“Omnipresent” doesn’t even begin to tell the story of The Neptunes, the hot production team from Virginia Beach, VA. The ubiquitous pair has worked with everyone from hip-hop heavy hitters Jay-Z, Noreaga and Mystikal to rockers No Doubt, Marilyn Manson and Garbage, not to mention pop stars Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Justin Timberlake.
At one point in the spring of 2002, five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 featured production and songwriting by the Neptunes, including tracks by *NSYNC and Usher. In fact, it might be easier to list the hitmakers of the past couple of years who haven’t worked with the dynamic duo. “We have to schedule when the songs are going to come out,” says the Neptunes' Chad Hugo, to which his partner, Pharrell Williams, adds, “Otherwise, the airwaves could be in gridlock.”
Record labels and artists alike are eager — rabid might be a more accurate term — to hook up with the Neptunes; after all, practically everything they touch turns to gold. The twosome’s distinctive sound — syncopated, often synthesized rhythms hyped up by alternately terse and heavy beats — has enlivened more than one tune. It’s currently a given that, if you want a hit, you’d best make a call to the Neptunes one of your top priorities.
Williams and Hugo first met in a seventh-grade jazz band. Nothing if not eclectic in their tastes, the pair devoured everything from hip-hop to punk and arena rock via their parents’ record collections, and by the early 1990s were performing in various Virginia Beach-area venues. One such notable combo was a hip-hop outfit with the catchy moniker Surrounded by Idiots, wherein Williams played behind DJ Timmy Tim, who would eventually rename himself Timbaland and become a producer of no small repute himself.
Williams was also playing in a vocal group with Hugo and fellow high-school mate Shay, which hit the big time when it was discovered at a 1992 talent show by new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley. Williams and Hugo learned production under Riley, working with such groups as Blackstreet and S.W.V. The rising stars soon took on the name the Neptunes — legend has it because, astrologically, Neptune rules water and the Earth is, after all, mostly water — and began producing their own songs.
But while the hip-hop and dance-music landscapes are littered with a thousand sound-alike producers, the Neptunes took a different, more organic approach, allowing the music room to breathe instead of being swathed in “production values,” and sometimes adding drum or synth parts that land in unexpected places.
“That’s how music was in the beginning,” Williams has said, “because it was played by humans. A live band would take it all over the place. Sequencers are perfect, humans are not, and that imperfection is perfection.”
Of course, taking a contrary approach to the conventional wisdom can become a convention of its own. To solve this, the Neptunes are determined to continue shaking things up. “We don’t want to be judged for our name, but for our work,” Hugo maintains. “In the future, we’re going to use a lot of different names and aliases on our records, so you may not even know it’s the Neptunes when you hear them.”
Such was the case with In Search Of…, the debut album by the production team as artists. Except the artist in this case wasn’t labeled the Neptunes, but N.E.R.D., for “No-One Ever Really Dies.” Comprising Williams, Hugo and Shay, the group took a predictably unpredictable approach to recording In Search Of…: when the original album dropped in Europe as a wholly sampled-and-programmed set, rock magazines were quick with their praise, while hip-hop publications’ reviews were mixed.
“The music felt constricted, layered through keyboards,” Williams explained. As a result, the group went back into the studio with live musicians and re-recorded every song. “Now it’s become . . . an eagle flying off of all these cliffs,” he said.
The album reflects the interests of a group who’s worked with both Alicia Keys and Limp Bizkit, mixing up hip-hop, electronica and ’70s-style rock into a heady stew. “We actually started out doing r&b,” Williams emphasizes, “but our heads and minds are wherever music is. It’s any and everything; I like Mr. Mister the way I like Earth, Wind & Fire just like I like Queen.”
The word is definitely out amongst both the hip-hop and rock cognoscenti. The Neptunes’ reputation has been nothing if not enhanced, and Williams’ growing habit of showing up in other acts’ videos — perhaps most notably alongside Busta Rhymes and P.Diddy in the “Pass the Courvoisier Pt. 2” clip — hasn’t hurt either.
When working as producers, the Neptunes will often write to order for the artist, as they did with Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” but they’re also sitting on a number of songs that didn’t work at a particular moment. “There are times the artist doesn’t like the track, so we just do it with someone else,” Williams avers. “Then you realize who the real artists are — not the guy that just wants the hit.”
Earlier in 2002, the duo signed a deal with Arista Records to distribute material from new acts the Neptunes have signed to Star Treck, their own label, which will include, of course, both hip-hop and rock acts. In the meantime they’re continuing to work on a list of acts with whom they have not yet worked – almost unbelievably, such artists do exist – which includes Stevie Wonder, Bjork, Enya and America.
“It’s not a matter of wanting to have a million songs out there,” Williams insists. “It’s the freedom of knowing you can work with who you want to work with and have no creative limitations, except the ones you place on yourself. That’s why I don’t think we’ll ever get stagnant. It’s our nature to outdo ourselves.”