N*E*R*D: 'We're just Hendrix fans'

As The Neptunes, they've conquered R&B. As N*E*R*D, they're a rock/hip-hop band. Phil Meadley asks them what's next

It's the dream scenario for a young music-maker. You are part of one of the most sought-after production teams in the States - The Neptunes - with Kelis, Mary J Blige and No Doubt all clamouring for your magic touch. You've worked with Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Janet Jackson and the Wu-Tang antihero Ol' Dirty Bastard. Everybody wants a piece of your action, and the money is rolling in. And, to top it all, your side-project N*E*R*D (No One Ever Really Dies) has produced a classic second album,
Fly or Die, which has leapt to No 4 in the UK album charts, and whose debut single, "She Wants to Move", has stormed into the UK Top 10 with its infectious Sly Stone funk-rock cheekiness. Their new album is the successor to OutKast's
Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in terms of pure originality.

It's the dream scenario for a young music-maker. You are part of one of the most sought-after production teams in the States - The Neptunes - with Kelis, Mary J Blige and No Doubt all clamouring for your magic touch. You've worked with Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Janet Jackson and the Wu-Tang antihero Ol' Dirty Bastard. Everybody wants a piece of your action, and the money is rolling in. And, to top it all, your side-project N*E*R*D (No One Ever Really Dies) has produced a classic second album, Fly or Die, which has leapt to No 4 in the UK album charts, and whose debut single, "She Wants to Move", has stormed into the UK Top 10 with its infectious Sly Stone funk-rock cheekiness. Their new album is the successor to OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in terms of pure originality.

Their success must be dizzying, but Chad Hugo seems to be taking it all in his stride. One reason for his cool response - "We're just thankful that we're recognised" - is that Hugo has just had his 30th birthday and has a family to look after. "We've been around a bit, and we've continuously tried to change our outlook. But musicians have no concept of time, which is why we're always late."

N*E*R*D consists of Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Shay Haley; Hugo and Williams also make up The Neptunes, and account for virtually all the musical direction of Fly or Die. All three men grew up in Virginia, where they still live. When we discuss the unusual jazz bent of the single "She Wants to Move", Hugo explains that he met Williams in a school jazz band, where he was playing sax and drums and listening to John Coltrane for inspiration. "At the time, we were both fans of the Seventies soul sound," he says, "so when The Neptunes began as a band, we were like the alternative Earth Wind & Fire on jazz, but influenced by Native Tongues and Wu-Tang Clan. In fact, we had songs based around the concept of water in the same way that Wu-Tang had the kung-fu theme."

The A&R scout Teddy Riley discovered the band's potential at a high-school talent show. "I used to rap back then," Williams explains. "Chad and I met in the seventh grade when were in the music programme together. Chad was cool with being different. Same with Shay, whom I met in school too. I knew his older cousin and when he moved away, me and Shay just sort of hung out."

This laid-back demeanour is indicative of Williams and Hugo's "anything goes" attitude to production. The old cliché of "just making music" is normally a cop out for musicians who have little to say, but with N*E*R*D and The Neptunes, the style is difficult to quantify. However, it seems to strike the right chord with audiences and critics alike, and it works.

"Ultimately we do music in a hip-hop fashion, and hope it becomes popular," Hugo explains. "We don't want to be seen as a boy band, but in some territories we get criticism that we aren't 'hip-hop enough', or aren't 'rock enough'. But hip-hop is a starting block for us. A lot of producers and DJs sample beats from digging in record crates, but we make the kind of music that we'd want to sample beats from. In terms of style we are more influenced by De La Soul, or A Tribe Called Quest. If you look at OutKast, those guys are creative and have broken down walls. That's what we try to do as N*E*R*D and as The Neptunes."

Due to family and work commitments, Hugo isn't touring with the band at present. "There's an A and B personnel list," he explains, "so if I'm not able to go someone can cover for me. It fits the band's ethos of being more of a collective who don't mind stretching or breaking the rulebook once in a while."

When The Neptunes started they made R&B that was too risky for most record labels. "We were singing about the sun and the stars, but they wanted us to be singing about riding in a Bentley," he says. "I don't know what we are nowadays. I think we have a good outlook. We know what's good and what's bad. We've learnt a lot and we have a broad sound. With this second album we took it back to the roots. We played a lot of the instruments and rediscovered ourselves as musicians. On the first album we had Spymob from our label playing most things, with our contribution being more of a Neptunes production-style thing. But this was about us picking up our instruments and playing in a proper band. We tried to separate ourselves from The Neptunes. We wanted it to sound raw."

Shay believes that the new album is "evolution for real. There's an entire dimension to music and life that we touched on with our first album, In Search Of..., but that was only the beginning. Those were only doors to this other dimension and with this album we are there."

In terms of lyrics, Fly Or Die tackles a number of important issues, such as bullying on the track "Thrasher". "We thought of 'Shook Ones' by Mobb Deep," Shay says. "Rock has never experienced that type of vibe. When I heard 'Shook Ones' in the club back in the Nineties, I was scared for my life. I was literally shaking. That's the feeling we tried to capture."

The Neptunes' big break as a production duo came in 1996 with "Use Your Heart" and "When This Feeling" for the R&B group SWV. Then came "Superthug" by the hardcore rappers Noreaga. "We've always tried to go against the grain," Hugo says. "We're influenced by other producers, and we acknowledge them, but we just make music that we like and we're thankful we're recognised."

The boundaries between N*E*R*D and The Neptunes are blurred. One may be a production moniker and the other a band, but the influences of R&B, soul, funk, jazz, psychedelia and rock remain the same. In terms of production, it has meant working for Angie Stone, Air, Beenie Man, Beyoncé, Ben Harper, Britney Spears, Ice Cube, Ja Rule, Justin Timberlake, Limp Bizkit, Moby, Perry Farrell, Prince and The Rolling Stones.

"It's whatever comes out," says Hugo. "In terms of rock, there's something about being loud and obnoxious, and having a feeling of being loud and live. Subliminally, we're just Hendrix fans. What that dude did for rock'n'roll, in terms of his musical genius and the fact that he was a black guy playing rock music, was phenomenal. In the States, communities are so spread out. There are still segregations within musical genres and music, and it sucks.

"When I was younger I practised keyboards and sax, but I was also breakdancing and listening to rock music. I was influenced by Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest and Def Leppard. I was trying to keep open to things. I would listen to Earth Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, or check out the latest hip-hop releases by Big Daddy Kane or Marley Marl. With bands such as Boogie Down Productions or De La Soul you could be different. It inspired us to make hard beats with jazz roots and mad psychedelic effects. I even went through a Dr Dre phase, and wore plaid shirts. But the first concert I went to was Nine Inch Nails, so what conclusion do you draw from that?"

N*E*R*D are a wonderful musical dichotomy, and The Neptunes remain one of the most exciting production duos since Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton's slick doo-wop arrangements cemented the solo career of Michael Jackson. In hip-hop production, they are the main competition to Timbaland, and their recent hip-hop forays more than match the latter's work with Missy Elliott. Who knows where they are going to go next, or who will halt the rise of The Neptunes?

'Fly or Die' is out now on Virgin

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