Pharrell The Creator
You may have been introduced to Pharrell Williams via his solo disco croon on songs like 2006’s “Number One” or 2014’s “Come Get it Bae.” Or perhaps via the sonic mind meld that is N.E.R.D. — or even by way of the Neptunes, who dominated the production scene in 1990s and 2000s.
Or, maybe, you know Pharrell from one of his myriad modern production credits; he’s worked with artists ranging from Beyoncé to Adam Lambert. Failing all that, you’ve perhaps seen Despicable Me, or just caught a moment or two of a commercial encouraging the joys of consumeristic capitalism. Either way, you’ve likely heard the 2013 earworm, “Happy.”
Williams is not only study in musical multiplicity, he also understands his own power — in front of and behind the scenes — and is not afraid of use it. For all of these reasons and more, we’ve chosen Pharrell as one of the most influential stars of pop this Black History Month.
If you must have an origin story for Williams’ 27 years of music making, you could start with Williams’ time in Virginia Beach schools. Pharrell played drums in elementary and middle school and joined marching band in high school. He noted to NPR that his grandmother nudged him to join the band: “I used to set up my little makeshift drumset. And she just said, ‘You like the drums, so why don’t you learn?’ And that’s where it started in seventh grade for me.”
Pharrell’s break came in the early ’90s, after Williams and his pals Chad Hugo, Shay Haley, Mike Etheridge performed at a local talent show under the name the Neptunes. Producer, singer, songwriter, engineer and keyboardist Teddy Riley (lauded as one of the stewards of the New Jack Swing genre) saw the group perform and signed them after they graduated from high school.
Riley also offered Williams the opportunity to pen his verse Wreckx-n-Effect’s beloved track “Rump Shaker.” The New Jack Swing group released the ode to asses on the dancefloor as part of their 1992 album Hard or Smooth.
Soon after, Williams and Hugo formed a smaller version of the Neptunes under Riley’s tutelage, and produced tracks for SWV, BLACKstreet, Total and MA$E.
Riley’s influence on Pharrell’s career is clear. You can draw a percussive through line from Riley and New Jack Swing to the Neptunes’ trunk-knocking tracks like Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U” or N.E.R.D.’s 2001 track “Lapdance,” or even Williams’ own 2003 hit “Frontin.” Riley was all about drum heavy production, R&B vocals and astronomically high energy, and Pharrell’s entire catalogue is filled with all that as well. Seeing Riley transition into many roles in various stages of the creative process was, no doubt, influential as well.
A Tribe Called Quest was also key to Williams’ musical development. Pharrell has shouted out the group as an influence everywhere from Oprah’s OWN Network YouTube page to NPR. Considering Tribe’s culture of collaboration, the textured tracks made by molding jazz, funk and drums — not to mention the lyrical prowess of Phife-Dawg, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad — the creative lineage is clear.
Williams discusses the shared experience of listening to Tribe with Hugo on The Record with David Greene. He asked his long-time friend: “When you hear this Tribe record, are you blown away by these chords like I am? Does this do this to you?”
To write about Williams without mentioning Prince is a disservice of the highest kind. In a 2016 interview with Scott Vener after Prince’s death, Williams stated: “Many of my songs are like the children of his songs.” And when considering the wealth of Prince’s creative life — writing and producing his own albums as well as albums for everyone from the Bangles to Sheila E — you can contextualize Williams’ prolific creative output. Prince is another example of an artist stretching himself beyond a single role or title while creating to the best of his ability.
Williams notably wrote the 2003 track “Frontin’” for The Purple One, but ended up recording and releasing the track himself. The sly falsetto and charming immaturity of the track, its minimalist lushness, are all reminiscent of Prince, and Williams embodies the space he originally created for Prince on the track.
Although he wasn’t directly inspired by the music of artists like David Bowie, Michael Jackson and J Dilla, Williams cites each as an influence. All three musicians have had careers that actively stretch beyond any given role: songwriter, producer or singer/rapper. Pharrell, too, has honed his musical gifts beyond that of just a performer.
Music making is, on a basic level, a skill. And in a results-based economy (sales! impact! accolades!), Williams’ approach to music and projects beyond music is laudable. “Creativity to me is a means of expression,” Williams said in an interview with Clash. “It’s a gift from all that is, all that was and all that ever will be: the creator.”
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