Music producer, singer, and songwriter
Born April 5, 1973, in Virginia Beach, VA; son of Pharoah (a handyman) and Carolyn (a teacher) Williams.
Addresses: Home —Virginia Beach, VA. Office —Star Trak Entertainment, PO Box 5017, New York, NY 10185-5017. Website —http://www.n-e-r-d.com.
Teamed with Chad Hugo to form the producing duo the Neptunes while still in high school; sold first song, "Rump Shaker," to rappers Wreckx-N-Effect, 1992; produced "Tonight's the Night" for R&B group Blackstreet, 1994; began producing chart-bound songs for acts like Babyface, Nelly, Britney Spears, and Usher, 1998—formed own artistic act, N.E.R.D., early 2000s; released debut album, In Search Of , 2002.
Awards: Grammy Award for Producer of the Year, 2004.
Behind every chart-topping singer is a behind-the-scenes producer who is in charge of the creative mix that underlies each song. It does not matter how solid a song's lyrics or performer; the producer can ultimately make or break a hit. Over the past few years, Pharrell Williams has emerged as one of the most revolutionary producers of 21st century music. He is one-half of a production duo
At one point in 2003, 20 percent of all songs receiving air time on British radio had Williams' touch. The music industry took note and in 2004, the Neptunes walked away with the coveted producer of the year award at the Grammys. In the early 2000s, Williams and Hugo stepped out from behind the scenes and became front-stage material when they formed their own group, called N.E.R.D., which released albums in 2002 and 2004. Since then, Williams has spent a lot of time on the road touring to promote the albums.
Though Williams exudes a city-slick, tough-as-nails playboy persona by sporting "bling" (diamond jewelry), wearing his ball cap tipped to the side and dropping plenty of expletives into each conversation, he is really a nerdy suburbanite at heart. "I'm no rapper," he told Time' s Josh Tyrangiel. "I'm, like, a suburban kid." Williams was born on April 5, 1973, to Pharoah and Carolyn Williams and grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the oldest of three boys. His father was a handyman and house painter and his mother was a teacher. Williams' success has brought him plenty of money, in stark contrast to his upbringing. He grew up in a household where paying the bills posed a problem at times. "It wasn't, like, third world poverty, but let's just say we ate a lot of pork and beans," Williams' younger brother, David Williams, told the London Guardian 's Paul Lester while N.E.R.D. was touring in Europe. Williams helped his parents out by buying them a house after he made it big.
Growing up, Williams' musical influences were just as diverse as the music he now produces. He listened to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Queen and believes Axl Rose is the biggest rock star of all time. Since childhood, Williams has made a point of allowing himself to enjoy all types of music by not tying his identity to any one genre. "I love Kool Moe Dee, but I also love America," Williams told Time' s Tyrangiel. "And I would never let my appreciation for one kind of music keep me from listening to another."
Williams took a personal interest in music in seventh grade after his grandmother suggested he join the school band. He took her advice and chose to become a percussionist. Williams' involvement in school bands as an adolescent provided two key tools for his adult success—the ability to read music and discipline, which he learned as a member of a marching band drum line. "Being a drummer is megamacho," Williams told People magazine. "I'm constantly pushing myself. I got that from band camp. We were pushed on a military level."
The school band also provided a backdrop for his friendship with Hugo, a boy who attended the same Virginia Beach school for gifted children as Williams. Hugo played saxophone. They became fast pals and spent their free time experimenting with samplers and beat production. By eleventh grade, they were calling themselves the Neptunes and were discovered by a scout for music producer Teddy Riley while performing in a school talent show. Riley, who had collaborated with Michael Jackson, had a studio near their school. Riley let them work on songs and make some tracks at his studio.
In 1992, while still in high school, Williams and Hugo sold their first song, "Rump Shaker," to the rap ensemble Wreckx-N-Effect. It appeared on the group's second album, Hard or Smooth. The related video was wildly popular, producing a fervor that nearly matched the enthusiasm for Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back." Sales of the album soared and it was platinum-certified. A second big break came in 1994 when Riley had them produce the track "Tonight's the Night" for his R&B vocal group Blackstreet. In 1998, they hooked up with hardcore hip-hop rapper Noreaga to produce his single "SuperThug." The music industry took note of the Neptunes and more jobs rolled in. Soon enough, artists like Snoop Dogg were knocking at their door and Williams could concentrate on making music, a job he enjoyed more than a stint at McDonald's. Incidentally, Williams wrote and produced the popular McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" jingle.
As the producing duo known as the Neptunes, Williams and Hugo have written songs and mapped out the beats for such artists as Janet Jackson, Babyface, Mary J. Blige, and Justin Timberlake, as well as rock acts No Doubt, Garbage, and Marilyn Manson. Songs produced by the duo often feature startling synthesizer beats and rock guitar riffs resulting in a fresh, cutting-edge style. Sometimes they include sound snippets from 1980s pop culture, such as Atari-game bleeps and early cell phone rings. Writing in the Washington Post, David Segal described their phenomenon this way: "In pop, every age has its sound and few producers have shaped the sound of today as much as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Their work is distinctly digital age, comprising hard, flat tones, repetitive electronic hooks and arrangements that make use of the silence between the beats." Segal described their genius as their ability to play down a track. Unlike other producers, they never add useless passages just for the sake of extending a song, or trying to create something that just is not there. "There's nothing extra on a song like [Spears'] 'Slave 4 U.' You get enough to make you dance and nothing more."
The Neptunes are such popular music-makers they command six-figure salaries to deliver a single tune and artists seem happy to cough up the money for the chance to work with the duo. Williams and Hugo view each song they produce as a fresh opportunity. They strive to give pop artists more attitude and rappers more emotional depth. "We want people to sound different," Williams told Tyrangiel in Time. "Taking somebody from A to B is cool, but when we produce, we want to take people from A to D, to challenge their artistic natures, their image, everything." From all accounts, they seem to be doing the job well. "Pharrell is a very sweet guy," Blige told People. "If he writes a song, he writes the song for you."
In 2002, the Neptunes placed five top-ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart, including Nelly's "Hot in Herre," which peaked at number one; Usher's "U Don't Have to Call," which peaked at number three; LL Cool J's "Luv U Better," which peaked at number four; "Girlfriend," by 'N Sync featuring Nelly, which peaked at number five; and N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'," which peaked at number ten. In 2003, Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body" hit number five on the chart and Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss" peaked at number eight. The real payoff came the following year, in 2004, when Williams and Hugo won the Grammy Award for producer of the year. In an interview with Billboard' s Rashaun Hall, Williams made producing sound easy, equating it to decorating a house. "You're going to need the basics—like a couch—and then you personalize it according to what your personality is."
In the early 2000s, Williams and Hugo stepped out from behind the sound boards to create their own band with pal Shae Haley, who goes by the moniker Shay. They call themselves N.E.R.D., an acronym for "No One Ever Really Dies." For the trio, N.E.R.D. is more than just a name; it is also their philosophy on life. Writing on the band's website, http://www.n-e-r-d.com, Williams explained the philosophy this way: "People's energies are made of their souls. When you die, that energy may disperse but it isn't destroyed. Energy cannot be destroyed. It can manifest in a different way but even then it's like their souls are going somewhere. If it's going to heaven or hell or even if it's going into a fog or somewhere in the atmosphere to lurk unbeknownst to itself, it's going somewhere."
N.E.R.D. released its debut album In Search Of in 2002, followed by Fly or Die in 2004. Ironically, songs from their albums have never been as successful as ones they have produced for other artists. N.E.R.D. members created their first album using synthesizers, then re-recorded it with a live instrumental band. The combination created a unique sound. Instead of hearing one of their legendary single-hand keyboard lines on synthesizer, the passages were played on guitar, with guitars imitating synthesizers.
On its first album, N.E.R.D. explored adolescent anxiety and awkwardness. Writing on the Virgin Records website, the trio spoke out about the content of In Search Of : "This album is like a life soundtrack. It's a diary of [stuff] we've been through over the last year or two. We're just trying to express ourselves as colorful as possible, as musical as possible." Songs include "Backseat Love," about girls who refuse to go all the way and "Lapdance," which compares politicians and strippers.
Because the tone of the songs on each album is diverse, it is tough to place N.E.R.D.'s music in any one genre. Their sound is a fusion of hip-hop, rock, jazz, and soul backed by guitars under Williams' falsetto singing. Because of this, N.E.R.D. has not seen a lot of radio airtime because DJs do not know where to place the songs. But that does not mean N.E.R.D. plans to change its ways. Speaking to the Washington Post 's Segal, Williams said the group would not be shoe-horned into one area. Like his song lyrics, Williams spoke in metaphor. "The music is very in-between. A Ferrari is not meant to be in suburban areas. It's meant to be in upper-echelon areas, and it's not meant to be driven around the ghetto. There are a lot of things that don't necessarily fit, but some of us don't give a [darn.] We drive our Ferraris wherever we want, and the rest of the world doesn't always understand that. I think I stay true to what I believe, and N.E.R.D. just pushes the envelope."
By forming N.E.R.D. and touring, Williams has moved from an anonymous, behind-the-scenes producer to a crowd-mobbed sex symbol. He is a predictable crowd-pleaser: slim and tattooed with a carefree style. Though papers have paired him with many women over the years, Williams is most often seen with Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. Beyond his sex appeal, Williams has also earned a reputation as a competent musician. He performed at the 2004 Grammy Awards alongside an all-star cast of musicians in a rendition of the Beatles classic "I Saw Her Standing There." Williams, on drums, was accompanied by Sting, Vince Gill, and Dave Matthews. The highlight, of course, was his Grammy win.
In addition to producing and writing songs, Williams has his own clothing company, called Billionaire's Boys Club (BBC). He also has a sneaker line that he named Ice Cream because "ice and cream are two things that run the world," Williams told Paul Lester in the Guardian. "The jewellery—the ice—the diamonds; and the cream is the cash." Williams and Hugo also have their own imprint record label through Arista, called Star Trak Entertainment. As such, they now have the opportunity to launch the careers of up-and-coming stars. As for the future, Williams has a pretty ambitious plan. "I'm going to make $500 million—that's my goal," he told Rolling Stone. "Of that, I'll only keep $100 million, for my family."
In Search Of , Virgin Records, 2002.
Neptunes Present: The Clones (with other artists), Arista, 2003.
Fly or Die, Virgin Records, 2004.
Billboard, April 6, 2002, p. 28.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 5, 2004.
New York Times, April 17, 2004, p. B7.
People, October 13, 2003, p. 111; June 28, 2004, p. 115.
Rolling Stone, April 17, 2003, p. 75.
Time, August 25, 2003, p. 64.
Washington Post, June 6, 2004.
"Biography," N.E.R.D., http://www.n-e-r-d.com/bio.php (February 24, 2005).
"The Hit Man," Guardian (London, England) http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,12102,1151480,00.html (February 26, 2005).
"N-E-R-D Biography," Virgin Records, http://www.virginmusic.co.nz/Biography.aspx?artist=3707 (February 26, 2005).