Hamilton Park is the “next generation” male R&B group. With the assistance of longtime music mogul Andre Harrell, they aim to fill the void left by hometown legends, 112 and Jagged Edge. In a special double interview feature from AllHipHop.com Alternatives, Andre Harrell discusses his latest business venture, Harrell Records, and Hamilton Park (Anthony Dorsey, Marcus Lee, Chris Voice and Royce Pinkston) reflects upon the long road to success.
PART ONE: ANDRE HARRELL
AHHA: Long before you became a well-respective music executive, you experienced success on the other side of the equation – as one-half of Hip-Hop duo Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Using three of the group’s major hits as inspiration, I have crafted a few introductory questions. The first song - “Genius Rap.” What do you consider to be the genius of rap – considering its long stranglehold and influence upon America’s conscious and the global music marketplace?
Andre Harrell: Rap gives an artist the ability to say what he or she sees in the future and through the music they can manifest it. For example, Jay-Z went from the streets to the suites. They can talk about how they see themselves wealthy and talk about stuff they don’t have, and through the music, they are able to get it.
AHHA: Second, “Fast Life.” What professional lessons do you have for up-and-coming artists, who may often times lose sight of their artistic vision while focusing on – and perhaps living – the fast life?
Andre Harrell: They got to stay true to the creative journey, because if you think about the money, the cars and stuff, before you actually put in the work, it doesn’t ever happen. The more they practice, the better they are prepared for success.
AHHA: Third song - “AM/PM.” When it comes to success, consumers are rarely attuned to the long road of bumps and bruises that pioneers have to overcome. Looking back over the years, is there a particular day – or experience – that will forever be emblazoned in your mind?
Andre Harrell: The day that I got my first #1 record – Al B Sure’s “Night and Day” – in 1991.
AHHA: Having witnessed the evolution of the music industry over three decades, what golden rules still apply, and what older prevailing rules have been thrown out the window?
Andre Harrell: I want to say something about being honest about your reality in terms of what you say on the record. That seems to be truer and give you a longer and more successful path as being as an artist. For example, if you’re heartbroken, sing or rap about being heartbroken. The artists that stay true to themselves have longer careers.
AHHA: During your long tenure at UMG – in various capacities, what lessons and advice from your early experiences have guided and informed the creation of your latest label venture, Harrell Records?
Andre Harrell: You have to get along with people that you work with. You get a lot more out of kindness than you do by being an *ss.
AHHA: Hamilton Park is the first group signed to the label. What artistic qualities made you confident in making them the banner group for Harrell Records?
Andre Harrell: Their background experience – singing in church – let me know that they put in the time and the work to develop their craft, because church singers tend to be the best singers.
PART TWO: HAMILTON PARK
AHHA: As the first group signed to Harrell Records, I know you are excited about the future trajectory of your career. But what struggles – in the early years – do you feel helped you get to this point?
Chris Voice: We started about four or five years ago singing in church and just playing basketball. I guess one of the obstacles would be the area that we grew up in, around here in Atlanta, is kind of rough. It's either drugs or sports. That type of thing. So, that was definitely one of the obstacles. We just stuck together playing basketball and singing in church and making music together.
AHHA: What kept you so grounded – especially with four members? [laughter] Considering the odds, when raised in a really tough neighborhood, it's lucky for one person to break out and experience a great deal of success. But as a group, you managed to get out and do something positive together.
Marcus Lee: We really came out of that with each other, and the fact that we could escape helped us to, in part, stay in that safe haven. Because if we weren't with each other, the only option was something wrong. And then, you know, staying grounded in church and having praying parents. Staying focused. Actually, we started to get focused at a young age when Black men are supposed to.
AHHA: As you speak about your upbringing, I am curious to know if you ever had any issues transitioning into the world of R&B music.
Marcus Lee: In that situation, our parents know our hearts. They support whatever we do. They know what our purpose is in this music. It's less more that they judge us. It's more so a support base. But to get that from your parents when they're praying is just a marvelous thing.
AHHA: There is a long tradition of R&B artists including gospel tracks on their standard albums. Mariah Carey and Brian McKnight, for example, would include an inspirational track as the final song. And some artists, like Kelly Price, have recorded full-length gospel albums. Even though I don't expect you to force a Gospel agenda upon your fans, if you had the opportunity to do so, what message would you want to send?
Anthony Dorsey: Also, just to piggyback on what Chris and Marcus just said, we just want to emphasize the fact that we're not necessarily bad guys. We're where the party’s at, and the thing about our music is the fact that we communicate heart-to-heart. A lot of artists give "eargasms," but we give you the heart-to-heart communication.
Royce Pinkston: That's the heart of R&B.
Anthony Dorsey: You get what I mean? Only hearts can really commit together. So that's what we're giving.
Chris Voice: The message is really not a big, bold message that we're trying to send to the fans. It's just the fans need to know that we sing from our hearts, and we definitely bring the conviction that you would get from church, we bring that to the R&B music that we deliver. So we're trying to bring that back. That's the message.
AHHA: As a quartet, I know that it can be difficult to have your own, individual personalities shine through. So I have assigned each of you to a fellow group member and I want you to give me some insight about their style and what they bring to the group. Anthony, you can take Royce. Marcus, you can take Chris. Chris, you can take Marcus. And Royce, you can take Anthony.
Marcus Lee: Chris… he's the thug pretty boy! [laughter] He's the swag, I guess you could say, of the HP. The "Hey, babe, how you doing?" You know what I'm saying? And his texture in a song has a Carl Thomas, 112 feel.
Chris Voice: Mr. Marcus is definitely the muscle of the group. I mean, the ladies call him "The Freak" because of how he comes across in the songs. But his tone is real raw and really rugged and has a neo-soul vibe.
Royce Pinkston: Anthony is “the smile” of the group. He's very optimistic! [laughing] If everybody is frowning, you know Anthony is going to be smiling. He's going to be smiling for you. That's just Anthony. He has a smooth texture and heavenly vibe.
Anthony Dorsey: Man, what can I say? My brother Royce, he's just one of those bold, in-your-face singers. When he sings, he brings heaven down. His voice is just incredible. Individually, we are very nice singers. But when it comes to that “old school” feel – like those records my mom used to play…
Marcus Lee: What's the song, where [Donny Hathaway] sings, "I've been so many places/ In my life and time"?
AHHA: “A Song for You.”
Anthony Dorsey: Yes, Clayton! [laughter] He just wants you to hear and feel every note. He's just in-your-face and bold and just passionate about it. Hey, it's what it is.
AHHA: Thank you, guys! I appreciate the insight. Since you were all raised in Georgia, I’m curious to learn about the ways Atlanta shaped your style or influence your music?
Marcus Lee: Well, Clayton, the last, hottest R&B groups to really do this came from Atlanta, Georgia - 112 and Jagged Edge.
Anthony Dorsey: And there has not been a major group for about 10 years.
Marcus Lee: We used to do talent shows and try to sing those songs. So it's an honor to be from Atlanta, and get the opportunity for Mr. Andre Harrell, who has also down work with Jodeci.
Anthony Dorsey: And speaking of 112 and Jagged Edge, we’re just carrying the torch and following in the tradition they delivered to Hamilton Park.
AHHA: As Hamilton Park continues in that tradition, what elements from the careers of 112 and Jagged Edge do you hope to incorporate into your own success?
Marcus Lee: The fact that they stuck together. I think that's the difference between those groups then and groups nowadays. They're in it for the wrong purpose. We're not trying to purposely do things to set us apart, but that's just naturally what sets us apart. We're brotherhood. Before we go into anything, we pray. The Lord sets us aside. And then on top of that, we have four brothers that are willing to sing that blend together; yet all have four solo vocals. But we are willing to blend it. You have so many groups out there, they only have four solo vocals, or maybe two, but they're outside of each other. When you have four brothers that know the purpose of the call, it comes across strongly. It's kind of like delayed gratification. I'm going to sacrifice trying to be extra for the group. And when you get four brothers that think on that page, there is no limit.
AHHA: When you finally decided to come together as a group, how long did it take you to gel? Since all four of you have very strong vocals, how do you go about determining the vocal arrangements?
Chris Voice: It's kind of like a basketball team. We've got a dunker, we've got a shooter, we've got a passer and we've got a guard. And we've got a coach who tells us what play to run. Whenever the songs are created, it's like, okay, that needs a texture that Marcus might have, or that needs a tone of voice or that needs a little bit of Chris Voice. Whatever texture is on the song, that's pretty much how we go. We don't even try to bring that into the song. We don't play fight over records or anybody gets more shine or anything like that. We're all equal in the thing.
Chris Voice: Yes, we're like the super group. I joke my brothers all the time: “We're not even a group. We're like a super group!” [laughter] But we're humble. And that’s just a little inside joke that I tell.
AHHA: As the first group signed to Harrell Records, what type of pressure does that put on you guys?
Chris Voice: We always had support from our families and we always believed in our ourselves, so the fact that Andre Harrell came around and believed in us, too, is just pretty much confirmation. So there is no pressure at all. No pressure at all. We're hungry about doing this and ready for the world to see what Hamilton Park has to offer.
Royce Pinkston: Andre Harrell is a legend in the game. So his approval, in itself, was a stamp right there. Look at his history – Jodeci, Mary J. [Blige], Robin Thicke – and think about they influence they have had on the foundation of R&B. All of them had an impact and longevity.
Anthony Dorsey: This has definitely been a humbling experience, you know, just being able to sit in the same room with him, and talk to him, and shake hands with him, and even joke with him. It's really humbling.
AHHA: On the professional side, is there a particular piece of advice that Andre Harrell has given you that was really powerful?
Royce Pinkston: A very, very good thing he shared with all of us is let your strength be your strength and you weaknesses be your strength. So we use that in every facet.