In Search of Myself: How N*E*R*D's Debut Changed My Life

A hip-hop fan reflects on the impact the debut from Pharrell Williams and company had 15 years ago.
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A hip-hop fan reflects on the impact the debut from Pharrell Williams and company had 15 years ago.

Just weeks before my freshman year of high school, my family moved from the Germantown area of Philadelphia to the Northeast section. The transition forced me to leave my friends behind and, in the weeks and months ahead, I found myself struggling to adapt to my new, whitewashed middle-class neighborhood.

“G-Town” was everything a 14-year-old Black kid needed: the homies, the girls, random games of “Roughhouse” basketball and 7-on-7 football, and the occasional block party in the summer. Now I had a front lawn and a driveway, but no one to kick it with who understood the purpose of a du-rag or who knew what “Bling-Bling” meant. It was awful.

My step-father, who served as a manager and consultant for much of Philly’s rising hip-hop acts of the early 2000’s, would always bring home a stack of CDs he picked up throughout the day. Occasionally I’d come across a great album, but on August 6, 2001, my eyes and ears met N*E*R*D’s In Search Of… for the first time. My life changed.

In Search Of… was nothing like I had ever heard before. It was rock, but they were rapping. But they were also singing, so it was soulful. And the beats, THE BEATS! The production sounded like something out of a spaceship, synthesizers, snares, and 808 drums all hitting over the somewhat off-tone, but still harmonious vocals of the group’s leader, Skateboard P.

I was familiar with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo as The Neptunes, the producers responsible for Get Down Or Lay Down, the debut album from hometown act Philly's Most Wanted, but this wasn’t the hard-hitting, street-thumping instrumentals that tap-danced on the fine line of Latin-inspired flair that was “Cross The Border.” No, this was something different. It was something new, something exciting.

By the time I deciphered the lyrics to songs like “Lapdance” and “Brain,” I realized I had learned analogies to activities that I had not yet even participated in. I was hooked. Slowly, I found myself becoming more and more interested in “mainstream” pop culture. While I had an appreciation for the most popular rap artists at the time, watching “Rap City” eventually turned into watching “TRL.” In Search Of... and N*E*R*D had provided a gateway to the development of my diverse Black identity.

Whether it was the juxtaposition of hip-hop with rock or seeing two young Black men (and a Filipino kid) in Thrasher Magazine t-shirts, Vans and trucker hats when an entire culture was only rocking throwbacks and headbands, the entire N*E*R*D package was an eye-opening culture change. My friends, who didn’t adapt as quickly as I did, found it easier to listen to “Baby Doll” when I told them it was made by the same guys who produced “Philly Celebrities” and “Suckas, Pt. 2.”

In Search Of... also introduced me to Terrance and Gene Thornton, better known as Pusha T and Malice of Clipse. Routinely hearing hard-hitting verses of pure drug talk from the Thorntons over the pair’s electronic-infused instrumentals established a new perspective of how popular rap at that time could be recorded and performed. A new voice had entered the halls of hip-hop.

In much the same way “Walk This Way” by Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith impacted the previous generation, In Search Of... has resonated through millennial culture for the past decade and a half. One album was all it took to make kids around the world finally feel comfortable with being a “nerd.” I was one of those kids.

In the 15 years since its release, In Search Of… has completely shaped my tastes in music, fashion, and popular culture. From Fam-Lay and Philly’s own Roscoe P. Coldchain to Kelis and the Teriyaki Boyz, I was obsessed with anything and everything with a Star Trak Records logo. Finding other fans of N*E*R*D eventually led to me partnering with a DJ through social media to chronicle the entire Neptunes discography, and would eventually lead to me finding the inspiration to write about music for a living.

I often wonder what would’ve happened had my stepfather not brought home that stack of CDs. For starters, my first year in a new neighborhood, in a new school, would have been completely different. So while I owe a thank you to Pharrell, Chad and Shay, I also need to thank my stepfather, Marc, for changing my life. When you realize you can truly be yourself, not the person society or your friends say you need to be, that is when the search really begins.

By Cory Townes, a writer from Philly who is based in Brooklyn. Cory's work has been in other publications as SB Nation, Nylon, Vibe & EBONY. Follow him on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Instagram