How Andre Harrell Became The Guiding Force Behind Al B. Sure!’S Classic Debut ‘In Effect Mode’
Your hea CHRIS WILLIAMS READ NEXT Spike Lee, Ray Allen Discussing ‘He Got Game’ Sequel With A Rising NBA Star We spoke with producer Kyle West, who broke down the pivotal role Andre Harrell played in constructing Al B. Sure!’s classic debut album In Effect Mode.
At the time, Harrell already had minor success as an artist. He was part of a flamboyant rap duo called Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, alongside partner Alonzo Brown. The duo released two minor hits in the early 80s, “Genius Rap” and “A.M./P.M,” which was produced by pioneer Kurtis Blow. In 1985, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde released their only album, The Champagne of Rap. It was a commercial disappointment, selling less than 100,000 copies, and the two rappers disbanded. Both went to the business side of music to make their impact. Harrell would join Russell Simmons’s Rush Management, working with talent like Whodini and Run-DMC. (Brown would go on to have a high-ranking role at Cold Chillin’ Records.)
So, when Harrell launched Uptown Records in 1986, the 25-year-old record executive, was already a vet. With Uptown, Harrell sought to bring a groundbreaking sound to the forefront of not only black culture but pop culture. He wanted to center his label around Black people who enjoyed a flashy, fun lifestyle. While searching for talent, he signed his first protégé, Heavy D. & the Boyz, who were from Mount Vernon, New York. The group would eventually kick off the Uptown reign by leading off the Uptown Is Kickin’ It compilation album.
After the group was signed, one of Heavy D.’s high school football teammates and best friends wanted to join him at Uptown Records. His name was Albert Brown, better known to the world as Al B. Sure! Despite having a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, he made the decision to pursue music. Alongside his cousin, Kyle West, Al B. Sure! began collaborating on music. Due to the music they were making, Al B. Sure! transformed from a rapper into a singer within months. Shortly thereafter, he was the first R&B act signed to Uptown Records.
During the recording phase of Al B. Sure!’s debut album, In Effect Mode, West worked with a teenaged Teddy Riley; Edward “DJ Eddie F” Ferrell from Heavy D. & the Boyz; young background singer Terri Robinson; and Harrell. Under their tutelage, Sure! and West gained invaluable knowledge about producing and recording songs. Within the same time frame, Sure! entered into the Sony Innovators Talent Search. He was selected as the winner by the legendary Quincy Jones. With the successes of Janet Jackson’s Control (1986), Heavy D. & the Boyz’s Living Large (1987), and Keith Sweat’s Make It Last Forever (1987), New Jack Swing became a new movement dominating the music scene. By the spring of 1988, the stage was set for Al B. Sure! to leave his mark on the industry.
On May 3, 1988, Al B. Sure’s! In Effect Mode was released as a joint venture between Uptown Records and Warner Bros. Records. The album would spawn four hit singles, including two number one hits: “Nite and Day” and “Off on Your Own (Girl)” and “If I’m Not Your Lover” and “Rescue Me,” which peaked at number two and number three on the Billboard R&B chart, respectively.
In an effort to honor the recent passing of Andre Harrell and his grand legacy, we were able to speak with producer Kyle West about the pivotal role he and Harrell played in constructing Al B. Sure!’s classic debut.
How did you and your cousin Al B. Sure! began collaborating on songs?
KYLE: I dabbled in music as a kid and Al was a rapper. He liked the attention, and he just needed to find something to do. We actually met and grew up with Eddie F. of Heavy D. & The Boyz. We all grew up in the same city. I was still in college at the time. I had a [Roland] Juno-106 keyboard, and I really didn’t know much about music or record-making to have a direction. Rap was definitely bigger than R&B in the mid-’80s. Once I began creating music, I told him, “You can’t rap over this, you’re going to have to do something else.” So, Al B. Sure! began teaching himself how to write songs, follow melodies, and write strong lyrics and arrangements. He also taught himself how to sing. To this day, that still amazes the hell out of me. He learned all of this on the fly. Singing was not his passion. His passion was rapping, which he was very good at. But after listening to my stuff, it was so musical that he had to do something else.
This process started toward the end of 1986. We already had our music, but it had no direction and wasn’t really polished. I remember we had a song that he was rapping on, and we played it for Andre Harrell and Andre felt that it would be better to sing it. Al was a big Michael Jackson fan, so he tailored everything to be smooth like Michael Jackson. The only thing he really had to work on was his lyrical skills because he was good with melodies. He knew how to use his voice so lyrics were the thing he had to master. We really didn’t have enough background in knowing what to do and what not to do. So, it kind of helped us. There were no boundaries and it allowed us to do what we wanted naturally.
How did you all approach Andre Harrell to get a record deal with Uptown Records?
KYLE: Al played football with Hev, and he was just pretty much following behind Hev and Eddie F. and hanging out with them. I was still in college, so I wasn’t even in New York. Al just kept saying, “I got to get some stuff.” He would tell Eddie, “You got to play this for your manager.” When I would come home from school on breaks, I already had the music ready. Al would try to create as much as he could, so that he had something to give to Eddie, and Eddie got it to Andre. Every show that Heavy and Eddie went to here in the city, Al would take the train [to]. He knew that he was going to see Andre. Al kept making demos from our music and then when he got the chance, he would just give it to Andre. Andre pretty much kept us at a distance for a little bit, until it just made sense to take a look at us and put us in the studio.
You only worked on creating music when you came home from college?
Yes. During Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, and the summer. My dad helped me get a keyboard. Al had the four-track recorder and the drum machine, and I was just pumping out tracks. Believe me, they weren’t even good, but you could see that there was creative talent. I just needed to have better equipment and some direction. I didn’t know I could do it, either. I had been playing music for like 10 years. I played as a kid, and then I didn’t play. When Heavy released his record here in Mount Vernon, everybody was trying to do demos all over this little town. That’s when Al came to me and said, “Yo, we could do this, too.” I said, “Yes, we could, but I don’t know anything about rap. You’re going to have to sing.” I just had the right song. Our motivation was seeing Heavy D succeeding in this industry. He was really was the impetus for everyone here in this small town to see if they had musical talent.