How Andre Harrell Made Me a Better CEO
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How Andre Harrell Made Me a Better CEO

For young executive Keith Clinkscales, the music-industry legend was a lifeline, a bridge, and a one-of-a-kind mentor

A young, fresh crop of creatives began to grow in the early ’90s, and I was blessed to see it firsthand. In 1993, I was named president and CEO of VIBE. As a member of the media, I worked with many different parts of the culture, from record labels to the fashion industry. VIBE covered it all with a critical eye; we were there to do journalism, not just the fanzine-style coverage that was prominent in urban music at the time.

When I met Andre Harrell, I immediately knew I wanted to learn from him. This is someone who had more individual experiences in the industry than most. Spike Lee was coming into his own as a director, but before his own movies he’d never been an actor. The fashion executives hadn’t necessarily been models. The record and film execs hadn’t been musicians and actors — but Andre Harrell had been involved in all sides of every industry he worked in.

Andre was a perfect example of vertical integration, running all segments of an industry from top to bottom. He had been a rapper and knew the game from that angle. He was a producer, a manager, a talent scout, an executive producer; there was no part of the industry that he hadn’t been involved with personally. This was someone who worked at radio stations as a young man. He was both a buttoned-down sales executive and an up-and-coming rapper on the mic — sometimes in the same day.

He could speak everyone’s language.

Yet, with all of that, he was exceptionally grounded. I could call him at any time. We would break bread and I could ask him anything. He was open and he wanted everyone to win — even if he had to fire them first, like Diddy.

Here’s my favorite story about Andre. We went out and we ended up hooking up with Quincy Jones and legendary music executive Clarence Avant. Now, I looked up to Andre. But in this moment, we were with people that Andre himself looked up to. He was incredibly reverential and just honored to be hanging out with them. Of course, I’m just happy to be in the room. I’m just listening.

So Quincy tells us about being somewhere in the Middle East — I think he said Saudi Arabia. And he tells us that on his last night, they had a white party. Andre’s eyebrow goes up and he asks, “What’s a white party?”

“It’s literally just that,” Quincy says. “It’s a party where every single person is wearing all white. No one wears eggshell white or cream or beige or white stripes or any of that. It’s all white or you’re not getting in. It’s a blast, fellas. A pure blast.”

Andre was impressed and intrigued — I could see it by his eyes. So we get in the car, on our way back to our hotel, and he turns to me and says, “Did you hear what he said? A white party. That’s sexy. Let’s do it. Let’s throw an all-white party.”

Andre was in the game to pass it on and give people the opportunity to do their best work and get their money. That was a win for him.

And we did. A few months later, VIBE sponsored the first all-white party in the entertainment industry, at Tavern On The Green in New York City. The next year, Diddy launched his own white party in the Hamptons. Andre was always there. He was proud that it took off the way it did. How many white parties do we see being done these days? It’s just a part of the culture now. One of the many things Andre ushered in.

Andre was that bridge for us. He learned and soaked up knowledge — and always passed it on. Always.

That was Andre’s goal — to make a mark on the culture — and he took his responsibility seriously. But it was never competitive. Whether he was talking about L.A. Reid or Babyface or Jermaine Dupri or anyone else, it was never a competition. He was in the game to pass it on and give people the opportunity to do their best work and get their money. That was a win for him. He was a free and loving mentor to many people. It was a special club: If he thought you were trying to contribute to the culture, he wanted to make sure he helped you however he could.

Look, where I’m from in Connecticut, there wasn’t a built-in understanding of urban culture for me. The one thing that put me in the same crew with most of the creatives of the early ’90s is that I went to an HBCU. But I was still trying to soak up the culture — so being embraced by Andre was really helpful.

VIBE wasn’t the easiest place to be in those early days. The Source was doing really well and had a sense of authenticity that just could not be compared. VIBE had the glossiness, the large format, but it didn’t mean we had it easy. We were a Time, Inc. publication and we had to do every single thing by the letter. So having a professional relationship with Andre was important. He respected VIBE and understood our mission. We had many Uptown Records acts on the cover — one of our bigger issues was Jodeci when they were at their height. One of the guys was holding a rose in his teeth. Believe it or not, that was risqué 30 years ago. Andre understood dramatics and flair, and he knew it made sense.

He didn’t like everything we did at VIBE, but the beauty of Andre was that he was extremely opinionated — but only in a healthy and productive way. He would tell you what he thought but he wasn’t about being performative. There was never any yelling. It was just enough power to get his point across without having to be over-the-top with it. If my assistant said Andre’s on the phone, I knew there wasn’t going to be any yelling on the other end — even if he was upset about something. It wasn’t like that with other people. I learned you can get results without being over-the-top.

Andre was the commissioner of the culture. He was the one who looked at the entirety of what we were all creating and figured out how to make it work together. He was a music executive but he never worked at just running a record label. He was always steps ahead. What else can be done within this space? Produce a television show? Absolutely. He was in the rooms to produce New York Undercover, a highly successful show on a major network. The storytelling and how the music was used? That was The Commissioner. He saw all sides of any projects, from music and television to film and fashion.

Andre realized what many know now in our industry. A creative is just that, a creative. No matter what specific industry you work in, the level of creativity you bring will determine your success.

And no matter what, make sure you look around at those looking up to you — and bring them along on your journey.