The first time Javon Gant met GoldLink, they made “Crew.” Go figure.
The 31-year-old engineer met the RCA Records recording artist by chance at a studio in Virginia, and the rest is hip-hop history. “Crew,” which is triple platinum and GRAMMY-nominated, became the jumping-off point for a beautiful relationship between engineer and artist. The duo clicked so much that they jumped into recording Link’s major-label debut, At What Cost, damn near on the spot.
“Guy comes in, and he’s a taller, fair-skinned guy, long hair. I’m like, ‘Aight, cool, what are we working on today? Some rock stuff?’” Gant tells me over the phone. “He’s like, ‘Actually, man, I’m a producer. I work with GoldLink.’ The guy I was talking to happened to be Louie Lastic.”
The sessions for At What Cost were about exploration and distillation. The duo tasked themselves with finding the DMV sound, eschewing traditional routes, and capturing it on wax in unexpected ways. There were whole sessions where people from the region came in and told their stories directly into the mic—anything to get the area’s sound down as authentically as possible.
When it came time to work on Diaspora, his 2019 studio debut, Link entrusted Gant with critical decisions from the ground up. Their trust from At What Cost to Diaspora tripled. Gant felt like a part of Link’s team, not just his engineer.
“Last November, he asked me to come with him to New York so that we could start our process,” Gant recalls about the makings of Diaspora. “I was doing vocal production. I was making critical decisions on sonics in the mix. I got to work hand-in-hand with amazing producers such as P2J, who just did a lot of songs on The Lion King: The Gift album and Burna Boy. E.Y, he’s a London producer who did Drake’s ‘Omerta’ beat. They trusted me to make a lot of sonic decisions.”
While it’s obvious Javon Gant is crucial to GoldLink’s polished sound, the man remains humble as ever. Given the opportunity to break down all that he does in the studio, Gant chose instead to double down on GoldLink’s own talent, telling me: “I would say that GoldLink is an amazing artist, and he would shine on his own, but when you add great production and great engineering, it makes him shine even more.”
Javon Gant is a kind soul in a trying business, and our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: How did you first get into engineering?
Javon Gant: I started off playing in bands in college. Bass player, keyboard player, and I also made beats on the side. I was studying finance at the time, with a concentration in real estate. My whole goal was to be this commercial real estate agent. But! I found that when I was making music, I spent more of my time and energy towards that than I did my studies. I ended up dropping out of college. I blamed my music for the reason why I dropped out of school.
I went on a three-year hiatus, didn’t do anything. I wanted to get back in; I kinda had this come-to-Jesus moment like, “Lemme try the music thing for real, just to see…” It was driving me so hard years earlier. I picked engineering because, at the time, SoundCloud wasn’t going crazy. We didn’t have Audiomack. I was like, “Making beats is kinda hard to sell, lemme become an engineer so I can get in the room with people, meet some clients, then slide some beats.” I started falling in love with the process of recording and mixing, to the point where it’s all I could focus on. The rest is history.
How did you first link up with GoldLink?
I first linked up with him at a studio in Virginia. That’s where I had just gotten my first full-time employment as an engineer. This guy had called in; it was maybe four or five, a random Wednesday. Slow day. I’m ‘bout to go home. Just finished my last session. This guy calls in: “Hey, do you mind if we come in quick?” A guy comes in, and he’s a taller, fair-skinned guy, long hair. I’m like, “Aight, cool, what are we working on today? Some rock stuff?” He’s like, “Actually, man, I’m a producer. I work with GoldLink.” The guy I was talking to happened to be Louie Lastic.
So I was like, “Okay, cool, I know who GoldLink is.” The very first record we recorded was “Crew.” We hit it off from that point, and he just kept coming back every single day. We ended up recording all of At What Cost back in 2016, and we stuck together ever since.
How does it feel, knowing your first song is arguably his biggest song?
It feels… It feels surreal, still, because when we recorded that song, everybody who was in the room knew it was gonna be a big song in some regard. We didn’t see the impact that it would have. I remember going into the club and seeing everyone go crazy, or hearing it on the radio when we were in LA. To this day, it’s incredible that we did that. To be a piece of history is such an amazing thing.
Talk about the At What Cost sessions. What was the energy like, and how did you capture that while recording?
The energy was a lot of discovery. It was a lot of exploring how to define a region. We were so focused on trying to figure out what the DMV sounds like, without going the traditional “let’s sample some go-go” route. How do we capture the energy of the DMV and transcribe it to a soundscape? We did a lot of exploring—a lot of experimenting. We were running a lot of skits. Some sessions we would sit and have people from the city record themselves telling their stories. We were trying to soak up all of that energy.
What’s the most challenging in-the-moment task an engineer has to complete during a session?
That’s a good question. I think it’s to stay focused on artist performance. If you have, like, a typical entourage of 10 to 30 people in a room and everybody’s talking and going crazy, you have to make sure you’re dialed-in to what’s happening with the artist. You have to take yourself out of it and act as an instrument to optimize the session for the artist. That’s the hardest thing.
Now, for Diaspora, how did your relationship evolve?
There was more trust. When we did At What Cost, I wasn’t sure what the result was gonna be. We made this great project together, but he could blow up and then “See ya later!” I was unsure as to what was gonna happen, but a few months later, after he had spent some time in London, he had come back and shown me some stuff he was working on. I was like, “Oh, this is dope.” So we slowly started coming back together, and last November, he asked me to go with him to New York so that we could start our process.
I was doing vocal production. I was making critical decisions on sonics in the mix. I got to work hand-in-hand with amazing producers such as P2J, who just did a lot of songs on The Lion King: The Gift album and Burna Boy. E.Y, he’s a London producer who did Drake’s “Omerta” beat. They trusted me to make a lot of sonic decisions. I felt I was part of the team and not just an engineer.
How did your approach change, considering Link’s leaning into Afrobeats style along with reggae?
It didn’t change much. I think the recording process is pretty standard. I mix as I go, when I record, so the song will tell me where I need to go. I was already listening to Fela Kuti, Burna Boy, and WizKid. And I was listening to reggae. So, coming into that space, I kind of already knew what to do. As I’m mixing, in general, I let the song narrate for me.
Did you have any more exploratory moments for Diaspora, as you did for At What Cost?
To a degree. With At What Cost, we were a little less mature in all of our fields. When we came to Diaspora, Link was way more laser-focused than I’ve ever seen him be. We did explore a little bit, but not as extensively. We had some skits that we played around with, trying to create a narrative, but ultimately, we let a cohesive project tell the story.
How do you feel the Diaspora is musically represented in 2019?
I think it’s being represented well. It was on the forefront of a larger movement, and you’re starting to see that now with the success of The Gift, with Burna Boy’s crossover appeal. I think [this music is] gonna stand the test of time.
Lastly, if you could say one thing to Link’s fans about what you do in the studio, what would it be?
Phew! I would say that GoldLink is an amazing artist, and he would shine on his own, but when you add great production and great engineering, it makes him shine even more. I think you’re seeing the results of that right now.