He's the man credited for discovering Mary J. Blige. His part in molding Sean "Puffy" Combs into the media Goliath we know now is well documented. The record label he created was synonymous with R&B in the '90s and last Thursday, he came to Charlotte to search for the next big thing.
Charlotte was the first stop for Andre Harrell's six-city, Superstar Soul Search. The contest had 50 people from more than 2,500 entries compete for a spot in the contest finals, which will be in Atlanta on July 31. There they'll have the chance to win $10,000, a record deal with Harrell's new imprint which has Atlantic Records distribution.
Why Charlotte? Harrell's selection of Charlotte was anything but random. The legendary tastemaker has a history with artists out of the city. Whether it was Jodeci or Horace Brown in the '90s or Anthony Hamilton more recently, Harrell was excited to see some pure talent.
Citing his success with acts out of Charlotte, he continued, "I wanted to go closer to the church because I thought the church was going to give me something soulful. So Charlotte being a Bible Belt city and me having experience with groups [here], Charlotte aint done me wrong yet! Did I know it was going to be this great? No, I had no expectations of anything being this amazing, this was unreal."
He continued, "after watching some of these singers sing and be in competition, cause some singers we better complete packages in terms of aptitude, songwriting and execution, some people's ability to sing was off the richter, so it made it very hard to judge in terms of talent and what would be the commercial viable thing right now."
Helping Harrell decide who moved on was Charlotte native, K-Ci (of Jodeci and K-Ci & JoJo) and Charlotte transplant rapper Special Ed, as well as a 4th, non-official judge, K-Ci and JoJo's mother, former gospel singer Anita Hailey. "I had to go back and talk to her because as good as I may be she might be better, that's why I had to keep going back to her with, 'this is what I'm thinking,' said Harrell.
Starting early in the morning, judges spent the day whittling down the large number of semi-finalists on hand down the 13. The number was actually supposed to be 10 but after rounds and rounds. Harrell decided he had to take more than 10. After that round, instead of picking one winner, he cut the 13 down to five creating a double overtime scenario where the five finalists had to prepare to sing one more song for their shot at moving on to Atlanta.
At the end of double overtime, Harrell graced the stage and decided he couldn't pick just one, instead he went with one male artist, J Remy, and one female artist, Amaye.
"I couldn't leave all this on the table, it was too much on the table!," said Harrell.
Raleigh native J Remy's story was intriguing to Harrell, as well as his talent. "He was going through a particularly hard time in his life so it was all or nothing today for him," said Harrell. "He was the most natural, he was never shaky, he never had a trick neither, he just came up like, 'I do this, I do what I do,' he didn't have no extra ego about it, he just came up there like, 'I was built to do this, I been doing this, don't matter if it's 100 or 100,000,' that's how he was approaching it. And all his songs were original songs and he didn't have no music."
Amaye, a Baltimore native who moved south to attend North Carolina A&T (Full disclosure: I attended A&T at the same time) seemed to be a unanimous decision with the crowd and the judges. Her rendition of Beyonce's "Listen" was as the performance of that the day. Middway through her emotion rendition, she dropped the mic, came to the end of the stage and blew the crowd away with her voice alone without the mic. The standing ovation from the judges as well as hoots and hollers from the crowd pretty much sealed her fate.
"I had to pick her," said Harrell. "Her level of tricks, just when you thought she went as far as she could go she went further and we don't even know if she went as far as she could go yet because she felt like she could blow the roof off this joint in that little 5-foot-4 package. That was unreal, that was unreal what she did. Unreal!"
The winners weren't the only ones who left an impression on Harrell.
During the contest, singers who weren't selected for the next rounds were frequently asked to come see Harrell at the table where he'd council them in between acts on how to refine their craft. Still amazed, he raved about the contestants. "This level of performance, this level of songwriting and producing, this level of professionalism and this level of composure...we had to break this down into like three different semifinals, so they had to sing four to five songs, they probably came here prepared to sing two or three so they had to keep pulling material and confidence and poise out their pockets."
"I can't imagine Atlanta coming like Charlotte," said Harrell. "I think they got professional music people, Charlotte has professional...church people, it's just different. It's nothing professional about it, it's just honest and destined to be."
Next up on his tour will be Atlanta, then Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. before the finals in Atlanta o July 31.