The Legacy of Pharrell Williams
It’s a damn near unprecedented occurrence for a music artist to peak at age 40. It simply does not historically happen. Especially in pop music. In fact, many reach their highest threshold in the business 15 to 20 years earlier in life. Someone forgot to share this 411 with SkateBoard P aka Pharrell Williams.
Born in Virginia Beach, VA in 1973, Pharrell is the oldest of 3 children. Early on, Williams took a liking to making music, learning to play both the drums and keyboards. At the age of 12, while attending a summer music camp, he became friends with Chad Hugo, a tenor saxophonist. Later, while attending neighboring high schools, they formed an “R&B type” group with two other young men, calling themselves the Neptunes. They often competed at local talent shows and were later discovered by legendary producer Teddy Riley, also a VA native. Riley had produced acts such as Bobby Brown, Dougie Fresh and Big Daddy Kane, and had almost singularly established the “New Jack Swing” sound dominating the radio airwaves at the time.
In 1991, Riley commissioned Williams to coin a verse for the up and coming rap group Wreckx-N-Effect’s for their debut single “Rump Shaker.” Pharrell, all of 18 years old at the time, jumped at the opportunity. The song became a smash hit and is super familiar even today. It earned Williams his 1st gold record but still super stardom would not come easily or quickly for him. From 1991-1995, Williams set out on a path of musical and stylistic discovery. This was an amazing time for hip-hop and urban music. He would have to be on his A+ game, but also be unique enough to stand out from the pack. He even temporarily joined forces with another future superstar, Timbaland, to form the group “Surrounded By Idiots.” They were more of a hip-hop outfit (though unfortunately the duo never recorded) compared to the Neptunes R&B flavor, but now Pharrell was establishing his sound and versatility.
Fast forward to 1996. The Neptunes, now just Williams and Hugo, were prepared to set urban and pop music on fire. Established acts such as SWV (“Use Your Heart”) & Ma$e (“Lookin At Me”) commissioned the upstart tandem for production and songwriting. The moment of truth occurred in 1998, when Noreaga, 1/2 of the new York hip-hop duo Capone-N-Noreaga, hired the Neptunes to produce a track on his debut, solo album “N.O.R.E.” The collaboration yielded the cut “Super Thug” and it was as original a rap song there had ever been. It took off on the charts, gaining the Neptunes worldwide notoriety and a major industry buzz. Suddenly every artist wanted a Neptunes beat – that off kilter, electronic heat that screamed catchiness at the same damn time.
The 2000’s brought Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo Grammy Awards, millions of dollars and universal acclaim extending far beyond hip-hop. Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani and Baby Face among many, all used the Neptunes soundscape to further their fan base and reach the dance floor. Twenty four top 10 pop hits in the late 90’s and 2000’s were written and/or produced by Williams and Hugo. Billboard named them the #1 producer(s) of the 2000 decade yet it seemed Pharrell was just beginning.
2010 saw Pharrell join the realm of movie scoring. Hans Zimmer (a multiple award winning film composer) partnered with Williams to score the Despicable Me soundtrack. Pharrell’s now enormous iconic status was elevated by his various clothing and fashion lines, though all the while Williams was keeping it “hip-hop” by producing(now without Hugo) for Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, The Game, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, T.I. and a host of others. Then 2013 happened…
French electronic duo Daft Punk approached Williams about collaborating on their upcoming LP, “Random Access Memories.” The end results were nothing short of stunning. The lead single “Get Lucky” became an international smash hit, giving both Daft Punk and Pharrell their highest popularity yet. The song won the Grammy for record of the year, best pop duo/group performance and helped the Daft Punk album win album of the year. While “Get Lucky” was solidifying itself as one of the most well known songs in 2013 pop culture, almost simultaneously R&B crooner Robin Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines,” also produced by and prominently featuring Pharrell, was climbing the urban music charts. It could be argued that this song was even bigger than “Get Lucky.” It was the best selling song of 2013 with over 6 million digital downloads. It spent 12 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, and on June 29, 2013 Pharrell became only the 12th artist ever to hold the #1 and #2 spot on the charts at the same damn time.
2013 also saw (maybe he is a vampire!) Williams reprise his role as movie-music provider and took on the challenge of providing music for “Despicable Me 2.” Two new original songs by Pharrell were composed including the game changing “Happy.” It is the number one song in America as I type this and was nominated for an Oscar just last week. Seizing the momentum of a number 1 single and an historic 2013, the album “G I R L,” Pharrell’s 2nd solo album, was released the day after the airing of the annual Oscar Awards to both critical and commercial acclaim. I haven’t even mentioned in this piece N*E*R*D, the funk-rock hip-hop fusion band piloted by Pharrell from 2001-2010 along with the aforementioned Hugo and childhood friend Shae Haley. They may or may not record together again. That’s how colossal of a resume this man possesses. It’s truly breathtaking.
This is my longest piece yet about my favorite musician ever. It’s only fitting. I could write paragraphs more! Twenty plus years in the business and finally, everyone knows his name. I couldn’t be more proud or “happy” for him.
-Jermaine Raetone Johnson
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