On “Like a Blade of Grass” from Jack Harlow’s latest album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, he raps, “Some of these girls in the mix more than engineers.” But no one’s more in the mix than Harlow’s longtime engineer Nickie Jon Pabón, who chuckles at the “nutty ass line.”
“Some people aren’t going to understand that, but he did it for the people that do,” he tells Billboard over Zoom during rehearsals for Harlow’s performance at Forecastle Festival in his Louisville, Ky. hometown over the weekend.
Describing himself as the “creative backbone for everybody in the room,” Pabón earned writing/production credits and mixed half of Come Home The Kids Miss You, Harlow’s sophomore album that was released on May 6, 2022, via Generation Now/Atlantic Records. The set debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and reached No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Top Rap Albums tallies.
They’re impressive marks for Harlow, who, just within the last few years, ascended from a glasses-wearing MC with boy-next-door charm and quirky raps to a superstar who’s had smart collaborations, sharper bars and, of course, is “still out here gettin’ cuter.” Releasing an album in between hip-hop heavyweights Future and Kendrick Lamar sounds daunting, but one of the album’s executive producers Rogét Chahayed stated in a previous Complex interview that “it’s the echelon that Jack deserves to be standing in.”
The 24-year-old rapper finally reached the upper echelon of the Billboard Hot 100 as the lead artist with the LP’s second single “First Class,” which samples Fergie’s 2006 No. 1 smash “Glamorous.” The single has been No. 1 for three nonconsecutive weeks – all while Harry Styles’ five-week No. 1 “As It Was” stayed at No. 2 (now back to No. 1 in the week ending June 4) and Bad Bunny and Kendrick Lamar were dotting the Hot 100 with multiple songs from their chart-topping projects, Un Verano Sin Ti and Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, respectively. The future White Men Can’t Jump star is playing in the big leagues, and his teammates have long believed in his ability to do so while envisioning how much bigger he’ll become.
And with Pabón doubling as Harlow’s live audio specialist, he enjoys the rare perk of being able to see the songs he sat down and worked for hours and hours on finally come to life during the rapper’s performances. Growing up in Atlanta with Puerto Rican parents, he always imagined himself singing on stage and fantasizing over being backstage ever since he was nine. Now, at 26, “I’m on the same stage off to the side, right behind that speaker, but I’m up there with Jack and I can see the audience grow and catch that energy,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Of course, I want to do this.’”
Billboard caught up with Pabón to discuss the making of Come Home the Kids Miss You, the significance of a subtle nod in the studio, and the family unit supporting Harlow from the studio to the stage.
How did you begin working with Generation Now?
I started going to audio engineering school because I wanted to learn how to record myself. I graduated [from SAE Institute Atlanta], and I ended up starting to record other people, and noticed a passion for being able to help somebody and give them a perspective that they didn’t have. While in school, I was interning at Means Street Studios, which was DJ Drama and Don Cannon and Lake Sheezy’s studio, for about six months – the whole working security at the door, cleaning, everything.
That turned into me getting my first session, [which] was [Lil] Uzi [Vert]. Uzi was recording there at the time, his family was in town and his cousin wanted to record. The managers knew I was in school for it, so they just wanted to see how I could handle that light work first. From there, it turned into me starting to get sessions for the studio and a lot of label sessions as well. I got thrown into the fire quick because one of my first sessions was Cardi B during the whole “Bodak Yellow” thing. Sean Garrett was in the room, The-Dream was in the room. It was J. White producing.
What helped me is that artistic background. I’ve recorded in the studio myself before, like singing, and I know immediately the things that I wouldn’t like that an engineer would do. Or things that would throw me off my vibe, or what an engineer could do to help me lose myself more in the music and not be so focused on reminding him that he’s recording a song, but to remind him that he’s capturing a performance.
When did your journey with Jack start?
Jack got signed maybe a year into me actually working as an engineer. It’s funny because he had two engineers before me and loved them. And for this particular day, they weren’t available and he was kind of being reluctant to trying a third engineer at the studio. But we ended up getting in the room and I let him know how I felt about him. I said, “Man, I’m not here to kiss ass. I just want to let you know, bro, you have the makings to be a Billboard No. 1 artist.” I swear, this is one of the first things I said. I just had that genuine belief in him. It didn’t take a rocket scientist – I could see the vision. So we started working and we haven’t stopped working since.
“First Class” spent three nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100. When you were in the studio making that song, at what point did you think, “Yeah, this one’s different. This one’s about to go up?”
I would say Jack definitely did. The rest of us loved it for what it was, not necessarily thinking, “Oh man, this is going to be crazy.” We were more so looking at each other and saying, “Hey, we love this song.” But I think he was the one that really spearheaded the decision of making it a single in the first place. Once we saw how passionate he was, we knew this was going to make him happy as an artist. I don’t think that we saw it coming, at least from the producers and other creators, but I’ll give credit where credit is due — and Jack definitely knew that it was going to do.
From a technical standpoint, the way Fergie’s “Glamorous” sample is cut in the chorus – “I been a (G), throw up the (L), sex in the (A.M.)” – how meticulous do you have to be with the mixing for it to sound like one, smooth track versus two songs coming together?
That’s the dynamic that I share with Angel Lopez and Rogét Chahayed, who are the executive producers on the album. We just have that connection where it’s easy for us to communicate. Angel will chop the sample up and he’ll give it to me and he knows that I know what pocket to put it in. He knows that I know how to EQ it. And if there’s something he needs to remind me of, or a perspective that he has, he comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey.” And then we throw it on. I look back and say, “What do you think if we do this?” And he’s like, “Oh yeah, try it.” And we look at each other like, “Oh my God!”
It’s not a one-man team. It’s definitely a combination of us back there, feeding off of each other, dancing with each other while we’re making the music. It’s not just me being in my own little corner. I’m looking back at them, so if I’m looking and I see that he’s kind of looking at me, I give him a quick little look [Nods] like, “Yes” and then I go back to being in my world. And that dance is just what’s important, so that he can feel like he’s not just in the room by himself with the pressure, and he knows that he has creative support next to him.
There were heavy-hitting guests on the album: Pharrell, Drake, Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake. How many of those verses were recorded while Jack was in the room versus sent over digitally? And how does the mixing process differ when you have the vocals sent in?
I would say all of them except for one were in person. These are the artists that are at the top of the game that genuinely, when Jack walks in the room, they love him. It’s not just, “We’re getting on what’s hot.” The music is one thing, but the conversations and the relationships are what’s really, really important. Jack would meet the guys face to face. When Jack went over to Turks with Drake, that’s what makes it so genuine. It was like, “Jack brought a song where he was getting his shit off. I love it. How can I hop on?”
Ideally, you’d like to have a conversation with either the other artist or the artist’s engineer and not go into it blindsided. You open the conversation up, like, “Are these vocals about how you guys want him to sound?” And then you start opening up dialogue: “Oh no, you can treat them. Do what you want to do with them,” or, “Oh yeah, this is kind of about where we want them.” It’s very much about not just people sending me stuff and I’m tucked off in a dark corner somewhere – I want to be in the face of the people that recorded whatever I didn’t record, and that we at least talk.
A big blessing in and of itself was FaceTiming Justin Timberlake on release night and him looking at me and saying, “Thank you guys for taking care of my vocals and taking care of the environment, the beat, how everything was mixed.” He was singing our praises. Justin Timberlake is my favorite artist of all time. I kept it real short and sweet, I told him, “Hey bro, I have to say it: You’re my idol.” When I tell you that I sang and that I danced, it was because I grew up watching *NSYNC. These dudes, they were kids that looked like me. And I was able to communicate that to him. I was able to tell him that Justified changed my life when I was six years old. I told that to my parents.
That’s the blessing of all of this – is getting in front of your idols and sharing that look. Timbaland came into the room a couple of times, and we would be working on stuff, and he would look at me and be like [Nods] and I would look back at him. And he’d go over to Angel, our producer that came up under Timbaland, and say, “He’s a young Jimmy,” referring to Jimmy Douglass, which was his engineer. That’s what you live for. Those are the moments that are fulfilling.
I noticed a lot of beat switches on this album. Why were those important to embed in the album’s DNA?
Jack loves the element of surprise. And it happens different ways: Maybe you make two songs on two different nights, and then the light bulb comes on and you’re like, “Hold on, what about this with this?” Or maybe you create with the intention of switching it up at some point. There’s no rules to it.
Since you always give credit to Jack where it’s due, I saw him do that for you on his Instagram Story where he wrote next to a picture of you two, “Thank you to my brother for taking us to the finish line and ensuring that I sound pristine. Such an important person in this process.” What does “taking us to the finish line” look like when you were wrapping up Come Home The Kids Miss You?
There are so many roles, and so many tasks that need to be completed. A big thing is making sure that the mixes translate, like we feel them in the headphones how we felt them in the studio. Part of it is what I was telling you about, where I will look back at Angel and he’d be looking at me and just that creative process in and of itself, trying to provide energy to a group of people that might be a little bit more depleted. I went through that myself, but he knows how much I care and he knows that there isn’t anything I want more than this. And not only that — I know that the harder that I go, the brighter that he shines.
It’s essentially not breaking down, finding a solution to everything. If I need to find inspiration somehow some way, then I need to search for that inspiration somehow some way, whether that’s taking a walk or playing basketball, but changing up the routine so that I feel refreshed. There would be days where we would do a show and then go to the studio afterwards, so I’m taking care of his show, doing his in-ears, working all the music and then we finish, I set down and then get Ubered straight to the studio to set up the microphone and then go do another four, five, six hours, however long we can last. Mind you, it’s already late, it’s probably already 12 a.m. So yeah, it’s a lot, but anytime that I feel like that, I just remind myself, “Man, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now.”
Considering you’re also Jack’s live audio specialist, what was it like to help bring Jack’s debut album That’s What They All Say to life during the Creme de la Creme Tour?
That’s my first time ever going on tour. I didn’t know if it was really something I could do, especially being so grounded at the studio at Means Street for three years straight working. But once the pandemic hit and outside closed down, I was taking care of Jack’s stuff and there were some songs that it was just me and him in the room. And then now, it’s in front of everybody. You go back and you think about those little details of when we said, “Oh let’s try this here. Let’s try this there.” And then [there are] those moments you remember when you hear them. It’s just a constant reminder of not just making good songs, but of our experience making them.
What are you looking forward to the most during the Come Home the Kids Miss You Tour?
We’re doing bigger venues and that’s always cool, but my biggest thing about the live shows is the relationship that I have with everybody on the tour. It’s not just me learning what I can about the live shows from them, but just being with them. Somehow, we got the sickest 12-to-14-man crew that was with us for the Creme de la Creme Tour, and they’re all still here. I go in the bus and I just see [production manager and front-of-house Anthony] Cotton there and I can already tell I’m just gonna go crack a joke with him.
Jack’s so busy and he does so much, but he still takes the time when he can and says, “Hey, let’s go out on a walk in the city. Let’s go bowling in the city.” And we sit down in those moments, and there might be a bunch of people, but we’ll sit down next to each other and we’ll just say, “Man, you remember four years ago when I said that thing in the studio where I believed in you so much? I believed in you and you believed in me, bro.”