When Chad Hugo walks into a room, his presence is felt more than it is heard. As he sneaks through the side entrance of the media tent at Outside Lands, an eclectic music festival held at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, heads begin to turn as his hushed demeanor is contrasted by his striking, custom-made G-Star jumpsuit. If there was any question as to why Hugo has been such an influential figure in music over the past 25 years, it’s readily answered by the back of his outfit, its shimmering gray material emblazoned with the iconic “N.E.R.D” in bright neon lettering. Chad Hugo’s fashion style, neatly summarized into three mismatched words: “Whatever’s clever for the weather. Dork-geezer-chic.”
The Bay Area weather was spotless when Hugo hit the main stage with the rest of N.E.R.D a few hours later, performing for a ravenous audience eager to hear a wide range of selections from the group’s endless catalog of hits. Alternating between a keyboard, guitar, and the DJ equipment in front of him, Hugo remained calm and collected at the center of the stage for much of their set. The same can’t be said for the majority of the crowd, however, which was a swarming mess of mosh pits and bouncing fans, hypnotized under the spell of Pharrell’s anarchist commands.
Unhappy with the crowd’s inability to support fearless crowd surfers, Pharrell, at one point, stopped the show to preach the importance of looking out for one’s fellow concertgoer, boldly proclaiming, “We’re not moving until we get to 20 people in the air.” Judging from the initially scattered groans it seemed like an improbable request at first, but before long a few spirited bodies began popping up above the sea of heads, and soon many more followed suit. Eventually, the magic number was reached, satisfying the rebellious mob leader and persuading the band to launch into their next song, “Rock Star.” How fitting.
“When we see the crowd, it’s just mayhem,” Chad Hugo says about the group's mindset leading into a show. “We let loose. N.E.R.D, we’ve got a cool band and some nice dancers, we just hope for a good crowd response. We just go in there and do what we do.”
More than a decade-and-a-half after the release of their landmark debut, In Search Of…, Chad Hugo is just now touring with the band for the first time. In the past, he’s stuck to spot dates rather than hitting the road for extensive stretches at a time, but the group’s shift in musical direction convinced him to finally make the leap and participate in the full run of shows.
“N.E.R.D always had this idea that we were going to be like this hip-hop Pink Floyd,” he says. “People don’t really know Roger and them as much; they know the music more than the guys themselves and their faces. But we took a turn and we did it, went on tour and were making it happen, so I decided to be a part of it this go-around.”
The tour began in June, including stops at major festivals such as Governors Ball and Lovebox as well as appearances across the globe in Japan, France, and more. Hugo feels blessed to be a part of it all, although it’s somewhat complicated his decision to go vegan, which he says is much harder to keep up with on the road. Choosing restaurants along with the rest of the band can occasionally be a struggle. “Majority rules, I guess,” he says with a laugh.
Chad Hugo has a sly sense of humor, quiet and understated which complements his easygoing yet goofy personality. During a brief photoshoot just before our interview, he quickly turns his back to the camera to strike an unconventional pose, straddling the promotional backdrop with one leg extended in the air. Still, he’s somewhat reserved and measured as we speak, pausing to phrase his words carefully at every turn. “I wish I could be super hype, with some crazy outlandish answers for you today,” he says with a smile. “I kind of miss my colleagues, they’re supposed to be here. They would tell you otherwise.”
It’s that tight-knit relationship with his comrades that always brings N.E.R.D back together, even as they’re engaged in their individual endeavors. The band’s long run has been punctuated by a few hiatuses, but Hugo was quick to mention the essential elements that keep them from straying too far from each other.
“Fans and friendship; all the guys, we’ve got things going on in our lives, but when we see each other it’s like, ‘What’s up, let's make this album happen,’” he says. “Now here we are [and] the fans demand it, it’s crazy to leave them hanging.”
Away from his bandmates, Hugo certainly has been busy—earlier this year, he released his first-ever sample pack for producers who are looking to find inspiration in his sound. Recently, he’s spent time in the studio with several prominent faces from the younger generation, such as Rex Orange County and SG Lewis, searching for fresh textures and ideas to keep his creative juices flowing.
“It’s different energies,” he says. “Although I was a fan of stuff overseas, people put what they were brought up on and their surroundings into their work. Those guys are from different parts of town, so I’m always learning from those guys. I’m American, I was born in Virginia, so to work with outside Virginians is always a learning experience.”
While Chad Hugo appreciates the sentiment, he disputes the notion that he's a pioneer. “Everybody can be a pioneer; you’re a pioneer, out here doing an interview with an iPhone,” he tells me. Instead, he says, his goal is simply to honor the legacy of the ones who built the tools, and whose work has allowed him to carve his own lane.
“I’m always just trying to follow in the footsteps of others,” he says. “Bob Moog and those guys who invented the machines that we work on, the tools of the trade. Roger Lynn and those guys who made the instruments, Les Paul who made the [electric] guitar. It’s good to know where these instruments came from, and to apply that to our craft.”
It’s unlikely that any such founding father would be unhappy with what Chad Hugo and company have accomplished in their wake. Since kicking off his production career in 1992, Hugo has taken home two GRAMMYs from the 12 he's been nominated for, while working to shape the sound of popular music as part of The Neptunes and through his collaborative work with Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, and more. Still, he’s looking for that next step—or artist—to propel himself even further, even if he’s not quite sure what that looks (or sounds) like.
“On a scale from 1-10 on achievements of life right now, I’m on 11,” he says with a dry chuckle. “I’m just figuring things out myself. Any guidance you can give me, I’m down to discuss it.”
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