Pharrell Williams has come a long way since signing with his first label after being discovered at a high school talent show. We go way back and revisit The Neptunes in this Scion Magazine issue from 2003. The story told by Scott Sterling.
[Article from Scion Magazine Volume 1, 2003]
Life from Pharrell William’s perspective looks pretty good. Only the second act to grace the main stage on the penultimate date of this year’s quietly successful Sprite Liquid Mix tour, Williams’ classicrock- from-outer-space band N.E.R.D. is bashing away at tunes from their willfully brilliant (and Shortlist Prize-winning) debut album In Search of , making quite an impact on this wildly diverse crowd (thanks to a line-up ranging from alternative rock stars Hoobastank and 311 to hip-hop heroes Jay-Z and Black Star, who stage an impromptu live reunion). A small mob of friends and crew crowds the back of the stage in typical hip-hop posse fashion. Missing in action is Williams’ usual partner in crime, Chad Hugo (A common occurrence, as Hugo is a married father of two).
“Breaking the rules is what we’re all about. So I want security to step back and let y’all come on down here and have a good time. Is that cool with y’all?” -Pharrell Williams
As the sun beats down on the packed outdoor amphitheater, punk-ish rave-ups like their cheeky ode to fellatio O’Brain get the heads down front all riled up, but it’s Williams’ affect on the ladies that’s particularly notable. A row of young, fresh-faced girls scream “We Love You!” in a high-pitched harmony the moment he hits the stage, with one exclaiming “He’s even hotter in person!” right in my ear. But for someone who’s come to rule America’s airwaves and sales charts in what seems like effortless fashion over the past couple of years, this well-controlled chaos is not nearly enough. Noticing the roped-off barricades and yellow-shirt-clad security force keeping the crowds at bay, he decides it’s high time to “break the rules.” “Breaking the rules is what we’re all about,” Williams bellows into the mic. “So I want security to step back and let y’all come on down here and have a good time. Is that cool with y’all?” The throng roars its approval, but there’s a nervous apprehension apparent in both the fans and the security guards who eye each other warily at the entrances into the pavilion and more importantly, the pit directly in front of the stage. “There are more of you than there are of them!” an exasperated Williams yells in reference to the disproportionate number of concertgoers to security. “You paid good money to be here – come on!”That’s all it took for the dam to burst and send hundreds of bodies rushing over the barricades and towards the stage, whooping their approval at the OK to get their young American rebel on.
Suitably satisfied with the happy madness he’s caused, Williams decides its time to introduce some famous friends in tow. First he pulls N’Sync-er gone solo Justin Timberlake from the onstage mob, much to the delight of the ladies in the house. Williams and Timberlake are friends and collaborators, with the Neptunes (the name the duo of Williams and Hugo go by) producing a gang of tracks for his highly anticipated solo debut, Justified. Even the guys in the crowd cheer at first, until they realize who’s just been introduced. That’s when the boo birds come out, causing a bemused Williams to add, “Hey, the Clipse are on his single,” referring to the red-hot fellow Virginia Beach hip-hop duo the ’Tunes have produced to the top of the charts with last summer’s street anthem “Grindin’” and the accompanying album Lord Willin’.
There’s a much warmer reception when he coaxes skateboard legend Tony Hawk to the microphone. A known N.E.R.D. fan (he called In Search of… A soundtrack to my life” in a recent interview), Hawk’s nasal, high-pitched voice is unmistakable as he exclaims “Give it up for N.E.R.D. — they’re ruling it up in here!”
Ending the show with a quick medley of a few of the chart-topping choruses he’s written for the likes of Busta Rhymes (“Pass the Courvosier”) and Jay-Z (“I Just Want to Love U (Give it 2 Me)”) and a raucous run-through of the sardonic N.E.R.D. single “Rock Star,” it’s obvious that life from Pharrell Williams’ perspective is just as rosy at it seems. But when you’re riding higher than the sun, there’s the added danger of having so much further to fall if one happens to slip. But considering the trajectory he and his partner Hugo are creating for themselves, it may be a long, long time before these golden boys are spending too much time in the real world.
Our quest to discover just what revolutionary paradigm-shifting secrets doubtlessly lie at the root of the Neptunes saga officially began in the summer of 2001. That’s when Virgin records first began distributing promo copies of N.E.R.D.’s In Search of… album. The response was fast and decisive, with music journalists across the country scrambling for new adjectives to describe the album’s daring juxtaposition of classic ’70s FM radio ga-ga like Steely Dan and the Eagles against a spacey, digital hip-hop beat.
But the album hit a sour note with a small but vocal contingent of hip- hop writers from magazines like XXL, which panned the album so ruthlessly it’s been rumored to be the actual reason why at the 11th hour, the duo infamously decided to pull the album from Virgin’s release schedule to re-record the entire thing from scratch, negating the sea of otherwise overwhelmingly positive advance hype. Fast-forward to the fall of 2001, when word comes back that the mission had been accomplished:†In Search of… was back, and this time it was all the way live. The boys had found a genuine classic rock band (Minnesota’s Spy Mob, whose unreleased album for Epic fell into Williams’ hands) to play the previously digitized melodies and bleeps, giving the tracks an energy only hinted at on the original version. Suddenly, tongue-in-cheek rap-rock parodies like “Rock Star” sounded uncomfortably close to the bands they were aping in the first place. It also sounded really good. While they’d more than built their solid industry rep on the strength of their hip-hop productions (like their beat for Norega’s 1998 underground hit “Superthug”), the Neptunes sound was simultaneously pushing hip-hop deeper into the commercial mainstream than it had been since the days of Run DMC working with Aerosmith. Throughout 2001 they rocked both the clubs and the pop charts with the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“Gotch Ya Money”), Jermaine Dupri (“Let’s Talk About It”) and Dupri’s favorite Mini-Me, Lil’ Bow Wow (“Take Ya Home”). By year’s end, they owned the airwaves with even bigger hits for Usher (“You Don’t Have to Call”), Fabolous (“Holla Back”) N’Sync (“Girlfriend”) and No Doubt (“Hella Good”). All of this was enough to earn Williams the 2001 Songwriter of the Year award from Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), which tracks radio airplay. It’s an award he’d win again in 2002. Not to be left out, partner Hugo received his own Songwriter of the Year award in 2002 from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). How did two middle-class minority kids (Hugo’s of Filipino descent) from Virginia Beach take control of the music industry with the same out-of-left-field flurry of brilliance and determination that Eminem brought out of Detroit? After spending one curious afternoon with the toast of young urban America, I’m not sure if we really came away with a definitive answer. But it certainly was a lot of fun trying to find one.
“I’m not a very fashionable person.” These are the first words Pharrell Williams utters upon arriving to this nondescript Los Angeles photo studio for a whirlwind shoot and interview they’ve slotted between waking up and a recording session with Toni Braxton (which will result in the first single from her More Than a Woman album, “Hit The Freeway”). Rocking his signature N.E.R.D. cap (set at an appropriately rakish angle, of course), Independent Skateboards shirt and a diamond watch/earring combo that reduce most women to tears, the statement is as hilarious as it is ridiculous. His ’70s trailer-park-stoner-meets-pro-skater-turned- young-thug-millionaire style is the epitome of 2002 cool. Once the pictures have been taken and lunch has been consumed, it’s time to talk. The interview quickly turns into an odd game of cat-and-mouse, with Williams firing off cryptic non-sequiters and contradictory statements at every turn. Like when I asked him about coming from Virginia Beach and how it shaped
the Neptunes sound:
“We’re from Virginia Beach and it’s our home, but I don’t really think where we’re from has anything to do with our music,” was his first reply. But for no apparent reason, his tune changes. “Then again, Virginia Beach does have a lot to do with it,” he backpedals. “But it’s not like Atlanta, where there’s a distinct ATL sound or someplace like that. It’s not a VA sound, but Virginia Beach has had no real cultural identity as far as the rest of the country is concerned. So in that sense, it’s like a big melting pot of influences. We like all kinds of sh-t down there.
“When we start doing this country music, we’ll see how far we’ve really come,” he says when asked about making such grand strides in an industry not known for letting such things happen easily. “I wasn’t a nerd in high school,” he says when asked. “That’s why we chose the name. I think that the concept of N.E.R.D. is teeming with all sorts of life.”
Steering the conversation towards Star Trak, the Neptunes’ new label through Arista Records, I get Williams raving about recent signees the Virginia band Toke, which he calls “a baby Steppenwolf” (ask your dad). He predicts that the radio will sound like 1975 in the next couple of years. “Our music is instinctual,” he says finally. “When it feels right, you know it.”
“Like a lot of Filipino parents, mine had a piano in the house, hoping for their kids to learn how to play. So that’s what my brother and I did. We both took up sax, too. But I was doing it more for the fun of it. I’d learn how to play the songs on the radio. Pop culture has always been important to me, always knowing what was cool. I remember the first time I saw Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’ video and when Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk on the Motown awards.”
Despite the common preconception that Chad Hugo is “the quiet one,” from the moment I turn on my tape recorder, he talks. He talks freely and with abandon, like someone who doesn’t always get the opportunity to do so in these situations.
“I met Pharrell in band class. He was playing drums, and I could tell that he wanted to play hip-hop beats,” he laughs. “He was rapping, and I was into DJing and equipment. I had stolen a Casio SK-5 from a store, back when I was wearing a trench coat. My parents wouldn’t give me any money, always preaching about working your way up. I wasn’t having it. A friend and I stole an Apple computer from the school library so we could start sequencing. Unfortunately, we got busted. I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever I had to do to get on. I’m just going to keep babbling, if that’s cool,” he says suddenly. “You’re taking me back. “Hip-hop is in our hearts,” Hugo continues. “When we do sh-t, it’s like being a DJ and taking something out of the crates and recycling it into something new. When we did the N.E.R.D. album — that was our approach. It’s not really hip-hop, but it is. If you take a country track and drop a beat behind it, it’s instantly transformed into hip-hop. That’s what it’s like when we work with other artists. Everything we do is beat- generated. But I’d love to get away from that entirely, do a country ballad that has nothing to do with beats or drum machines. We’re getting into that now, playing more parts live.”
Which brings us to the most obvious question, one that must follow these two around like a looming storm cloud: what happens when the day comes and the Neptunes sound just doesn’t get the kids rushing the dance floors anymore?
“I think about that all the time,” Hugo says quietly. “It’s only natural. It’s like not wanting to wear a certain shirt anymore. At some point, you’ve gotta buy some new clothes. Inevitably, that’s going to happen and people just aren’t going to want to hear it anymore.”
And what do you do then? Hugo looks at me almost quizzically and simply says, “Then we switch that sh-t up.” And with that, I got my story.
Check out ASAP Rocky, Trinidad James, and Black Scale on the Scion AV Journal Vol. 1.