Overstating Pharrell’s influence on pop music is a difficult feat. Level most positive creative charges against him and they’ll stick. First, there’s Pharrell the successful solo artist. Since the early 90s he has recorded and performed as a singer, rapper, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist on hit after hit. Those five disciplines have also filtered into his work as one third of skate-punk-hip-hop group N*E*R*D – alongside Chad Hugo and Sheldon Haley. Then there’s all his other accomplishments: the kids charity From One Hand To The Other, Star Trak Entertainment, the clothing line Billionaire Boys Club, and the footwear label Ice Cream. Last but not least there’s The Neptunes, the production duo consisting of Williams and Hugo whose list of achievements requires an intermission to get through, and who were voted by Vibe magazine readers as the third best producers of all time – behind Dr Dre and DJ Premier. You don’t get any better than that, in hip-hop circles at least.
Throughout this period of enviable critical and commercial success – both on and off stage – he’s managed to remain humble, charming, and disciplined (a rare commodity in this post-post-modern ‘Age of Irony’). He’s also impossibly handsome, and as fresh-faced at 40 as he was in his early 20s – something he puts down to skincare tips he picked up from British supermodel Naomi Campbell. Taken together, he’s this generation’s Quincy Jones, Prince, George Martin, and Russell Simons all rolled into one.
Pharrell’s story begins in the mid-1980s in Virginia, on America’s Atlantic Northeast coast. It’s not so much a rags-to-riches tale as a good kid made exceptional. Music was ever-present from a young age (though he was never deemed ‘prodigious’), proving himself as an adept drummer and keyboardist from bucolic summer camp days onwards. It was here that he first met Hugo. Williams’ first forays into professional music came via a man named Teddy Riley who was the R&B-New Jack swing producer of choice in the early ‘90s, as well as a member of the group Blackstreet (who scored a smash hit in 1996 with ‘No Diggity’). Riley had discovered Williams and Hugo at their high school, and soon they were co-producing the party hip-hop track ‘Rump Shaker’ by Wreckx-N-Effects in 1992. It was also around this time that a young Pharrell contributed a verse to SWV’s classic jam ‘Right Here (Human Nature Mix)’, that to this day remains a solid dance classic. By his early 20s his career was well underway.
The 2000s were really his decade as a producer, both as a solo beat-maker (with his own LP In My Mind in 2006 a case in point) and as part of The Neptunes. It was during this time that he had a hand in some of the most recognisable tunes tearing up both the charts and the clubs. The bigger hits such as Britney Spear’s ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’ and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ are well known to most, and then there was behind the scenes production work on albums by Gwen Stefani, Maroon 5, Clipse, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Common, MC Lyte, Noreaga, N.O.R.E., Kelis, Mase, Beyoncé, Madonna, and Usher. The list is endless, and the work garnered millions of record sales and countless awards – most notably two Grammys. N*E*R*D as a group sold well, but that wasn’t where Williams’ strengths lay. He’s a fixer, a man with a special ear who can make other artists’ average records sound great.
“There’s something happening in the ether, and you know about it or you don’t. And if you know, it’s because you’re probably somewhere engineering the change. If you don’t know about it then you’re probably somewhere missing your call, and you’re gonna end up chasing it.” This is Pharrell talking to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this summer in the aftermath of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. It was the music event of 2013, unrivalled in the pantheon of modern music, both in its pre-release marketing and its nostalgic musical elements (who knew disco would make a revival in this age of morose EDM?). The French electronic duo’s album Random Access Memories was big news, but it was the lead single that had most people talking. Arguably they could have chosen anyone big from the music world to collaborate with (there are probably more bankable stars than Pharrell), but they went for a man who garners love from every side, and who had enough soul to make pop music shine with class.
It’s hard to envisage Pharrell’s star shining any brighter; the eternally youthful man from Virginia who appears, on the outside at least, as the ideal family man (he has a four year old son with his new wife), is going from strength to strength – both personally and professionally. For many fans he’s the ultra cool guy wiping the dirt off his shoulder in Snoop’s black and white video for ‘Drop it…’, while for a lot of underground music snobs he’s just another pop star selling a tonne of records, fast. But really he’s just the guy other artists turn to when they’ve run out of ideas, because his head’s full of them. And if it means he’s doing his bit to keep ‘electronic dance music’ (a redundant phrase if there ever was one) out of the charts, then so be it.