Pharrell Williams Biography
Scored Chart Success as Teen, Garnered Critical Accolades, Aided by All-Star Line-Up
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.
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.
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