Pharrell is one of today's hottest and renowned music producers, with work ranging from gangsta rap themes to pop and hip hop styles. Pharrell Williams didn't only help change the face of pop music during the late '90s and early 2000s. He also was one of the faces of pop music -- as a charismatic star who often stole the show when producing and/or guesting on other artists' hit singles. His presence was unfading, whether he was in front of a music video or behind a beat. To trace the beginning of his ascent, you have to go back to 1992, when Teddy Riley tapped him to write a verse for Wreckx-n-Effect's "Rump Shaker." Since the late '90s, Williams and longtime friend Chad Hugo -- known together as the Neptunes -- began scoring songwriting and production assignments that slowly but steadily infiltrated mainstream music, whether it was via dance-pop (Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U"), hardcore rap (Clipse's "Grindin'"), or contemporary R&B (Babyface's "There She Goes"). Williams and Hugo were relatively obscure during the mid-'90s, doing spare work for the likes of SWV, Total, and Mase, but they would eventually develop a style that would become as recognized and as mimicked as that of fellow Virginia Beach native Timbaland. (Prior to stardom, all three producers were in a band together called Surrounded by Idiots.)
As the duo took on more work, Williams' voice became increasingly familiar. He was now more likely to provide the chorus and the background vocals of the same song, in addition to appearing in the video. (Hear/see Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss" and Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful" for two examples.) It wasn't until the summer of 2003 that he truly stepped out on his own. He released his first solo single, "Frontin'." Produced with Hugo and featuring a guest verse from Jay-Z, the song built anticipation for The Neptunes Present... Clones, a compilation of all-new tracks from artists produced by the duo. "Frontin'" was a ubiquitous summer hit and kept Williams' momentum running up to the release of Hugo and Williams' second funk/rock-oriented N.E.R.D. album, released in March 2004. On the same day, Clipse's own second album hit stores, featuring more of the Neptunes touch.
Pharrell, Franz, Linkin Park Get Handsome
Handsome Boy Modeling School, That Is Bizarre collaborations once again a hallmark of stylish duo.
So, you're a decent looking guy or gal, but you're having a little trouble luring members of the opposite sex? You say the closest you can get to accessing your inner Casanova is scented incense and frozen dinners? Well, fear not because, to paraphrase John Kerry, help is on the way for those who strive to be more handsome.
Those urgently in need of assistance can send a check to the Handsonian Institute, and receive a five-DVD series on achieving optimal handsomeness. But if you're slightly less desperate, you can just pick up the second Handsome Boy Modeling School album, White People (out November 9). In addition to sporting some booty-shaking hip-hop, soul and electronic grooves, the disc can help give listeners the pizzazz they need.
"If you put the record on and it makes you want to strut, then that strutting may attract that lady down the block," explained ultra-suave Modeling School co-founder Nathaniel Merriweather, better known as hotshot producer and former Gorillaz member Dan Nakamura. "And then that lady down the block may bring something else on, and before you know it, you're back at the house, you pop on the Oates joint, and the clothes just fly off."
The "Oates joint" Merriweather referred to isn't some newfangled, ginseng-enriched health snack, it's the Handsome Boy Modeling School track "Greatest Mistake," a light-dimming ballad featuring John Oates (of '70s/'80s chart-toppers Hall & Oates), ex-Tarnation frontwoman Paula Frazer and Jaime Cullen. So what's Oates doing in a modern music primer for handsomifacation?
"Oh, come on!" said Modeling School co-founder Chest Rockwell (a.k.a. veteran hip-hop producer Prince Paul). "Oates is one handsome man."
"He was one of the original proponents of the moustache," added Merriweather. "His look far predated the Selleck."
Oates is only one of the celebrity guests on White People. "Saturday Night Live" alums Father Guido Sarducci and Tim Meadows both make spoken-word testimonials to the school, and a host of musicians lend their voices, including the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, RZA, Linkin Park vocalists Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, Jack Johnson and De La Soul.
Though not all of the guests were graduates of the Handsonian Institute, they were eager to work with Merriweather and Rockwell, and eagerly participated in the album's unconventional duets (Deftones' singer Chino Moreno doubled up with underground hip-hoppers EL-P and Cage on "The Hours," Bennington and Shinoda joined forces with hip-hop veterans Jazzy Jay and Grand Wizard Theodore on "Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This) Part 2"). "We just tossed up the Handsome sign, which is kind of like throwing up the [Batman] signal," Merriweather explained. "The Handsome people are the ones who can see it, and they respond."
The duo's first album, So ... How's Your Girl? was released in 1999 and featured several of the guests that appear on the new LP, along with Beastie Boy Mike D., Sean Lennon, DJ Shadow and legendary MC Biz Markie.
The first single from White People, "The World's Gone Mad" melds electronic beats and playful rapping with sedated rock vocals and a lazy reggae rhythm, and features reggae legend Barrington Levy, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos. "We approached Alex, and it turned out his band was influenced by Dr. Octagon, which I was involved in," Merriweather said, "so he was way into it. And Barrington Levy, he's just the man. So we called him up and of course he was interested, too. People who are handsome just fit in."
"The hard part is choosing who to use for which song," Rockwell said. "But making that choice is kind of like, 'Well, do we take the Rolls Royce or the Bentley today.' "
When Handsome Boy Modeling School enter the studio, the only thing sharper than the Boys' suits is their uncanny ability to manipulate genres to suit their needs. Throughout White People, Merriweather and Rockwell toy with dusky trip-hop ("I've Been Thinking"), blend eerie screamotronica and rap ("The Hours") and fuse classical, hip-hop and rock ("Rock and Roll (Could Never Hip-Hop Like This)").
"The only question we asked ourselves in the studio was, 'Would I want to get dressed to this song?' " Rockwell said. " 'Would I want to make love to this song?' And if it's good, it's like making love with mirrors on the ceiling. You can't beat it."
Having completed an album that's quirky, creative and clever, the only real danger for Handsome Boy Modeling School lies in their presentation. The shtick about the Handsonian Institute is such a major part of their image that their stellar beats and rhythmic hybrids might not be taken as seriously as they deserve to be.
"Plugging the Institute is always a risk," Merriweather agreed. "It's the same problem we have sometimes when we show up at a runway show. The models sometimes get mad because less attention is paid to them because of us. But we can't help it. It's what we're all about."
Want To Dress Like A N.E.R.D.? Pharrell Signs Fashion Deal
Neptunes producer designing footwear, men's clothing. The gospel of Pharrell Williams has spread throughout pop music, music videos and even commercials, so it was only inevitable that he'd join the legions of his hip-hop peers and enter the world of fashion.
On Thursday Pharrell announced the launch of two new apparel ventures in partnership with Reebok — Ice Cream, a collection of men's and women's footwear, and Billionaire Boys Club, a men's clothing collection.
"I've always wanted to do more than music, and now I'll be able to explore the world of fashion by designing my style of clothes and sneakers," Pharrell said in a statement.
The lines will launch next summer and, at least initially, feature a select run of five or six items available only in high-end boutiques and better department stores, according to Todd Krinsky, vice president of Reebok's RbK division.
Billionaire Boys Club T-shirts made brief appearances in the video for Pharrell's "Frontin' " and onstage during recent shows by his band N.E.R.D. The line will offer T-shirts, athletic clothing, jeans and button-down shirts. Pharrell will help design pieces for both lines, as will Nigo, a renowned Japanese artist who also runs the boutique clothing brand A Bathing Ape.
"Pharrell's a reflection of that hybrid youth culture," Krinsky said. "He represents a lot of different people — skate to street to hip-hop. One day he's producing Jay-Z, the next he's working with No Doubt. He speaks to youth culture in a real way for this generation."
Reebok seems to enjoy the company of hip-hop artists. They already have relationships with Jay-Z and 50 Cent for the S. Carter Collection and G-Unit Collection footwear lines, respectively.
Pharrell Hints The Neptunes Are Going To Work With J. Lo
Meanwhile, he's been making beats for Gwen Stefani. The Neptunes like to keep a superstar or two on their agenda, so who's next for the ubiquitous production duo?
"Hi, J. Lo," Pharrell Williams said Thursday, smiling for an MTV News camera. "That's all I can say." Good enough.
Fortunately, the hitmaker had a lot more to say about his six Grammy nominations — six more than he had last year .
"It's crazy, it's crazy," said Williams. "Who doesn't remember Michael Jackson at the Grammys? Who doesn't remember Lauryn Hill on the Grammys? Who doesn't remember Norah Jones? ... Those were incredible moments, and you never forget that as a kid 'cause you get to see your favorite artists, and nowadays [artists] come onstage and just do something that's very different from performing. You get to see their personalities, what they are really thankful for. ... It's great."
Williams, who also had a hand in producing several Grammy-nominated songs and albums by the likes of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, is especially happy to see hip-hop and R&B so strongly recognized, although he doesn't expect it to last.
"Everything happens in cycles," he said. "I mean, rock and roll will definitely come back and tower over hip-hop. And then hip-hop will come back and tower over that. You'll see country music rise in a few years — if not sooner, 'cause I've got a [country] artist named Christie Carter who is incredible. It happens and it's always happened since the history of the Grammys. It just rotates. Something becomes hot, and something else cools down."
Williams' forecast of a rock and roll renaissance may explain the Neptunes' latest project, Gwen Stefani's solo album (see "Gwen Stefani Turns To Bandmate For Aid After Freak-Out").
"Gwen is a monster; she's beautiful to look at, but in here she is a monster," Williams said, pointing to his heart. "We like to go in different directions, me and [Neptunes production partner] Chad [Hugo], and Gwen is totally with that."
Before Stefani's record is released, the Neptunes will put out a little rock music of their own, with N.E.R.D.'s second album, Fly or Die, due in March (see "Need A Neptunes Beat? You Might Have To Wait Awhile").
"I named it after one of our biggest fans," Williams said. "Her name is Mildred and she has cancer, and the only choice that she has with her spirit is to keep on pushing, to fly or die. And the only thing we [can do] is to find a cure for it."
Pharell Williams: Trak Star
Either Pharrell Williams is music's most humble hitmaker or, like he says in his solo debut smash, he's just "Frontin.' " In addition to his and Neptunes partner Chad Hugo's penchant for producing Grammy-caliber beats for everybody from Justin to Nelly to Britney — not to mention his infamous falsetto hook-crooning for stars like Snoop and Jay-Z — the Virginia duo mined gold when they founded their Star Trak label and released an LP of their own. Neptunes Presents ... Clones recently debuted at #1 on the Billboard albums chart.
MTV News' Shaheem Reid caught up with Pharrell recently and got him to talk trucker hats and new reality shows ... and also to confess why his inner circle of friends laughs at him.
MTV: Just a little while ago on "TRL," you said that Michael Jackson was a person that you admired and most wanted to work with.
Pharrell: Michael is ... c'mon, it's Michael Jackson! Carson [Daly] and I were also talking about a reality show. Like, me and Michael doing the album and then filming it the whole time. If the Osbournes could do it, why not show us making great music? Michael Jackson would be crazy!
MTV: A couple of years ago we talked right after the MTV Video Music Awards and you said seeing Britney Spears perform the song you produced for her, "I'm a Slave 4 U," was a defining moment for the Neptunes. Since then, what have been some other defining moments for you guys?
Pharrell: It's always a big defining moment. This [Clones] album coming out is a defining moment. Because we've done so much production for other people, to be able to come out on our label for us is a great give back. Then, "Frontin' " doing what it's doing ... I know I've said it a million times before, but sh--, I can't believe it's doing what it's doing! I only expected on the high end to get 2,500 [radio] spins. If I would have gotten 500 spins then I would have been cool. It's getting 7,500 spins. It's really blown up. It's really happening.
MTV: You're astounded by the success of "Frontin', " but what about all the fashion trends you've been setting? Everyone from Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake to J. Lo is wearing the trucker hats or fatigues shorts that've been signature marks of yours.
Pharrell: Yeah, it bugs me out, but it is what it is. I'm completely thankful and it's dope, man. The girls are even more flattering. They walk out with the [Nike] Dunks like, "Look." I remember when Dunks were really expensive 'cause you couldn't get them [in the U.S.] and you had to go on the Internet and pay $200. It's crazy just to know that they would ever copy anything that I wear 'cause in my world, my friends are pointing at me like, "What the hell are you doing?" I just do what I do. It's not something that should be revered as something that's great.
MTV: You and your partner, Chad Hugo, have probably been two of the most revered producers of the last few years. There haven't been many producers to equal your success across the board in hip-hop, R&B, pop and rock all at the same time. Do you guys ever have a chance to just sit back and reflect on your accomplishments?
Pharrell: You can't pay attention to that. That's cancerous. 'Cause then you start believing it and your sh-- gets weak. You gotta always think, "There's more to do." You can't ever look over your shoulder and be like, "You know what I did?," 'cause you didn't do it — you just did what every other artist did and the people embraced it and made it what it was. It was the people.
MTV: The people will probably be giving their stamp of approval to the record "Lose Your Soul," which is a collaboration with P. Diddy, Lenny Kravitz and Loon and the next single off the soundtrack to "Bad Boys II." What was it like working with Diddy and Kravitz, two other acclaimed producers?
Pharrell: That was interesting, man. I look up to Puff and I definitely look up to Lenny too ... it's just like, two people, the best of both worlds. Puff runs the R&B, hip-hop and pop world. Lenny runs the rock world. So for me to be on with two of those legendary guys who still are humongous, the sh-- is dope. Plus, for it to be my first real time ever rhyming on a track ... I didn't think the song would be huge, so [I thought] nobody would necessarily hear me. This song is actually picking up.
MTV: Well, for real, you know that right now people want to hear everything with your name attached to it. You can't sneak in a song here and there anymore.
Pharrell: That's scary, but thanks. I love what I do, I love my job. There's no better feeling than just going in and just working with someone and what comes out is something that the world knows about. I can't believe it, still to this day. You never get used to that. You get used to it when you feel like you're an artist. I don't know, the artist thing is not me. I love making music, though. I love playing. The keyboard is my journal.
MTV: Everybody on the ... Clones album — from Snoop Dogg to Nelly to N.O.R.E. — is somebody you've worked with before and seem to have a cool relationship with. Could you ever work with somebody you don't really like?
Pharrell: I guess you could. I just happen to admire everyone that we work with. We don't really work with everybody.
Common misspellings: "Farrel", "Pharrel", "Farell", "Pharell".