DJ Drama was in no rush to return from his lunch break.
Sandwiched between the outskirts of Atlanta’s Bankhead neighborhood and the sprawling campus of Georgia Tech University is Means Street Studios. This hub of hip hop recording has played host to a litany of stars since its 2013 inception. Playboi Carti, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert and the late Nipsey Hussle are just some of the artists who’ve graced its halls.
However, on this day in November 2017, the Means Street corridors were not especially glamorous. Atlantic Records had selected the studio complex to host its quarterly A&R conference in which DJ Drama, legendary mixtape arbiter and co-founder of Atlantic’s Generation Now imprint (Lil Uzi Vert, Killuminati), played a significant role.
Overnight success stories often begin at conferences like this one, long before viral TikTok challenges and feature placements on streaming services come into play. It can sometimes take years for an artist to build enough trust with a label to earn a star-turning album or single rollout. Drama knows a thing or two about this waiting game. It was his seminal free mixtape series, Gangsta Grillz, that helped rappers circumvent this indefinite layover and maintain relevance during the 2000s.
“I was just kind of, you know, taking my time to get back,” he admits over a Zoom call, reminiscing. He was, after all, DJ Drama. He was far past the stage where he needed to outhustle fellow A&Rs and executives. New music needed to hustle its way to him.
Still, as 2014 signee Lil Uzi Vert inched closer to international superstardom, Generation Now was in the market for a second star. When Drama finally returned from his break, something extraordinary happened.
“Right as I walked in just a little bit late, ‘Dark Knight’ was on. They were playing ‘Dark Knight’ in the meeting.”
A few months prior to Atlantic’s A&R summit descending upon Means Street, during the waning days of summer 2017, DJ Drama sat in a room at the studios beside his fellow Generation Now execs: Don Cannon, a similarly legendary mixtape DJ, and their partner Leighton “Lake” Morrison. Meeting with them were KY, a renowned engineer from Louisville, and a lanky, curly-haired white boy, also from Louisville, whose brand of brash-yet-self-conscious raps had built a fanbase whose support had him teetering on the brink of vested major label interest. This was Jack Harlow, Drama was told.
He knew who the 19-year-old rapper was. Drama’s friend and colleague Randy had hipped him to Jack’s Instagram page several months prior. Intrigued, Drama followed it and listened to a handful of the young rapper’s songs. The night before the formal introduction at Means Street, Jack had been thrust into a studio session by this same friend, Randy, to record with Generation Now’s inaugural signee, veteran rapper Skeme.
“The way Randy talked about it,” Drama recalls, “He was like, ‘I just wanted to see if [Harlow] had his chops. ‘Cause, you know. Skeme ain’t no hoe.’”
However, despite Harlow’s passing grades at his session with Skeme, Drama and company weren't ready to set anything in stone. “It wasn’t final,” he says as he remembers how the meeting with KY and Jack concluded. “I don’t know, it was like everybody wasn’t sold.”
In the aftermath of the inconclusive meeting, Harlow, sensing Generation Now’s hesitation, returned to Louisville and got right back to work. He would be releasing Gazebo, his fourth and breakout self-released project, the third week of November 2017, and he needed to fire a warning shot. One that both his fanbase and GN would heed. That materialized as “Dark Knight,” a bruising ramble introducing listeners to a reenergized Harlow, who did not appear to be reeling from the effects of leaving Atlanta without a deal.
“Know this shit boom when we came down south and I had to bring my own lil’ Metro,” Harlow rapped, likening a member of his crew to Metro Boomin, the multi-platinum Atlanta-based producer. The song ends on an even more confident note. “Funny how it all works out / Right before this I was feeling burnt out / Now the whole city ‘bout to get burned down.”
Harlow wasn’t quite peeved, but there was a specific edge to his delivery. The chip on his shoulder was just big enough. “Dark Knight” made exactly as much noise as Harlow hoped it would. Because of it, he quickly outgrew DJ Drama’s circle. Label offers were imminent, regardless of whether Generation Now was interested. Harlow knew this. So did Drama.
Thus, when the DJ returned from his lunch break that day at Means Street to hear “Dark Knight” blaring from studio speakers, he knew immediately he had a decision to make. On his own accord, Harlow had quickly gotten better, sharper and grown more polished. So much so that Atlantic would surely be preparing to take its own chance on him by meeting’s end, leaving Generation Now out of the picture.
“Oh! That’s just Jack,” he hastily announced to the room. “I’m already on that. We got that, you can tuck that,” he remembers saying. The room quickly moved to the next order of business. If DJ Drama was on that, the conversation was over.
Truthfully, neither Drama nor his partners were actually on that. But that would soon change. “I went to text Cannon to tell him they played ‘Dark Knight’ in the meeting,” Drama says, as he cracks a wistful smile.
“It forced our hand in a way, thankfully.”
It’s a Friday night in January 2021, and Jack Harlow is seated in complete darkness. The COVID-19 pandemic will soon be a year old, so instead of doing something like eating tacos and playing H-O-R-S-E—which, I’ve decided, would have been my suggested activity for this interview in a safer world—I’m staring at a Zoom screen as Harlow, whose camera is switched off, describes his current setting. I’m not allowed to see it. “I’m sitting in the dark right now, you don’t want to see me in this mood right now,” he warns. For a moment, it sounds like a very vulnerable-rapper way of saying I was in the zone right before this. My next question is, “What are you doing, writing?” His deadpan reply: “No, I’m doing an interview.”
It is exactly this type of shrewd and subtle wit that allowed Jack Harlow to become Jack Harlow.
Born in March 1998 to the proprietors of a family-run sign business in Louisville, Kentucky, Harlow’s narrative isn’t the most compelling. Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t have to escape extreme poverty or take penitentiary chances in order to provide. He’s not from a city that regularly produces rap stars, and despite his obvious skill level, it would be fair to mistake him for a math tutor. His free time would often consist of riding around with friends in search of adventure, hoping to catch a cute girl’s attention along the way. As exhausted of a character trope as this is, young Jack Harlow was very much just a regular kid. His writing ability is what made him irregular. It also gives him a puncher’s chance at becoming the preeminent star of his generation.
In the 2020s, as microwave TikTok fame continues to prove reliable as a launching pad to Billboard success, emphasis on range and craft in the mainstream will continue to dwindle across the board. In hip hop specifically, descendants of 808’s & Heartbreak-era Kanye West have spent much of the last 15 years redefining how much traditional rapping is necessary to be successful in the genre. These dynamics don’t interest Harlow as much as they could. His duty is to his wordplay, and the techniques he employs to keep listeners on their toes. Sometimes it’s a stretch of alliteration that he’s able to effortlessly maintain. Other times, he’ll thumb his nose so nonchalantly you’ll forget that it’s slick talk. “The ones that hate me the most look just like me. You tell me what that means,” he raps on the 2020 single, “Tyler Herro.”
In present-day hip hop, recognition is less contingent on lyrical ability than it ever has been. Despite scattered worlds that continue to place the technical art of rapping on a pedestal—the J. Cole-led Dreamville imprint and Westside Gunn’s Griselda immediately come to mind—being a Good Rapper has long taken a backseat to marketability. This transition has created somewhat of a perfect storm for an artist like Harlow, who isn’t going to blow you away with metaphors or dizzying flow switches. But his unassuming charisma, coupled with a sturdy pen and the attention to detail to execute a line like, “Been tryna pop, now I’m on like Shumpert,” provides for a lane that he can dominate.
“You know, for some odd reason, it’s been what I’ve wanted to do for so long that I can’t even pinpoint what it felt like to not want to do this,” Harlow says. “Like, sometimes I wonder, ‘What was it like to be a purposeless child that was simply enjoying life?” His mother, a hip-hop fan, would soundtrack the household with Jay-Z, OutKast and Black Eyed Peas. Perhaps unbeknownst to mom, her young son was taking meticulous notes. He wasn’t just enthralled, he was inspired. “What’s Poppin’” was an eventual outcome, but an inevitable one.
Harlow’s biggest hit song to date (and of 2020), “What’s Poppin’” materialized in the way that an innumerable amount of hit songs have come together. Hotshot producer slides into hotshot rapper’s DMs with hopes that they can form a mutually beneficial partnership. This particular exchange made perfect sense. JetsonMade, the Roc Nation-managed producer behind DaBaby’s breakout hit, “Suge,” was looking to diversify his portfolio. And Harlow was in album mode.
“I heard those piano keys, and I was just taken,” Harlow recalls. After a weeks-long back-and-forth with Jetson while touring in 2019, Jack had finally carved out time to get into the studio with the in-demand producer. On day two, Harlow heard the sound that changed his career. “I think I probably reacted how a lot of people reacted when they heard that beat. It’s fucking hard.”
Incidentally, it wasn’t even the featured beat of the night. In a recent interview with Genius, Jetson and Pooh Beatz, a producer Jet often partners with (“Told Pooh he a fool with this shit”), recall the night they flipped through instrumentals, looking for something for Harlow to “pop his shit” over. “You’ve got to give the artist room to be creative as well,” Pooh said. “So I’m always listening for that simplest piece.”
That beat, accentuated with that bouncing, accelerated piano loop, gave Harlow more than enough room to be selective with his approach. “I said to myself, ‘Jack, don’t think too hard. Don’t bear down on this beat and smother it. You know, don’t try to go crazy on it. Just have fun with it.’ So that’s what I did. I said the first thing that came to mind.”
What’s poppin? Brand new whip, just hopped in
I got options, I could pass that bitch like Stockton
Just joshing, I’ma spend this holiday locked in
Seriously? “Just joshing?” I had to ask.
“That was a line I’d always planned on replacing,” Harlow admits as he chuckles. Given the opportunity to address the subtle audacity of this cheesy-but-effective line, he perks up. “I was always going to get rid of it. It was a placeholder. It was literally just something that rhymes with the other shit.”
By the time he’d completed the song, it was far too late for replacements. For just over two minutes, on “What’s Poppin,” Harlow’s subdued-but-sharp flow darts in and out of the accelerated piano loop, buoying the dancing bassline Jetson and Pooh concocted. The beat doesn’t rush Harlow, and in turn, he doesn’t stifle it. After wrapping his sessions with Jetson, he played the song for confidantes on his team and friends back home in Louisville. Their response was the confirmation Jack needed. “What’s Poppin’” was the one. “I really treasure that moment because I use it as a lesson now when I’m trying to write,” he says. “I’m just like ‘go, go, go’ because look at the success that song is giving me when I just let go. It’s a lesson, you know, you just gotta let go and…” Harlow trails off briefly, perhaps rummaging through his brain for the word that will summarize this lesson. Seconds later, he finds it.
Shortly after its January 2020 release, “What’s Poppin’” was added to Spotify’s Rap Caviar playlist, the leading gatekeeper in the hip hop playlisting world. Securing a placement on a playlist like Rap Caviar in the streaming era is akin to being named a member of XXL magazine’s “Freshman Class” during the early 2010s blog era. It won’t guarantee a successful career, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more effective springboard into the national conscience. Once “What’s Poppin’” hit Rap Caviar, it never looked back.
The song and its remix, which features DaBaby, Lil Wayne and Tory Lanez, have now been streamed over 700 million times on Spotify. Consequently, Harlow is a millionaire and Grammy nominee at 22. In case that was unclear, he announces it just 10 seconds into his debut studio album, That’s What They All Say, released in December, on the album’s intro, “Rendezvous.” The album, which features Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Lil Wayne, Lil Baby, and an appearance from the late R&B legend Static Major, is his biggest flex yet. The world had just learned his name, and already he was getting A-list stars out of bed for a set of tracks so versatile, comparisons to Drake are unavoidable.
“You know, it’s funny because, I remember my dad said to me he was proud of me because, you know, his dad was broke on a farm and grew up incredibly impoverished. Then my dad grew up a little better than him. And now, I’m a millionaire,” Harlow says, unable to disguise his pensive tone. “And he just wanted to point that out to me. It’s a huge step. I mean, I know that seems obvious for me, but it’s a huge step for him. I never met his dad—rest in peace—but if he could see the success, shit would be a whole ‘nother world to him. So it’s just nice to put it in perspective. You know, that’s the one thing I’ve been really careful about doing.”
The way Harlow ended his thought, it felt like a cautionary tale was coming. My hunch was pure. “Sometimes I think all these millionaires and artists get so wrapped up in entering the world and becoming friends with all the other millionaires when they get to L.A.,” he starts, “They get wrapped up in the world and it does become normalized. And they think to themselves, ‘Well, then, I have room to be depressed. Everyone around me is a millionaire and I’ll find something to be unhappy about.’”
Don’t let the depths of Harlow’s self-awareness disarm you; he knows he’s the guy right now. He always has. His account of the events surrounding his initial meeting with Generation Now at Means Street mirrors DJ Drama’s. Jack just sprinkles a little ego in, like parsley. “Drama was fucking with me, but he took a second. The label took a second. And I remember I ended up having to drop “Dark Knight.” I said, ‘I’ma just drop it.’ And that really got the buzz going. Labels started, people were interested. And I was like ‘O-K, yeah, yeah, no, I got it.’”
“So you sort of had to trigger your own bidding war,” I ask. He agrees. “Yeah, exactly. And they were on it quick.”
This Cinderella ascent has not come without setbacks, however. With fame comes heightened visibility, which can trip up even the most vigilant of stars. The NBA’s announcement that it would resume play following its March COVID-19 stoppage came with a strict set of safety guidelines. Players were prohibited from leaving the Disneyland campus that hosted the remainder of the season, fondly known as “The Bubble,” unless they had explicit permission from league authorities. Even so, they were still encouraged to stay clear of high-risk areas, like densely populated public venues.
Strip clubs—I’m guessing—would probably qualify as high-risk during a pandemic. That’s where Harlow was when he snapped a selfie with Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams less than a week after the league had resumed play. They each wore masks, but Williams had been granted permission to leave The Bubble so he could attend a relative’s funeral, not pop up on a rapper’s Instagram Story while at the strip club. Lou Will maintains that he was simply picking up chicken wings when Harlow snapped the selfie, and not ripping wrappers off packs of singles. The NBA, however, would hear none of it and forced Williams into a 10-day quarantine. He missed the first two games of his teams’ restart, the Clippers never redeveloped their chemistry, and they were eliminated from the playoffs so quickly, their season became fodder for a Freddie Gibbs chorus several weeks later. “Hoes get fucked and sent home early, just like the Clippers.”
Naturally, no one blames Harlow for this. Not even Lou Will. “[Lou] called me like, ‘Don’t even fucking trip. I’m Lou. I don’t get in trouble.’ I was like well shit, you just gave me the pass to relax,” Harlow reveals as he fights back laughter. Still, one can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if the restart to the Clippers’ season was less turbulent. After they were eliminated, the team fired its coach, retooled most of its roster, and saw its star player, Paul George, spend the entire summer soul searching. What a sequence of events.
There is also the matter of the aforementioned remix to “What’s Poppin,” one of the most successful remixes in recent hip hop memory. Just a few weeks after the song was released, Lanez was accused of shooting Houston hip hop star Megan Thee Stallion in her feet following a party in Los Angeles. With increased social attention to misogynoir and violence against women as the wind in their sails, scores of Twitter users “canceled” Lanez and began lobbying for industry figures to blacklist him and his music. Harlow, stunned at the news, didn’t know how to react. The very mention of it makes him uncomfortable. I asked him what his initial reaction was.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “The news broke right after we dropped the video. I was like, ‘I wonder how this is going to go.’ I was curious, I was shocked, I was just like, damn.” He would comment no further.
Eventually, Harlow's whiteness had to be addressed. He knew it, and I knew it. In listening to his music over the years, I’d observed how many of my Black friends and colleagues were accepting of him in a way that they weren’t accepting of other white rappers. It’s comforting to have a white rapper just be a white rapper, and not cosplay their Black peers with guerilla music videos and disingenuous displays of gunplay and drug use. Maybe too comforting. Last year, Harlow trended on Twitter because the platform had somehow just discovered his race. He poked fun at the confusion on Instagram, posting a screenshot of his discography, which features his very white face on every cover art. “I did everything I could do to show y’all I am white,” he wrote.
Harlow expresses an understanding of what it means to be a privileged outsider. When Breonna Taylor was unjustly murdered at the hands of Louisville police last March, Harlow hit the streets as marches and protests swept the nation. “People have asked me, as if there was a strategy involved, ‘What made you do it?’ I grew up with Black people, and the empathy I have for them is ingrained in me. It’s not something that arrived this past summer, but I was charged up by the movement. It happened where I’m from and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.”
One of the earliest memories critics will have of Harlow is his visit to Sway Calloway’s Sway In The Morning show on SiriusXM. In the footage, Harlow, wearing a brown Ecko Unlimited long-sleeve T-shirt, is even more baby-faced than he is now. Sitting next to the much stockier DJ Drama, it almost looks as if Drama is the talent and Harlow is the management. He’s quiet and fidgety, slightly deer-in-headlights, and doesn’t look much like the guy who “forced” the hand of a legend.
I remind Harlow of this moment and ask him to consider everything that’s happened since. What will his legacy be?
“I want to be someone that’s true to myself, and someone that’s wholly original to the game.” He says that he's been that person in spurts and that his goal is to intentionally chase that for the rest of time. “The beauty of making art and music is, ideally that’s what should live forever. That’s what gives me purpose. I think that’s what we’re all looking for. Mortality is in the back of all of our heads, and I found the thing that makes it bearable.”
I ask him, “Does that scare you? The thought of dying before you reach your full potential?”
“Oh yes. So much so, I don’t even want to talk about it.”
Jack Harlow is styled by Metta Conchetta.
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