The roster sounds like the invite list for an award show, maybe a rundown of the Billboard charts. Jay-Z, No Doubt, Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes, Nelly, Ludacris, Mystikal, Snoop Dogg, Clipse, LL Cool J, Sean Paul, P. Diddy, Scarface, Toni Braxton, TLC, 'N Sync, Foxy Brown, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Garbage, Ice Cube, Janet Jackson, Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Moby, Usher, Ja Rule. It could be both. It probably has been.
Those names have something else in common. It's a big part of the reason why they'd be invited to an award show or appear on the Billboard charts. They've all worked with the production team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, better known as the Neptunes. And it's worked for them. Forget gold: Everything the Neptunes touch turns to platinum.
Except, of course, for Hugo and Williams' own rap-rock-whatever group N.E.R.D., which released its debut, In Search of... , on Virgin Records early last year. Virgin didn't really know what to do with N.E.R.D.'s forward-thinking blend of street smarts and studio slickness. How do you market an album that appeals to people who also buy (according to Amazon.com) records by the Flaming Lips and 50 Cent? In Search of... seemed to be coated in Teflon, refusing to let any easy label stick to it. Which is kind of what made it so great.
N.E.R.D. performs August 26 at Smirnoff Music Centre as part of the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour.
Before we go on, we should point out that you shouldn't cry for N.E.R.D. too much: In Search of... did sell more than 500,000 copies. The point is, it could/should have sold so much more. There's a nation of kids who want some peanut butter in their chocolate, kids weaned on punk rock for dinner and hip-hop for dessert, kids who know that the Beatles and Biggie belong on the same iPod. In Search of... was a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for a generation that doesn't even really have an Introducing Herman's Hermits. But not enough people knew it was out there.
"It's a new era, you know, a time for change, a time for new things," Hugo explains. "It's like, there's new formulas, there's a new generation that's just getting into music, you know what I'm saying? You know, companies look at the past, examples from the past, and go from those things. This is like a new project to get their hands on, you know, and they don't know if it's rock or if it's hip-hop or whatever. And we just looked at it as, 'Hey, man, I mean, this is who we're influenced by. This is the artistry of it. You guys figure it out. The kids know what it is.' All that corporate bullshit. They don't know how to--they kind of find a box for it. It's like, 'Hey, man, music is changing. There's new boxes to be made.'"
Hugo and Williams have been building boxes together, so to speak, since they first hooked up in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was a fertile climate for music; Missy Elliott and Timbaland were both coming up around the same time, and Teddy Riley had already put the city on the map, thanks to his new-jack-swing sound. The partnership didn't mesh right away.
"Personality-wise, no," Hugo says. "I mean, sorta. Here's how it was: When we were in school, he used to bang on the cafeteria table, and he used to rhyme; he used to rap. I'd hook up at my mom's house. Had this cheap little studio and I'd do beats and write. Then he started doing beats. It was kinda weird, you know what I mean, but at the same time it was good. I guess, ultimately, we learned from each other. Musically, we've always clicked. Over a time, it's been like some kind of brotherhood, I guess."
The success they've seen so far has only strengthened the bond, even when they're apart. Which is where they'll be for the next month or so, as Williams takes N.E.R.D. out on the road with the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour and Hugo mans the fort at home, "finishing some unfinished business," as he says. It's nothing new for them. In fact, it's an important part of the process.
"There are times when we vibe together, you know, and come up with ideas," Hugo says. "And then there's a lot of times when we work separately. To be honest, it works out better when we do have time separately. Because from past experiences, you know, we always have these ideas flying out at the same time. Pharrell is more of a songwriter, so on that end I let him do his thing as far as writing the song with the artist, if it's producing other artists--hip-hop or pop or whatever. I just let him do his thing, and I come back on the musical end. In that sense, I'm like a band musician--the guy that comes in with the guitar and just kinda fills in empty spaces."
Which is what he's doing right now: Part of Hugo's "unfinished business" is working on N.E.R.D.'s next album, laying down his licks, coming up with more ideas. In Search of... featured Minneapolis' Spymob (who just released Sitting Around Keeping Score on the duo's Star Trak label) providing much of the backdrop for their songs. This time, with Williams on drums and Hugo on guitar, they're making their own messes.
"We're trying not to do the whole studio-editing thing," he says. "Just kinda being spontaneous with everything. It's kinda reminiscent of some Beatles influences and a lot of '60s rock shit." He says the group is supposed to have something ready by November, but "we want to take our time with it."
Not that they have much time, since they're about to have their hands full just being the Neptunes. On August 19, the Neptunes released their own kinda-sorta debut, The Neptunes Present...Clones, a grab bag of Star Trak signings (Spymob, Kelis, Fam-Lay, Clipse), big-name big-ups (Jay-Z, Nas, Nelly, Snoop Dogg) and Hugo and Williams' own projects (including Williams' first turn as a solo act, "Frontin'," which is already a smash). It's the kind of record Virgin likely had in mind when it signed the band; too bad for them it came out on Arista, the label that distributes Star Trak. It's also the kind of record that virtually ensures Hugo and Williams aren't going anywhere for quite some time; almost every track could be issued as a single, and you can bet at least a handful will be.
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Of course, no one would have expected them to disappear. You'd have an easier time getting rid of air or the word "and." For the past few years, the Neptunes have owned more radio stations than Clear Channel, produced more hits than St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols, been more unavoidable than cellular phone service commercials. You can't get away from it, not even if you wanted to. Ask Hugo. Well, he's wanted to, at least. Put it this way: Imagine if you took a vacation from work and everyone from your office came with you. That's a little bit what it's like for Hugo when he's not in the studio and just wants to listen to the radio or watch MTV.
"We don't wanna get sick of ourselves, hearing our name at least," Hugo says. "It's just a matter of us trying to keep it fresh. Because to be honest, I get sick of this shit once in a while. But what's most important is seeing the people, the way the fans and the audiences respond to that shit in a club. That's the best feeling."
Hugo pauses, then starts laughing, because he's done enough interviews to know how they turn out. Especially when you admit to getting "sick of this shit" and you're referencing your own music.
"I gotta rephrase that, because I never get sick of this shit," he says with a laugh. "On the radio, sometimes. Like on the radio and I hear the same thing when I switch the station, of course. There are songs that bring back memories: 'Damn, I stayed up till 3 in the morning. I'm not in the mood for that.' But it's a good feeling, man. Like, a simple beat, and it's very infectious, and people respond to that. That's the rewarding feeling."