Interstate 264 leads you to Virginia Beach, population 430.000 incorporated only 41 years ago. The the highway abruptly ends, dropping you off, conveniently, at the Visitor Information Center. The nice lady behind the counter there can tell you all about the city and the surrounding Hampton Roads and Tidewater area (also called Seven Cities because it encompasses Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Suffolk, Newport News, and Hampton in addition to Virginia Beach). She can tell you about Cape Henry on the northern tip of Virginia Beach where the first English settlers touched ground in 1607. And about nearby Jamestown, where they created what would become the first permanent English settlement in NorthAmerica-the place where, in 1619, the first African “servants” were brought to this contry (it would be a couple of decades before they started calling it slavery).
She could talk for days about the coastline that once served as the stomping grounds of the pirate Blackbeard, a true old-school OG. But ask her about the area’s music culture, and you’ll get an apologetic, blank expression. “This area is not real rich in music history, as far as I know,” she’ll say. “But there are places where they have open mikes, or where bands come to town.” Clearly, the word has not yet spread to some segments of Virginia Beach that the two most successful, most cutting-edge production teams in urban-flavored pop call the place home: There are The Neptunes, whose tracks grace the records of everyone from Jay-Z to Mary J. Blige to Britney Spears. And then there are Timbaland and Missy Elliott, who’ve individually and collectively worked with music’s most influential, including Aaliyah, Madonna and Justin Timberlake.
It would likely surprise much of the country to know that those catchy radio-ready tunes with the wild, futuristic funk vibes come from a quiet, conservative area that does not easily fit into an East Coast or down South box. Who would believe that it’s all emanating from the quiet edge of Virginia where the highway ends? It’s Saturday afternoon in Virginia, and as expected, the area’s major music players are nowhere to be found. As long as there’s work to be done elsewhere-promoting projects, meeting with artists and with record labels-there are always going to be reasons to be away. Tinbaland and Elliott both own homes in Virginia Beach, but are rarely there. Lately, they’ve been travelling, promoting Elliott’s fifth album, This Is Not A Test, as well as Under Construction Part II, the third collaboration between Timbaland and his rhyme partner, Magoo. The Neptunes, meanwhile, are in Los Angeles on business.
They’re still working last fall’s The Neptunes Presents… Clones, as well as gearing up for new albums bu Virginia rap duo Clipse and N*E*R*D, their rock-pop-hip hop spin-off group. Before returning to their Virginia Beach homes and studio, The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams will journey to Japan, while his partner, Chad Hugo, will spend time in New York mixing Kelis’s latest album, Tasty. If there was a nickel tour of the area’s music scene, the first stop would have to be the modest town house where, as an inquisitive tee, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley started making tracks and honing the DJ skills that would make him the go-to guy for aspiring area rappers looking for beats. This is where it all happened. When Tim was 16, he met Melvin “Magoo” Barcliff through a mutual friend. Not long after, Magoo happened to neet the female singing group Fayze, one of the few local acts to have put out an independent record.
Impressed-particularly by Fayze’s main song writer, Portsmouth native Melissa “Missy” Elliott- he asked the girls over to meet Tim. Elliott and Tim hit it off immediately. “Missy and Melvin used to come over to my house when they were teenagers,” says Tim’s mom, Leatrice Pierre. “They were working diligently on their music upstairs, every weekend and sometimes in the evenings. It drove me a little crazy, but I allowed them to do it. Missy used to say to me, “We’re going to keep working on it until we get to the very top.” Around the same time, Tim and Magoo had their eyes on another talented local kid who played drums and rapped, Pharrell Williams. They briefly convinced him to join their group SBI (Surrounded By Idiots). But it was short-lived because Williams had already hooked up with Chad Hugo, a multi-instrumentalist Filipino kid he’d met at a summer music program. Before they were N*E*R*D, they were schoolband geeks. “They’d make us play all that classical shit,” Hugo says.
“But on the sidelines at the football game, we would arrange on our own and play “Bonita Applebum” with the tubas and drums. I was arranging some funk tunes, like “Jungle Boogie.” With Hugo and Williams handling the music and Williams joining two other vocalists in front, the two friends formed The Neptunes. A Native Tongues-inspired, jazzy hip hop group. The name, a typical for a rap act, had a deep connection to their hometown. There’s a landmark diner on the beach, which has since closed, called Neptune’s Restaurant. There’s even an annual Neptune Festival that celebrates the city’s maritime history. “When we started out, we had this whole water theme,” Hugo recalls. “We were looking at people like Earth, Wind & Fire, they had the earth, wind, and fire and Wu-Tang Clan had their kung fu, and we were just on this water trip.” But while these local teens entertained themselves by making music, few of them really expected it to go beyond the state’s borders.
After all, the last famous musicians to emerge from the Tidewater area Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, and Ruth Brown decades ago. “No one ever imagined anything could come out of Virginia,” says Williams, who now also plays keyboards. “It doesn’t have a Broadway, it doesn’t have a Sunset Boulevard. So the expectation was never to be able to do the things that have been happening.” Today, something resembling a new urban development is just starting to take shape in the town center. It’s a tall residential building, with retail at the bottom and Barnes & Noble across the street. Down the block is Teddy Riley’s Future Recording Studios. When superstar New York City producer Riley moved to town in 1990 and set up shop, there was no center to Virginia Beach, and no tall buildings in the neighbourhood, either. Just Princess Anne High School. Riley’s tour bus, with a built-in studio, is parked outside Future Recording, and inside the building, he’s working on tracks for his next studio album.
The record, not unlike The Neptunes’ recent Clones album, will feature collaborations with a variety associated artists, including reuniond by Riley’s groups Guy and Blackstreet. The architect of new jack swing, a previous generation’s hot sound, takes a break to recall the big bang of Virginia Beach music. “My girlfriend and I came to Virginia Beach 15 years ago with some of the big-time hustlers of New York: Alpo, Rich Porter,” Riley says. “We put our money together to charter a bus to come down here for Greekfest. All the colleges would get together and party on the beach, like Freaknik. Tha’s what made me love Virginia.” Later, clashes between young black partyers and the police led to the demise of Greekfest, as referenced in Public Enemy’s 1990 track “Welcome to the Terrordome” (“Places with the racist faces/Just an example of one of many cases/The Greek weekend speech I speak/From a lesson learned in Virginia Beach”), but not before Riley had decided to set up shop in town, instantly becoming the area’s biggest music star.
“I did my research to see in anybody was known here. There was a country singer from Hampton, and David “Pic” Conley from Surface. And I figured I could come down here and rock, do some special things. I knew there was talent here, because there’s talent everywhere.” Riley’s arrival electrified locals who had dreams of making it big in the music industry. “Everyone knew who he was, and it was dope that he lived right there in our backyard,” Elliott says. “It made it seem like what we were already trying to do wasn’t that far-fetched or impossible to achieve.” Gene “Malice” Thronton of Virginia Beach rap duo Clipse, remembers “people talking in school that they had seen Teddy Riley here, that he was praking sideways in fire lanes and stuff. A lot of gossip started when he came, and he got a lot of people motivated. He and his crew had the fancy cars. Just being exposed to that was a big deal, because they don’t get to see mich in Virginia.” Not long after Riley arrived, he organized a talent show at nearby Princess Anne High School.
Though The Neptunes were already out of high school, Williams, a Princess Anee graduate, arranged to get his group a slot in the show as anoncompeting “exhibiting”act. They didn’t have it all together as far as what they wanted to do,” Riley recalls of The Neptunes, “they just jammed and showed their talent onstage. And I said, I want them.” Though initially Riley signed The Neptunes to his Lil’ Man Records, he didn’t immediately have the backing of a larger label to actually put out artists. Hanging around the studio, Williams and Hugo began learning the ropes and contributing to Riley’s various proects. Hugo credits Williams for writing Riley’s verse on the Wreck-N-Effect hit “Rump Shaker.” The Neptunes proximity to Riley brought them in contact with music execs who, by the late ‘90s, were handing the duo production work for artists such as SWV and MC Lyte. By 2002, The Neptunes were firmly ensconced as the hottest production team in the land, their stature sometimes overshadowing the artists they worked for. So they decided to embrace their fame and record an album of their won.
Williams, Hugo, and friend Shae Haley became the musical hodgepodge N*E*R*D. And with the creation of their own label Star Trak, The Neptunes have become an entire industry unto themselves.
On The other side of town-the South side-the winding rural streets conjure images of a relaxing Sunday drive. This is where the exclusive new communities of McMansions sit, where both Timbaland and Elliott keep houses. Elliott’s mom lives in hers, and Tim’s stays empty most of the time. Since the two of them left Virginia Beach in 1994, neither has spent a whole lot of time in the area. That was the year Elliott and her group, renamed Sista, got their big break. Jodeci came to perform at Hampton Coliseum, and Sista waited outside the after party to sing for Donald “DeVante Swing” Degrate, the group’s musical leader. Impressed, DeVante invited the women to join his Da Basement Project.
After briefly working with Riley’s production company, Elliott made a power move. With other aspiring artists, such as R&B singers Ginuwine and Tweet, the members of Sista-along with Timbaland and, later, Magoo-all moved to the New York metropolitan area (then to Rochester, N.Y.) to work with DeVante. “We sang and wrote all day, every day,” Elliott says. “It was definitely challenging. We would have writing contests to see who could write songs the fastest. DeVante was a quick songwriter, but I always tried to beat him.” By ’96, things started falling apart. Frustrated by creative differences under DeVante, Sista broke up, and the Virginia Beach crew split from da Basement and began making a name for themselves, but not necessarily for their hometown.
Though Elliott and Tim are happy to continue repping for Virginia (see Tim’s “Straight Out Of VA” N.W.A. adaption on Under Construction Part II,) the needs of their careers and their lifestyle preferences mean they spend far more time in Miami these days. “I like to be away, I just vibe better,” Timbaland says. “There’s no opportunity in Virginia, no jobs, no big buildings. I represent it, but I don’t have to live there to speak on it.” In the summer, Saturday nights bring out the hip hop massive to Virginia Beach’s Atlantic Avenue drag. It’s not as festive as it was before the Greekfest fiasco, but kids still hang out, and rhyme battles occasionally bust out. Off-season, though, the beach is quiet. The hip hoppers tend to stay inland, and the current club of choice is a place called Club 121. Magoo is in town tonight, but he’s not much interested in going out to clubs anymore. And the sibling duo who make up Clipse-Malice and his younger brother, Terrence “Pusha T.” Thornton-decide to hang in tonight as well.
While the clubs get rocking just like they do anywhere on a Saturday night, the Seven Cities’ nightlife scene has never been closely connected to the music coming out of the area. Many of these cats are more likely to be found in church on Sunday than in clubs the night before. In fact, the families of Riley, Timbaland, and Williams all go to the same megachurch, New Jerusalem Pentecostal. “They look at Virginia as the nerd place,” Riley says of public perception. “That’s why Pharrell called his group N*E*R*D, because that’s the way people are going to look at them. That’s the way people look at me. We the nice guys. We don’t have no trouble. We didn’t shoot nobody, we ain’t caused no controversy.” Turns out that avoiding Club 121 Saturday night was a good idea. At around 2 AM gunshots rang out. When police responded to the call, one officer was shot in the shoulder before another policeman fattaly wounded the gunman.
This is the other side of Virginia Beach, where the nice guys don’t hang out; the part rarely peeped in the lighthearted verses of Elliott, or in Williams’s suave choruses. But it can be felt in the rhymes of Clipse. For example, on “Virginia,” from the group’s Neptunes-produced debut, Lord Willin’, the town’s rich history, complete with poor blacks, is not lost on them: “Virginia is for lovers, but trust there’s hate here / For out-of-towners who think they gon’ move weight here / Ironic, the same place I’m makin’ figures at, that there’s the same land they used to hang niggas at.” With the Neptunes away, things are fairly quiet at their new Hovercraft Studio. It’s the day after the club fracas, and Malice, Pusha, and another local Star Trak artist, Norfolk rapper Fam-Lay, sprawl out in the break room and consider where exactly Virginia belongs on the hip hop map. Technically, it’s a Southern state, but it’s not really down far enough to connect with the deep, dirty sounds coming out of Georgia and Louisiana.
It’s got a strong New York influence (“At one time, if you weren’t rhyming like Wu-Tang Clan, you weren’t rapping,” Pusha says), but it’s pretty far removed from the energy of the big city. “Being that we’re from Virginia, whatever we come with ain’t suprising. Because we’re not pigeonholed to sound any certain way,” Pusha says. “It’s definitely a neutral zone.” Hip Hop heads from the area have already been batting around a name for the nascent region: the Middle East-as in East Coast, midway between north and south. And the sound that unifies it? Good luck finding one. “I don’t think we have a sound,” Williams says. “Usually when people have a sound, it’s because it’s the main mentality of that area. I don’t think what we do ecompasses the main menality of Virginia. You need to stick to a script to establish a sound, like in Miami there’s the bass sounds. We keep changing, and so does Timbaland.
So I don’t think either one of us would say this is Virginia sound.” Elliott postulates that the secret to Virginia Beach’s success rests in how removed it is from hip hop’s defined regions: “We were isolated, and I think it forced us to be creative.” For the most part, the Virginia music family is optimistic, but not overly romantic, about their present and future influence. “I wouldn’t say this is the new hot spot,” Hugo says, trying to put it all in perspective. “I wouldn’t say we got a scene, and it’s established, and it’s the new place where pop stars are born. At least, not yet.”