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The Evolution of The Neptunes

In the next in our hip hop retrospectives, we look at The Neptunes who spearheaded the most revolutionary change in the sound of pop since Motown.

Illustration by Dan Evans

Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams have transformed the careers of so many artists that it’s impossible to know what pop music would sound like today if they hadn’t been born. Without their production sorcery, there would have been no “Like I Love You” or “Hot In Herre” and the musical evolution of Jay Z and Britney would have been severely stunted. They have turned just about every modern genre inside out, spearheading the most revolutionary change in the sound of pop since Motown. At one point they could command as much as $150,000 per song.

Almost twenty years since their journey began, Pharrell and Chad are continuing to make some of the best music around, with the latter working on both Earl Sweatshirt and The Internet’s latest releases, and the former guesting on the two biggest songs of the year. With that in mind, here’s the latest in our retrospective series.

The Embryo of The Neptunes (1991)

Although not collaborative, the careers of both Pharrell Williams and Timbaland have been heavily intertwined. But long before both were behind the boards of iconic artists, they were cutting tracks together as part of a collective known as Surrounded By Idiots. Encompassing Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Magoo, the teenage crew had long been a point of mythology of beatsmith fans until 2011, when three tracks from their session leaked on to the internet.

Looking back on the sessions now is like delving into a time warp. The above track samples one of the best tracks from the 80s – Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, made by some of the most influential producers of the 00s, in one of their first tracks from the 90s.

The Birthing of The Neptunes (1992 - 1994)

The Neptunes got their break when New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley opened a recording studio adjacent to the school where Pharrell and Chad were studying. Riley, who had worked with Michael Jackson, spotted the duo at a high school talent show and picked up on that talent. Within that same year, Pharrell penned Riley’s verse on Wreckx-n-Effects’ “Rumpshaker”.

This partnership with Teddy Riley continued, when the duo jumped on a remix of SWV’s “Right Here”. The track, which also samples Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” peaked at number two on the Billboard chart and number three in the UK.

If you listen close, you can hear the dulcet tones of a young Pharrell Williams chanting “S… The double… The U… The V”.

Seemingly working through Teddy Riley’s connections, The Neptunes earned production credits on Blackstreet’s debut album with the track “Tonight’s The Night”, which also featured SWV.

The Foundations of The Neptunes (Late 90s)

Although The Neptunes had assisted Teddy Riley with production, it wasn’t until the late 90s that they started to formulate their own sound. The fashionable melange of psychedelic pop, classic rock and new wave that The Neptunes have become known for first found its foothold in two tracks released at the latter end of the 90s. The first, Ma$e’s “Lookin’ At Me”, which featured Puff Daddy, peaked at number eight on the Billboard chart and the second, Noreaga’s “Super Thug”, featured backing vocals from Kelis. Both were distinct in their sound and along with their higher profile features, started to pave the foundations of The Neptunes, slowly starting to paste their position as credible hip-hop producers. In fact, Kanye West must have been listening, because he borrowed Ma$e’s first verse for last years “Cold”.

This tract continued in 1999 when The Neptunes produced both Clipse and Kelis’ debut albums. Although the debut record from Clipse ultimately failed to generate a commercial impact, resulting in the group being dropped from their label, both records were the beginning of two healthy working relationships. This year, Complex magazine awarded The Neptunes and Clipse’s “Grindin’” as the best Neptunes beat of all time. The track is a clinical definition of the quintessential Neptunes sound – sparse and subtle – and put Clipse on the map. Its beat, which would be tapped out on hallway lockers across the world, inspired a whole range of copycat tracks, like J-Kwon’s one time hit, “Tipsy”.

The Concreting of The Neptunes Legacy (2000+)

By the dawn of the millennium, Pharrell and Chad had pretty much cemented their reputation within the hip-hop world, having produced tracks not just for Diddy, Ma$e, Kelis and Clipse, but also for Ol’ Dirty Bastard and a Q-Tip featuring remix of Prince’s "The Greatest Romance It’s Ever Been Sold” (which is so rare it isn't even on YouTube). However, it was their work in the 00s that concreted their legacy as not just hip-hop beatsmiths, but maestros of the modern day pop song.

The turning point for this transition came when Jay Z, perhaps the biggest household rap name, enlisted Chad and Pharrell to twiddle some knobs on “I Just Wanna Love You”. Punctuated by Pharrell’s falsetto outcries of “I just wanna laaaaaaav ya!” and held up by The Neptunes alternately terse and heavy beats, the track scored Jigga his first number one on the hip hop/R&B Billboard chart.

The track caught the attention of Britney Spears, who, keen to break from the constraints of her bubblegum pop past, saw the appeal of The Neptunes crossover aesthetic and wanted the group to produce her next single.

Speaking to Time magazine, Pharrell explained that “taking somebody from A to B is cool, but when we produce we want to take people from A to D, to challenge their artistic natures, their image, everything.”

This happened with Britney Spears. The release of “I’m A Slave 4U” transformed Britney from pop princess into a lock-up-your-sons adult artist. It also showcased The Neptunes unique milkshake of irresistible flavours from the past and future to a much larger audience, helping them to garner production work with Usher, No Doubt, Mary J Blige, Busta Rhymes, Garbage, more songs with both Jay and Britney in the following year, and lesser known gems like Janet Jackson & Beenie Man’s “Feel It Boy”, LL Cool J’s “Luv U Better” and pre-“Losing You” Solange track “Crush”.

Over the next few years the group produced commercial and creative bangers in the form of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre”, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, Kelis’ “Milkshake” and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, three of which reached the number one spot on the Billboard chart. In fact, “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, a track that pared The Neptunes already minimal sound down to only its most necessary elements – mouth clicks and light drums – marked a new beginning for Snoop. The track, which featured a synth lifted from Danish electro group Laid Back’s 1983 single “White Horse” manipulated to sound like it’s saying Snoop’s name, awarded the rapper with his first number one on the Billboard Chart after twelve years in the game.

The above four songs had a quality that implanted their hook into your brain. Try buying a milkshake with friends and not having someone dip into Kelis’ “Milkshake”. But it was the The Neptunes assistance in helping Justin Timberlake vault over the canyon into adulthood, with Justified, that took the scaffolding down and declared The Neptunes hit-making factory built.

Reportedly using offcuts from Michael Jackson’s 2001 stalled-comeback album Invincible, the record showcased The Neptunes dexterity at being able to meld their unique strand of production work to worldwide pop artists and coke-selling Pusha T’s alike. Justified earned The Neptunes a Grammy award for Best Pop Vocal Album. Alongside, they also won a Grammy for Producer Of The Year, assumedly for producing pretty much everything good that came out in 2004. In 2002, they were also named producer of the year at both The Source and Billboard Music Awards.

The Neptunes Own Work (2001-Present?)

Alongside creating tracks that have made other people famous, The Neptunes have released their own music under N*E*R*D. The trio, which comprises both Chad and Pharrell, and Shay Hayley, released their debut In Search Of in 2001. The original release, which tells the story of Shay meeting two high school groupies in a locker room (“Things Are Getting Better”), calling in an escort (“Stay Together”) and filming a porno (“Tape You”) is sought after. This is because the group re-recorded the record, sans skits, with Spymob. Speaking on the group in VIBE, Pharrell stated: “The Neptunes are what we do, me and Chad producing, being the Technicolor to people’s ideas and thoughts. N*E*R*D is who we are, our lives and experiences. We just want to be more creative and pull some shit out from the left and create a whole new era”, hence the reason to move away from The Neptunes sounding original and re-record with a rock infused edge.

The introduction of a live band built upon The Neptunes production technique, in which Chad usually works on the melodic core, and Pharrell takes over vocal duties. In Search Of remains a cult classic, winning the Shortlist Prize for Artistic Achievement in Music upon its release, and the group have since released three more records.

Alongside this, in 2006, three years after releasing one time single “Frontin’”, Pharrell Williams released his solo record, In My Mind. This built upon the almost nihilistic rhythm that Pharrell crafted for “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, with first single “Can I Have It Like That” forging a soundscape of hard-hitting, but hollow, pulsing minimalism. Pharrell and his then band, The Yessirs, released a remixed version of the record titled Out Of My Mind, which featured interpolated instrumentals by Questlove and James Poyser of The Roots.

The Modern Day (2010+)

The Neptunes took a dip in the late 00s. Alongside the usual culprits – Nelly, Snoop, Clipse and Jigga – The Neptunes produced Madonna’s eleventh studio album Hard Candy, Pharrell lent hands to records by both Fall Out Boy and The Hives, and Chad produced Ashlee Simpson’s album. Yet, there was something off. The introduction of auto-tune, and with it, the popularity of artists like Drake, Wayne and - in mainstream terms at least -Jason Derulo, seemed to lay rest to The Neptunes legacy as permanent residents in the upper echelons of daytime radio.

Regardless, the pair continued. Chad co-wrote “I Care”, from Beyonce’s 4, and as a pair, they produced Pusha T and Tyler, The Creator’s 2011 collaboration “Trouble on My Mind”, and records by The Throne (“Gotta Have It”), The Cool Kids and Pac Div. Their output was still derivatively Neptunes, but they weren’t topping the charts like in the past.

This all changed in the past two years. While Chad started a DJ team called Missile Command, and signed a contract with Fools Gold, Pharrell had seemingly drilled a borehole into an untapped creative well. In the past year, he’s dominated music. He’s appeared on the two biggest songs of the summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” – has five songs on Miley Cyrus Bangerz and three on Nelly’s new one. Alongside, he’s still firmly rooted in hip-hop, having produced Tyler, The Creator’s “IFHY”, Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life”, and tracks on both Mac Miller and JAY Z’s latest albums. He’s also got a joint EP with Mac Miller, Pink Slime, which is partially completed.

That’s not to say that Chad hasn’t been busy. While the monolith of Pharrell is reclaiming his throne, Chad has been quietly tinkering with some leftfield greats. In the past year, he’s produced “Dontcha”, the lead single from The Internet’s sophomore release, and alongside Christian Rich, crafted Earl Sweatshirt’s comeback track, “Chum”.

The Neptunes still work together, too. The duo produced Earl Sweatshirt’s “Burgundy”, while Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid’ is widely regarded as an offcut from N*E*R*D’s fourth studio album Nothing, having featured vocals from both Chad and Pharrell, and production work from the latter.

Hopefully there's still plenty more to come from The Neptunes.

Listen to a soundcloud playlist of highlights from The Neptunes discography

Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanBassil

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