Sometimes talent is so undeniable, you can see the success before it even happens. Engineer Nickie Jon Pabón told Jack Harlow he’d be a No. 1 Billboard artist in their first session together, and he’s never stopped believing.
“Jack and I have a great relationship that’s very special to me. I think we know each other very well,” Pabón told REVOLT. “Every day I speak to him, I try to speak life into him. He speaks life into me.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Jack Harlow’s longtime engineer discusses the rapper’s tireless dedication to making Come Home The Kids Miss You, telling Harlow he’d be a top-selling artist before he had a single hit, and the family fun rapper Trouble had when recording.
What do you remember about your first session with Jack Harlow?
I remember I had been working at Mean Street [Studios] for about a year, and there were rumors that the label was really interested in signing this kid named Jack Harlow. So in the first session, I expressed to him how much I believed in him. Jack was the young prospect, but I told him, ‘You’re going to be a Billboard No. 1 type artist. You have all of the makings for that. I don’t know what I will do for your career but right now, I want to let you know you have my respect and support.’ So we started there and haven’t stopped working since.
I’ve seen photos of Jack being attentive while you work on the computer in the studio. How involved is he in the engineering process?
He’s very involved. He has a very developed ear, and I love that he goes off of feel most of the time. I also value how much he appreciates my opinion. He says, ‘If we have to go back and scratch it, that’s fine. But, for now, try anything and everything that comes to mind.’ He’s always next to me, and I’m always asking for feedback.
Are there any records where you suggested something that stayed on the song?
I don’t want to give out a specific example. At this point, that’s for the people in the room at the time to know how I make my imprint and work. A lot of times, there isn’t a method to the madness; I just get a voice in my head that says, ‘Hey, suggest this.’ I try to be as open as I can be. At the end of the day, all of the chops, delays and other ideas you hear on Jack’s records are going through me. Whether I come up with them or Jack suggests it, it’s a group effort. I’m the one steering the ship, but I’m not the only one giving out ideas on how to make a record better.
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What was the difference between making his debut album and making Come Home The Kids Miss You?
We went more into tailoring the production to his vision for this album. This was a record he had wanted to make for a long time. I think we traveled more this time. We’re doing more shows than what we did for That’s What They All Say. We made the debut album during the pandemic. This time around, we were moving around. We went to London and Brazil for the first time and recorded songs there that made their way to the album. It was an overall evolution.
How often were you in the studio for the making of the album?
We were there a lot. We didn’t really have a set schedule. We’d have 12-hour days. Back-to-back-to-back days were not uncommon. We made a point to be in the room and bounce ideas off each other. It wasn’t a situation where you did some work and then left. We really committed. You can imagine how many hours that was over a year and a half. That’s What They All Say came out in December, and we started working immediately after that album.
What song did you have recorded for the longest that made the album?
‘Poison’ is probably one of the earliest songs. It was like a child going through different stages— the beat, arrangement, Wayne’s verse at the end. We had that song in the tuck for a while, and it was constantly changing. We were very patient with developing that song how it needed to and how God wanted it to. We had to sit with it for a while.
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What’s one of the most memorable sessions you’ve had with Jack?
We had a great time with John Mayer. He did some additional production on ‘Nail Tech’ and a couple of other songs like ‘Poison.’ Going in with him was mind-blowing. I’m a big fan of his. The conversations we all had were meaningful. When you can get with an artist who has traveled the world and had that type of longevity, you can only be a sponge in those moments. We got a song out of it, but I’m more proud I was able to have a conversation with him. We were all dancing together to Jack’s music. That was a meaningful session.
Another meaningful connection you all had was with Justin Timberlake on the song “Parent Trap.” Justin thanked you all for taking care of his vocals. What do you think he meant by that?
It’s tough to say what he specifically meant by that. When you work with another artist, especially one established, you must be tasteful in injecting this feature into what’s already there. I think he was more excited for Jack and appreciative we didn’t drown his vocals out with autotune and reverb. Big credit to Leslie Brathwaite, who had his hand on the final mix. Between Leslie and I, we got the bulk of this stuff done. Teezio also helped with a few tracks with us as well.
What’s a typical session like with you and Jack?
Every day is different. I always get there an hour early to set everything up. I make sure the headphones are on and the microphones are working. Sometimes crazy studio stuff happens, but I have a list of checkpoints I hit, so I know if he comes in and wants to record right away, he can. I learned I need to be able to capture that at a drop of a dime. If I need to bring a beat into Pro Tools, I know how not to take two or three minutes. If he’s experiencing any type of latency, I correct it. But, every day is different. Sometimes it might be other people in the studio. Other times, it might just be him and I. It depends on that day and what the agenda is.
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How involved are Don Cannon and DJ Drama in these sessions?
They’re our OGs, so they’re very involved. I would say they’re as involved as they can be. We all have our schedules, but I never feel too far away from them. I was on the phone with Cannon before I got on the phone with you. We talked about the setup and ways I can improve my workflow and ideas. They’ve always been very receptive to helping both Jack and me out.
What is the talent you provide to a session?
Us creatives are vessels. I’d like to say my connection to my spirituality helps me provide an environment in the room that’s inspiring for the artist to work in. I’ve been an entertainer before. So, knowing those traits are inside of me helps somebody else musically.
What is an unreleased Jack Harlow record you hope gets released?
There are a couple of those in the tank, but anything I say would be giving it away. So I’ll just keep it at that.
When you work so closely with someone, you build a bond. What are some moments with Jack that you feel cemented your friendship?
Jack and I have a great relationship that’s very special to me. I think we know each other very well. We’ve been working together for four years. It’s tough to pinpoint one or two conversations or instances that pushed us in that direction. Every day I speak to him, I try to speak life into him. He speaks life into me. What I hope he knows is that I have his back. I’ll try my very hardest to take care of not only Jack, the artist but Jack, the person. He has a great team around him. We all uplift each other.
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You also worked with the late rapper Trouble.
I recorded ‘Aint My Fault’ and engineered ‘She A Winner.’ Trouble was one of my favorite artists I ever worked with. Anytime I would record him, he’d have his family around. Not only that, his family around him was always laughing. I remember going to the studio late at night with him and not feeling like it was work. I’ll look back, and he’s messing with one of his cousins. His daughter might come in, and he might kiss her on the cheek. I always felt it was an uplifting environment. He always gave me good confidence when I first started recording early in my career. He’d always tell me, ‘Nickie, you’re hard.’ I loved every time I got to work with him.
You started working on Jack Harlow’s second album right after the first album came out. Now that the sophomore album is out, are you already working on the third?
I’ll leave that up for interpretation (laughs). We have a lot on our plate right now. He’s in the middle of filming his movie and getting these shows off. We’re musicians, so we’re always creating. It’s not really a situation where we’re like, ‘Oh, let’s work on the next one.’ It’s just like we keep creating. It just happens.