“It can’t be the years of work I put in,” Louisville’s Jack Harlow raps on “It Can’t Be,” a track that falls near the end of the musician’s lean new album, Jackman, and finds him calling out his doubters while simultaneously cataloging the time and effort he’s invested into reaching the apex he has in his career.
While the song is wholly autobiographical, Harlow could also be speaking for Columbus producer Rashad Thomas, who crafted the beat for “It Can’t Be,” in addition to Jackman track “Gang Gang Gang,” and who has invested decades into building a career in music. To listeners outside of his hometown, however, Thomas still remains something of an unknown commodity, his appearance on Jackman even inspiring one Twitter user to ask, “Who the hell is Rashad Thomas?”
The producer promptly retweeted the inquiry.
“Yeah, man, why not?” Thomas said, and laughed. “I don’t have a profile on Wikipedia, so people might have questions.”
From a young age, Thomas earned acclaim as an R&B singer, landing his first record deal at age 13 and subsequent major label deals with RCA, Columbia and Universal, all of which eventually fizzled out. But Thomas has never stopped creating music, delivering solo records steeped in modern soul (The Quiet Loud, from 2015) and working alongside childhood friends P.A. Flex and Co City in long-running Columbus Crew the 3rd Power, among countless other pursuits.
Indeed, Thomas said the opportunity to work with Harlow emerged out of the early- to mid-2000 years when he collaborated with Vada Azeem (then rapping under the name L.e for the Uncool). The two would make regular treks to play shows in Lexington, Kentucky, where Thomas met and struck up a friendship with Nemo Achida, a music producer who Thomas said has evolved into “Harlow’s right-hand man.”
“And we’ve kept in touch,” Rashad said. “And one day last June, he asked if I had some beats I could send [for Harlow].”
In the beginning, Thomas and Harlow worked remotely while the rapper was on tour, with Harlow recording his vocals in hotel rooms and in the bowels of arenas. More recently, though, Thomas said the two have started to collaborate in person, crafting “more than a few records together," most of which remain unreleased at this point.
“He likened my music to a ‘Purple Cow’,” Thomas said, a reference pulled from a book by author and entrepreneur Seth Godin, who proposes that you’re either a Purple Cow, or you’re not; you’re remarkable, or you’re invisible. “The whole idea of the Purple Cow is making something unique, trying to do something that’s never been done before."
Weirdly, Thomas isn’t the only Columbus-area producer in Harlow’s multi-platinum orbit. Angel Lopez, who started off making beats in the laundry closet of an apartment in Galloway, Ohio, went on to connect with Harlow for 2022 album Come Home the Kids Miss You and remains a trusted musical collaborator. “I never met Angel until I started working with Jack,” Thomas said. “But Jack played some of my music for him, because Angel kind of works in an executive producer-type [role] now, and he said, ‘Yeah, this is from Rashad.’ And Angel said, ‘Rashad? From Columbus?’”
Thomas said he remains nonplussed by the newfound attention, tracing his even-keeled nature in part to his lengthy history in the music industry – “When I was 13 years old and got my first record deal, maybe I took my contract into school, but after that it just became a part of my life,” he said – as well as to parents who supported those early successes but also made sure their son remained grounded.
“Nobody made a big deal about it in my family. It was never like, ‘We’re going to be famous! How much money are you getting?’” Thomas said. “They’re proud of me, but not in a way that’s exploitative, and I think that’s helped me through life.”
Thomas said he has been further aided by a long-developed belief – he stopped shy of calling it a spirituality – that everything has a purpose, and that there’s a general order to the universe. “Even when I go to make a record, I don’t know what I’m going to make, but I know it was intended,” he said. “There’s no wrong decision. I can follow my heart, and as long as I do that consistently, I’ll stumble into situations like this.”
In the more than three decades Thomas has crafted music, he’s remained uniquely focused, his goals largely unchanged. Sure, there was a point at age 14 when he daydreamed of buying a Lamborghini, but those aims were short-lived. “You want silly things when you’re a kid, but those things don’t drive me,” he said. “It’s about being consistent and being true to the gift I was given and trying to work it and be good at it. And that’s it. That’s the story, man.”