Producer Angel Lopez finds his studio identity working with rapper Jack Harlow

The former Central Ohioan collaborated heavily on the Louisville rapper's new album 'Come Home the Kids Miss You,' including chart-topping single 'First Class'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Angel Lopez

Back in November, Kentucky-born rapper Jack Harlow texted producer and Columbus ex-pat Angel Lopez a Spotify playlist with about 10 songs.  

“He said, ‘Yo, pick something out of this,’” said Lopez, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. The idea was to find a song that Harlow and Lopez could sample and provide inspiration for a track on the rapper’s sophomore album, Come Home the Kids Miss You, out on Friday, May 6. Right away, Fergie’s 2006 hit “Glamorous” jumped out to Lopez, who got to work.

“There's a lot of people out there who try to do these recreations, but it's not done tastefully. We want to be tasteful,” Lopez said. “I sat with it for a minute, then I programmed some drums. Actually, I did two versions of this one, and it was the second version that stuck.”

In the studio, Lopez and Harlow first worked with fellow producer Jasper Harris. “Jasper started playing this keyboard sound on it, and I grabbed the sample, chopped it up, then grabbed the a cappella, and we started conversing with the sample,” said Lopez, who later “cracked it open” with Harlow and producers Charlie Handsome and Rogét Chahayed, a recent Grammy nominee for producer of the year. “When we made it, Jack and I just knew it was special. You couldn’t deny this one. We stood strong beside that song.” 

About a week before the single was released on April 8, Harlow posted an in-studio snippet of “First Class” on TikTok, which went viral. (Lopez is in the lower right corner of the video clip.) By the time the song reached streaming services, “First Class” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming only the 60th song in history to debut at No. 1.

Recently, Lopez was listening to the song on Spotify while driving around Los Angeles, and when he turned off his phone, “First Class” was playing on the radio, too. “That song teed up this whole album, which is the perfect representation of Jack's influence and what he wants to do artistically,” said Lopez, a Hilliard Darby High School grad who has been deeply involved with the project ever since he began working on it with Harlow in Miami more than a year ago. It’s yet another step in Lopez’s journey from making beats in the laundry closet of an apartment in Galloway, Ohio, to working with some of the biggest names in music, beginning with Timbaland and expanding to Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Coldplay and many more. 

More:From Galloway to L.A., the inspiring journey of producer Angel Lopez

Lopez said he and Harlow hit it off right away in Miami. “The third day we were texting back and forth. He hit me up, like, ‘Hey, man, I really like your vibe.’ ... And the next thing you know he calls me and says, ‘Yo, I'm gonna be in L.A. I want you to pull up,’” said Lopez, who ended up at recording sessions all over the country, including Atlanta, Phoenix and Harlow’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. “It got to a point where every time he was in the studio, I was there with him. We built a great relationship.”

Angel Lopez

Lopez attributed part of that kinship to their shared Midwestern upbringing. “We had a lot of things in common, and there were elements from certain musical eras that we both appreciated, and that started translating into the music. It's almost like an unspoken code that you come across with an artist,” he said. “I remember getting a text from him where he was like, 'I want you to help me guide the ship on this album.’ And that’s an honor to me. … As soon as someone gives you that type of role, you know what you need to do. You got to step into the part and just be selfless and really focus on making that artist the best version of themselves. A producer only shines if the artist shines.” 

Harlow, 24, who’s also a producer on Come Home the Kids Miss You, set the tone from the get-go, Lopez said, casting a consistent vision for the core production team of Lopez, Chahayed, Nickie Jon Pabón and Nemo Achida. “Jack is an insane producer. This is his baby, and we just happen to be the guys that clicked and were able to take that vision,” Lopez said. “I feel like he's a once-in-a-decade artist. … I hope people see the genius that I see in this kid. I've worked with so many artists, bro, and I've never felt the way I felt about an act the way I do about Jack.”

Working with Harlow also helped Lopez fully realize his own role in the studio. “I have a new, profound love for making music, and it's because my job finally has its title. I'm not a beat-maker. I was able to find my identity as a producer,” Lopez said. “I graduated from beat-making years ago, but it's like I finally got my badge. I've been a producer, but having someone like Jack who really takes advantage of that — that's what gives you the badge.”

That turning moment never would have happened, of course, if Lopez hadn’t come up under legendary producer Timbaland, who recognized Lopez’s talent via Instagram around 2015 and later made him a part of his crew.  

“I had the blessing of working next to the best. I was in the room with artists, seeing how he did this job, seeing how this music is made. … I have such an advantage on people because of all the time I spent with Timbaland. The first time I stepped into the studio with JT (Justin Timberlake) and Timbaland in 2016 — this was while Justin was working on Man of the Woods — I saw that chemistry and that unspoken thing. They click, they get each other,” Lopez said. “I worked with Coldplay, and I've seen the way their producers work, and I was able to bring some of those colors in here. I was able to bring my experiences with Kanye West — just little things that have impacted me on this journey.”

More:Central Ohio expat Angel Lopez wins Grammy for work with Kanye

As Lopez's star has continued to rise, he has also fully embraced his Mexican American heritage and his Midwestern upbringing, rooting much of his work on Harlow’s new record in the summertime jams he used to listen to as a kid in Central Ohio, which meshed well with Harlow’s vision and his Louisville roots. “I made a playlist on my Spotify called Midwest Summer. I remember being 10 years old in Hilliard, Ohio, listening to these records. … There was a certain feeling that I would get, and my version of this album was like, how do I bring that into this? How do I bring that Midwestern summer feel?” Lopez said. “This album, for me, is a representation of what it was like growing up in the suburbs in Columbus, Ohio, in the summer, riding my bike around Willow Bend in Hilliard.” 

Lopez also incorporated a couple of Columbus collaborators on two Harlow tracks, enlisting the help of longtime friend Mark Abrams, who previously worked with Lopez at Vaughan Music Studios in Upper Arlington, to record drum tracks by Columbus musician Steven Bustos. “I'm bringing work back to the city because I want people from home to be involved in this,” Lopez said. “There’s a lot of 614 for me in this album, and I hope people get to hear it and connect with that. I hope I make Columbus proud.” 

It’s a strange thing to work on a project so intensely for more than a year, and then to be at the finish line. The sessions for Come Home the Kids Miss You are over. It’ll finally be out in the world on Friday. “I don't know what's going to happen when this album drops, but the only thing that I hope — my biggest payment and compliment on this album — is going to be that people say, ‘Damn, those guys really care about music,’” Lopez said. “I enjoy making music with Jack and this group of people so much.”

The day after the album’s release, Lopez will be in Louisville to celebrate with Harlow and his crew at the Kentucky Derby, but he’s also bringing along his grandfather. “My grandfather and I went to the Kentucky Derby in 2015, and we couldn't even see the horses. But to us it was a blessing to even be able to go, so we had a great time,” Lopez said. “This time I get to take him again, and I think it's going to be a little different experience.”