Matthewman is one that aims to be truth-seeking and inspiring while exploring life's peaks and valleys. Diamond Life in particular holds up as one of the purest representations of the group's creative legacy, both commercially and musically. 

From quadruple platinum status to resonating with several generations, Diamond Life will forever stand as a remarkable debut — one that continues to influence music in a multitude of ways.

Latest News & Exclusive Videos

Derrick Hodge press photo
Derrick Hodge

Photo: Oye Diran

interview

Meet Derrick Hodge, The Composer Orchestrating Hip-Hop's Symphony

From Nas' 'Illmatic' to modern hip-hop symphonies, Derrick Hodge seamlessly bridges the worlds of classical and hip-hop music, bringing orchestral elegance to iconic rap anthems.

GRAMMYs/Jul 16, 2024 - 01:01 pm

Over the last 50 years, hip-hop culture has shown it can catalyze trends in fashion and music across numerous styles and genres, from streetwear to classical music. On June 30, Nas took his place at Red Rocks Amphitheater in a full tuxedo, blending the worlds of hip-hop and Black Tie once again, with the help of Derrick Hodge

On this warm summer eve in Morrison, Colorado, Nas performed his opus, Illmatic, with Hodge conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The show marked a belated 30-year celebration of the album, originally released on April 19, 1994. 

As Nas delivered his icy rhymes on classics like "N.Y. State of Mind," "Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)," and "Halftime," the orchestra held down the beat with a wave of Hodge's baton. The winds, strings, and percussion seamlessly transitioned from underscoring Nas's lyrics with sweeping harmonic layers to leading melodic orchestral flourishes and interludes. For the album's final track, "Ain't Hard to Tell," the orchestra expanded on Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," expertly sampled originally by producer Large Professor.

Derrick Hodge is a pivotal figure in modern music. His career spans writing and performing the famous bassline on Common's "Be," composing for Spike Lee's HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts," and his own solo career that includes his latest experimental jazz album, COLOR OF NOIZE. Hodge also made history by bringing hip-hop to the Kennedy Center with orchestra accompaniments for Illmatic to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary in 2014.

"That was the first time hip-hop was accepted in those walls," Hodge says sitting backstage at Red Rocks. It was also the first time Hodge composed orchestral accompaniments to a hip-hop album.

Since then, Hodge has composed symphonic works for other rappers including Jeezy and Common, and is set to deliver a symphonic rendition of Anderson .Paak's 2016 album, Malibu, at the Hollywood Bowl in September.

Hodge's passion for orchestral composition began when he was very young. He played upright bass by age seven and continued to practice classical composition in his spare moments while touring as a bassist with Terence Blanchard and Robert Glasper. On planes. In dressing rooms. In the van to and from the gig.

"It started as a dream. I didn't know how it was going to be realized. My only way to pursue that dream was just to do it without an opportunity in sight," Hodge says. "Who would've known that all that time people were watching? Friends were watching and word-of-mouth." 

His dedication and word-of-mouth reputation eventually led Nas to entrust him with the orchestral arrangements for Illmatic. He asked Hodge and another arranger, Tim Davies, to write for the performance at the Kennedy Center.

"[Nas] didn't know much about me at all," Hodge says. "For him to trust how I was going to paint that story for an album that is very important to him and important to the culture, I have not taken that for granted." 

Read more: How 'Illmatic' Defined East Coast Rap: Nas’ Landmark Debut Turns 30

Those parts Hodge wrote for the Kennedy Center are the same parts he conducted at Red Rocks. Over a decade later, he channels the same drive and hunger he had when he was practicing his compositions between gigs. "I hope that I never let go of that. I feel like these opportunities keep coming because I'm approaching each one with that conviction. Like this could be my last." 

Before this latest performance, GRAMMY.com spoke with Hodge about bridging the worlds of classical and hip-hop, influencing the next generation of classical musicians, and how his experience as a bassist helps him lead an orchestra.

Throughout history, orchestral music has been celebrated by the highest echelons of society, whereas hip-hop has often been shunned by that echelon. What is it like for you to bring those two worlds together?

I love it. I've embraced the opportunity since day one. I was a young man showing up with Timberlands on and cornrows in my hair, and I knew the tendency to act and move in a certain perception was there. I knew then I have to represent hope in everything I do. I choose to this day to walk with a certain pair of blinders on because I feel like it's necessary. Because of that I never worry about how the classical world perceives me. 

Oftentimes I'll stand before them and I know there may be questions but the love I show them, what I demand of them, and how I show appreciation when they take the music seriously…almost every situation has led to lifelong friendships. 

I believe that's been part of my purpose. It's not even been to change minds or change perceptions. In serving the moment, even when people have preconceptions, they're in front of me playing music I wrote. How do I serve them best? How do I bring out the best in them just like I'm trying to bring out the best in the storyline of a hip-hop artist that may not relate to their story at all? The answer is just to be selfless. That's eliminated the distraction of trying to convince minds.

With that unifying principle, would you consider conducting the orchestra the same thing as playing bass with Robert Glasper?

The way I try to be selfless and serve the moment, it's no different. Maybe the skillset that's required. For example, conducting or working within a framework of composed music requires a certain way of making sure everybody's on the same page so we can get through these things on time and keep going. But I serve that moment no differently than when myself and Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Casey Benjamin RIP, are creating a song in the moment.

I actually don't even think about how one thing is affecting the other. I will say the beauty of the bass and the bassists that have influenced me — from Ron Carter to the great Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten — is the way they can stand out while never abandoning the emotion of the moment. Remembering what is perceived as the role of the bass and how it glues things in a unique way. Harmonically and rhythmically. Being aware of the responsibility of being aware of everything.

I think that's one thing that's carried over to orchestrating and thinking about balances and how to convey emotion. I think some things are innate with bassists. We're always navigating through harmony and having a conversation through a lens of placement with drums. Placement with the diction if they're singers or rappers. There are a lot of decisions bass players are making in the moment that we don't even think about. It's just secondhand. But it's how are we serving what's necessary to make the conversation unified. I think that's one thing that's served me well in composition.  

What's one song you're particularly excited to dive into for the Anderson .Paak arrangements?

So I'm intentionally not thinking in that way because we decided to treat it like a movie. Start to finish no matter what. With that in mind, I'm trying to approach it as if the whole thing is an arcing story because I didn't realize the succession of how he placed that record was really important to him. 

**Hip-hop is often a very minimalist genre while an orchestra is frequently the opposite with dozens of instruments. How do you maintain that minimalist feel when writing orchestra parts for hip-hop albums like Illmatic?**

I'm so glad you asked that because that was the biggest overarching thing I had to deal with on the first one. With Nas. Because Illmatic, people love that as it is. Every little thing. It wasn't just the production. Nas's diction in between it, how he wrote it, how he told the story, and the pace he spoke through it. That's what made it. So the biggest thing is how do I honor that but also try to tell the story that honors the narrative of symphonic works? [The orchestra is] fully involved. How do I do things in a way where they are engaged without forcing them? 

Illmatic was a part of my soundtrack. So I started with the song that meant the most to me at that time: "The World is Yours." That was the first piece I finished, and I emailed Pete Rock and asked "How is this feeling to you?" If the spirit of the song is speaking to him then I feel like this is something I can give to the people no matter how I feel about it. And he gave the thumbs up. 

So instead of overly trying to prove a point within the flow of the lyrics, how do we pick those moments when the orchestra is exposed? Let them be fully exposed. Let them tell a story leading into that. Make what they do best marry well into what Nas and the spirit of hip-hop and hip-hop sampling do best. And then let there be a dance in between. 

That first [Illmatic] show was a great experiment for me. I try to carve out moments whenever I can. Let me figure out what's a story that can combine this moment with this moment. That's become the beauty. Especially within the rap genre. To let something new that they're not familiar with lead into this story. 

Derrick Hodge with orchestra

*Derrick Hodge conducts the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Red Rocks* | Amanda Tipton

The orchestra is just as excited to play it as Nas is to have them behind him. 

And that reflects my story. I try to dedicate more time to thinking about that, and that normally ends up reciprocated back in the way they're phrasing. In the way they're honoring the bowings. In the way they're honoring the breaths that I wrote in for them. They start to honor that in a way because they know we're coming to try and have a conversation with these orchestras. That's one thing I try to make sure no matter what. It's a conversation and that goes back to the moment as well. 

I've seen other composers put an orchestral touch on hip-hop in recent years. For example, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson wrote orchestral parts to celebrate Biggie's 50th birthday. Would you say integrating an orchestra into hip-hop is becoming more popular? 

It has become popular, especially in terms of catching the eyes of a lot of the different symphonies that might not have opened up their doors to that as frequently in the past. These opportunities — I appreciate the love shown where my name is mentioned in terms of the inception of things. But I approach it with a lot of gratitude because others were doing it and were willing to honor the music the same. There are many that wish they had that opportunity so I try to represent them. 

With these more modern applications of orchestral music, I feel like there will be an explosion of talent within the classical realm in the next few years. Kids will think it's cool to play classical again.

The possibility of that just brings joy to me. Not just because it's a spark, but hopefully the feeling in the music they relate to. Hopefully there is something in it, aside from seeing it done, that feels that it relates to their story. I have confidence if I'm true to myself, hopefully, each time in the music it's going to feel like it's something relevant to the people. The more I can help foster platforms where people are free to be themselves, and where they can honor the music—I hope that mentality becomes infectious.

More Rap News

Blxst press photo
Blxst

Photo: Amy Lee

list

5 Rising L.A. Rappers To Know: Jayson Cash, 310babii & More

From San Diego to the Bay Area, Seattle and beyond, the West Coast bursts with talent. Los Angeles is at the heart of this expanse, and these five rappers are just a few who are showcasing the vibrant sounds of West Coast hip-hop.

GRAMMYs/Jul 15, 2024 - 01:36 pm

GRAMMY winners Kendrick Lamar and Mustard have long repped their California roots. Earlier this summer, their powerhouse anthem "Not Like Us"  brought West Coast rap back to its roots and shone a global spotlight on the scene. 

Lamar and Mustard are at the forefront of a renaissance in West Coast rap. Their shared roots in Southern California cities — Mustard from Los Angeles and Kendrick from Compton — adds authenticity and resonance to their partnership. Their undeniable chemistry was on display in the video for "Not Like Us," which received a million views less than an hour after its release.

Mustard's signature beats and Lamar's profound lyricism has resurfaced the sound and culture that makes West Coast rap so unique and paved the way for a new generation of artists. All signs suggest that another impactful collaboration may appear on Mustard's upcoming album, Faith of A Mustard Seed.

Learn more: A Guide To Southern California Hip-Hop: Definitive Releases, Artists & Subgenres From L.A. & Beyond

Kendrick Lamar headlined the electrifying Pop Out concert on Juneteenth, which also featured sets from Mustard and DJ Hed. The event saw a handful of L.A. rappers, opening for Lamar in a showcase of  the vibrant talent that defines the region's rap scene.

The West Coast is a vast reservoir of talent, stretching from the Bay Area to Seattle. At the heart of this creative expanse is Los Angeles, which brings fresh perspectives, innovative styles, and renewed energy to hip-hop, ensuring the genre thrives. With the stage set for these newcomers to shine, it's the perfect time to take a closer look at some of the rising talents poised to impact the rap scene. While this list only scratches the surface, it offers a glimpse into the diverse and exciting talent from SoCal, the epicenter of the West.

Blxst

Arising from Los Angeles, Blxst initially played the background as a producer but soon demonstrated his ability to excel across all facets of music creation. Blxst's breakout moment came with his platinum-certified single "Chosen," which solidified his place in the music industry. His collaboration on Kendrick Lamar's "Die Hard" from Mr. Morale And The Big Steppers further showcased his skill for crafting hooks that elevate tracks, resulting in two GRAMMY nominations.

As he prepares to release his debut album, I'll Always Come Find You on July 19, Blxst stands at a pivotal point in his career. With a great resume already to his name, his forthcoming album promises to showcase his undeniable talent and leave a lasting impact on the West Coast music scene.

Bino Rideaux

Bino Rideaux is a South Central native and frequent collaborator with the GRAMMY-winning rapper Nipsey Hussle. He is the only artist to have a joint project with Hussle, No Pressure, released before the prolific rapper's untimely death. Rideaux has hinted at having a treasure of unreleased music with Hussle, saved for the perfect moment and album.

Rideaux  is known for creating tracks that get the city outside and dancing. He has made three beloved projects with Blxst, titled Sixtape, Sixtape 2, and Sixtape 3 resulting in sold-out shows and a special place in West Coast Rap fans' hearts. Endorsed by industry heavyweights like Young Thug, Rideaux continues to carve his path at his own pace. His journey is nothing short of a marathon, echoing the enduring legacy of his mentor.

Read more: Nipsey Hussle's Entrepreneurial Legacy: How The Rapper Supported His Community & Inspired Rap's Next Generation

Kalan.FrFr

Kalan.FrFr, whose name stands for "For Real For Real," is an artist whose music is as genuine as his name suggests. Growing up in Compton and Carson, Kalan.FrFr has always stayed true to his roots, and exudes the unyielding confidence essential to making it in the City of Angels.

His breakthrough mixtape, TwoFr, showcased his ability to shine without major features, delivering verses with catchy hooks and melodic rap. He's shown he's not confined to one sound, delivering vulnerable tracks like "Going Through Things'' and "Never Lose You." His EP Make the West Great Again, Kalan.FrFr both proves his loyalty to his origins and highlights his versatility. Kalan.FrFr's signature punch-in, no-writing-lyrics-down style keeps his fans on their toes, ensuring that whatever comes next is unpredictable but authentic.

Jayson Cash

Jayson Cash, a rapper hailing from Carson — the same city as TDE artist Ab-Soul — stays true to West Coast rap, from his lyrics to his beat selection. Listening to Jayson Cash's music is like diving into a vivid life narrative. His prowess as a lyricist and storyteller shines through in every verse. He gives his fans an insight into his journey, making it a relatable music experience.

Cash made waves with his debut mixtape, Read The Room, and scored a Mustard beat on the song "Top Down." Two years later, their collaboration continues, with Cash writing on Mustard's upcoming album. Though often seen as an underdog, Cash is not to be underestimated, earning cosigns from West Coast legends like Suga Free and Snoop Dogg. His latest project, Alright Bet, includes a notable feature from Dom Kennedy.

310babii

310babii has achieved platinum-selling status at just 18 years old, while successfully graduating high school.  Yet 310babii's career began in seventh grade, when he recording songs on his phone showing early signs of motivation and creativity. His 2023 breakout hit "Soak City (Do It)" quickly gained traction on TikTok — and caught the ears of Travis Scott and NFL player CJ Stroud.

As the song grew in popularity, it led to a remix produced by Mustard, who invited the Inglewood native to join him onstage during his set at The Pop Out. 310babii's innovative spirit shines through in his distinctive visuals, exemplified by the captivating video for his song "Back It Up." His recent debut album, Nights and Weekends, released in February, underscores his evolving talent and promise within the music industry.

Latest News & Exclusive Videos