Neither Shepard Fairey nor Pharrell Williams seems to be afraid of a hyphen. The artist-designer-branding wizard and producer-musician-designer-entrepreneur-style icon, respectively, are two of the most influential genre-hopping creative forces making their marks on pop culture right now. The two initially teamed up in 2000 when Fairey designed rap-rock outfit N*E*R*D’s now iconic brain logo. On the eve of the drop of their funky futuristic fourth album, Nothing, Williams and Fairey got together for a tête-à-tête.
Shepard Fairey: It’s great to see everything you’re doing now. You’re kicking ass. So I know you skated a lot when you were younger. That was a big thing for me, too; it was what opened my eyes to creative cultures. You grew up in Virginia Beach, which was a big skate town. Do you think it was skateboarding that initially got you into what you are into musically and artistically?
Pharrell Williams: Yeah, because at the end of the day it attracted so many people of different cultures that you were bound to learn something from each other because you all have something cool in common, and that unified us as kids. And I thought it was amazing as a child that all my friends were so different, listening to all different kinds of music.
SF: I grew up in South Carolina, so I don’t think we had all that different of an experience in terms of skating. The openness of it, the creativity, it definitely fueled a lot of things that I’m into. At what point did you get interested in visual art? When you put out your first album in 2002, did you already have a sense of what you wanted to present visually? How did that develop?
PW: I always had my own ideas and things I wanted to see. I guess it was the hidden artist in me that wanted to make a lot of choices as to how I wanted to be seen, or what I wanted people to digest about me. There’s a veil of obscurity that goes along with that as well.
SF: I’m a huge fan of your music but I want to learn a little bit more about how you evolved into the clothing, the art collecting, how you collaborated with FriendsWithYou, Louis Vuitton — how this evolved is what I’m really interested in.
PW: To be honest, it’s about going from one lily pad to the next and just making sure you hop on the right ones. And it’s just important you do things that are exciting to you and that present a learning experience. I don’t ever want to do anything that I can’t learn from, so that’s why I always collaborate with the best: because I know they can teach me.
SF: I’m curious about your relationship with [Bathing Ape designer/music producer] Nigo, who I feel is like the Japanese Warhol. In Japan, in terms of the crossover between commercial projects and high-end art, there are fewer boundaries. How did you get into what he was doing with the [clothing and shoe lines] Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream?
PW: Well, he basically just gave me a shot. I came to his studio, he showed me some of his stuff, and I told him I wanted this, this and this. He told me to take it. I wore a lot of it, and finally he was like, “Hey, you wanna do your own line?” I was like, “Hell yeah,” and so
the rest was history.
SF: What do you consider yourself? A musician? A designer? Or just a general creative person?
PW: I would just say, you know, just a kid with ideas.
SF: You’re so humble! Tell me about your new project, Brooklyn Machine Works.
PW: It’s this iconic bike company that’s over 10 years old, located out in Brooklyn. They do a lot of dope collaborations. We did one with Supreme. You should see if you like the bikes — we would love to do a collaboration with you. That would be crazy. Like you know, an apparel line.
SF: Nice, nice, that would be totally fresh. I’ll check it out. So tell me about your art site through which you’re trying to showcase emerging artists, Artst.com.
PW: We just felt like every time we come on stage, there is always some dope artist saying, “Hey, you know, check me out, let me direct your next video, let me design your next T-shirt.” So we created the site because we wanted to give them a platform so they could not only be heard by us, but by the rest of the world as well. If you’re an artist, you can go on and find producers and someone to do your cover, someone to dress you for your shoot. I was just trying to provide a space for them to get visibility.
SF: Is there anything you get out of it besides spreading the creativity? Like financially? A lot of people won’t do anything unless there’s going to be some sort of financial reward for them, but to me I figure if I don’t make money from spreading around the culture I care about, at least it creates more of an audience for things that I’m interested in. Being charitable with your time and your energy is tough when you’re spread thin.
PW: Well, I don’t feel guilty about monetizing situations that are good. Like, there are tons of people in the world who are making billions who basically should be considered criminals. So if I’m doing something to help people, I don’t mind making money. Right now, we don’t do anything except just give exposure, but eventually we’ll build it into something that’s more like a business. We have some things in the works, but the most important thing to me is that these kids get the visibility that they deserve. They’re so fucking talented, you know?
SF: Right, so let’s talk about [the artist duo] FriendsWithYou. What they’re doing here in the U.S., it’s a little bit like what Nigo has been doing in Japan. A little bit of the KAWS thing, too: art and T-shirts and toys. I love that it’s all upbeat, it’s pop-y and well-done and friendly. You’re sort of an official member of the collaboration now.
PW: Yeah, we work together. I think that those guys are super-talented and I believe that they can be the next Disney.
SF: I noticed that they designed the N*E*R*D web page, and I know they’ve done some video stuff with you, but what kind of projects do you have on the horizon with them?
PW: They have a bunch of stuff coming up. I kind of stay out of the way and let them do what they want to do. Mostly we just do commercial stuff together. FriendsWithYou comes in and they are the creatives. We are doing stuff for Gwen Stefani, for her line. They did the Pop-Tart commercials.
SF: It seems like they’re doing a lot of whimsical things they want to do because they’re able to make money with their business. To have that freedom, that’s really ideal.
PW: We can’t allow the pop and commercial worlds to go to shit. We have a responsibility as artists on many different levels to change the way people see the world.
SF: Whenever somebody’s saying that the world of commercial graphic design or marketing is lame, I always say, I can turn on the television and watch a lot of ads that are actually really great and don’t necessarily brainwash me into buying that product. But I’d rather see great marketing and great advertising that’s art within itself. And that’s part of mass communication, that commercial side of it is always going to be there, you might as well raise the bar, is what I think. So what else is coming up for you? Your new N*E*R*D record, Nothing, is really good by the way. Congratulations.
PW: Thank you.
SF: I think you were an early ambassador of that crossover between the indie-rocker mentality and the hip-hop mentality. Is there anything happening musically right now that you’re excited about?
PW: There’s a lot of great music out there, but I always draw a blank when people ask me about that. I just like when people are unafraid to just go and take music into different directions. The one thing I don’t like is when you turn on the radio and it sounds like one three-hour-long song.
SF: I love the idea that you’re doing all this stuff, simply because the world loves to put shit in categories that are restrictive. This might sound sort of pretentious to say, but being a renaissance person is the ideal. I’ve got a lot of different interests and I don’t want people telling me which ones are appropriate to pursue. You seem like that, too.
PW: Yeah man, you just have to do what you really feel, whether it’s some really obscure or super-pop thing, you just have to make sure in the end that shit is tasteful. Nike is as pop as can be, but they do it tastefully. Apple is as pop as can be, but they do it tastefully. The Whopper is as pop as can be, but that shit is tasteful.
SF: One of my favorite Warhol quotes is, when he was asked about some of the objects he was making art about, Coca Cola, he said, “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking… Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” In your sculpture collaboration you did with Takashi Murakami, you included a bottle of Johnson & Johnson lotion and a Pepsi can. Do you actually prefer Pepsi? Or because you have an endorsement deal with Pepsi, did you feel like you had to put it in there?
PW: No, no, I grew up on Pepsi. My mom and dad drink it. But other times when we’re in countries where there’s only Coke, I drink that, too.
SF: I like that project with Murakami. You’re mixing a really ambitious piece of high art but with really accessible subject matter. I definitely dig a lot of artists who make stuff that aspires to be the highest of high art, but at the same time connecting with a lot of people in a way that isn’t cryptic, and that is addressing pop culture. But yeah, I think I don’t have any advice for you, man. Just keep doing what you’re doing.