The Neptunes—powerhouse record producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—have used innovative rhythms, memorable melodies, and their own powerful songwriting abilities to create an impressive string of hit singles and albums. In the process they've blurred the lines between musical boundaries and transformed the careers of artists as diverse as Jay-Z, Nelly, Britney Spears, No Doubt, and Mary J. Blige. As Williams explained to Time magazine, "Taking somebody from A to B is cool, but when we produce we want to take people from A to D, to challenge their artistic natures, their image, everything." Although the Neptunes began as hip-hop producers, their forays as performers with their own rock/electronic/hip-hop group N.E.R.D. have made them a groundbreaking and much-sought-after team, one whose assistance in 2003 commanded as much as $150,000 per song.
Although the Neptunes are best known as formidable producers in the gritty urban world of hip-hop, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams started their lives in suburban Virginia. "I'm no rapper," Williams told Time magazine, "I'm like a suburban kid." Hugo was born into a Filipino family on February 24, 1974, in Portsmouth, Virginia. Williams was born on April 5, 1974, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Pharoah, a house painter and handyman, and Carolyn, a school teacher. The two met as twelve-year-olds at a summer music program called Center for the Gifted Arts. Eventually Hugo and Williams, who were both obsessed with music at an early age and played multiple instruments, starting mixing beats and performing together. "By high school I was on a mission. I wanted to make beats and my parents wouldn't let me have any money for equipment, preaching about working hard for what you want," Hugo told the Los Angeles Valley Beat. "I wasn't having it, so a friend and I stole an Apple computer from the school library for sequencing tracks. We were busted, but I didn't care. I was just going to do whatever I had to do to get on top."
The pair got their break when New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley opened his Future Recording Studios and Lil' Man Records in a building adjacent to their school. Riley, who had multiplatinum successes with artists such as Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown, spotted the duo at a 1992 high school talent show and recognized their talent. That same year Williams penned Riley's verse on Wreckx-n-Effect's smash hit "Rump Shaker." The duo earned their first production for Blackstreet's 1994 debut "Tonight's the Night." The pair then moved to New York where they began producing on their own, working on albums for SWV and Total. Their track "Lookin' at Me" on Mase's successful 1997 album Harlem World and Noreaga's 1999 smash hit "Superthug" cemented their reputation as solid hiphop producers.
Unlike most producers, whose work revolves around a single music genre, Hugo and Williams—now calling themselves the Neptunes—cross musical genres and boundaries. Hugo generally works on the track's melodic core while Williams establishes the beat and assists the performer with the lyrics. Although best known as hip-hop producers, Williams and Hugo were inspired by soul and rock music, respectively. Williams cites the Isley Brothers, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder as strong influences. Hugo, surprisingly, claims classic rock group ELO's Jeff Lynne among the producers in he most admires. As Williams explained to Time, "I would never let my appreciation for one type of music keep me from listening to another."
The Neptunes' appreciation for all types of music gives depth to rap and hip-hop acts and street credibility to pop artists. Mixing classic rock riffs and hip-hop beats with touches of old-school pop culture, the Neptunes are masters of the crossover hit. They helped Mystikal's "Shake Ya A**" get radio airplay, made Nelly ("Hot in Herre") a multi-platinum seller, and turned pop princess Britney Spears into a viable adult performer with "I'm a Slave 4U."
For the Record . . .
Members include Chad Hugo (born on February 24, 1974, in Portsmouth, VA), music producer; Pharrell Williams (born on April 5, 1974, in Virginia Beach, VA), music producer.
Discovered by producer Ted Riley, 1992; received first production credit for Blackstreet's "Tonight's the Night," 1994; produced breakthrough single "Superthug" for rap star Noreaga, 1999; worked with Jay-Z, Nelly, No Doubt, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and many more, cementing their reputation as hit-makers, 2001; as N.E. R.D., released In Search of … , with Shay Haley, 2001; signed their Star Trak Entertainment label to Arista Records, 2002; released The Neptunes Present … Clones, 2003.
Awards: American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) R&B Songwriter of the Year Award (Chad Hugo), 2001; Billboard Producer of the Year (Chad Hugo), 2002; BMI Songwriter of the Year Award (Pharrell Williams), 2001, 2002; MOBO Best Producer Award (in association with uk.MP3.com), 2002; Short-list of Music Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music
(N.E.R.D.) for In Search Of … , 2002; Source Award, Producer of the Year, 2002; Billboard R&B and HipHop Best Producer Award, 2003; BMI Urban Producer
of the Year Award, 2003. Source Award, Producer of the Year, 2003.
Addresses: Record companies— Arista Records, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10106. Star Trak/Rocksoul, P.O. Box 5017 New York, NY 10185-5017, website: http://www.startrakmusic.com. Website— N. E.R.D. Official Website: http://www.n-e-r-d.com.
In 2001 Hugo and Williams joined their friend Shay Haley to form the band N.E.R.D., an acronym for "No One Ever Really Dies." The group made headlines when their heavily promoted all-digital debut In Search Of … was pulled before it even hit the shelves. After working with rock group No Doubt, N.E.R.D. apparently opted to rerecord the album using a live band, choosing SpyMob, an obscure Minnesota rock band, to back them. When it was finally released in 2002, In Search Of … sold 249,000 copies in its first week, won the Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music in October of that year, and went gold a month later.
In January of 2002 the Neptunes and manager Rob Walker signed an agreement that brought the Neptunes' Star Trak label to Arista Records, uniting the renowned production team with legendary record executive L.A. Reid. The agreement contracted the Neptunes (along with Walker) to develop new talent and produce acts for both Star Trak and Arista. Some of the artists signed include SpyMob, Kelis, and Clipse, whose debut 2002 album Lord Willin' hit the top ten on the strength of the Neptunes-produced single "Grindin'."
In August of 2003 the Neptunes released The Neptunes Present … Clones, a critically acclaimed compilation CD. Jim Farber of the Daily News conjectured, "Given the duo's market power, its album could bring the trend in compilation CDs to a new commercial high. While such sets have increased over the years—with pop hits collections, soundtracks and deejay-driven releases—'Clones' is the rare example of a production team with enough clout to release a disparate clutch of cuts under its own name." The compilation also introduced new Star Trak artists and featured a well-received performance of Williams singing with Jay-Z on the track "Frontin'."
Blackstreet, "Tonight's The Night," Atlantic, 1995.
Total, "When Boy Meets Girl," Bad Boy, 1996.
Mase, "Lookin' at Me," Bad Boy, 1997.
Noreaga, "Oh No," Penalty, 1999.
Noreaga, "Superthug," Penalty, 1999.
Ludacris, "Southen Hospitality," Def Jam, 2000.
Mystikal, "Been So Long," Jive, 2000.
Mystikal, "Shake Ya A**," Jive, 2000.
Mystikal, "Family," Jive, 2000.
Babyface, "Stressed Out," Arista, 2001.
Babyface, "There She Goes," Arista, 2001.
Mary J. Blige, "Steal Away," MCA, 2001.
Foxy Brown, "Gangsta Boogie," Uptown/Universal, 2001.
Busta Rhymes featuring Kelis, "What it Is," J-Records, 2001.
Fabolous, "Young'n (Holla Back)," Elektra, 2001.
Jadakiss, "Knock Yourself Out," Ruff Ryders, 2001.
Jay-Z, "I Just Wanna Love You," Roc-a-Fella, 2001.
Lil' Bow Wow, "Take Ya Home," So So Def, 2001.
No Doubt, "Hella Good," Interscope, 2001.
Britney Spears, "Boys," Jive, 2001.
Britney Spears, "I'm a Slave 4U," Jive, 2001.
S.W.V, "Use Your Heart," RCA, 2001.
Usher, "U Don't Have to Call," Arista, 2001.
Toni Braxton, "Hit the Freeway," Arista, 2002.
Clipse, "Grindin'," Star Trak, 2002.
Common, "I Got a Right Ta," MCA, 2002.
Jay-Z, "Excuse Me Miss," Roc-a-Fella, 2002.
LL Cool J., "Love Ya Better," Def Jam, 2002.
Nelly, "Hot in Herre," Universal, 2002.
Snoop Dogg, "From tha Chuuuch to da Palace," Priority, 2002.
Justin Timberlake, "Like I Love You," Jive, 2002.
Pharrell Williams, featuring Jay-Z, "Frontin'," Arista, 2003.
Snoop Dog, "Beautiful," Priority, 2003.
Justin Timberlake, "Rock Your Body," Jive, 2003.
Jay-Z, "Change Clothes," Roc-a-Fella, 2003.
Kelis, "Milkshake," Arista, 2003.
As the Neptunes
The Neptunes Present … Clones (compilation), Arista, 2003.
In Search Of … , Virgin, 2002.
Aquarian, August 20-27, 2003.
Billboard, June 7, 2003, August 16, 2003.
Blender, August 2003; September 2003.
Daily News (New York, NY), August 10, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, May 30, 2003; August 22, 2003; September 5, 2003.
Interview, July 2003, August 2003.
King, July/August 2003.
Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2003.
Los Angeles Valley Beat, July 10-16, 2003.
New York Magazine, September 8, 2003.
Paper, September 2003.
People, August 25, 2003.
Remix, June 2003.
Rolling Stone, September 4, 2003; April 23, 2003.
Source, June 2003; October 2003.
Time, August 23, 2003.
New York Times, September 2, 2003.
USA Today, August 19, 2003; August 28, 2003.
Vanity Fair, September 2003.
XXL, August 2003.
N.E.R.D. Official Website, http://www.n-e-r-d.com (September 21, 2003).
"The 'Nerdy' Neptunes: Creating Their Own Planet," CNN. com, http://www.cnn.com (September 20, 2003).
Star Trak Entertainment, http://www.startrakmusic.com (September 29, 2003).
Music producer, singer, and songwriter
Born April 5, 1973, in Virginia Beach, VA; son of Pharoah (a handyman) and Carolyn (a teacher) Williams.
Teamed with Chad Hugo to form the producing duo the Neptunes while still in high school; sold first song, "Rump Shaker," to rappers Wreckx-N-Effect, 1992; produced "Tonight's the Night" for R&B group Blackstreet, 1994; began producing chart-bound songs for acts like Babyface, Nelly, Britney Spears, and Usher, 1998—formed own artistic act, N.E.R.D., early 2000s; released debut album, In Search Of , 2002.
Awards: Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, 2004.
Behind every chart-topping singer is a behind-the-scenes producer who is in charge of the creative mix that underlies each song. It does not matter how solid a song's lyrics or performer; the producer can ultimately make or break a hit. Over the past few years, Pharrell Williams has emerged as one of the most revolutionary producers of 21st century music. He is one-half of a production duo called the Neptunes; childhood friend Chad Hugo makes up the other half. As producers, the Neptunes have put their touch on more than 150 songs and generated hits in nearly every musical genre with their innovative, out-of-this-world beats. Williams and Hugo are the masterminds behind such hits as urban pop-rapper Nelly's "Hot in Herre," rapper Jay-Z's "I just Wanna Love U (Give it to Me)," R&B star Usher's "U Don't Have to Call," and pop star Britney Spears' "I'm A Slave 4 U."
At one point in 2003, 20 percent of all songs receiving air time on British radio had Williams' touch. The music industry took note and in 2004, the Neptunes walked away with the coveted producer of the year award at the Grammys. In the early 2000s, Williams and Hugo stepped out from behind the scenes and became front-stage material when they formed their own group, called N.E.R.D., which released albums in 2002 and 2004. Since then, Williams has spent a lot of time on the road touring to promote the albums.
Though Williams exudes a city-slick, tough-as-nails playboy persona by sporting "bling" (diamond jewelry), wearing his ball cap tipped to the side and dropping plenty of expletives into each conversation, he is really a nerdy suburbanite at heart. "I'm no rapper," he told Time's Josh Tyrangiel. "I'm, like, a suburban kid." Williams was born on April 5, 1973, to Pharoah and Carolyn Williams and grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the oldest of three boys. His father was a handyman and house painter and his mother was a teacher. Williams' success has brought him plenty of money, in stark contrast to his upbringing. He grew up in a household where paying the bills posed a problem at times. "It wasn't, like, third world poverty, but let's just say we ate a lot of pork and beans," Williams' younger brother, David Williams, told the London Guardian's Paul Lester while N.E.R.D. was touring in Europe. Williams helped his parents out by buying them a house after he made it big.
Growing up, Williams' musical influences were just as diverse as the music he now produces. He listened to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Queen and believes Axl Rose is the biggest rock star of all time. Since childhood, Williams has made a point of allowing himself to enjoy all types of music by not tying his identity to any one genre. "I love Kool Moe Dee, but I also love America," Williams told Time's Tyrangiel. "And I would never let my appreciation for one kind of music keep me from listening to another."
Williams took a personal interest in music in seventh grade after his grandmother suggested he join the school band. He took her advice and chose to become a percussionist. Williams' involvement in school bands as an adolescent provided two key tools for his adult success—the ability to read music and discipline, which he learned as a member of a marching band drum line. "Being a drummer is megamacho," Williams told People magazine. "I'm constantly pushing myself. I got that from band camp. We were pushed on a military level."
The school band also provided a backdrop for his friendship with Hugo, a boy who attended the same Virginia Beach school for gifted children as Williams. Hugo played saxophone. They became fast pals and spent their free time experimenting with samplers and beat production. By eleventh grade, they were calling themselves the Neptunes and were discovered by a scout for music producer Teddy Riley while performing in a school talent show. Riley, who had collaborated with Michael Jackson, had a studio near their school. Riley let them work on songs and make some tracks at his studio.
In 1992, while still in high school, Williams and Hugo sold their first song, "Rump Shaker," to the rap ensemble Wreckx-N-Effect. It appeared on the group's second album, Hard or Smooth. The related video was wildly popular, producing a fervor that nearly matched the enthusiasm for Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back." Sales of the album soared and it was platinum-certified. A second big break came in 1994 when Riley had them produce the track "Tonight's the Night" for his R&B vocal group Blackstreet. In 1998, they hooked up with hardcore hip-hop rapper Noreaga to produce his single "SuperThug." The music industry took note of the Neptunes and more jobs rolled in. Soon enough, artists like Snoop Dogg were knocking at their door and Williams could concentrate on making music, a job he enjoyed more than a stint at McDonald's. Incidentally, Williams wrote and produced the popular McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" jingle.
As the producing duo known as the Neptunes, Williams and Hugo have written songs and mapped out the beats for such artists as Janet Jackson, Babyface, Mary J. Blige, and Justin Timberlake, as well as rock acts No Doubt, Garbage, and Marilyn Manson. Songs produced by the duo often feature startling synthesizer beats and rock guitar riffs resulting in a fresh, cutting-edge style. Sometimes they include sound snippets from 1980s pop culture, such as Atari-game bleeps and early cell phone rings. Writing in the Washington Post, David Segal described their phenomenon this way: "In pop, every age has its sound and few producers have shaped the sound of today as much as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Their work is distinctly digital age, comprising hard, flat tones, repetitive electronic hooks and arrangements that make use of the silence between the beats." Segal described their genius as their ability to play down a track. Unlike other producers, they never add useless passages just for the sake of extending a song, or trying to create something that just is not there. "There's nothing extra on a song like [Spears'] 'Slave 4 U.' You get enough to make you dance and nothing more."
The Neptunes are such popular music-makers they command six-figure salaries to deliver a single tune and artists seem happy to cough up the money for the chance to work with the duo. Williams and Hugo view each song they produce as a fresh opportunity. They strive to give pop artists more attitude and rappers more emotional depth. "We want people to sound different," Williams told Tyrangiel in Time. "Taking somebody from A to B is cool, but when we produce, we want to take people from A to D, to challenge their artistic natures, their image, everything." From all accounts, they seem to be doing the job well. "Pharrell is a very sweet guy," Blige told People. "If he writes a song, he writes the song for you."
In 2002, the Neptunes placed five top-ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, including Nelly's "Hot in Herre," which peaked at number one; Usher's "U Don't Have to Call," which peaked at number three; LL Cool J's "Luv U Better," which peaked at number four; "Girlfriend," by 'N Sync featuring Nelly, which peaked at number five; and N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'," which peaked at number ten. In 2003, Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" hit number five on the chart and Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss" peaked at number eight. The real payoff came the following year, in 2004, when Williams and Hugo won the Grammy Award for producer of the year. In an interview with Billboard's Rashaun Hall, Williams made producing sound easy, equating it to decorating a house. "You're going to need the basics—like a couch—and then you personalize it according to what your personality is."
In the early 2000s, Williams and Hugo stepped out from behind the sound boards to create their own band with pal Shae Haley, who goes by the moniker Shay. They call themselves N.E.R.D., an acronym for "No One Ever Really Dies." For the trio, N.E.R.D. is more than just a name; it is also their philosophy on life. Writing on the band's website, http://www.n-e-r-d.com, Williams explained the philosophy this way: "People's energies are made of their souls. When you die, that energy may disperse but it isn't destroyed. Energy cannot be destroyed. It can manifest in a different way but even then it's like their souls are going somewhere. If it's going to heaven or hell or even if it's going into a fog or somewhere in the atmosphere to lurk unbeknownst to itself, it's going somewhere."
N.E.R.D. released its debut album In Search Of in 2002, followed by Fly or Die in 2004. Ironically, songs from their albums have never been as successful as ones they have produced for other artists. N.E.R.D. members created their first album using synthesizers, then re-recorded it with a live instrumental band. The combination created a unique sound. Instead of hearing one of their legendary single-hand keyboard lines on synthesizer, the passages were played on guitar, with guitars imitating synthesizers.
On its first album, N.E.R.D. explored adolescent anxiety and awkwardness. Writing on the Virgin Records website, the trio spoke out about the content of In Search Of : "This album is like a life soundtrack. It's a diary of [stuff] we've been through over the last year or two. We're just trying to express ourselves as colorful as possible, as musical as possible." Songs include "Backseat Love," about girls who refuse to go all the way and "Lapdance," which compares politicians and strippers.
Because the tone of the songs on each album is diverse, it is tough to place N.E.R.D.'s music in any one genre. Their sound is a fusion of hip-hop, rock, jazz, and soul backed by guitars under Williams' falsetto singing. Because of this, N.E.R.D. has not seen a lot of radio airtime because DJs do not know where to place the songs. But that does not mean N.E.R.D. plans to change its ways. Speaking to the Washington Post's Segal, Williams said the group would not be shoe-horned into one area. Like his song lyrics, Williams spoke in metaphor. "The music is very in-between. A Ferrari is not meant to be in suburban areas. It's meant to be in upper-echelon areas, and it's not meant to be driven around the ghetto. There are a lot of things that don't necessarily fit, but some of us don't give a [darn.] We drive our Ferraris wherever we want, and the rest of the world doesn't always understand that. I think I stay true to what I believe, and N.E.R.D. just pushes the envelope."
By forming N.E.R.D. and touring, Williams has moved from an anonymous, behind-the-scenes producer to a crowd-mobbed sex symbol. He is a predictable crowd-pleaser: slim and tattooed with a carefree style. Though papers have paired him with many women over the years, Williams is most often seen with Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Beyond his sex appeal, Williams has also earned a reputation as a competent musician. He performed at the 2004 Grammy Awards alongside an all-star cast of musicians in a rendition of the Beatles classic "I Saw Her Standing There." Williams, on drums, was accompanied by Sting, Vince Gill, and Dave Matthews. The highlight, of course, was his Grammy win.
In addition to producing and writing songs, Williams has his own clothing company, called Billionaire's Boys Club (BBC). He also has a sneaker line that he named Ice Cream because "ice and cream are two things that run the world," Williams told Paul Lester in the Guardian. "The jewellery—the ice—the diamonds; and the cream is the cash." Williams and Hugo also have their own imprint record label through Arista, called Star Trak Entertainment. As such, they now have the opportunity to launch the careers of up-and-coming stars. As for the future, Williams has a pretty ambitious plan. "I'm going to make $500 million—that's my goal," he told Rolling Stone. "Of that, I'll only keep $100 million, for my family."
In Search Of , Virgin Records, 2002.
Neptunes Present: The Clones (with other artists), Arista, 2003.
Fly or Die, Virgin Records, 2004.
Billboard, April 6, 2002, p. 28.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 5, 2004.
New York Times, April 17, 2004, p. B7.
People, October 13, 2003, p. 111; June 28, 2004, p. 115.
Rolling Stone, April 17, 2003, p. 75.
Time, August 25, 2003, p. 64.
Washington Post, June 6, 2004.
"Biography," N.E.R.D., http://www.n-e-r-d.com/bio.php (February 24, 2005).
"The Hit Man," Guardian (London, England) http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1151480,00.html (February 26, 2005).
"N-E-R-D Biography," Virgin Records, http://www.virginmusic.co.nz/Biography.aspx?artist=3707 (February 26, 2005).
Pharrell Williams scored hit after hit beginning in 2002 thanks to his producing talents for an array of top musical acts. As one half of the Neptunes, Williams writes and puts a unique stamp on singles for Usher, Nelly, Justin Timberlake, and many others. He and his co-Neptune, high-school pal Chad Hugo, also put out music of their own under the "N.E.R.D." name. The music-industry powerhouse-duo are anything but geeks, however, with Esquire writer Neil Strauss declaring their music "the sparkling, clean chrome kitchen of hip-hop futurism. Nearly every song carries the Neptunes' brand-name sound: a syncopated bouncing beat, seductive keyboard chord progressions, and an unforgettable yet oddball hook." For his part, Williams claimed to be sometimes overwhelmed by his success. "There's no better feeling than walking into a club and hearing your song," he told Newsweek writer Lorraine Ali. "You'd think we'd get used to it, but I don't think I ever will. It still gives me the chills."
Born in 1973, Williams grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, one of three boys born to Carolyn, a teacher, and Pharoah, who worked as a housepainter and handyman. Williams remembers that there was no homegrown musical legacy in Virginia Beach to serve as any sort of future inspiration for him, but his aunt did introduce him to a world of influences. Together, he told CosmoGirl writer Lauren Brown, they would "sit in front of the stereo and just play records. She was a singer-songwriter type of person—like, she loved Stevie Wonder—and I got all that from her."
Scored Chart Success as Teen
Williams met Chad Hugo while both were playing in the school jazz band in seventh grade. They soon began making music on their own, with Williams on drums and Hugo playing the saxophone. Both went on to an art and music-focused high school in Virginia Beach, and Williams joined his first outfit around 1990, a rap act called Surrounded by Idiots. One of the other members was a local D.J. named Tim Mosely, who would later rename himself Timbaland and attain chart fame as well.
Around this same time, Williams and Hugo put together an act for their high school talent show, a noted local event that lured famed producer Teddy Riley, whose "New Jack Swing" style began to dominate the R&B charts in the late 1980s. Impressed, Riley signed Williams and Hugo to a production deal, and they began using the "Neptunes" name professionally. Their first hit came when both were still in high school. Wreckx-n-Effect's "Rump Shaker" helped propel the album to No. 6 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts in 1992. But Williams recalled he had a tough time juggling school and the music business at times. "I'd work in the studio after school and wouldn't tell [my parents] about it," he told Teen People 's Mitsuka Ida. "My curfew was midnight, and I used to get into trouble for coming in late."
After spending a few more years under the tutelage of Riley, Williams and Hugo broke out on their own. Their first Top Ten hit came in September of 1998 with "Lookin' at Me" from Mase and Puff Daddy, which reached No. 1 on Billboard 's Hot Rap Singles chart. It also cemented their reputation as up-and-comers in the production business, and they went on to achieve a string of notable successes, including Britney Spears' "I'm A Slave 4 U" in 2001. Rap and R&B acts such as Ludacris and Usher liked they way they mixed in unusual samples and sounds into the tracks. The duo's musical influences ranged from Afrika Bambaataa and Stevie Wonder to Tears for Fears and Stereolab.
Garnered Critical Accolades
"The result is a bold, dynamic, futurist-sounding brand of pop music," wrote Daily Telegraph journalist Craig McLean of Williams' and Hugo's studio talents, "part cutting-edge technology, part old-school soul and funk." New York Times music writer Jon Pareles had similar accolades. "They use the freeze-dried, uninflected tones of the digital era: the snap of drum samples, the blips and tweets of video games and cell-phone rings.… Although Neptunes' tracks revel in the mechanization of looped and programmed riffs pumped out by computerized sequencers, they often add an element that sounds winningly askew: the drooping, detuned notes in 'I'm a Slave for U' or a drum-machine accent that lands just behind the beat."
Eager to move forward, Williams and Hugo formed N.E.R.D., an acronym for "No One Ever Really Dies," with another friend from their magnet high school, Sheldon "Shay" Haley. The group released its first LP, In Search of …, in 2001. It was a terrific mix of their production talents and songwriting skills, which Newsweek 's Ali termed "a frenetic concoction—mostly inspiring and occasionally off the rails. Though the lyrics can sometimes be annoyingly immature…the music is terse, crisp and magnetic." The record's release was actually delayed for a few months because Williams and Hugo had done some work in the studio with Californian ska-pop band No Doubt, and realized they wanted to add live musicians to their own record.
In Search of… landed on several "best-of" lists for 2001 from music critics, and Williams went on to garner a slew of hit records for other artists over the next two years. These included Nelly's "Hot in Herre" and "Girlfriend" from N'Sync, which featured Nelly as well. Despite their string of successes, Williams and his Neptunes producing partner were bypassed for the 2002 Grammy Awards thanks to an oversight: neither the label nor Williams and Hugo entered their work for consideration in the nominations balloting.
Still, four of their singles were nominated for Grammy Awards, and Williams and Hugo went on to have another outstanding year in 2003. Songs they produced for Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, and Snoop Dogg landed in the Top Ten, and they were singled out for particular praise for lending a certain depth to the more hardcore side of rap and R&B. "Taking somebody from A to B is cool," Williams told Time 's Josh Tyrangiel about his philosophy, "but when we produce, we want to take people from A to D, to challenge their artistic natures, their image, everything."
Aided by All-Star Line-Up
The first "Neptunes" album, a compilation titled The Neptunes Present…Clones, debuted at No. 1 in August of 2003 in the United States and sold 250,000 copies in its first week. Williams sang on the single "Frontin'," which also featured Jay-Z, and an array of rap stars joined in to help out on other tracks, including Busta Rhymes, Nelly, Snoop Dogg, and Ludacris. Proving they could work in a range of musical styles, in 2003 Williams and Hugo even did a remix of the 1968 Rolling Stones classic, "Sympathy for the Devil," for the band's 40 Licks compilation. "We never want to be those people who specialize in a certain style," Williams told Newsweek 's Ali, "because once that dies, so do you."
At the 2004 Grammy Awards ceremony, Williams and Hugo walked away with the best producer award and Williams even took the stage that night in an all-star lineup that included country crooner Vince Gill, Dave Matthews, and Sting, to perform the Beatles track, "I Saw Her Standing There." Later in 2004 N.E.R.D. released their second LP, Fly or Die, with help from a Minneapolis rock band they used on the first album, Spymob. The songs sampled an array of 1970s progressive-rock tunes, from Steely Dan to Queen.
At a Glance …
Born on April 5, 1973, in Virginia Beach, Virginia; son of Pharoah (a housepainter) and Carolyn (a teacher) Williams.
Career: Musician and music producer, late 1980s–; N.E.R.D. musical group, co-founder and member, early 2000–; Star Trak record label, co-founder, 2003–.
Awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award, for best producer (with Hugo), 2004.
Addresses: Agent —United Talent Agency, 9560 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 500, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Williams's sudden fame led to a slew of other ventures. In early 2003, he and Hugo formed their own label, Star Trak, which was part of the Arista family, and Williams inked a deal for a clothing line with Reebok called Billionaire's Boys Club, and a line of footwear called Ice Cream. "Because ice and cream are two things that run the world," he told Guardian journalist Paul Lester when asked about the name. "The jewellery—the ice—the diamonds; and the cream is the cash." He also penned the "Lovin' It" jingle for McDonald's, and signed a deal with a top talent agency for future film work. He remains grounded in Virginia Beach, however, where the Neptunes studio is located. "I have no complaints, man," he told Lester in the Guardian interview about his new status as pop star, producer to the stars, and teen heartthrob. "Tired, but no complaints. I could be somewhere else, doing something I really don't want to do.… I'd like to think I'd have become some sort of art teacher at least, or art professor at most, studying for my Ph.D. But life doesn't always end up that way."
In Search of…, Virgin, 2001.
The Neptunes Present…Clones, Star Trak/Arista, 2003.
Fly or Die, Virgin, 2004.
CosmoGirl, March 2004, p. 166.
Daily News Record, October 20, 2003, p. 21.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 5, 2002.
Daily Variety, April 8, 2004, p. 4.
Esquire, December 2002, p. 148.
Guardian (London, England), February 20, 2004, p. 4.
Interview, August 2003, p. 120.
Newsweek, March 18, 2002, p. 65; December 29, 2003, p. 105; March 29, 2004, p. 76.
New York Times, March 10, 2002, p. 1; January 14, 2003, p. E3; April 4, 2004, p. AR31.
People, October 13, 2003, p. 111; June 28, 2004, p. 115.
Teen People, February 1, 2004, p. 48.
Time, August 25, 2003, p. 64.
WWD, March 25, 2004, p. 20S.