A skateboarder by day and style icon by night, Pharrell Williams has swagger even in his voice. The prolific hip-hop producer shot to the top of the pop charts in 2001 when his beats and blips made Britney a “Slave 4 U” and in 2004 when Gwen Stefani declared she was no “Hollaback Girl.” This year he produced seven tracks for Madonna’s latest album “Hard Candy,” and last month his genre-blurring group N¤E¤R¤D released their third studio album “Seeing Sounds.” But Pharrell still has time to listen to his iPod, contemplate his tattoos and tell his friends to shut up. He spoke to NEWSWEEK’s Oscar Raymundo. Excerpts:
So what are you up to in London?
A bunch of press, we’re doing festivals, we’re doing shows. It’s very warm over here in terms of the reception of the N¤E¤R¤D album. It’s been great. It’s been great back home, but it’s been great here too.
How was hanging out with Kanye during the Glow In The Dark Tour?
We had a great time, man. Our whole audience and core is basically multicultural. You just have a great time when you’re around the people that you know and totally understand and they understand you. We gave people an action-packed show.
How did the collaboration for the Converse-sponsored song “My Drive Thru” come about?
They asked me who I wanted to worked with. And I just picked two of the most interesting people that I could think of, and that was Julian Casablancas (The Strokes) and Santi (White) from Santogold. She’s super smart and Julian is super talented. It was a pleasure; the process was great.
They just let you pick two people and you could have picked anybody?
That’s pretty cool. Do you get to do that often?
I’ve been very blessed in my path and my journey. This trek of music has landed me in a lot very interesting places. I have to say I’m very thankful. Its not just me being able to make those choices, it’s the fact that people have given me such pleasurable responsibility to make music and just be creative. And they just let me go. There are no holds on what it is that I want to do. Things have been great in that way.
The Strokes are a rock band and Santogold is more electronic and you are better known as a hip-hop producer. Why do you think that music fans are more open to migrating from genre to genre and not be stuck listening to one type of music?
N¤E¤R¤D has always been a melting pot of things that we found interesting, just different textures of sounds and different frequencies, and mixing different colors of chord progression. And it’s always been because we weren’t strictly this or strictly that. We just made experimental music that we liked. And what I liked about it and what makes me very proud is that we were one of the first few groups to represent the iPod mentality.
What do you think is different about the kids that are now growing up listening to iPods?
The iPod is teaching people that radio doesn’t dictate what’s going on. Sales don’t necessarily dictate what’s going on. Kids like what they like. They buy what they buy. And they kind of don’t care what anyone else thinks. The program director is now the kid on his MP3 player, downloading and putting on his iPod or Zune player or whatever. It’s that time when kids are making their own decisions, they listen to all kinds of music, they wear all kinds of clothes. There are people that are genre-specific and its cool ’cause you get to go into their world and see what it is, all the rules of basic engagement. But for the most, most kids just like certain things, they’re attracted to it and they learn about it. And that’s it. They don’t care.
What’s on your iPod?
I had Ahmir (Khalib Thompson) from The Roots make me an iPod and Q-Tip make me an iPod. (British jazz DJ) Gilles Peterson still owes me one. Usually what I have them do is put like obscure jazz records, old soul records and funk records and rock records that I couldn’t get my hands on. I don’t have a huge collection, I just kind of like what I like.
With The Neptunes, and Timbaland and Mark Ronson, producers are now more visible in the music scene. Why is that?
I think what’s most important is that the music is right. That’s all. And that kids get entertained. It’s all that really matters.
You’ve got to explain to me this thing about growing some skin to cover your tattoos.
I was kidding. It was on CNN News, so I was just talking about something that I had seen on the news.
So you’re not getting rid of any tattoos?
Are you getting any new ones?
No. I may get some lasered off or something like that.
You’re a pretty stylish guy. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what you wear and planning your outfits?
No, no, no. Not at all. I wear what’s comfortable, man.
And whenever you are in the studio, are you a mean guy? Is Madonna the only person you’ve made cry?
Oh man, you’re really interested? This is Newsweek, right? Not some celebrity gossip… you’re asking me about tattoos and Madonna crying.
I’m asking about working in the studio, what’s your typical studio day like?
It’s like any other session. You know? She’s a human being. That’s the truth. It’s like any other session, you just go in and make music and it’s fun and it’s intense.