Aliens have always been depicted as dangerous beings from other planets, completely different from us, creatures that shatter our idea of the possibilities of the living. Pharrell and Chad Hugo were born on Earth, had the appearance of being Earthlings, but created a sound that was otherworldly. As The Neptunes, the duo broke every barrier they could find. They were the aliens of modern music in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, but instead of being asked to see the world leaders, the biggest names in music sought the futuristic funk of two ambitious Virginia boys.
What I always found fascinating about The Neptunes is how they went beyond just one genre. Hip-hop, R&B, rock, pop, soul, they made it all, and they made it with everyone. Only the deaf and the Amish could avoid hearing them during their domination. Just as the movies had predicted, the alien conquered the world, and they did it through music. You could tell by the chords, the drum patterns, sounds that seemed both old and new, strange and alluring, weird but cool, they blurred the lines, and rewrote the rules.
Pharrell and Chad were the living, breathing embodiment that creativity has no rules, no walls, no barriers or prisons. Being an artist meant freedom, boundless possibilities if your mind could take you there. Digging into their discography is like attending a restaurant that will serve you 12 different courses throughout the meal. The same minds who got their start writing on "Rumpshaker" in '92 and gave us the lunch-room table classic “Grindin” with the Clipse also presented Gwen Stefani with a hit, Beyonce with an anthem, Britney Spears with edge, and were a crucial part of Justin Timberlake’s transition from boy band member to superstar. From dope boys to pop stars, they could morph to fit any world.
What made them special is how it could all mingle into one big musical world. Through them the Clipse worked with Justin, Snoop worked with Mariah, Kelis with ODB, genre-fusing and blending was natural since the foundation they used to create was pulled from a range of sources. They were the offspring of the music from yesteryear's, making the sound of tomorrow, leaving the biggest impression on the kid of the present. Part of the reason why The Neptunes cult was such a large group was due to it being a collection of fans that interest was in various genres. The benefits of being outside the box, attracting everyone else who refuses to be caged in.
Fashion, music, skating, jewelry—Pharrell was the poster child for daring to be different. He cites Kelis as the one who upped his taste in fashion, making her a huge influence that sparked a future trendsetter. Much as we cite Kanye as an icon that affected style, Pharrell was on his own pedestal. Especially with Billionaire Boys Club—a brand that easily rivaled Sean John and Roc-A-Fella. Without Kelis who knows where Pharrell would stand as a fashion icon, but without Pharrell, does the world get Kelis? You have an artsy, creative, rocker, black woman that was unlike anyone out at the time. I wasn’t really aware of Kelis beyond “Milkshake,” but after talking to countless women her importance goes much deeper than Billboard charts. She was a figure, a symbol of representation that impacted woman to be different the same way Pharrell did men.
What he saw in Kelis made a world of difference in people's lives, and the same can be said for the Thornton brothers. Under their Star Trak umbrella, the Clipse were able to go beyond Virginia. Outside of In Search Of and Clones, Clipse’s Lord Willin and Kelis’ Tasty were the first projects to be released through Star Trak’s Arista deal. Slim Thug, Robin Thicke, The High Speed Scene and Kenna all released albums through Star Trak. Even Snoop Dogg was able to re-surge with R&G: The Masterpiece. Of course, the label ran into issues that slowly brought its demise, but they rarely get credit for daring to take on new acts, try and push new talent.
They also used the label to step into the spotlight in another way. N.E.R.D’s three albums created something like a cult following. Another great example of how they dared to be different and it paid off. The offspring of the rock band is everywhere - even though Pharrell was a good vocalist, a decent rapper, it was the rock band that assisted in transcending him. Fader released an article in 2015, about how the N.E.R.D forum invented the rap internet. I don’t agree with the headline, the points are far too vague, but everyone from Tyler, The Creator to M.I.A was a part of that community. It truly was a cult of kids who admired and looked up to Pharrell, Chad, and the music that they continued to create. Those very kids have grown up, they’re artists now, trying to carry the same ethos that they found so alluring. I feel like that’s what has kept Pharrell so young. If punk-rock captured the angst of being a teenager, Pharrell and company breathed being different into the lungs of everyone who watched them from afar.
Nelly and Mystikal, Noreaga and T.I., 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky, Kenna and The Cool Kids, Earl Sweatshirt and Mos Def, Future and Wale, even after the rise of Auto-Tune and the end of The Neptunes the desire to work with Pharrell and Chad has yet to wane. Pharrell’s a star, he’s always had the charisma, he was destined to be more than a background producer. Before Metro Boomin blew himself up, Pharrell had reached a completely different level of fame and notoriety. He did the band, solo albums, even the gangster grill—the DJ Drama and Pharrell tape was one of the gems that came out in 2006. Everything from hearing him rap alongside T.I. and Young Dro, freestyling over “Liquid Swords” and having models in the hood made Pharrell the definition of cool. The nerd that was bigger than the jocks, Pharrell would have all kids wanting to ride skateboards and throw up the Vulcan salute when rappers were known more for gang signs and expensive Hummers. His very essence was cool, and somehow that spirit has continued to captivate despite his age. That’s longevity, I imagine long after he’s dead people will inspire to be half as innovative and an ounce as cool.
Tyler, The Creator rapped on his new album, “In Search of.. Did more for me than Illmatic.” Out of all his lyrics, it was one of the most shocking to hear. Knowing Tyler, knowing the influence of Pharrell, The Neptunes, and N.E.R.D, it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still a statement. One that really captures what that music means. When “Happy” was the biggest song in the world, I wondered what that meant for Pharrell’s legacy. He’s getting older, his music has changed a bit, but he’s still able to dominate. The kids that watched Despicable Me may one day grow up and look back, discover In Search Of and never be the same, or maybe Clones, or maybe an Apple Music playlist of all The Neptunes classics that will spark the fire of who will carry his torch. When it’s all said and done, he will be remembered as the genius who pushed music further and will likely birth the child who will take it to a different mountain top. That child could be Tyler.
It’s been ten years since In My Mind, who knows what Pharrell will do in the next ten. Even if he did nothing but make shoes and chairs, his impact on music will never be erased. A legend living amongst us, silently innovating, inspiring, and making kids embrace their inner nerd, and hoping with each new song that’s played, you’ll hear that familiar stutter from Neptune. Hip-hop needs its aliens. From Outkast to The Neptunes' the extra-terrestrial creatives are the button pushers, the mountain movers, the game changers.
Pharrell gave us the blueprint to build our own spaceships, now all we have to do is launch.
By Yoh, aka Yohnonomous, aka @Yoh31
Photo Credit: smoka_bbq