In 2004, hip-hop production duo the Neptunes ruled the pop charts, and this feature explores their history and their signature sound. It appeared in The Age on Saturday, 15 May, 2004. The plot thickened in 2014 when Danish TV program Detektor queried me about where I found my statistics. My follow-up story was published at Junkee.
Heard that absurdly catchy, slyly raunchy pop song on the radio recently? You know, the one about the milkshake that’s better than yours?
Or about being a “slave 4 U”? The song about getting so hot you want to take your clothes off? Or perhaps the one that promises to have you naked by the end?
You’re probably listening to a song by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the US music producers collectively known as the Neptunes.
I say “probably” because a survey in August last year found the Neptunes produced almost 20 per cent of songs played on British radio. A similar survey in the US had them at 43 per cent.
It’s not unusual for them to have five hits a week in the Billboard Top 100 charts, and they have to stagger the release of their singles. “Otherwise,” Williams modestly told The New York Times, “the airwaves could be in gridlock.”
Williams’s and Hugo’s stuttering digital syncopations don’t just get airplay – they’ve changed the sound of pop.
What’s more, they effortlessly straddle genres – black hip-hop and white rock, edgy R&B and mainstream Video Hits fodder.
When the Neptunes were named Producers of the Year at the 2004 Grammy Awards, eight songs were cited in the nomination.
But how long can their reign last? A year ago, Hugo and Williams were just two successful studio boffins. Now they’re teetering on the edge of over-exposure.
Williams pops up everywhere – award ceremonies, in glossy magazine spreads and on other people’s albums. He attracts crowds of screaming groupies and tours in a bus with an enormous picture of himself on the side.
Even Hugo, a retiring husband and father, is recognised in the streets of Europe.
Williams and Hugo grew up in suburban Virginia Beach, a comfortable mixed-race city in the southern US state of Virginia.
Now both 30, they met when they were 12 at a summer camp for musicians. Williams was a drummer; Hugo played tenor saxophone.
“Have you seen that movie School of Rock?” Hugo recalled recently. “That was us, except we played jazz standards.”
In 1992, producer Teddy Riley, who’d revolutionised R&B with his hard-edged “new jack swing” sound, spotted a band called the Neptunes in a talent show at a high school.
Conveniently, Riley’s studio was next to the school. Williams and Hugo soon had a record deal.
While still in school, they wrote the hit ‘Rump Shaker’ for Riley’s band Wreckx-n-Effect, and later produced tracks for another group, BlackStreet.
Striking out on their own in the late ’90s, they unleashed rapper Noreaga’s ‘SuperThug’ onto an unsuspecting public.
Hip-hop in 1998 meant booming bass, heavy kick-drums and instrumental samples. The Neptunes’ sound, however, was driven by pockets of dead silence interspersed with jolting, mechanical drum loops, and sometimes no bass. “We do skeleton songs,” says Williams.
Williams usually writes lyrics and sketches a soaring hook over a few chords. He sends it to Hugo, who fills the spaces between beats with little synthesised bleeps, keyboard chord progressions and heavy-breathing sound effects reminiscent of prank phone calls.
The effect is crisp and anodyne yet slightly askew – a detuned note here, a slightly off-beat accent there.
For Esquire magazine’s Neil Strauss, it’s “not the messy kitchen sink of postmodernism but the sparkling, clean chrome kitchen of hip-hop futurism”.
And it produced hits – first in a trickle, then a flood. Hip-hop came first, like ‘Got Your Money’ by Ol’ Dirty Bastard (featuring Kelis of ‘Milkshake’ fame), Nelly’s ‘Hot in Herre’, ‘Shake Ya Ass’ by Mystikal, Jay-Z’s ‘Give It To Me (I Just Wanna Love You)’ and ‘Beautiful’ by Snoop Dogg.
The Neptunes also worked their magic on pop and rock tracks like Britney Spears’s ‘Boys’ and ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’, No Doubt’s ‘Hella Good’ and Pharrell’s solo effort ‘Frontin”.
By the time they remixed the Rolling Stones’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, the Neptunes could do no wrong. They started their own record label, Star Trak, and are rumoured to command $US150,000 a song.
Along with school friend Shay Haley, Hugo and Williams also started a genre-bending rock band, NERD.
It stands for Nobody Ever Really Dies, but the Neptunes are often championed as proponents of “New Geek Chic” – witty and articulate black nerds eschewing hip-hop stereotypes for science fiction and rock’n’roll.
Vibe magazine dubbed them “Mad Scientists”, along with fellow producers and Virginia Beach natives Missy Elliott and Timbaland.
And a 2003 cover story in hip-hop magazine The Source painted Williams as Captain Kirk to Hugo’s methodical Spock.
Hugo is uneasy with the Spock tag. “I wouldn’t say I’m as rigid as Spock,” he said last year. “I’m a musician, and for that, you need feel.”
Williams explains the difference between the two outfits as “Neptunes is what we do and NERD is what we are.”