An Ode to Chad Hugo, the Unsung Neptune - DJBooth

An Ode to Chad Hugo, the Unsung Neptune

One of the best — and, sadly, most overlooked — musicians of the last two decades deserves to get his flowers while he can still smell them.
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On Sunday (May 21), Chad Hugo, who once expressed his keen interest in social media by saying “the difference between the two is Soundcloud is orange and Twitter is blue,” announced his retirement on Twitter. “I resign from the music business. Thanks again, people, for your support throughout all these years. Good luck/God bless!,” the 43-year-old producer wrote in a since-deleted tweet.

However, just hours later, a rep for Chad clarified that the tweet was a “bad joke,” which no doubt came as a relief to devoted (and probably distraught) fans, including fellow hitmaker Boi-1da.

By that point, I’d already pretty much finished this article and was in no way prepared to scrap it—not only because throwing away 1,413 words is like your parents telling you we can’t keep the dog (“but mom, he only shit in your shoe twice!”), but because Chad Hugo is one of the best—and, sadly, most overlooked—musicians of the last two decades who deserves to get his flowers while he can still smell them.

As one-half of The Neptunes alongside Pharrell Williams, Chad shaped pop culture in his own funky, futuristic and fearlessly nerdy image. During the late ’90s and early ’00s, the former middle school bandmates from Virginia Beach rose to prominence scoring neck-snapping hits for everyone from Jay Z and Jermaine Dupri to Nelly and N.O.R.E. Their distinctively chintzy, endlessly addictive sound also transformed the careers of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and a then-unknown duo who called themselves the Clipse. For a good half decade, The Neptunes were the hottest producers on the planet—both this one and their own.

As one-third of N*E*R*D alongside Pharrell and Shay Haley, another high school buddy from Virginia, Chad found that glorious sweet spot nestled between rap, rock and funk, a sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that has eluded countless acts since (“you can’t be me, I’m a rockstar!”). The group’s first—and best—album, 2002’s In Search Of…, was a slow burner in the U.S. but has since become a cult favorite amongst a generation of kids who like rap and rock, streetwear and skateboarding, video games and girls. In other words, most music fans today.

Despite his incredible accomplishments, Chad Hugo has never truly basked in the spotlight. This is partly due to Chad’s low-key nature (“I used to think that being in the back was cool and it is cool,” he toldTODAY in 2008), but also because of his collaborator’s undeniable star power. It’s Pharrell’s voice you hear on many of N*E*R*D and The Neptunes’ songs; it’s Pharrell you see hanging out with Hov, Puff and Kanye; it’s Pharrell who embraced his role as a global fashion icon and sex symbol—Skateboard P was always destined to be the star of Star Trak.

That’s not to say Pharrell ever intentionally eclipsed Chad, though. Anytime The Neptunes are praised or even mentioned in interviews, P is quick to give props to his musical sidekick (who, naturally, is usually somewhere else avoiding press). “Chad has been and always will be a very significant part of the foundation of everything that I’ve ever been given in terms of experience," Pharrell said during a recent appearance on Power 106’s The Cruz Show, gently reminding host J Cruz that The Neptunes was never a one-man show.

While their roles in The Neptunes were fluid and interchangeable, songs would often begin with Pharrell, the natural drummer and singer of the duo. “Pharrell will have a beat in his head, he’ll put it down. He may have some drums laid down. He’ll have the hook already in his head and how it should go. He’ll probably have the video,” Chad explained in the 2003 documentary, The Neptunes: The Eighth Planet.

Chad’s strength was nurturing those seeds into blossoming, beautiful plants. “And then I’ll hear [it] and try to lace it,” he continued. “I consider myself a band; you got a song, let me be your band—I’ll fill it in where I can, make it sound good, make sure it’s a dope song.” With an ethos “to make the drums hit hard so you can feel with your whole body,” they often were.

There’s no better example of Chad Hugo’s stroke of genius than “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Snoop Dogg’s first—and only—No. 1 single and one of The Neptunes’ most iconic productions. “That’s my motherfucker right there. Chad, what it do? You put that piece on that ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot.’ We thought it was done ’til you put that [*Pharrell hums synth melody*],” Snoop recalled with pure joy while he sat beside Pharrell during an episode of GGN. “When you put that motherfucker on there, that was like the candle on the cake! We was like, ‘God damn!’”

Justin Timberlake, who worked closely with The Neptunes on his 2002 debut solo album Justified, shares similar sentiments about Chad Hugo. “Literally the first day of recording, I remember walking in and we’re like, ‘what are we gonna do?’” Timberlake remembered during a recent Beats 1 interview. “And you [Pharrell] were like, ‘hey, Chad had an acoustic, listen to what [he’s been playing]. And Chad was [*mimics guitar melody*]. And I was like, ‘this sounds like nothing else I’ve heard.’”

That song, as anyone who watches the interview will immediately recognize, turned out to be “Like I Love You.”

Chad’s talents didn’t just lie behind the boards, though. Despite his lack of vocal performances, Hugo was instrumental (pardon the pun) when it came to writing the hooks, bridges and melodies on several Neptunes songs, particularly those on Justified. “I remember, you [Pharrell] would start a groove and we would start mumbling melodies and then we’d come up with something, and then you’d be like, ‘Chad!’” Timberlake added. “Chad would walk in and it’s like, ‘we need a bridge.’ And Chad would be like [*hums melody*]. And I would just look at Pharrell like, ‘what thee fuck?!’”

If Pharrell became—and remains—a role model for a generation of black kids who didn’t quite fit the typical mold (see: Tyer, The Creator, KAYTRANADA), Chad Hugo’s success was equally inspiring for many Asian-Americans in hip-hop. "Obviously, there were a number of Asian-Americans in rap to come before him: Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., Mountain Brothers and Snacky Chan, to name a few," says Mikey Fresh, editor at VIBE and MissInfo.tv. "But The Neptunes and N*E*R*D were groundbreaking, and not once did Chad use his 'Asian-ness' in a gimmicky or corny way. Along with Pharrell, he truly changed hip-hop culture forever. Leave it to an Asian guy to be the quiet workhorse of the crew—sounds like your average math class in America! (Just kidding.)"

Though he’s always been content to play the background, the notion that Chad was too shy or socially awkward for fame is perhaps the biggest misconception about his mystique. There are countless videos of him acting like a complete goofball in interviews and studio sessions, a highlight being the time he spits a shamelessly terrible (but also kind of amazing) freestyle in front of Pharrell and Justin Timberlake. “He’s just trying not to show the world his true mad scientist and unapologetically styled humor,” Pharrell explained. In fact, it's Chad's goofy nature, combined with Pharrell's cool guy curiosity, that was the recipe for The Neptunes' game-changing success.

The Neptunes and N*E*R*D-era were undoubtedly Chad Hugo’s zenith, but I hate to make this sound like a eulogy. Although family life and living in different states has slowed The Neptunes’ output in recent years, Chad has branched out as a DJ (as one-half of MSSLCMMND alongside Daniel Biltmore) and composer (he scored the soundtrack the 2014 Manny Pacquiao documentary Manny) while keeping the funk alive with gems like The Internet’s “Dontcha.” He may not have made anything as momentous as Pharrell’s “Happy” in recent years, but Chad Hugo continues to explore his creative impulses in the shadows—just how he likes it.

Chad Hugo has no reason to retire yet, especially with a new N*E*R*D album potentially in the works (“There answer is yes. When it’s time,” Pharrell teased last November). The day Chad does decide to hang up his ASR-10, however, his work will speak for itself, even if his name isn’t always spoken first. Because if Chad Hugo has taught us anything, it’s that No One Ever Really Dies.

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