A month ago, SWGRUS listed Jack Harlow as one of the artists to watch this year. I spoke with the 19 year-old Louisville native about his music and influences, going on tour, and we even addressed the weightier issue of him being a white rapper, and the accusation of cultural appropriation that could arise from that.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a rapper and what was it that brought you to that conclusion?
I decided when I was 12 and the reason I wanted to rap was because listening to rap gave me confidence, so I wanted to do it myself.
Do you remember what the first rap that you wrote was?
I don’t. I used to rap with one of my best friends when we were younger. We would just put little videos on Facebook. I would write his lyrics and mine. It was just silly shit, but that was the first time.
When you were 14 you had a record deal with Def Jam. How did that happen?
I had a manager at the time. He found me online- he was pretty plugged in so he ended up shopping it around to a few labels but things just didn’t really work out. We didn’t really connect when I flew to some of them, and then on one it was like it was actually gonna happen, but the guy that was working at the label left the label. But the point is I had a manager at the time and he was going to make it happen and luckily it didn’t because I was really young and what I was doing back then is not exactly what I’m trying to do now, so it’s all good. It’s all part of the plan.
That’s a really good attitude to have. Is that the kind of attitude that you had back then? Is that why you decided to keep going on with music? What made you not want to give up on it?
Well, giving up was never something I was actually considering, it was just like this didn’t work out. And of course at the time I didn’t have the attitude I have about it now in retrospect, because I was actually kind of devastated. I thought getting a record deal was the end all be all. But, I had to learn from that. But at the time I was cool. I still thought I was good. I always thought I was good, and I always got good feedback. Like I was really lucky at an early age to have people around that encouraged me and told me ‘you have something’, like people early on could see I had some control over what I was saying. Even when I was rapping before my voice dropped, people could tell I was alright. I always had confidence in what I was doing so, I don’t know. I wasn’t too bad when that happened.
When you go back and listen to everything that you’ve released so far, are there any songs that you listen to and you’re just like “aww man I can’t stand that”? Are there any songs that you cringe at?
Hell yeah. I’ve been cringing at my music since I’ve started, just cuz I keep getting better, and I never really plateaued at this. And I’m growing as a human, so the things I like to do- my tastes- change so, I’m sure I’ll be cringing at what I’m doing right now a little bit in two years cuz I get better at this. But definitely. And there are moments where I can’t even bare to listen to a song and then sometimes I’m like ‘wow, I haven’t heard this in a while- this is really tight, I’m glad I made this.’ But, it’s just a mood thing. Mindsets change all the time. You wake up different everyday in a way, so you never know how something’s gonna hit you.
Is there a song that you made that you really, really like?
Yeah, I think the intro to my last project means a lot to me just because it’s almost like the song where I can let go and embrace the imperfections of the song- to go along with the things I like about it, and then it’s complete to me. Like, a lot of times I’ll try to force songs to be perfect or exactly how I want them, yet you go in just creating something with the idea of what it’s gonna be and then it might not be that super easily so, it’s hard to always achieve what you have in mind but sometimes you just gotta create it. But, I’d say the intro to my last project Gazebo- it’s called Eastern Parkway, I’m real happy with that record. Like I said, I’m always changing what I wanna do and not everything ages the way you want it to, but that’s one I can say I’m proud of and always will be.
You talked about changing between projects, and when I go back and listen to The Handsome Harlow, and then 18, and then Gazebo, and even the singles that you released between those- they’re different. Handsome Harlow is really high energy, and then 18 you start to mellow out and the singing is incorporated, and Gazebo is also mellow but you start to incorporate a lot of self-reflection, and it’s heavier overall- every song on Gazebo has a deeper message. What do you think was going on between the creation of each project? Was it just growing up?
Well like you said growing up- of course you grow as a person. The things you like to wear change, just like the type of music you wanna make changes. The artists I listen to change. I think a big shift for me was after I graduated high school, I remember when Frank Ocean dropped Blonde and that album had a huge affect on me as an artist, just because of how those songs made me feel, and how it made me say I wanna make something that feels like this or that. So just your influences change and what you’re trying to accomplish and what you want your audience to feel. With the original EP that you were talking about, I was trying to get across that I was high energy. You want to get across certain things. As an artist I feel like we’re just so desperate to be understood and represent ourselves and say ‘this is me’ and so for that for EP, that’s who I felt I was right then and that’s what I wanted to be seen as- that’s what I wanted to show. And then the next project that’s what I wanted to show, and then Gazebo is more what I wanted to show and the next project is not gonna sound like Gazebo. And sometimes I get frustrated at how often things change for me in terms of what I’m doing and how a lot changes in my music, but I realize I’m a human being. I’m not trying to be a niche. And some of the greatest artists ever- their projects sounded different. Kanye West for example, he just keeps evolving. None of his albums sound like the other albums, so I think it’s a beautiful thing and luckily it’s natural. It’s not something that I’m trying to do and come up with next- I just keep growing.
You mentioned you were listening to Blonde when you were writing, right?
Actually, I had a job where I drove around at night when it came out, and I had to look at signs that were out- like signs that weren’t lit- so I had to drive around and take pictures of signs that were kinda dimmed or were broken- like light up signs. This is a fun fact. So that’s when I was listening to Blonde, because my car didn’t have anywhere for me to plug my phone in. So I remember when Blonde dropped I burned the CD, but that was kind of like a hassle, so I didn’t do it a lot. So I just kinda had Blonde, so I listened to it over and over again but I was okay with it because it kinda became the soundtrack to my evenings. I would hear it on a loop. It would play twice while I was out so I just kinda fell in love with the album. Regardless of how good the music was- which is amazing- it just represented something for me. Like, I had that association with that part of my life so it’s always gonna be nostalgic like any music I could’ve been listening to. I could’ve listened to anything- I could’ve listened to a Soulja Boy album. Like, that Soulja Boy album would mean a lot to me, but luckily it was Frank, and he’s amazing.
Are there any other artists that you listen to, to draw inspiration from? I know that you grew up listening to OutKast, right?
OutKast was actually a huge influence for Gazebo as well. Right around that time I was listening to Blonde I had been listening to Aquemini, and just studying how a lot of these songs sounded so good and they were 20 years old; 15 years old- it’s just crazy, so it gave me incentive to make something timeless. I mean, the writing- everything. And what’s amazing is I never really said that, but when the album came out there were a lot of people who could recognize the influence, and that made me happy. So, I would say OutKast is a huge influence of mine. Early on it was Eminem for sure, I love Drake- I look up to Drake a lot, he’s an amazing song maker.
Dark Knight is your most popular video. Why do you think it blew up the way that it did, and how did the concept for the video come together?
I had written the rap, recorded it, and I thought it was pretty tight, and I thought that if I made a video of just me performing it- just something simple- I really thought that it could do exactly what it did. And you can ask anyone close to me, like that was kinda my plan for it. And we waited so long to drop it that I actually kind of lost my vision for it a little bit and I wanted to drop something else first. I was kinda getting wishy-washy about it. But I had some conversations with some people close to me, and it just made sense for it, so we dropped it and it just took off organically, which is tight. It went viral in a way that I was proud of- so many people thought something was good. It wasn’t controversy based or like ‘this is so wild’ or ‘this is so gimmicky’. People became fans of me as an artist just off the song. It wasn’t like ‘I’m a fan of this moment’, they were like ‘wow, this song is hard.’ People wanted to go listen to it on streaming services. It wasn’t just about the video, like people loved the song so it just kind of took off. It took off on Twitter first, I just posted the video on Twitter- no link, just put it in embedded and let it get retweeted. And then it got posted on Instagram by itsbizkit and a couple other people- shout out to him. And then Facebook was like the last one and it really took off on there. So, it took off on all three and like I said, all organic and it kinda happened exactly how I hoped. I think sometimes you just sit with a song so long you’re not as enchanted by it but it is what it is.
In your song Hitchcock you have a line that goes “I’m just a guest inside the house of a culture that ain’t mine and I’m just blessed to be around”. How did that line come about? What made you want to write that in there?
I think for me since I started I’ve been super studious about the music and the culture, and what goes on, cuz I’m genuinely interested in it and I’m a hip-hop fan, like I love the music, so the one thing that has always stood out to me is being aware that I am a white person and it is an originally black genre. And I never thought that meant that I couldn’t necessarily participate, but I did realize it comes from a different place. I remember when I was younger it stood out to me when Jay-Z said on the song Renegade ‘how you rate music that thugs they [sic] relate to it, I help them see they way through it- not you’, and there’s critics that are making public criticism about music that isn’t necessarily for them or will speak to them. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t have an opinion on how the music sounds, but of course it’s not gonna align; for you to give an objective score to something that people are speaking to a certain group of people. So that’s why I’ve never been majorly vocal about music I can’t directly relate to. You can talk about sonnets all you want but in terms of what people are saying, that just is what it is, so that’s kinda what is was to me. I think people get a little too comfortable with the genre sometimes and they say things. I meet a lot of kids and they wanna tell me what artists are trash- a lot of white kids that I even grew up around they wanna tell me what artists are trash and what’s real hip-hop and what isn’t and it’s like ‘wow, that’s a hell of a statement. Based on what you’ve learned, you decide what real hip-hop is’, so that always just was cringey to me- I always hated that like I always just despised that. So that’s kinda what inspired that line- I just want people to think about that. I have a lot of white fans that tweet things at me like ‘Jack Harlow bringing real hip-hop back, not this mumble rap’, and I hate that. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them as a fan but I hate that. That’s not how I’m trying to be represented. The type of music they’re talking about when they say mumble rap- I love that type of music. So, people need to have respect for everything even if they don’t like it.
On the same track, do you feel like people are gonna say that because you are white and you’re making rap music that you’re just appropriating the culture and that you’re banking off of black music? Is that a fear of yours? How do you handle that?
I’m aware of it, and I’ve had people say that to me before. What’s funny is that the people that’ve mostly said it were other white people- which, I’m not saying makes it invalid but, it is interesting. But I don’t worry about it too much, mostly because I feel like people can sense the authenticity in what I’m doing and can sense that it’s genuine. I think a lot of people liked Dark Knight for example, because they felt like we were having fun, and that’s what we were doing. When I rap, it’s for fun- I enjoy it. So it wasn’t like we were trying to prove anything. I think people relax when they feel like you’re relaxed and they feel like you’re being authentic and you’re being you- it makes them feel like ‘dang, maybe I can be me’, so it kinda quells any sort of negative criticism people have. Now, of course people find a way to do it. I think I’m a different kind of artist so there’s always gonna be criticism. A lot of my favorite artists received a lot of criticism when they first started, so I’m at peace with it.
You’re a part of the Private Garden Collective. Tell me a little bit about that.
There’s basically 7 of us, and we’re just a group of people from Louisville, Kentucky and we all do creative stuff. We have artists, producers- just a group of creative people that are actual friends and make music together. My best friend Urban, he’s a photographer. He doesn’t do anything with music but he’s a part of it cuz he brings something to the table creatively. But it’s basically two acts that make it up right now, it’s Jack Harlow and TheHomies- which is a group of 5; and like Dark Knight basically the entire Private Garden was in that video plus a couple other people but like it’s basically the people I create with that I made music with in Louisville and continue to make music with. We’re just a group of creative people.
Did y’all go to school together? Is that how y’all met?
A couple of us did. My best friend Urban, the photographer, I kinda was friends with him through high school. We didn’t go to the same school but we were close before he was contributing to what I’m doing on the career side like we were just close. There’s another guy Ace Pro, I met while I was in high school but he’s a little older than me, and everyone else I kinda met through him. He’s a producer- he’s a artist himself, they’re all producers and artists. One of them is a DJ, he’s a producer- Ronnie Lucciano, Shloob, 2forwOyNE, Quiiso, Ace Pro, Urban Wyatt, Jack Harlow- that’s pretty much all of us.
You’re performing at some festivals coming up, and then you’re going on tour with Portugal. The Man later this year. Have you started preparing for that? If you have, what has that been like?
I have. I’m finishing up my next project so I’m hoping this summer I can actually perform some songs cuz I love Gazebo, but a lot of the songs on it are a little bit slower and chiller, which I think is great, but sometimes live that’s not always the most fun thing to perform and I really like to have fun when I perform, so I’m working on stuff that’s a little more upbeat and I think will be a little more fun to perform. But I’m doing what I can. Trying to get better everyday to get ready- been working out trying to get my cardio together cuz I get tired on stage a lot so, we’ll be ready. It’s going to be crazy starting May. The whole summers gonna be crazy but it’s all a blessing.
Is it a little weird to be going on tour with Portugal. The Man since they make Indie music and you rap?
Yeah, it is interesting. The thing that I do like about it though is genuine mutual admiration. The lead singer, John, ever since he saw Dark Knight he’s kind of been a fan of mine. He showed love when we were on social media, we text sometimes and he says kind things. He’s a nice guy. So I’m just looking forward to meeting all of them and going on tour. They have a huge platform, they have a massive hit so they have a big following. All of the shows are gonna be a great time. I just appreciate them for letting me come. I think it will be interesting seeing what the genres do but I’m kinda excited about the challenges of getting in front of a group of people that may not listen to the type of music I make and winning them over. I think they’re gonna like me too. It’ll be tight, it’ll be fun. It is what it is. We don’t make the same music but I like their music. I think that Feel It Still song is amazing so, we’re gonna make it work, it’s gonna be fun.
Are you excited to meet any other musicians on your festival runs?
I mean, I’m doing Rolling Loud so that one is special for example. I mean, they’re gonna have a ton of artists I’m fans of just cuz the whole industry’s on that. But, in general it’ll be fun. I like meeting people, I like connecting with people, I like understanding people. It’s always fun when you meet somebody that does the same thing as you. Immediately it’s like ‘hey!’- it’s pleasant. We get along whenever we meet, as oppose to any standoffishness. But people are people so, I don’t force anything. I’m not someone that’s dying to make friends with everyone. I have good friends around me but I’m very open to friendship if I like people so it’ll be fun.
You said you started working on your next album, and you touched on this a little bit but do you know what you want this one to talk about? Gazebo was kinda serious and Handsome Harlow talked about school, do you have a subject you’re touching on for this one?
Well, there’s a few- there are a couple of things I’m talking about. One thing I focused on for this record was just having a little more fun with the creation of the record and making the songs that I’d like to listen to at a party. So my fans can expect something a little more upbeat, and I think they love that. What’s beautiful is my fans like almost everything I do. I can drop a Dark Knight and then put out a project that sounds nothing like Dark Knight and my fans embrace it- it’s crazy. So, I just let it come natural. I’m not too pressed about getting anything too heavy off, although I’m not saying it wont be songs like that. But Gazebo I feel like I got a lot of thoughts out there, and some of the feelings on that mixtape are still the way I feel, so there’s nothing wrong with still talking about that but this mixtape is gonna be fun.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Add Jack Harlow if you don’t know who I am. Twitter and Instagram: @jackharlow. Like I said, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky. Living blessed.
Jack Harlow was a such a pleasure to interview. At just 19, he has such a high level of respect for hip-hop culture and music in general, that seems to be missing from this generation. If you’d like to follow Jack, Urban, or TheHomies on any of their platforms, all of their links are below.
Atlanta-based music editor and interviewer who loves the idea of introducing people to great artists they may not have heard of yet.