Smooth Skywriter - EMusician

Smooth Skywriter

It's funny because I never really wanted to do a solo record, says an energized Pharrell Williams, fresh off a whirlwind trip to Tokyo and the much-hyped
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“It's funny because I never really wanted to do a solo record,” says an energized Pharrell Williams, fresh off a whirlwind trip to Tokyo and the much-hyped opening of his Ice Cream/BBC clothing store in the trendy downtown district of Shibuya. “But I'm always making beats — that's just what I do. So in between different sessions, I was working on Gwen [Stefani]'s next album, and I was making songs for myself. I thought eventually that I'd give them to someone else, but the stories were a little too personal, so at that point, I started joking around, saying, ‘All right, I'm making an album.’ And before I knew it, I really was making one.”

It was only a matter of time. As just about anyone within a mile of an iPod knows by now, Williams and his production partner Chad Hugo have been churning out hits as The Neptunes at a feverish clip since the late '90s, crafting tracks for everyone from Babyface to Busta Rhymes, Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z, Common to Kelis and — well, it would be hard to name someone they haven't worked with. Along the way, they've pulled down the first of what will surely be many Grammy Awards (2004's Producer of the Year, for starters); founded a label (Star Trak Entertainment); recorded and toured as the alt-pop-rock band N*E*R*D; and transformed the face of hip-hop with their heavily synthesized, razor-sharp and beat-crazy sound.

In My Mind (Star Trak/Interscope, 2005) finds Williams undergoing a profound transformation himself, elevating his gifts — as a musician, as a songwriter, as a producer and especially as a singer — to a level that the sure-footed, confident adult aspect of his music takes center stage. He's joined by a phalanx of rap, soul and pop luminaries, including Stefani; Slim Thug; Daddy Yankee; British jazz singer Jamie Cullum; and the Hova himself, Jay-Z (on the bass-thickened anthem “Young Girl”). Rich with jazzy sophistication; quirky melodies; cheeky rap braggadocio; and a raw, down-home funk flavor that has largely gone missing from hip-hop and R&B in this age of slick MTV knockoffs, this is the album that real 21st-century groove-hungry addicts have been waiting for.

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“I wanted to bring the ammonia back to radio and back to the visuals that you get from the music,” Williams says with all sincerity. “You know, when a person is fainting, they wave a tissue doused in ammonia to bring them back, and that's what this is — a dousing of ammonia. It's gonna change everything.”

GIMME A MUTHAF!@#N' BEAT

The airwaves have already been simmering since October 2005 with the album's first single — the weirdly hypnotic “Can I Have It Like That,” which features Stefani doing her sassy come-hither best on the chorus chant. As Williams tells it, the track's pimped-out horn breaks, buzzing acoustic bass line and stripped machine rhythms have their origins in the preproduction phase of another high-profile project.

“That was a record that I originally did for Puff [Daddy],” he says. “There was a lot of people biting on that beat because, you know, he's working on a new record, and I was just like, ‘Yo, I'm gonna give you a beat that's gonna fuckin’ change hip-hop.' That ended up starting the rumor — people were hearing it, and they were saying that shit! When a change happens, though, it doesn't just happen overnight. It sort of disinfects slowly but surely, and people look at it and go, ‘Yo, what the fuck is that?’”

Williams was in the studio with Stefani — working on a new song called “Breakin' Out” for her forthcoming album — when it dawned on him that maybe he should keep the beat for himself. “I told Gwen, ‘Yo, I got this record. I gotta check with Puff first and see if I can take it back from him, but I want you to do it.’ She was in the [vocal] booth, and she was like, ‘Well, play it!’ I had already had a girl reference the vocal on it, so Gwen just did it right then and there. It's just meant to be an ad-lib, but it works with the beat — that shit sounds like something that's boiling or cooking, you know?”

Most of the heat comes from Williams' longtime weapon of choice — a vintage Korg 01/W synth, which he used to sequence the one-bar acoustic bass loop that drives the main rhythm. On top is a Roland TR-808 snare and hi-hat, both programmed with an extremely light and syncopated touch. “All those are synthetic sounds, but the snare ends up sounding like live brushes,” Williams explains. “I'm very proud of that. I wanted to make it sound like it's being played from the aural cavity of a whale [Laughs], so I added a little '80s synthetic snare from the 808. It sounds chopped because it's not an actual snare strike — it's just a grace note [using the Accent function] from the drum machine.”

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT

It's this openness to experimenting with how his grooves come together that propels Williams through most of the songs on In My Mind. Along with the 808 and an Oberheim DMX (another vintage drum deck), he also had unlimited access to a massive drum library — loaded via a USB drive onto a Korg Triton Extreme synth, which basically acts as a drum sampler and a controller — that was recently compiled by his Neptunes partner Hugo.

Andrew Coleman, who has been The Neptunes' recording engineer since day one and currently runs the partners' Hovercraft Studios in Virginia Beach, Va., worked one-on-one with Williams for most of the album. “Pharrell will hear a drum sound or play a sequence and just run with it,” Coleman observes, citing Williams' propensity to trust his instincts and stick with a sound or an arrangement if the vibe is right — or change direction entirely if he feels the song pulling him elsewhere. “He doesn't quantize when he sequences; he just likes to play everything live. He might have the chorus first and then the verse and then the bridge all as one 24-bar sequence, and then we'll go back and edit it in Pro Tools. We might change what we thought was the verse and flip it to be the chorus, or it might sound good as a bridge. It's pretty wide-open.”

As it turns out, this cut-and-paste method led to a breakthrough on “Our Father,” a churchy number that conjures the sanctified funk of Marvin Gaye or early Prince. In fact, Williams' inspired and wide-ranging vocal performance is his best — along with the Motown-inflected “Angel,” the second single off of In My Mind — since he stepped out on the hit “Frontin'“ from The Neptunes Present…Clones (Arista, 2003). “The way that Pharrell originally programmed that track is not how you hear it now,” Coleman says. “The downbeat was actually in another place, and the middle of the song is now the beginning of the song. As soon as we made those changes, though, it just clicked and he got into the zone. It was just one of those moments where we switched it around a bit and then bam — he just caught it.”

Ask him how he harnesses the ideas for his songs, and Williams gets a little whimsical. “Well, the song dictates that; you know what I mean?” he says. “For me, songs are like living spaces. When you first move in a house, you kind of figure out where the couch is supposed to be. That's how it works. If I get something in my head, I'll just think about how it feels until I can really hear it, and then I'll chase it in the piano and find my chords. Usually when I find that, I find my structure and then I add something, and, basically, that's it. I'm just a chord enthusiast.”

CHECK OUT MY MELODY

Exotic-but-catchy chord changes have become something of a signature on many a Neptunes production; Williams goes for that and more on “Angel,” an infectious major-scale workout that recalls vintage Smokey Robinson or the Jackson 5 — or maybe someone more recent. “You know those obscure, left Prince records that you hardly ever hear?” Williams asks, referring to one of the main influences behind the song's piano riff. “I was just pretending that it was Prince during that era. I do a lot of that when I'm playing chords or putting songs together — I pretend that I'm other people. It helps for the objectivity. I had been playing those chords for a year before I ever laid [the song] down, not knowing what to do with it. So then when I finally put it down, I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’”

The same held true for the almost DeBarge-like funk of “Young Girl,” to the point that the melody actually determined who Williams wanted for a guest spot on the song. Sure enough, Jay-Z delivers. “I was really going after an '80s Babyface vibe, and I knew Jay would be able to finesse the feeling of the chords,” he says. “I think a lot of people would have rhymed against it and tried to be tough, where he was more compassionate for the subject matter and the feeling of the chord progression.”

Of course, with such a sizable chunk of his musical and melodic inspiration rooted in the old-school soul, funk and rock classics, the warm embrace of analog becomes an essential ingredient for Williams' sound. For that, he turns again to engineer Coleman.

“We always try to go through an analog front end, say an SSL or a Neve console, and then out of that to Pro Tools,” Coleman explains. “Once it's inside Pro Tools, the [Metric Halo] Channel Strip or the Waves plug-ins are the first things I grab when I need something like EQ or an effect. I've been using Channel Strip for a long time, and I just like the way it sounds.” To capture Williams' soaring falsettos and layered harmonies, they use an AKG C 12 mic through an Avalon Vt-737sp for compression. “I have a very thick voice, so Andrew knows to have the mic EQ'd at a setting to where all the lows are gone,” Williams says. “When you've been working together as long as we have, there's not much to it.”

REVOLUTION OF THE MIND

It's hard to fathom that at age 32, Williams is very nearly a 15-year veteran of the game. He got his first Gold record in 1992 (for producing Wreckx-N-Effect's “Rump Shaker”), and since then, he has accumulated more in terms of accolades, awards and material wealth than most record producers will see in a lifetime. But in the high-stakes world of the hip-hop “industry,” in which the price of doing business can mean the difference between making it and falling off the face of the Earth, Williams says he's grown to appreciate his accomplishments while staying grounded and focused.

“It's not the riches and the byproducts of art that do it for me,” he insists. “Those are good things, and those make life a little more comfortable, but it's really about the art for me. Reaching into oblivion to pull out ideas is just fun, because when you look back on it, once you finalize it, you go, ‘Damn, this came out of nowhere.’ And you just realize how blessed you are to be able to do that, and to be able to experience that even more. That's Christmas for me; you know what I mean?

“The whole beat shit is just, like, virtual for me,” he continues. “I'm beginning to be able to look at it differently now than I ever looked at it before. Before, I was just making beats and having fun expressing myself. I was just like, ‘Yo! I'm making beats. Isn't this different, doesn't this fuck you up?’ Now it's more like, ‘Yo, you see this shit, right? It's golden.’ It's a whole different appreciation for where I'm at.”

In this respect, then, In My Mind is the work of an artist who is coming of age. Sure, the world can be fickle, materialistic and unforgiving, which is why it's important to acquire a sense of humility and self-awareness, as heard from Williams in “Our Father” or especially in the vibe of encouragement he gives to other “youngbloods” in the long rap poem “You Can Do It Too” (which emulates the uplift of early Isaac Hayes, complete with a rimshot-and-ride-cymbal beat). With a humble attitude, your message acquires a newfound strength.

“I think everything in life gives me inspiration, just sheer experience,” Williams says. “I mean, after all, what do we talk about in songs, right? What is the color? What is the backdrop of all of our feelings? The chords. Derived by what? Feelings. Which come from what? Experiences. So, yeah, it's about everything. The whole complete music experience is great. The appetizer, the meal, the dessert — what is one without the other?”

GOING MOBILE

On many levels, In My Mind is about a journey, whether it's to the center of Pharrell Williams' imagination or to the next stop on a nationwide tour. Williams tracked most of the album at three different high-end studios: South Beach Studios in Miami, Chalice Recording in Los Angeles and Right Track Studios in New York (though “Angel” was recorded almost entirely at the Record Plant in L.A.).

“Pharrell's keyboard setup and the Pro Tools rig is pretty much consistent everywhere,” engineer Andrew Coleman explains. “I send out an equipment list to each studio, and by the time we get there, it's set up, and we can just sit right down and work. I bring my hard drives with me everywhere, so I just plug in as we go from place to place. It's pretty seamless.”

Of course, when you're in The Neptunes, all this can be had on the road, too. Just ahead of the 2004 N*E*R*D tour, Coleman worked with a Florida company called Entertainment Coach to design and build a fully decked-out studio bus, which proved to be a vital tool for the ever-itinerant Williams in tracking ideas for In My Mind. “Right now, we have a [Pro Tools] Mixplus system,” Coleman says. “That will be upgraded to HD soon. There are Genelec 1037s in there, with dual 15 subs underneath, and then basically just a bunch of outboard synth racks — Triton, Trinity, Roland 5080, ASR-10 — whatever Pharrell wants in there, we can put in.”

The bus is also, as a truly state-of-the-art mobile studio would dictate, console-free and designed for comfort. “It's running through an active DI box that has summing amps in it, and there's also a Coleman Audio master section — basically like a virtual control room — with volume, speaker selectors and source selectors,” Coleman says. “All the keyboard modules are running into this active DI and then out of that right into Pro Tools. So it's a pretty efficient system. When you spend all that time out on the road, you want to be comfortable, but you also want to be able to work, so it turned out great.”