Written By: Michael D. McClellan | Pharrell Williams never sleeps. How can he? The multi-hyphenate superstar is insatiably inquisitive, his interests ranging from the mysteries of deep space to the provocative genius of artists as varied as Daniel Arsham and Marina Abramovic, his mind in a constant state of restless exploration. That Williams can move seamlessly across the spectrum of art, fashion, film and music, all while collaborating with a Who’s Who of pop culture as only Pharrell can, proves that the man on the other end of this interview isn’t quite human but something more, Hu2.0 maybe, a Next Gen creative with alien DNA coursing through his veins. What other explanation can there be?
“No sir, there’s no truth to that rumor,” Williams says with a laugh. And then, when pressed for a plausible explanation: “I’m indebted to God and the universe for giving me the time to do what I do, and for putting me in position to make the most of my opportunities. From there I follow my instincts.”
Williams’s creative universe is as diverse – and damn near as infinite – as the physical one in which we all exist, heavenly constellations populated with a dozen Grammy Awards (and counting), two Academy Award nominations, and an impressive dossier of hit songs, designer collections, art exhibitions, and eclectic collaborations. Exactly where Skateboard P gets the drive is anybody’s guess. How he does it while looking younger than he did twenty years ago only fuels speculation that Williams is not of this Earth. Never mind that this hardworking N.E.R.D. was once fired from three different McDonald’s in Virginia Beach, or that he didn’t have career goals growing up. Williams plunged headlong into keyboards and drums at an early age, laid the groundwork for The Neptunes during a seventh-grade band camp, and parlayed an audience with Teddy Riley into a lucrative career as a singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, fashion designer and much, much more.
So, which is it? God’s plan? The universe? Alien DNA? The only certainty is that a young Pharrell Lanscilo Williams stood out at Princess Anne High School mostly for being different. He loved music but didn’t gravitate to any particular clique. He didn’t try to fit in. He was a black kid hooked on Star Trek and hanging with white kids mostly, riding his skateboard at Mount Trashmore and listening to groups like Suicidal Tendencies and Dead Kennedys. In 1990, Williams and Chad Hugo formed The Neptunes, dissecting A Tribe Called Quest records and trying to figure out why their beats gripped them and refused to let go. And then, as if by divine intervention or some otherworldly encounter, the duo was discovered by Riley, the Harlem-born record producer who’d had enough of New York City and decided to relocate his studio to, of all places, Virginia Beach – a five minute walk from Princess Anne.
“Who really knows why he moved into my back yard,” says Williams. “I used to think it was pure luck, but now I think there’s more to it than that. I don’t believe these things don’t happen by chance. The timing of the move lined up perfectly with where I was on my journey. A year or two later, a few years earlier, and who knows? Everything changes. We wouldn’t have had the same opportunity.”
Williams and Hugo, the shy Filipino boy who attended nearby Kempsville High School and shared Pharrell’s love for Eric B. & Rakim and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, didn’t just seize the opportunity presented by Riley. They used it as a springboard to dominate the music scene, their work earning a string of Grammys and garnering walls of gold and platinum records. Consider: The Neptunes racked up 24 Top 10 hits in the late 1990s and early 2000s, becoming one of the most successful production teams in pop. At one point in 2003, The Neptunes were responsible for a whopping 43% of the music being played on US radio, and 20% in the UK. Among the hits: Drop It Like It’s Hot, the classic 2004 production for Snoop Dogg, which sported skittering beats and swishing, pulsing synths, reminiscent of the music heard on ‘80s Atari video games.
“We wanted a different sound, so we went with something that sounded like a can of spray paint,” Williams explains. “That ‘ssss’ sound is what we ended up placing on top of the song, it was different, like us.”
Different can also be applied to N.E.R.D (No-One Ever Really Dies), the band formed by Williams and Hugo, along with Tidewater-area pal Shay Haley. Flavored with funk and hip-hop, the experimental rock band released its second album in 2004, Fly or Die, which reached Number 6 on the charts and stamped Williams as a gifted singer in his own right.
The Neptunes continued its hot streak over the next several years, producing for everyone from Gwen Stefani to Kanye West to Beyoncé and Britney Spears. And that’s just the music. Through Rizzoli, Williams released a lavish coffee-table book filled with images of the many products he has designed in collaboration with other artists and fashion designers. He hosted ARTIST TLK on YouTube’s Reserve Channel, interviewing some of the world’s most creative and interesting people (think Spike Lee, Usher and Tony Hawk, the show topped off with naked women serving drinks, and you begin to get the idea). He opened boutiques on West Broadway in New York. He co-founded apparel brands Ice Cream Clothing and Billionaire Boys Club. He’s curated art shows like This Is Not a Toy at the Toronto Design Exchange. All while pouring time, energy and money into his charity foundation, From One Hand To Another, which supports young people living in communities at risk around the country.
And all while still professing to be human, just like the rest of us.
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When it comes to the music biz, 2013 was The Year of Pharrell. The hit maker figured prominently in 2013’s most massive (and seemingly unavoidable) gangbuster singles: Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, with both competing against each other for the coveted Record of the Year Grammy. (Get Lucky walked away with the hardware.) And then there was the ubiquitous cherry on top: Happy. The song, originally written for CeeLo and part of the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, blew up after Williams came up with a brilliant marketing idea – a twenty-four hour video for the song, featuring a diverse cast of characters, including the artist and some famous friends, dancing along to the track. Happy peaked at No. 1 in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and 19 other countries. It became the best-selling song of 2014 in the United States with 6.45 million copies, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. That it took Williams ten tries to get it right is lost on nearly everyone but the artist himself.
“I got in my own way,” he says. “It wasn’t until I relaxed that everything opened up and the right song presented itself. As soon as it did, I knew it was the right fit.”
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Yes, Pharrell Williams has collaborated with music’s biggest stars – from Miley Cyrus to Mariah Carey, from Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake – while earning a reputation as a hit-making mystic, his finger fully on the pulse of a fickle music landscape, his instincts helping him stay one step ahead of stale. That he can do it while remaining disarmingly approachable and unfailingly polite is, in its own way, disorienting.
“My parents raised me to be respectful. It’s who I am.”
Southern hospitality aside, scoring an interview with Pharrell was far harder than I’d ever imagined. One minute he’s focused on Rules of the Game, his multidisciplinary stage collaboration with Arsham and choreographer Jonah Bokaer, and the next he’s replacing CeeLo Green as a celebrity coach on The Voice. Blink and he’s collaborating with Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack for the film Despicable Me, or penning that monster hit, Happy, for the sequel. That the stars somehow aligned only supports the prevailing theory that Williams is not one of us. Who says aliens have to come from outer space hellbent on waging war and destroying mankind? Maybe they arrive in flat-brimmed hats, possessing the regal air of an ancient pharaoh and the vitality of a creature defying the onset of middle age. Maybe they come equipped with indefatigable drive and prodigious talent. And maybe, after two years of cancellations, postponements and reboots, they agree to sit down and tell you how it’s all done.
Thank you for this opportunity. Please tell me about your songwriting. Do you have a certain method that works best for you?
I follow something that speaks to me, something that just feels good and puts me in a creative mood. Typically, the beat comes first. As an artist, 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, how everything fits together. The music sets the framework for the words. The feeling and the emotion directs all creativity. It’s the overarching guide. It’s all by feel.
What is your idea of creativity?
Creativity is a gift in the truest essence. It’s a gift from all that is, all that was and all that ever will be – the creator. So when we create, we’re essentially co-creators.
When you sit down to work on a song, do you sense beforehand that it’s going to be a hit?
No sir, I don’t know when a song is going to be huge, I don’t think you can ever predict or manufacture that sort of outcome. It’s really up to the people to make that decision. They do that by buying the records, streaming the music online, voting on it, generating buzz on social media. Those things are out of my control. The only thing you can do as an artist is be loyal to your creativity, and follow it wherever it takes you. If you’ve poured the very best of you into your work, and you’ve done it in a way that’s new and fresh, then you can walk away from it satisfied with the outcome.
Your 2003 debut single, Frontin’, features vocals from Jay-Z. Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists?
Collaboration has always been part of my DNA. Most of the songs that I ended up putting out by myself were actually songs that I wrote for other people. And collaboration goes beyond just music. I know you’ve interviewed Daniel Arsham and Jonah Bokaer, and my collaboration with them on Rules of the Game was a new frontier.
Was there a specific point in you career when you realized that you’d become a star?
No, I’ve never approached what I do in that way. I don’t believe you can ever assume that you’ve “made it,” because that’s too much of an arbitrary assumption. And I think that mentality has a limiting effect on your creativity – when you start buying into that mindset, you’ve instantly put a ceiling on what you create and where you can take yourself. That mindset can also chip away at your edge, the thing that drives you to create in the first place. For me, I always looked at it like, “Wow, I get to do it again.”
Chad Hugo is a childhood friend and a big part of your musical past and present. How did the two of you get started writing songs?
We started breaking down Tribe [A Tribe Called Quest] records, and then we started making our own tracks. We were still in high school at the time.
The two of you formed The Neptunes, and you’ve won three Grammys producing music for some amazing artists like Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, and Jay-Z. Tell me a little about your approach.
When we work with an artist, it’s about understanding how to bring out the best in them at that particular point in time – how to draw attention to the gifts that are already there. We don’t give the artist anything, because we didn’t create the artist. The artist is co-created with God and formed by a unique set of life experiences. Our job is to do the things on the periphery that accentuate the artist’s gifts. And if we’re doing our job, we’re providing the frame to fit the artist into, then adding interesting colors and creating the backdrop. The artist is subject matter. We’re just the framers.
The legendary Teddy Riley discovered you. Tell me about that.
We were discovered at a talent show because Teddy Riley had a couple of A&Rs check us out. A&Rs are people who represent music companies, and they are always on the lookout for talent. It was one of those amazing circumstances, and a mysterious chain of events, really – Teddy Riley decides to leave New York City, and of all the places he could have built a recording studio, he decides to build in Virginia Beach, literally a five-minute walk from our high school.
Let’s go back to 2013, which was a pretty good year for you. Happy was a monster hit.
That period, 2012-2013, was a real pivot point for me. I just felt like something was happening around me that I couldn’t explain. I’ve compared it to seeing the wind blow on the trees; you see the leaves move and you know what’s causing them to move. You don’t question whether there’s a wind, even though you can’t see it. You can feel it and you know it. Back then I could feel it. There were all of these things going on in my life, and the song Happy was part of that.
What was the inspiration behind the song?
The inspiration for the song Happy came from the movie Despicable Me 2. Gru was a character who was often seen as mean, with very dry humor, and definitely on the evil side. I was tasked with how to make a song for him that expressed his elation after meeting this woman. That was a tough thing for me, because Gru was mean and not someone who would fall in love.
You’ve been known to pen hits in minutes. I hear it took some time to come up with Happy.
I worked on song after song, but nothing was really working. I thought every song I wrote for the movie was going to it, because of reasons X-Y-Z, but then it wouldn’t work out and I’d write another, and the same thing would happen. Nothing really worked until I had exhausted all of my ideas from an egotistical standpoint. And then, I finally asked myself how do I make a song about a guy who’s just happy, and nothing can bring him down. That’s when everything clicked.
The video for Happy ran for twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours! That was the genius move that put the song into a different stratosphere.
Basically, I would perform for four minutes at the top of every hour. Then, after me, someone else would perform, and that would happen fifteen times an hour for twenty-four hours. The intention was to make the video feel as alive as possible, and the video’s imperfections, the funny bloopers and mess-ups, are what give it character. I’m not interested in perfection. It’s boring. Some of my favorite moments are accidental. There’s one where I’m underground. I was turning a corner just as a train was coming in our direction, and it stopped right on cue! It was weird. The universe gave us great moments that day.
In addition to Happy, you killed it with two collaborations that were massive successes – Daft Punk’s Get Lucky and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Did you sense how big these songs were going to be?
No sir. As an artist, you only have a sense of what feels good to you personally. The commercial success of the song is predicated on how everybody else feels when they hear it. If they feel something strongly enough to say they like it, great. If they feel something enough to say, “I like it and I want to tell somebody else about it,” then that is magical. The vote with the likes, the views, the shares. That’s where all of this comes from. It comes from the idea that people are connecting and sharing the things they feel sentiment about.
Daft Punk has a unique vibe. What’s it like working with them?
It’s always fun working with the robots. They did Hypnotize on the last N.E.R.D album and we remixed Harder Faster Stronger more than 10 years ago with them. So we always had a great relationship with the robots and all of their crew. There’s always been love there for us.
Your collaboration goes well beyond the recording studio. Tell me about your work with multidisciplinary artist Daniel Arsham.
Daniel is a genius artist across so many disciplines. We’ve worked on projects as varied as recreating the first instrument I ever made music on, the Casio MT-500, to producing the multidisciplinary performance Rules of the Game. Rules was big for me because of the talented people that I worked with on that journey – the amazing Jonah Bokaer, who provided the choreography, and the composer, David Campbell, who is an absolute music industry legend.
Let’s talk about Rules of the Game. What led you to becoming involved and writing the original score for this amazing stage performance?
Daniel’s work is such a magnet for brilliant, interesting people. I’m lucky to call him friend, and to have worked with him on other projects. With Rules, it was a case of me being persistent, and asking him the fundamental question, “What can we do now?” Rules was the next step in the evolution. We’d worked together on beautiful objects that didn’t move, like the Casio MT-500, but this was something completely different. This was a new frontier, a brand new medium where movement is not only an additional element, it’s absolutely essential to communicating the point. To be able to come into a project like that, and to work with such talented people, is a privilege.
Tell me about the film Hidden Figures. What attracted you to this project?
You have three African-American female protagonists who were scientists, engineers, and mathematicians…technologically advanced. So that blew my mind. It involved NASA, and it involved space, which is a subject that I’ve been obsessed with since childhood. And all of this happened where I’m from – Hampton Roads, Virginia, in the 1960s. So, getting involved with this film was an easy decision to make.
You love fashion, and you have a keen fashion sense.
Fashion is great. I love the way fashion helps people express their individuality – when they take things and make it themselves. So fashion and style go hand-in-hand. It’s indicative of who you are and what you’re feeling. I’ve developed my own look by following my instincts and acting on what I feel connected to at a given point in time. There’s a certain power and excitement that comes into play when and you see people creating their own distinctive style and identity. But do I love fashion? I love life. I love the opportunities that I’ve been given, and the support that I’ve been getting, and the reaction that I’ve been getting to the work that produce, those are the things that I love. Those things are irreplaceable. Fashion comes and goes.
I play a lot of tennis. Several years ago you launched the adidas Tennis Collection. The collection’s roots are in the ‘70s Golden Era of tennis – Bjorn Borg, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert.
The players back then just had a great swagger, both on and off the court. They were super confident. There was a sexiness that they all carried – the men and women – because they just knew they were killing it. They knew what they were doing and what they were wearing was sick. Next level. We need that. Not that today’s players don’t have that kind of confidence, but the ‘70s was so effervescent and vivid.
Final Question: If you could share a piece of life advice with others, what would that be?
Remember to show appreciation, and to be grateful. You’ve gotta give things to something bigger than you.