Seems not a week’s gone by in the past five years where The Neptunes haven’t produced at least one — if not five or seven — top-ten hits for the likes of Mystikal, Snoop Dogg, Usher, L.L. Cool J, Jay-Z and almost every artist on pop radio. Blame it on Clear Channel programming us, but I give more credit to The Neptunes’ songwriting and production for Justin Timberlake’s miraculous acceptance by BET, and for the fact that I once listened to and almost enjoyed a Britney Spears album.
These miracles are why I waited around for hours outside House of Blues, drinking, waiting, drinking more, watching Pharrell do vocal warm-ups with a coach before their manager ushered in a flock of girls wanting to take pictures, which Pharrell did without the slightest smarm, not even studying the girls’ bodies until they’d turned around and walked off down the hall. Then finally, Pharrell and his non-Neptune N.E.R.D. partner Shay Haley (not sure where was Hugo — commonly believed to be “the brains of the operation” to Pharrell’s cover-boy — he ended up not playing the show either) found time to sit on either side of me in their dressing room, crinkling their noses at my beat-up tape recorder…
Me: Here you go, bless this mic right here…
Shay & Pharrell: (Silently staring down, as if confused by the recorder…)
M: So, I’m a fan, but I haven’t read much about the music side of what y’all do, so I was wondering who does what in the Neptunes?
Pharrell: (Still frowning down at the recorder) We pretty much do it all, you know what I’m sayin?
(Whenever an interview subject says ‘You know what I’m sayin?’ I immediately assume they’re not thinking, just talking out their ass. But before I could re-direct them…)
Shay: (Brow furrowed) How long you had that tape recorder, man?
M: For quite some time actually. It’s been a tradition throughout my long illustrious, uh…
S: Yeah, I can tell.
M: (nervous laughing) How can you tell? The masking tape? Yeah, that’s my style. I rode my bike here too… Anyway, so, no one Neptune specializes in any one thing?
P: I dunno. I don’t brag much, you know what I’m sayin?
M: No, no, no, it’s not a qualitative question, I mean, to me beats are as good as vocals are as good as keys, you know what I’m sayin?
P: I make beats and play keys.
S: I play a drums a little but…
M: As musicians, how did y’all first get into utilizing electronics, samplers and such?
P: We were just tryin to imitate the beats we admired, you know? We were major Tribe Called Quest fans, so we were just trying to imitate that for a while until we…
(He drifts off. Here’s where I should have asked ‘How did you go from being fans of down-to-earth rappers like Tribe, to making music for all these all-style-little substance lyricists?’ In the background blasted the Black Eyed Peas’ shitty “Where is the Love?’ I too often complain that hip-hop should be more positive, but then when it is, it sucks).
M: Uh, what was your first exciting musical experience?
S: (After asking their manager what it was, Shay answers) The 9/11 tribute with Beastie Boys at Hammerstein Ballroom. That was our first show.
M: Lots of people make beats and most of them stay in their bedroom. How the hell did y’all go from making beats, to jumping on stage?
P: We don’t really look at it like that. For us, music is music. You just do it and have fun, and when it becomes too technical it becomes…difficult.
M: Difficult? Like how?
P: I mean when it’s overly analyzed, when you over-analyze it yourself…it can become difficult. But when you are free-spirited about the way you play your music, and let your instinct run things, it’s cool.
M: Uh. OK. Especially here in N.O., some people limit their view of musicians to only those who play live instruments. (Pointing to big, ignorant sign in H.O.B. dressing room “Music comes from the heart, not the mind”) Like this sign actually; doesn’t it seem like music should be a good cross between both the heart and the mind? It shouldn’t all come from one place, right? Just like you shouldn’t tell yourself, ‘Guitar only. Fuck electronics’…
P: But what I’m saying goes along with that mantra: if you don’t really think too much, and go along with your heart, that is how you feel…
M: Uh. There’s a Mystikal song you guys did that has some really complicated horn arrangements…
P: “Bouncin’ Back.”
M: Who did the horn arrangement? Which one of y’all reads music?
P: That was synthesizer at first. I played that by ear. I’m classically trained with drums, but chords I play by ear.
M: Any of y’all go to music school?
P: Of course. That’s where we met, Beginning Band. Then in Summertime we went to a gifted school called, The (garbled by shitty Black Eyed Pees song) School for the Gifted and Talented, that’s where me and Chad met.
M: In Virginian Beach?
M: You guys ever hang out in New Orleans much?
P&S: (shake their heads, No)
(I then have far too good a time rambling on about how being in high-school band here gets kids laid more than if they play football, and then about how every year the kids learn Neptunes and OutKast songs for the Mardi Gras parades.)
P: Wow. I’d love to hear that shit.
M: Yeah, it’s awesome. So, when you produce a song, do you record the vocals too, or do you finish the track and send it to someone else to record the vocals?
P: We do the whole thing.
M: You write a lot of vocal melodies too right? You wrote a lot of Usher’s vocals…
P: Whenever we do something for somebody we do the whole thing.
M: (‘You write Jay-Z’s raps?’ I shoulda asked) It’s not uncommon to turn on Clear Channel Radio and hear four or five of y’all’s songs in a row. Obviously this benefits you and that’s great, but as musicians and music fans, don’t you have criticisms of that kind of radio?
S: But that’s like everywhere you go man, whatever’s hot at the time they tend to keep in regular rotation.
M: Yeah, I know, but doesn’t it seem like the rotation is too small, 93.3 play the same 9 artists over-and-over…
S: Yeah but, you know, it also depends on like, when people drop albums. Sometimes someone drops an album at a certain time and it just blows up so that a lot of times it can get up to like, 15 different acts on the radio at one time.
M: Uh. Yeah. (push the crippled recorder back at Pharrell) But don’t you miss hearing new stuff on the radio all the time?
P: (after a pregnant pause, he reluctantly nods, followed by another pause that lasts until the too-long-in-coming end of “Where is the Love?”)
M: Well, thank god at least y’all are on the radio.
P: Thank you so much.
For the record, the N.E.R.D. show that followed was terribly boring. Their hit, ‘Frontin’’ is just about my favorite pop tune since Prince’s ‘Kiss,’ (or at least Aaliyah’s ‘Are You that Somebody?’) but otherwise, unlike Neptunes hip-hop hits, N.E.R.D.’s “rock” songs take a giant step backwards into stale open-chord college music with no electronics — not that all modern music has to utilize electronics, but if you’re The Neptunes, why would you ever avoid them? Oh right, to cut off your nose… I support anyone who goes outside of what they’re good at to try something new. But not even Pharrell’s nice melody lines and lyrics about “fucking you from behind” could save N.E.R.D.