Jack Harlow is an emerging artist out of Louisville, Kentucky, who’s been crafting an eclectic sound with a fresh style and rebellious spirit. The 20-year-old is on a mission to become a bonafide star and with the platform he’s gained over the last two years, Harlow has been steadily putting his city on the map. Following in the footsteps of Nappy Roots, the late Static Major, and more recently Bryson Tiller, Harlow is bringing attention to a mostly underground hip-hop scene.
Harlow’s love for music began at an early age when his mother exposed him to hip-hop legends like Outkast, Eminem and A Tribe Called Quest, while his father introduced him to the sounds of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Johnny Paycheck. In middle school, Harlow developed a passion for writing that eventually led to him recording songs and uploading them to his SoundCloud page. A local buzz began to blossom and Harlow’s popularity grew with the release of his first mixtape 18, earning him instant attention on social media.
After relocating to Atlanta to advance his career, Harlow met KY Engineering, a fellow Kentucky native with whom he formed a working relationship. Through KY, Harlow met DJ Drama who was intrigued by the rapper’s unique style. The Gangsta Grillz DJ kept an eye on the Highland Heights-product as Harlow entrenched himself as a promising artist with the acclaimed mixtape, GAZEBO, in 2017. The mixtape raised Harlow’s stock as the “Dark Knight” rapper impressed publications like XXL and DJ Booth while also gaining a number of new fans.
Last August, Harlow announced he had signed a deal with Atlantic Records via DJ Drama and Don Cannon’s Generation Now imprint. To celebrate the achievement, Harlow released the visuals to “SUNDOWN” the lead track off his major label debut mixtape Loose. After having a slow first half in 2018, Loose serves as Harlow’s proper introduction. Jack Harlow sat with Billboard to speak on the mixtape, establishing a blueprint for his city, working with Drama and Don Cannon, and rapping alongside CyHi the Prince. Check it out below.
What was it like growing up with both your parents exposing you to hip-hop and country music?
It was interesting because those are obviously not that similar of genres. So I got a taste of both. Growing up, there were a lot of people my age who kind of scorned country. It was different for me because I had gotten a little taste for it. My dad put me on to the classic stuff so I always liked the melodies. Hip-hop energized me and gave me confidence when I listened to it and it’s what my mom liked, so it was dope getting both worlds.
You’ve always had a passion for writing, so do you think you have an advantage over your peers?
I would say I have a little bit of an advantage because I have a foot in both worlds. Like I want to do both in a way and that’s like in terms of writing and not writing. I always write for myself but I’m speaking on being somebody that cares about sitting with the pen and maybe telling a story. That part of my craft is what I started with. Basically what I’m saying is that it’s very important to me to get better and be dope as opposed to just making records. I want to be good at this.
Louisville holds a very special place in your heart. How has it contributed to your sound?
Louisville, for the most part, is definitely a Southern city but it’s diverse and not necessarily like Atlanta. It’s got a lot of cities around it and Kentucky borders the most states so it’s influenced by a lot of things. It’s hard to categorize the culture in Louisville. I grew up in the Highlands neighborhood, which is just outside of Louisville. I was running with a lot of different people so I got to take in a lot of different perspectives and it wasn’t like growing up in the suburbs where everything is the same. It was a unique place to grow up, so I think it just gave me a little bit of a semi-worldview before I actually go and see the world.
From Nappy Roots to Static Major to Bryson to you, what’s it like seeing hip-hop’s presence grow in Louisville?
It’s awesome. It feels like history is being made and the next step is just, of course, getting myself and the collective Private Garden on. After that, it’s just finding ways to kick game back to the rest of the city, put resources into it, and raise the bar for quality. I feel that’s all it really takes because all these places that are bubbling, it’s like there’s a standard already so people know what they have to reach for. People don’t really have a blueprint or anybody to impress when there’s not a huge scene going on, so Louisville is developing. There’s a lot of talent there and we just have to keep pushing and I feel like it can actually break on to the scene as like a city that’s pushing out talent.
How are you helping create that hip-hop blueprint for the city?
Well, I know for me, the way I learned was just by watching other artists. So how I move, whether its online or in person or just how my music sounds or the quality, you’re basically asking that out of your listeners. They see that and see it works and apply it to their own lives. They look up to you because for me that’s how I got better is looking at other artists. From something simple as how you’re pushing it to how the music is being made. I think the best way to do it is to pop off in front of all these people and you’ll get their attention. When that happens and then you’re in interviews like this you can say things that’ll hopefully inspire somebody.
The sound on Loose is very different from your previous projects. What did you do to evolve?
Challenge myself. We were talking about trying to get better like that’s what I’m always trying to do. It’s just me seeing how I can push it. But also my taste changed. This is the first project that I put out that I like listening to because I usually don’t like my music after a while. By the time I put it out, I think the shit is trash — It’s hard to make something you like. I’m critical of myself and I hold myself to a high standard so it’s hard to make something that you want to bump. Even if you think that it’s good, do you actually want to put it on? I like listening to this tape like it’s somebody else’s and that’s new for me I used to not be like that.
There’s a sense of comfort we hear in your voice on this project. Was there anything you listened to for inspiration or something you did differently?
You’re the second person to say that, that’s crazy. I never saw it like that but I definitely did things differently. That’s like the main thing I’ve been telling people is that I stopped being so calculated and started having a little more fun. I went from writing and really sitting down and going to the booth to rapping like everyone else in Atlanta. Punching in, going off the cuff, making the songs quicker. I feel like you get something purer from yourself off the top. That’s the biggest change.
You mentioned on “Dark Knight” that Cyhi helped you with your writer’s block and now you have a song with him on Loose. Was there any writer’s block this time around and what was it like working with a lyricist like CyHi?
It was crazy because I posted on my Instagram that the project is almost done and he commented that he wanted to be on it. So I sent this record to him with my verse on it and I didn’t know how hard he was about to go with his verse. But I felt like that was the best I had at the moment. He sent it back and of course killed it. I love that song. My boy tried to tell me Cyhi killed me but I wasn’t having that, I love my verse.
Despite the new mixtape and announcing the deal with Atlantic, 2018 was a slow year for you. What was going on prior to that?
I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had a long period in Atlanta where I wasn’t making a lot of songs. I was uninspired and what hit the switch is that process change that I was telling you about where I wasn’t being as calculated. More songs started coming from that and this happens every time I drop a project. I’ve actually been dropping music for a while before I gained real traction and after every time it’s a true evolution. There are a couple of months of self-doubt where you wonder if you could really do this. You just have to have faith I guess.
How did the joint venture with Generation Now and Atlantic come together?
It happened after I moved to Atlanta and met KY Engineering. He knew DJ Drama and Don Cannon and there was another guy named Randy who’s also friends with Drama. They had me come to the studio and I just started recording up there with them and just kicking it sometimes. I could tell there was a little interest but after I went to the studio and a few conversations were pushed around, they wanted to do it and for me, it was basically a no-brainer. You see what they’ve done with Lil Uzi [Vert]. They’re legends and there are times I can’t believe I’m in the same room as them.
We all know the history those two have with mixtapes, so is there a mixtape series coming from you?
I aspire for one. I didn’t tell anybody this, but Loose almost became that. There’s definitely some records in the vault that are on Loose that have a version with Drama drops on them. It was hard but we didn’t feel like it was for this one but most definitely I would want one. That was the main thing I was thinking when I signed. Yeah, publishing and all that shit is cool but you going to do some drops though right? [Laughs].