The Tao of Pharrell
The Face met with legendary hitman Pharrell Williams and Beats by Dre president Luke Wood for a special recording studio sit-down in Miami.
At Criteria Recording Studios they’ve been bringing the hits since 1958. The walls of this legendary recording complex in otherwise nondescript North Miami – perhaps the least glam and most worky bit of sexy-sunshine-all-the-time Miami – are sagging with silver, gold and platinum sales discs for some of the greatest singles and albums of all time.
Here’s one to mark half-a-million sales of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Chant Down Babylon. Here’s a shiny shout-out for the first eight million sales of Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again. Next to it, a gong for 14 million copies of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Then, The Eagles’ Hotel California, nine million copies. Above the pool table in the lounge, a row of million-sales-big-ups to just some of the BEST SINGLES EVER: The Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’ and Stayin’ Alive, Frankie Valli’s Grease, Eric Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff. Facing them, bow down for the 1972 Grammy-winning classic from the First Lady Of Soul: “Aretha Franklin. One million dollars’ worth of the Atlantic Records long-playing album Young, Gifted and Black.”
In Studio E this blowy southern Florida afternoon they’re picking apart a couple of more contemporary hits. In one comfy swivel chair by the mixing desk: Luke Wood, President of headphones giant Beats by Dre, former executive at Interscope Records and onetime guitarist with grunge-era band Sammy. In the other comfy swivel chair: Pharrell Williams, singer, songwriter, producer and president of, well, all your favourite sonically adventurous bangers of the last 20 years.
We’re meeting in the week of the 20th anniversary of the release of Kaleidoscope by Kelis. It was the first whole album to bear the imprimatur of The Neptunes, the production duo Pharrell formed in his native Virginia Beach with Chad Hugo. The Neptunes went on to provide the songwriting and production backbone of Justin Timberlake’s still-mighty Justified (2002). Alongside that they morphed into artist outfit N.E.R.D., while Pharrell became speed-dial Collaborator No.1 for everyone from Jay‑Z to Gwen Stefani to Madonna to Kanye West to Camila Cabello to Daft Punk to Migos to Cara Delevingne to
And here is he today, discussing with Wood the recording of two of his most recent tracks: Lemon, made with Rihanna for the 2017 N.E.R.D. album No One Ever Really Dies, and Letter to My Godfather. The latter is the epic, choral, Auto-Tuned-gospel anthem lead track on the soundtrack to this year’s The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary about revered music industry executive Clarence Avant. As Pharrell said when he premiered the track in the summer: “He’s the godfather to so many of us – and not just African-Americans, most of the industry.”
Why is he doing this today, when he’s deep in (it seems) the recording of some new solo material? Because Pharrell is the latest Artist Partner to collaborate with Beats by Dre on a headphone release – in this case the new on-ear, noise-cancelling Solo Pro. But also because he’s happy, chatting along as if he feels like a studio without a roof. As Wood says: “There are very few producers that have that ability to write, to sonically have an imagination so deep and so technical to manifest their vision, to write lyrics, to perform, [who are] multi-instrumentalists, [who] have deep focus on mastering, mixing. That’s … the ultimate auteur. Pharrell is that.”
Or, as Pharrell notes: “I’m an Aries so I’m very impulsive. But that’s why I don’t like making records in a vacuum. I like making records with the right energy in the room, the right people.”
We earwigged on their conversation, edited excerpts from which are below, tried in vain to get the pair to reveal what project Pharrell was referring to when he mentioned to Wood “you know what”, then hit the Happy hitmaker with some questions on the musical talking points of 2019.
“Wow, you comin’ with it, dude!” the 46-year-old father of four replies at one point, which we’re totally taking as the compliment it was intended as.
Luke Wood: Did you think about being a producer or an artist first?
Pharrell Williams [tumbleweed-long pause]: “Hmm…”
Or is there no difference?
“I never really made a distinction until I was told: ‘You’re not going to get signed as an artist.’ By that time we had already been making music for 10 years, and so when I was told that, it was like: ‘OK, we’ll just stick to production because this is what works for us.’ Really what it was, was that I was going into meetings and blowing the meetings because I was so crazy and just living in the future – not where I knew music would go but just the way I felt. Eventually music caught up and artists were able to express themselves the way that I was in rap music. I had in my mind: ‘OK, we’re going to be producers.’ Because we were The Neptunes as a group, and we produced our own music. So it was more like, we were a group and we were self-contained. But there was no real distinction between the two.”
What was the record where you suddenly said, “we produced this” as The Neptunes?
“I think every time we heard our music go on the radio, we always felt that it was different. There became a time where there was a [Neptunes] sound, and I hated that and I wanted to get away from it. But we always loved… the unorthodox stuff because of the people we looked up to. Tribe [Called Quest], I don’t know if they ever really had a pop hit, I think [1991’s] Check The Rhime was their biggest song. But for us, their music, when it played, it cut through everything. Those were our heroes, so we wanted everything to be unorthodox. Even with straight hard rap records, we wanted them to cut through. It’s like when you heard [Busta Rhymes’] Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See. You’re like: wow. Or NWA – it just cut through. What they were saying, the rhythm of how they were rapping, the melody, the syncopation, the loops that Dre was putting together, the drums that he layered it with. You were just like: what is that? So for us, when we got a chance to make songs, we wanted it to be different.”
Do you remember the first record The Neptunes had that sounded like nothing else out there?
“It was [Noreaga’s 1998 single] Superthug. We made Superthug and it made people literally tear clubs up; it was one of the first records to do that. We were in Virginia hearing about how this song was making people behave like they were in CBGB’s. That’s not what rap records did at that time. At that time rap records were like, the ones you play in your car pull up smoking a joint … No one was actively moshing in the club. Superthug was that.”
Were you already interested in [studio] technology, and did you get into it through instruments?
“No. I still suck when it comes to technology. I would only learn a piece of equipment because I needed to use it. I was never a geek like that. Sometimes I wish I was but other times I appreciate the fact that I’m not… Like, we named our label Star Trak because I love Star Trek. But I cannot tell you any of the pivotal episodes [of the show]. We named ourselves The Neptunes – I don’t remember the Neptunian episode. I’m a poser! I like what I like. At that time no one was using terms like tapas and shit like that. But I didn’t realise that I was just that kind of kid: I like tapas meals. I don’t want the full meal – let me sample this, let me have a taste of that.”
How do you start a composition? Think about Lemon as an example – how did it start?
“We just had a lot of fun with that one… There was a late senator named Arlen Specter. He was doing a town hall [meeting], and there was this one guy giving him a hard time, and Specter’s microphone was so distorted but it was so good. The guy was talking like: ‘You and your cronies! Out in Washington! You’re taking over our jobs! Our healthcare!’ And he’s just like: ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute!’”
So you sampled that. Then at the end of that record there’s obviously the cut-up vocal … the pitched up vocal. How do you know when to stop putting all that stuff on?
“I only put it on because I feel like it’s naked. It’s like an empty patch on the Christmas tree. It’s like when you decorate it. There is such a thing as an overly decorated Christmas tree. It’s not just when the branches are hanging down. Hopefully you have enough taste to avoid doing that to that poor tree.”
How did Letter to my Godfather come about?
This song came from a request for me to write a song for — and Chad worked on it with me – the Clarence Avant documentary, The Black Godfather. I watched it and was blown away. I was like: wow. I didn’t know the complexity and depth of that man’s story. I only knew a pinch of it. Then you go on to find out not only did he have a label – labels – he also was a huge mover and shaker when it came to politics and he was also an incredible voice when it came to activism. And a lot of the seamless privileges that we enjoy today not only as people of colour but artists period, the seamless privilege and enjoyment we experience is due to [him]. He’s the architect to a lot of the profession, you know? People owning their publishing… changing the conversation in a lot of those rooms – he was behind that. So that blew my mind, and the way that he would galvanise people and bring them together. He could just get people to congregate. It was unbelievable.”
At this point, Pharrell gets stuck into – you might say distracted by – creating a live remaster of this track, one he released five months ago, with the aid of his engineer Mike Larson. As they work on “fixing” the third verse – it was “too down”, Pharrell admits – the song blasts through the studio speakers.
As it does, Pharrell is up out of his seat, headbanging over the mixing desk, “playing” the song like a conductor, with his fingers, fists and facial expressions responding to the choir, bass line, 808 lines and his own Auto-Tuned vocals. Watching him, I ask about his physical, visceral reaction to the sonics of his music. Does he need a recording-in-progress to move him physically to know it’s working?
“Yeah!” comes his beaming reply. “I’m such a control freak that if it don’t move me, I’m afraid it’s not going to move anybody else. Now, there are times where shit moves me and people are just like, ‘what?’ But,” Pharrell adds, unleashing that cosmic smile again, “I’ll take it, because at least I trust myself. You know?”
We know. Which seems as good a time as any to press Pharrell Williams on the talking points of Music in 2019. Starting with …
In spring, The Face cover star Tyler, The Creator hit Number One on the US album charts. How important was it for an artist like Tyler to reach the top of the charts with an album as bold as IGOR, and one accompanied by a stunningly transgressive look/character and attention-grabbing lyrics about sexuality and masculinity?
“It’s incredibly important. If you think about it, the craziest thing that… Like I often say, a fish doesn’t know it’s wet. And most people don’t; they’re not as self-aware. Two things: you think about gender and sexuality, and as much as we think we live in modernity, we don’t. There are people still [living] in places where there are laws against what people do within the confines of their own bedroom. That’s not modernity. That is fucking ancient. It’s really crazy.
“There are people who don’t understand that there are others who don’t have conflict with their gender – they just don’t identity in the same way that I might or you might, or she might or he might, or ‘they’ might. That’s not modernity.
“When people ask me questions and they’re trying to be funny and shit: ‘Oh, you do you believe in aliens?’ That shit blows my mind! You have so much human hubris that you could possibly think that we are the only life-form in all that exists? All the little stars that you see have fucking solar systems around them! So when someone asks [that], I’m like: ‘Damn bro: were you paying attention in science?’
“So, yes, people like Tyler are important, because he’s living without that customary gravity of being brainwashed. Or blinded. And when we start using words like that, we start sounding like conspiracy theorists and shit. But, man, just do the math. Walk outside at night and look at all the stars. Or just pay attention to the fact that your sister or your mother doesn’t make the same as your dad and your brother.
“You don’t know you’re wet. There’s not enough self-awareness out here. So we need individuals like Tyler to just, like, be.”
The staggering, thrilling rise of Billie Eilish – Luke Wood says it’s down to “authenticity” and her chemistry with her brother Finneas: “They can really articulate something in a very complete way.” Also, “she has just a complete vision, and complete idea of who she is as an artist”. Your thoughts?
“I think what’s happening is you’re seeing people who not only know where they want to be in the future, but they know who they really are right now. And they see these walls, all these partitions, which are basically just the residues from the old guard and they way they [operated], the metrics they used to figure out what was what. That doesn’t really make sense [to them].
“It’s kinda like [political] polling, when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in this country. Polling led us down the wrong path. It’s an old thing that led us down the wrong path. And I knew that. It’s an old thing that existed back in the Fifties and Sixties and shit. They need new methods, new processes, for figuring out what people are thinking and feeling. I think the phone is much better than the poll – but that’s just me. Same for voting.
“And Billie just exists in a place where there’s old constructs of what people think things are. People are still trying to categorise things. And clearly she’s not categorisable, or classifiable.”
Taylor Swift versus Scooter Braun and the music industry patriarchy: is she starting conversations that need to be had about artists owning their own music?
“Sam Cooke owned his own publishing, his own record company. That’s not a new conversation. It’s just a long overdue … mentality. It should be that way.
Does she have a point, though, in terms of questioning why she’s had her masters taken away from her, when her former label Big Machine is sold to Scooter Braun with help from big money Wall Street investors?
“Does she have a point? I think all artists should have the ability to own their own masters, if they want to. Some artists don’t want to – some want to cash out. It just depends. It’s not as cut and dry [as] that. I’m not trying to enter this conversation, by the way, but sometimes there are grey areas. Sometimes there are lawyers that are complicit. It just depends on the particular scenario.
“However: if an artist wants to own their masters, they should have the ability to do that. They want to own their publishing, and only just administration fees, like us? They should have the ability to do that – but they should also have lawyers that explain that to them from the door. If your lawyer’s not telling you that you have the ability to maintain your publishing from the very beginning, that’s probably not the right lawyer for you.
“But I’m not in this to point fingers. I’m definitely in it for the liberation of the artists and the writers.”
Kanye West making a religious album – what’s your take on that?
“Wow, you comin’ with it, dude! Um, I’m happy for him. That’s his journey. I’m always for him exploring and finding new ways to express himself. That’s what you want for all the artists who make music you love.
“I don’t know if that’s the good answer that you were looking for? But I was just trying to figure out what… You asked me what I thought about him going in that direction. Yeah, he should continue to explore.”
Even if that means his “regular” fans don’t buy that record in such big numbers?
“That just comes along with the territory. When you’re continuing to push and excavate deep within yourself, you run the risk of that. But I think he’s content with what it is that he’s doing. It’s moving him.”
Now that the Old Town Road phenomenon is a little bit in our rear-view mirror, to what do you ascribe the record-breaking, era-defining success of Lil Nas X’s single?
“From a scientific point of view and looking at all the variables: [you’ve got] TikTok and the way that works, it was the perfect record for that particular format, which is like the elevated version of a Vine.
“It was also the perfect storm of bringing elements together. You’ve got a Trent Reznor [Nine Inch Nails’] sample. You’ve got this African-American guy expressing [himself]. You’ve got a folk-rock melody, then the 808 just hits. People had never heard [all] that before.”
As we mentioned earlier, this month is the 20th anniversary of the release of Kaleidoscope. What do you hear when you listen to that now?
“Man, I often don’t listen to my music from my past. I don’t know what that is, I haven’t been able to figure it out yet. But we had so much fun making that album. Kelis was incredibly inspiring and super-talented. We were just trying to disrupt whatever was going on at the time.”
Which artists or tracks were lightning striking for you in 2019?
“Billie’s awesome. DaBaby’s on fire. He’s just walking around with a gasoline suit on. I like Lil Baby. Rosalía’s ascendance is just unbelievable. She’s killing it.”
Coming from one solo pro to another, that’s praise indeed. Thanks Pharrell, and don’t let us keep you out of your own studio any longer. Here’s to a noise-cancelling – and, even better, a noise-making – 2020.