Pharrell Williams The Pharrell Phenomenon
Published Feb 14, 2017Pharrell Williams is a force of nature: a producer, songwriter, recording artist, composer, designer and influencer who's left an indelible impact on the shape of pop music and culture. His iconic career kicked off in earnest in the early '90s as part of producing duo the Neptunes — with co-conspirator Chad Hugo — that stealthily formulated the soundtrack for the decade, building hip-hop, R&B, and pop hits Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes, Nelly, SWV, Mystikal, Britney Spears, Clipse, Kelis and a host more. The producing duo are widely touted as among the most influential in history.
Not content being the production wizard behind the curtain, Williams has reinvented himself numerous times, as a rapper, singer, fashion designer, social influencer and film composer. His biggest impact on contemporary hip-hop, soul and pop is a willingness to fearlessly blend genre elements, incorporating a reverent, minimalist electronic aesthetic that both unapologetically upholds soul reference in its quirky synths, percussion and chord progressions, but in a bold, brassy and alternative rock star manner — and always with an eye to the future.
Pharrell's suburban upbringing and mentality gave him an alternative, avant-garde perspective on the black experience that he brought to the mainstream — revealing that in the world of hip-hop and R&B, there has always been room for rock'n'roll, skater-boy culture and trucker hat fashion motifs.
1973 to 1991
Pharrell Williams is born in Virginia Beach, VA in April, 1973. He is the eldest of three — including younger brothers Cato and Psolomon — born to a handyman Pharaoh Williams and educator Carolyn. He will describe his middle-class upbringing in suburban Virginia Beach as "Normalville, USA," although, as he will later tell UK publication Evening Standard in 2002, he often felt self-conscious growing up. "I didn't look like the average kid. I was self-conscious about my eyes."
His love for music manifests at an early age; he recalls that the first album he ever bought was by hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. "As a kid, my aunt and I used to sit in front of the stereo and just play records," Williams will tell CosmoGirl magazine in 2004. "She was a singer-songwriter type of person — she loved Stevie Wonder — and I got all that from her."
He attributes his attraction to music to his synaesthesia, the enhanced ability to associate and "see" music in terms of colours; he will tell Psychology Today in 2012: "Colors are light in the electromagnetic spectrum. For every color, there is a sound, a vibration, a part of the human body, a number, a musical note." He absorbs different and diverse musical influences, from Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, to Kenny Rogers, Queen and Guns N' Roses. "I love Kool Moe Dee, but I also love [country band] America," he'll tell celebrity interviewer Nardwuar in 2013. "I would never let my appreciation for one kind of music keep me from listening to another."
His grandmother recognizes his artistic potential and refers him to a music teacher. He learns music theory, composition and percussion, and at age 12, meets future Neptunes collaborator Chad Hugo at a summer music band camp; Hugo plays tenor sax and Williams plays percussion and keys. "Have you seen that movie School of Rock? That was us, except we played jazz standards like Herbie Hancock's 'Watermelon Man,'" Hugo will say in 2004.
The pair both attend Virginia Beach-based Princess Anne High School and both become drumline members of the school's marching band, the Fabulous Marching Cavaliers (FMC). Pharrell will describe himself during his school years as an outcast or "nerd," but would earn only average grades, preferring to focus on music and his passion: skateboarding, which earns him the nickname "Skateboard P." "When I was 12 or 13, growing up in Virginia Beach, everybody, black and white, was doing it," he'll tell The Guardian in 2008. "Skating taught me what it meant to be cool, to have credibility. I had a half-pipe put in my house. I had the look — the baggy jeans, the Vans."
As friends and fellow band-camp nerds, Williams and Hugo spend time together experimenting with music recording and making rap beats, first on cassette decks and a Casio SK-5, and later on an Apple computer that Hugo and another friend had stolen. "We wanted to make beats and my parents wouldn't let me have any money for equipment, preaching about working hard for what you want. I wasn't having it," Hugo will tell the Los Angeles Valley Beat in an early 2000s interview. "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."
As a duo, Pharrell primarily develops the lyrics and both work on sequencing and crafting instrumentals. "But sometimes it varies according to the song… sometimes [Pharrell] creates the basic sequence, then I add more sounds to it," Hugo will explain. They later ask friends Sheldon "Shae" Haley and Mike Etheridge to form an R&B band with an eye on entering high school music showcases. With Pharrell on vocals and drums, Hugo as DJ and keyboardist, Shae and Mike on backup vocals and percussion, they dub themselves the Neptunes and, during a local talent show, are spotted by Virginia Beach-based producer Teddy Riley, whose studio, Future Recording Studios and Lil' Man Records, is in the area.
Riley signs the teens to a production deal, and later brokers a deal with Virgin Records. Describing their sound, Riley will later say: "It was like R&B meets techno/new wave/hip-hop."
Working with the multiplatinum-selling producer Riley — who worked with artists such as Michael Jackson and MC Hammer — changes Pharrell's life forever. He'll tell Nardwuar in 2013: "We were desperately just making music, taking songs apart and seeing how they worked. The studio was adjacent to our school. [Riley] sent this guy over to see us, and the rest is history."
1992 to 1996
Working in Riley's studio, Williams and Hugo are tasked with creating music for Riley and his associated artists, such as R&B group BlackStreet. Under Riley's tutelage, Pharrell's key break comes when he pens a verse for the 1992 hit anthem "Rump Shaker" for Wreckx-n-Effect, and performs on the remix of R&B group SWV's Billboard-topping single "Right Here." Riley refers to the duo of Williams and Hugo as "architects," with a unique, stripped-down, spacy urban pop sound.
"Our group always had a specific sound people never really understood," Hugo will tell Vibe Magazine in 2001, of the duo's genre-bending blend. "We allowed our mind to wander and most people don't." Adds Pharrell: "We just want to be more creative and pull some shit out from the left and create a whole new era."
Williams develops his Star Trak Entertainment label with Arista Records in 1993; the imprint is named after his love of Star Trek. The Neptunes connect with and sign emerging rap duo Clipse that same year via a mutual friend. They begin collaborating on the duo's impending album.
"We were just trying to imitate the beats we admired, you know?" Williams will say in a 2004 interview. "We were major Tribe Called Quest fans, so we were just trying to imitate that for a while. 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."
In addition to their sound, Williams' penchant for the Virginia Beach skateboarding lifestyle — replete with trucker hats and polo shirts — stands out in the '90s grimy thug era of hip-hop. "People shouldn't be afraid to say they're influenced," Williams will say in a 2005 interview with Vibe. "I'm definitely influenced by Stevie Wonder, Jim Morrison's attitude, and I dug the way Robert Redford was a ladies' man but he ain't fuck half the world. When I was young, hip-hop was big, but so was rock'n'roll."
1997 to 1999
Demand for production from the Neptunes is high. "We can appreciate sampling, but we just don't do it," Pharrell says of the duo's genre-bending sound to Kronick Magazine. "It's not about our races. The music that we make is for a much bigger cause. When you get into the race issue, you're indirectly sectioning us off. And you're causing a big fracture in something that needs to be like a big Band-Aid."
In addition, the Virginia Beach scene is becoming a hotbed of talent — producer Timbaland, rapper-artist Missy Elliott, rap duo Clipse and neo-soul musician D'Angelo are putting the location on the map.
"The Neptunes were so ahead of their time, just like New Jack Swing was for me," Riley will tell Red Bull Music in 2015.
Noted for their unique approach to samples and electronic sounds — the duo cite major influences as diverse as Afrika Bambaataa to Stereolab — the Neptunes score their first top ten chart hit in 1997 with producing credits on the Ma$e/Puff Daddy hit "Lookin' at Me."
Off the strength of the genre-redefining Noreaga hit "SuperThug," Williams and Hugo are in high demand. They begin to shift away from Riley's tutelage, becoming more of their own unit and sign their first production deal in 1998 with major label Elektra. They help ensure Clipse secure a deal with Elektra as well — only for Clipse to be dropped by the label after their first single, "The Funeral," does poorly.
Williams works with emerging singer Kelis, recruiting her for Ol' Dirty Bastard's 1999 hit "Got Your Money" and on breakout 1999 debut album Kaleidoscope. Off the strength of the Neptunes-produced singles "Caught Out There" — a memorable and unconventional track with the angst-y yell "I hate you so much right now" — and "Get Along With You" Kelis's album marks the futuristic duo's shift into the mainstream pop consciousness and visibility.
The duo also embark on a side project, a "funk-rock" band with partner Shae Haley called N*E*R*D, which stands for "No one Ever Really Dies." "It's a belief that we have. It's like hope for those that have lost family members, loved ones, and just fuckin' friends," Pharrell says in a 1999 interview. "No one Ever Really Dies: it's based off a theory that Einstein was quoted as saying. It's like, 'Energy never dies. It just transforms and passes on.' That's how we feel about life, period. Sorta like hope, man. An indirect message of hope."
2000 to 2002
As a part of the Neptunes, Pharrell works with Jay Z to produce single "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)" off the 2000 album The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The track features old school funk with turn-of-the-century electronics, and is a major hit. "I wanted the track to reflect attention on old soul music and where it came from. I was thinking of Curtis Mayfield," Williams says in a 2000 interview. The Neptunes have another production hit with New Orleans rapper Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass."
Side project N*E*R*D releases a 2001 debut entitled In Search Of… and is a moderate hit, selling more than 600,000 copies in the U.S. The rock-influenced record reflects Williams' mentality of making music that's not concerned about being commercial: "The first criteria is to make some impactful shit, something that makes people say, 'That song helped me through that era,'" he'll say in a 2004 interview. He will later re-record the album with the rock band Spymob.
Pop star Britney Spears reaches out to Pharrell to work on her own album, based on the sound and success of the Jay Z single. Spears' single "I'm a Slave 4 U" features similar production by the Neptunes, and is a career-defining single in 2001.
Williams works on Kelis's followup record Wanderland in 2001. The record is not given a wide release in North America — due to reports that the label didn't know how to effectively market the genre-blending album — but it is released in Europe.
The Neptunes' association with Clipse pays off in a big way in 2002 with the success of Clipse album Lord Willin'. Single "Grindin'" features trademark Neptunes production and is a big hip-hop hit. "That beat's like two-and-a-half years old. I made it in Chad Hugo's garage," Williams tells Vibe Magazine in 2002.
2003 to 2005
The Neptunes produce two tracks — "Change Clothes" and "Allure" — on Jay Z's eighth studio project The Black Album. In 2003, a U.S. survey reveals that Pharrell/the Neptunes have produced 43 percent of songs playing on the radio at the time.
Pharrell shifts his attention to world of fashion and style; in 2004 he partners with Nike to develop hi-top skating shoe Pharrell Dunk High. "I love the whole process — from going out and finding the inspiration, picking a color palette, designing it, and then seeing people wear it," he'll tell Vibe in 2005.
In 2004, the artistic collaboration with Kelis dissolves; she remarks that Williams' Star Trak label isn't focused enough on its roster. "They're a new label. They're confused as to what they're doing," she says in a 2004 interview. "It's hard when a label head is artist and CEO. You have to pick one, because one is gonna suffer. The label is suffering and the artists are suffering."
In 2005, Pharrell is named best dressed man of the year by Esquire. Pharrell also has a hand in popularizing the Japan-based A Bathing Ape's Billionaire Boys Club clothing brand and works with the company to develop his own luxury Ice Cream brand. "It was like everything I would have wanted to do, but times a thousand," he'll say in 2006.
2006 to 2009
Solo debut In My Mind is released in 2006; lead single, "Can I Have It Like That," features Gwen Stefani. Outside of hit "Frontin'" — which will be his biggest solo hit until 2013's "Happy" — it fares poorly, peaking at 48 on Billboard. The album doesn't have the expected commercial impact, a fact he would later take the blame for. "I wrote those songs out of ego," he'll tell GQ in 2014. "Talking about the money I was making and the byproducts of living that lifestyle. What was good about that? What'd you get out of it? There was no purpose. I was so under the wrong impression at that time… I didn't realize you should have a purpose. I thought you just did it just to do it."
In 2007, he produces two songs from the Hives' album, The Black and White Album. In 2008, he releases another N.E.R.D album, Seeing Sounds. Also that year he and model girlfriend Helen Lasichanh welcome son Rocket Williams.
Pharrell works with R&B singer Robin Thicke on the 2008 album The Evolution of Robin Thicke. "I thought he was dope and just incredibly talented and I wanted to work with him," Williams says in a 2008 interview. Between 2007 and 2009, he also makes an appearance on Madonna's album Hard Candy, provides production on Britney Spears' Blackout album, produces Beyoncé single "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and works with Shakira on her She Wolf album.
2010 to 2013
By 2010, Pharrell has found his stride. He's worked with countless artists, earned ten Grammy awards and is responsible for selling more than 100 million records. He is named producer of the decade by Billboard Magazine. In 2012, he releases a book entitled Places and Spaces I've Been, outlining various music and design projects, as well as launching i am Other, a media collective and record label representing all his initiatives, including Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream apparel, textile company Bionic Yarn and a dedicated YouTube channel.
He co-writes and co-produces "Sweet Life" and produces "Golden Girl" for Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, and works with composer Hans Zimmer to produce the music for the 84th Academy Awards. In 2013, Williams weds model Helen Lasichanh, mother of his son Rocket. He co-develops the soundtracks for animated features Despicable Me (2010) and Despicable Me 2 (2013). The latter notably includes single "Happy." The track becomes a number one hit, staying on the Billboard 100 chart for ten consecutive weeks and earns an Academy Award nomination. He also releases the "world's first 24-hour music video" for the song. Williams describes creating the song as a defining moment in his career, one that helped him better define himself as an artist and his standing in the music world. "It took me a minute to find my purpose. I knew something was missing, and then I realized: OK, you're able to make music. Now you have to inject purpose," he'll tell the Wall Street Journal in 2014. "I want to make music with something extra to it — a holistic property. The distinction between sounding amazing and feeling amazing — that's the thing. People, I think, are looking for a feeling."
Pharrell plays a key role on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories album, providing lead vocals on hit "Get Lucky" along with feature roles on "Fragments of Time" and "Lose Yourself to Dance." He also scores a hit with Robin Thicke's single "Blurred Lines." The track — co-written with Thicke — is a worldwide hit but stirs up controversy, notably for a racy music video and claims of misogynistic lyrics. Nevertheless, the song is a massive hit, the longest number one single of 2013. Williams ultimately garners seven Grammy nominations in total for the year, most notably for producer of the year.
He appears on the music competition show The Voice, replacing singer Cee-Lo Green as one of the judges.
2014 to 2017
Williams kicks off 2014 with a much meme'd appearance, wearing a vintage Vivienne Westwood buffalo-styled "Happy" hat at the Grammys. Williams releases his second solo album, Girl, in 2014. The record is a moderate success and includes Despicable Me 2 hit "Happy."
"For me, I want to chase after a feeling, something that just feels good. And from there, lyrically, the music just sort of sets the template for the words," he tells Time Out in 2013. "My job is just to listen to it, and let it tell me what should be fed lyrically, where the drums should go, where the melodies should go. It's all by feel."
The estate of soul singer Marvin Gaye files a lawsuit against songwriters Williams and Thicke for copyright infringement, claiming that "Blurred Lines" rips off Gaye's late '70s hit "Got to Give It Up." A Los Angeles jury rules for the plaintiffs, awarding $7.3 million as part of the ruling. During the trial proceedings, he'll state he was merely aiming to approximate the "feel" of the Gaye record. A judge will later reduce the award by $2 million.
Williams vehemently disagrees with the lawsuit verdict, telling The Financial Times that the verdict handicaps artists creating content that might have been inspired by something else. "This applies to fashion, music, design — anything. If we lose our freedom to be inspired, we're going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation. This is about protecting the intellectual rights of people who have ideas."
He co-writes and produces "Alright" off of rapper Kendrick Lamar's third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly. The track, which boasts uncredited chorus vocals from Williams, garners four Grammy nominations in 2016 for Song of the Year, Best Music Video, Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, and wins for the latter two. Also in 2015, his love of music comes full circle when he produces a remix of "Bonita Applebum" for a reissue of A Tribe Called Quest's debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm.
He acts as producer and composer for 2016 film Hidden Figures — the dramatization of three black American women who assisted with early U.S. space program efforts — citing his role as a spiritual person and feminist as the driving factor for being involved. He releases singles from the soundtrack, "Runnin'" and "Crave," featuring his lead vocals.
"Women have a lot to carry, right?" he says in a 2014 interview with Esquire. "Including the entire human species. That's deep. And still they don't have an equal say on this planet. That's insane. Meanwhile, their feelings are suppressed, their spirits are oppressed, and their ambitions are repressed."
He speaks out when an artist off the Hidden Figures soundtrack — gospel singer Kim Burrell – makes homophobic remarks in a leaked video sermon. In an Instagram post, he states: "I condemn hate speech of any kind. There is no room in this world for any kind of prejudice. My greatest hope is for inclusion and love for all humanity in 2017 and beyond."
In 2017, he is slated to appear on the forthcoming album by artist Thundercat; it is also reported he will be working on new music from Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and N*E*R*D, along with work on his third solo album.
"I don't have a specific moment where I thought 'I've made it.' I never look at it like that," he said in a 2013 interview. "I always looked at it like, 'Wow, I get to do it again.' You can't assume you've made it. That's too much of an assumption."
Essential Pharrell Williams
From a producer and performer aspect, the musical output of Pharrell Williams is both prolific and transformative. With such a vast discography, choosing a select few must-listen projects is difficult, but not impossible. That said, here are the essential Neptunes/Pharrell projects for your listening pleasure.
Justin Timberlake Justified (Jive, 2002)
This debut studio album by American singer and songwriter Justin Timberlake features a distinctive retro-futuristic R&B sound — as conceived by the Neptunes — that essentially defined the course of mainstream pop with soul influences. Williams and Hugo will tell MTV News that they drew on Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller albums for inspiration. Tracks such as "Señorita" and "Rock Your Body" were reportedly actually developed for Jackson himself, who ultimately passed on them.
Snoop Dogg "Drop It Like It's Hot" (feat. Pharrell Williams) (Interscope, 2004)
From Snoop Dogg's 2004 album R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece, the smash hit "Drop It Like It's Hot" — with its sparse, minimalist production — didn't sound like anything else that was dominating hip-hop at the time. That's why it blew minds with its signature Neptunes sound and flashy hook.
Nelly "Hot in Herre" (Universal, 2002)
Off rapper Nelly's sophomore album Nellyville, "Hot in Herre" was a defining crossover hit. With its go-go vibe and infectious hook, the Neptunes hit was a summer rap classic in 2002.