In the early aughts around the time I met Pharrell for a sit-down interview, The Neptunes production team dominated most weeks’ pop charts, producing hits for Mystikal, Snoop Dogg, Usher, L.L. Cool J, Jay-Z and everyone else. The Neptunes facilitated Justin Timberlake miraculous acceptance by BET, and even made Britney Spears sound killer.
These miracles were why I waited around for hours outside House of Blues to meet Pharrell, before he performed with his “rock” band, N.E.R.D. His team finally led me backstage and let me watch him do vocal warm-ups with a coach before his manager ushered in a flock of girls wanting to take pictures, which Pharrell did without the slightest smarm, not even studying the girls’ booties until they were walking off down the hall.
Finally, Pharrell and his non-Neptune N.E.R.D. partner Shay Haley found time to sit on either side of me in their dressing room, crinkling their noses up at my beat-up recorder wrapped in duct tape.
“Here you go, bless this mic right here,” I joked.
Shay and Pharrell just stared down, as if confused by the janky tape recorder.
“So, I’m a fan,” I told them, “but I haven’t read much about the music side of what y’all do. I was wondering who does what in the Neptunes?”
Still frowning down at the recorder, Pharrell replied, “We pretty much do it all, you know what I’m sayin?”
“How long you had that tape recorder, man?” Shay asked.
“For quite some time actually. It’s been a tradition throughout my long illustrious, uh, career.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” Shay huffed.
“That’s my style,” I admitted. “I rode my bike here too… Anyway, so, no one Neptune specializes in any one thing?
“I dunno. I don’t brag much, you know what I’m sayin?” Pharrell asked me rhetorically. “I make beats and play keys.”
As musicians, how did y’all first get into 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 …
Lots of people make beats, and most of them stay in their bedroom. How 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. I mean, 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.
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. Whenever we do something for somebody we do the whole thing.
There’s a Mystikal song you guys did that has some really complicated horn arrangements… “Bouncin’ Back.” Who did the horn arrangement?
P: That was synthesizer at first. I played that by ear. I’m classically trained with drums, but chords I play by ear.
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 school in Virginia Beach for the gifted and talented, that’s where me and Chad met.
You guys ever hang out in New Orleans much?
P&S: (shake their heads, no)
During Mardi Gras every year the band kids learn Neptunes and OutKast songs for the parades.
P: Wow. I’d love to hear that shit.
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.
But don’t you miss hearing new stuff on the radio all the time?
Pharrell reluctantly nods.
Well, thank god at least y’all are on the radio.
P: Thank you so much.
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