N.E.R.D - The Real N.E.R.D
Author: Sasha Perera
Wednesday, 9 July 2008
If there was any doubt that Pharrell Williams, The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. still had it in them to produce some of funkiest cutting-edge grooves around, 2008 is turning out to be the year that they proved, after a slight absence, they’re back and they’ve still got what it takes to stay ahead of the game. After establishing themselves as the freshest urban beatmakers in the late ’90s – guiding the likes of Kelis, Beenie Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Jay-Z – The Neptunes went on to work on material by all the big names in RNB, hip hop and pop, and soon enough, the recipe quite naturally seemed to wear thin and run out of steam. Similarly their own rock/hip hop outfit N.E.R.D. (with the line-up of Pharrell, Chad Hugo and Shay Haley) started out strong with their 2002 debut album In Search of… which boasted some unique, sun-kissed, urban-skater sounds, and followed through with 2004’s more anthemic Fly or Die, before getting a little lost in the collective consciousness.
Nevertheless the last couple of months have catapulted both The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. back into the spotlight, largely as a result of their work on Madonna’s Hard Candy album, and their new N.E.R.D. album Seeing Sounds, which reignites the fire under their blend of infectious beats, soulful melodies and meaty guitar-riffs – it’s sneering hip hop which grunts and grooves with a one-finger salute.
Warned beforehand not to discuss certain things with Pharrell, and to make sure my questions were balanced and directed to all three members of the group, I sat down with N.E.R.D. in London last week to get to grips with them about their recent work. The resulting interview was an interesting and enjoyable exchange; the reportedly surly Pharrell was exactly the opposite of what I expected. Trucker hat in place, blingin’ brightly, and sporting box-fresh sneakers, Skateboard-P took the lead, with Chad and Shay quite happy to sit back and hit the snooze button. Pharrell was surprisingly chatty, friendly, easy-to-get-along with, and obviously eager and enthusiastic to talk about the group’s long overdue new album.
The first two singles from the album – Everybody Nose and I’m Right Here (re-titled from the album version which was called Spaz) – have a decidedly drum n bass flava to them, and so I asked Pharrell whether he was a particular fan of the genre. “We just liked the speed of it – I just appreciate it. I’m not as educated on it – but then I’m not as educated on a lot of music,” he says. “I just like what I like. The things I’ve mostly gravitated towards more-so were kind of, like, more chord driven – more exotic chord progressions, while Chad is kinda, like, more versatile, eclectic and has probably heard everything… and if he hasn’t heard it, he’ll make it. When drum n bass was alive and kicking, I was running around worshipping Big Daddy Kane, so this is my take on the little bit of stuff I picked up from when my friends were listening to it.”
The album itself is a far more complex affair than what the two sweaty dancefloor rocker singles otherwise indicate; Yeah You grooves along with an upfront jazz bassline, Sooner or Later cruises by with Beatles-esque melodies, whilst Love Bomb is a bombastic musical affair buoyed by some grandiose string arrangements.
Pharrell is unmistakably excited by the specifics of the album. “The bassline on Yeah You was a fun one,” he beams. “It’s a synthesised upright bass. The melodic line of Sooner or Later is definitely post-Vietnam War inspired; it was our attempt to make a record that fits… ya know, late at night they play those Time Life record collection things you can buy, we wanted a record that would just fit into that.
“I fought long and hard to make those strings on Love Bomb happen. I almost pouted like a child, and I was making all kinds of crazy death threats to the label, and finally the folks from our personal team just worked diligently to get it done,” he says with pride, before asking me my own thoughts on the song. It’s something he does throughout the interview at various points – asking me specifically about my thoughts on songs, their arrangements, as well their Neptunes production work. It’s clear that Pharrell is interested in what other people think of their work; it seems he makes it a habit of sounding out opinions and getting feedback directly from those that appreciate their work.
Despite the perception that N.E.R.D. is a major-level band, the fact is that the trio’s success has been limited in terms of sales (especially in comparison to most of the other artists they collaborate with), but has nevertheless been boosted by the cool-factor and credibility they receive through the media and their own hardcore fanbase. Pharrell makes no bones about the fact that, for N.E.R.D., sales of albums don’t drive their creative spirit. “Cool and credibility are much more important than cash and commercialism for us. The other two are fleeting,” he says. Wouldn’t that be because they have such major success elsewhere with their other projects, I ask- “I would consider that much more a privilege than a luxury,” he responds simply.
Along with a reinvigorated N.E.R.D., this year has also seen a refreshed Neptunes hit the studio to work on some hot writing and production collaborations. Most notably Madonna’s Hard Candy album – the fiercely good She’s Not Me in particular, which Pharrell whispers to me might just be the next single for the Dancefloor Queen – and N.E.R.D.’s brilliant collaboration with Santogold and Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) called My Drive Thru, and their upcoming work with Busta Rhymes and Solange Knowles respectively, all of which have emerged as frontrunners to be included on all the hip, end-of-year ‘Best Of’ mixtapes. There’s plenty of work for the trio, and their creativity is constantly being tested. Pharrell explains it best when he says, “N.E.R.D. is who we are, and the Neptunes is what we do,” in reference to breaking down the separation between group and the production outfit.
“It’s a theory of mine called relative relationships, and relative relationships to do with a personality,” he continues with scientific precision. “You’re Sasha, right-” he asks me, before he carries on with his theory. “Who Sasha is to his parents is one version of Sasha, who Sasha is to his best friend is another version; who Sasha is to his companion is another version, who you are to us is another version. Somehow there’s still a focal point that links everything together, but they’re all different versions. So when we’re producing for other people, it’s our energy, but it’s another version of energy. There’s certain things you will, and you will not, say to your parents; there are things you say to your companion that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. There are things that you tell you friends – that you’re comfortable telling your friends – and that you discuss with them about your other relationships. So that’s how we kinda are with our music.
“I would compare the relationship of who we are to the conversations you have with yourself in the shower – those are the most honest ones you have… and for us, that would be N.E.R.D.”
WHAT: Seeing Sounds through Universal
WHEN: Out now