The Neptunes - Biography
By Paul Glanting
Part of hip-hop’s allure is its ability to give the bleak streets a voice. For most of the genre’s history, the production has reflected the grimy sentiments of its poets through the usage of dusty soul samples and an overall low-tech aesthetic. However, childhood friends Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, collectively known as The Neptunes, brought a chic cleanliness and bizarre otherworldliness to the genre, utilizing minimal and crisp frequencies to innovate and perfect “boutique production” for hip-hop and pop music as well.
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo met each other at band camp where they were both members of the marching band. While in camp, the pair dabbled with saxophone, drums, and conducting. Soon, Hugo and Williams, along with collaborators Sheldon “Shay” Haley and Mike Etheridge, formed a soul group that they called The Neptunes. While performing in the Virginia Beach area, Hugo and Williams caught the attention of influential producer Teddy Riley who was known as the pioneer of New Jack Swing (a more urban-savvy branch of R&B). As a duo, Hugo and Williams (keeping the name The Neptunes) began to hone their production skills while under Riley’s wing. Williams wrote Riley’s verse for the sex-pot classic “Rump Shaker” from Wreckx-N-Effect’s Hard or Smooth (MCA), released in 1992. In 1994, The Neptunes produced “Tonight’s The Night” from Blackstreet’s self-titled album Blackstreet Interscope). At this point, The Neptunes’ sound still significantly reflected the pair’s soulful roots.
It can be argued that The Neptunes’ futuristic and synthetic sound first came into its own on rapper Noreaga’s “Superthug” from his 1998 album N.O.R.E. (Penalty). “Superthug” foreshadows the spirit of The Neptunes’ prolific production streak through its jumpy drum lines and dense chords. “Superthug” promoted The Neptunes to a highly sought-after commodity. Subsequently, the duo laid out the cosmic instrumentation for R&B siren Kelis’s debut album, Kaleidoscope (1998 Virgin). Williams and Hugo again worked with Kelis the following year on her collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Got Your Money” from his sophomore album N***a Please (1999Elektra). Historically, producers had predominantly remained in the shadows, reserving the spotlight for the singers and rappers. However, in the late 1990s producers such as Diddy (then called Puff Daddy) and Timbaland became nearly as recognizable as any rapper or vocalist. As The Neptunes’ productions hit it big, Pharrell began appearing in videos and often added his own vocals to projects.
It’s perhaps appropriate that the “new century” came with a string of immense commercial successes for the forward-thinking production team. The Neptunes created gems such as Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Luv U (Give It 2 Me),” Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality,” as well as a pair of hits for Mystikal called “Shake That Ass” and “Danger.” These, among many other Neptunes’ concoctions, began to introduce odd tempos and sounds that hadn’t been heard within hip-hop music before. Nevertheless, play within clubs and on the radio (as well as album sales) reflected that The Neptunes were defining what the 21st century would sound like. Williams was now an icon of hip-hop royalty, often appearing clad in high-fashion urban outfits and sometimes with a skateboard at his feet. Conversely, while known for his in-studio prowess, Hugo ducked out of the spotlight. As the two became hip-hop’s most in-demand production team, they began to build the musical careers of several of their protégés.
Back in 1993, Williams had befriended two rapping brothers named Gene and Terrence Thorton. The Neptunes helped the pair – who were calling themselves Malice and Pusha-T and, collectively, Clipse – to secure a record deal with Elektra Records. Subsequently, Clipse began working on their debut, which was produced by The Neptunes. However, the finished product, Exclusive Audio Footage, was feared to be a potential commercial failure and shelved indefinitely. Williams continued to follow his instincts about Clipse’s potential and he eventually signed them to Arista Records through The Neptunes’ own label Star Trak. In early 2002, the single “Grindin’” emerged. “Grindin’” spliced together organic harmonics and ragtag percussion, while Malice and Pusha-T attacked the beat with adventurous tales of crime and wealth. Clipse’s first released album, Lord Willin’ (Arista), hit in 2002. It sold well and was certified gold in just a month. Clipse’s street-hardened rhymes were utilized by The Neptunes to create a sense of dichotomy when the production pair placed them alongside Justin TImberlake’s upbeat-soul on “Like I Love You” from his 2002 album Justified (Jive). The Neptunes handled a hefty chunk of the production on Justified, which was an undeniable pop-sensation. While The Neptunes’ versatility was arguably fully proven by Timberlake’s album, it was preceded by their first significant dive into pop music with Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U” from 2001’s Britney (Jive). The Neptunes finished off 2001 having produced tracks for a near-endless string of prominent artists such as Busta Rhymes, NSYNC, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Brian McKnight, and many others.
Continuing to flabbergast the music world with their versatility and quirky innovations, Hugo and Williams joined their former band-mate Sheldon “Shay” Haley to form the band N*E*R*D, which fused the sparkling hip-hop tracks The Neptunes had become famous for with a rock and funk-oriented sound. An early version of N*E*R*D’s debut In Search Of... (2001Virgin) was released in Europe. This rare and highly collectable version features drum machines and deep usage of synthesizers. The American release scraps the synths and features harder guitar riffs.
With no clear ending to their dominance in sight, The Neptunes followed their fruitful productions for artists like Justin Timberlake, Nelly, and Snoop Dogg with a Neptunes-produced compilation titled The Neptunes Present... Clones (Star Trak) in 2003. The album features a parade of Neptunes-raised artists such as Clipse, Vanessa Marquez, and Kelis, as well as productions for established artists like Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and Jadakiss. A further testament to The Neptunes’ ubiquity manifested from a 2003 study that found that 43% of the music on pop radio had been produced by The Neptunes.
The Neptunes’ reign continued and, between prestigious works, N*E*R*D reformed and released Fly or Die (Virgin) in 2004. On N*E*R*D’s first album, the group had out-sourced the instrumentation to other musicians. However, the members of N*E*R*D wanted to be able to perform live so they mastered the instruments they’d need to play. Williams learned the drums and Hugo picked up the guitar. The rock emphasis of Fly or Die is further punctuated by collaborations with Lenny Kravitz and members of the punk band Good Charlotte.
In 2006, Williams ventured out on his own and released his solo album In My Mind (Star Trak). Further exploring his song-writing abilities, Williams also traverses a vast amount of musical landscape and collaborates with artists Gwen Stefani, Jay-Z, Nelly, and Kanye West. However, many critics felt that In My Mind didn’t live up to the hype that would be expected from one of hip-hop’s most prolific producers. Later in 2006, following several delays, The Neptunes and Clipse released the latter’s second album, Hell Hath No Fury (Star Trak). With tracks like the intense and smooth “Wamp Wamp (What It Do)” and the anti-heroic “Hello New World,” Hell Hath No Fury quickly reaffirmed The Neptunes as an always-evolving force within hip-hop. That same year, The Neptunes continued to prove that no project was too pop or too odd as they collaborated with Japanese hip-hop group Teriyaki Boyz on the song “Cho Large” from their album Beef or Chicken (2006 Bape). Further venturing into new musical territory, N*E*R*D explored the idea of intermingling the senses in 2008 on their third album, Seeing Sounds (Star Trak). The album was also said to be inspired by what they felt was excessive consistency on their previous album. Therefore, Seeing Sounds has a hyperactive feel to it.
To say that The Neptunes dominate popular music doesn’t do the two Virginia Beach-born producers justice. The Neptunes have defined what innovative music sounds like in the new century.