Pharrell Williams x Vulture.com Interview
By Nitsuh Abebe. In last week’s issue of the magazine, we ran a profile of producer Pharrell Williams — who, along with his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo, built the music behind huge numbers of the songs on pop radio in the mid-aughts. (And who, lately, is back to accumulating high-profile production and songwriting credits, many of them with a new and different feel.) My meeting and conversation with him covered a lot of territory that wouldn’t fit in the profile, so here’s an abridged transcript of some highlights, including Michael Jackson rolling on a floor, and musical inspiration found in Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” skits.
I met with Williams in the Manhattan recording studio where he was making a few last adjustments to Azealia Banks’s forthcoming single “ATM Jam.” One of the things we’d wanted to talk with him about was the actual work of production and recording — his gear and software, and what he does when he sits down to make a beat or build a song. We’ll spare you most of the mild geek-talk that came along with that, and hop into the conversation, a little abruptly, midway through.
Are you picky about having exactly the right samples and sounds to work with when you start building a track?
Yeah, it’ll always bug me if it’s not what I’m looking for. It’s like you’re super late to work, and you put on socks, and all of a sudden they’re both Nike socks, but one sock has a gray toe. No one’s ever going to see it, all day long, because it’s in your shoe. But you know it. That fucks with me. Because it’s a placeholder. It’s the same thing to me. Fucks my whole day up.
Can we talk about bass lines? When the Neptunes were first really hitting their stride, you didn’t use many bass lines, and then overall they seemed to be disappearing from the radio. Was that a conscious idea you had, to work without them?
I’m always consciously trying to make what I feel is missing. But then later, bass lines became really important to me! Fifteen, twenty years later — you listen to the [new] Robin Thicke record “Blurred Lines.” That’s not a live bass. That’s me playing it. But I just tried to make it feel, make sure you felt every fret when I played that bass line. That was not going on in music at the time, so that’s what makes it attractive to me. It’s not always going against the norm. Someone asked me this a while ago, what inspires me, and I always say “that which is missing.” Doesn’t mean it’s going to be the greatest thing in the world, just means it’s going to feel different. That’s what I’m really into.
So when you’re working — one day, you’ll be making something just for your own artistic purposes. And then maybe you’re doing something like music that goes with a film. And then maybe you’re working with a pop star whose label is putting on a lot of pressure, because they want a hit. Do you need to have different mind-sets, or think about —
Oh, I don’t think about any of that stuff. I think about the person, where they are in their life, what they’re going through. It’s like a stylist, or a designer. I think about what’s going to look good on their body. On their spiritual body, which is their vocal. Their essence and spirit comes out of that vocal. So I’ve gotta put the right fabric, the right print, the right weight and feel, and then I’ve gotta dress the window. Those are the things I think about, and as long as it’s striking, it’ll quell and it’ll resolve all those other issues. Like “the label wants a hit,” or something of the other factors you mentioned. I don’t think about that shit, because I can’t create that way.
I wish I was like, “Oh, you need such and such? It’s super easy! I can do it!” No, I’d fold, if that’s what I had to hear every day. I’m not good in a fearful place. Every once in a while, when you really back me into a corner, I can do some kind of cool shit. But I wouldn’t want to live that way, in this box where all the walls are made of fear and people pointing expectations your way, rather than just starting from a blank canvas and being like, let’s just think as big as a blimp. And let’s put Swarovski crystals all over it. And then someone can come and say, “Yeah, but you know, if you do a heated appliqué, it’s gonna work, but if you do it with prongs, the air is gonna leak.” That’s my way of working — come with the constraints and the nos and all that later, and cut it down, and we’ll make it fit and make it work. But the inspiration’s always big and grandiose. It’s much more like how they design cars. The shit that I really want to drive, they never let out — because they’ve gotta do all the regulations, the bumpers, the tag holder has to go a certain place, the windshield has to be a certain width. I’m the guy that likes the inspiration — I want to drive that.
Can you tell how a song’s gonna do while you’re making it? I don’t just mean commercially — are you surprised which tracks people like, and which ones they don’t like?
I want to say 65 percent of the time I know when it’s gonna kill. Or I’ll have that feeling — that doesn’t mean I’m 65 percent right. The other 35 percent I’m really surprised. I didn’t know that Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” record was gonna go. It felt amazing, and I loved it — like, this is my jam — because I had Charlie Wilson singing on that. But I had no idea at all. So when it caught and it blew like that, I was just like … [makes face of amazement]. I thought “Blurred Lines” was gonna feel great; I didn’t know it was gonna get all those No. 1s like that, around the world. I just thought it was gonna be a sexy jam that, in the downtown clubs, they just play it and all the girls love it, and they smoke joints together. That’s what I envisioned — the black girls are gonna pass the joints around. And all the models. I called it reefer music, because when I was a child, that’s what most black people where I was from — not everywhere, but where I was from — that was the pastime, the social drug. You roll up a jay, pass it around, and that was the way the music sounded to me. I could just see all the girls passing a joint. So we called it passing-a-joint music. I didn’t know it was gonna do this — I had no idea. So I’m super thankful. That would be part of that 35 percent.
What’s the song you were most absolutely sure was going to be huge?
“Drop It Like It’s Hot.” I knew that was going to be monstrous. I knew “Hot in Herre” was gonna be a great song, but I didn’t know it was going to be as massive as it was. Because I love that feeling, that Chuck Brown go-go feeling. [The song takes cues from Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers’ “Bustin’ Loose,” from 1978.] I knew it was gonna go, but I didn’t know it was gonna go. No. 1 record, I didn’t know it was going to do that. So whenever I thought something was going to be huge, it always superseded what I meant by huge. “Huge” was like “it’s gonna be a big record, top ten,” and people would love it. I didn’t know, like … record-breaking. I’ve always been humbled by that kind of stuff.
A lot of people’s favorite Neptunes beats, like some of the Clipse tracks, are these odd combinations of elements that, on paper — if you just described the elements to someone — would seem like they shouldn’t quite work.
That was like a Comme des Garçons, Mark McNary moment for me. McNairy makes, like, camo, and puts daisies on top. [He demonstrates his camo-and-daisies cap.] That’s what that was for me. I knew the beat hit hard as fuck, and I knew I had them rhyming on some ghetto-drug-dealer shit, so it’s … couture, is what I’m trying to say. Because I think Comme des Garçons is the epitome of the word “couture.” She’s just anti … Rei Kawakubo, she’s not anti the world, but she’s anti-conformity, just free in her expression. She knows no boundaries, doesn’t understand parameters. It’s not on purpose, it’s just who she is.
That was that moment for me, that “Grindin’” beat. Okay: these African sounds are hard as fuck, and … I think there were like five elements to the track. Kick, snare, tribal “huh,” [sings the keyboard motif] and if you’re going to count me breathing, five. Oh, and 808 [a Roland drum machine], behind it. Most simple track ever. Super-minimal. I wasn’t going for that, though. I was going for: this shit just sounds like … tribal, but hard, ghetto. That’s what I was going for. These, and then this ghetto element. Because if you take that out, and if I would have given that track to Björk, I think it would have been just as good. If not crazier, because she would put some crazy shit on top of that. That’s what that was to me, like a couture moment not in music, not in the rest of the world, but in my life, in our world.
I was thinking of Clipse’s “When the Last Time” as another one of those, something that doesn’t entirely seem like it’d work on paper. But it was making me wonder how often you start something and it actually doesn’t come together, and you have to toss it and move to the next thing.
Yeah — either I toss it, or the artist tosses it. Like, “I’m a Slave 4 U” was made for Janet Jackson. Justin Timberlake’s first album — all those songs, with the exception of “Like I Love You,” were songs I made for Michael Jackson. His manager didn’t like them. Somehow I think Michael didn’t like them either, though. Because when I finally met him, he sang all those songs back to me, and said, “Those songs should have been for me.” And he just laughed. He fell out, just like I have all my life — when something is super funny my knees literally give out, and no matter where it is, I’m on the ground. He just fell on the couch, and he was really tall — six-foot-something. Filled up the whole couch. And he fell, rolled on the floor, kicking like a kid, laughing. But he sang those songs to me and he sang them just like Justin. And then he sang “You Don’t Have to Call” to me, and what was so interesting was all of them had Michael bridges. Like on the bridge of “You Don’t Have to Call,” the way I’d written it, I was trying to capture what Michael had already done with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton, in the late seventies, early eighties. He sang those songs to me. So he kinda knew, but at the time they just weren’t good enough. But they were songs for him.
I made Kelis’s “Caught Out There” for Busta Rhymes. I’ll never forget. He’s my brother. At the time, we sat at an office at Elektra Records, and I played him that beat and I was sure he was gonna love it. And he was just, like, reading a sports magazine, listening to these tracks. And I was honored, because it was Busta. In full pigtail dreads, you don’t understand. He was like the king to me. All these people! They were like deities. It was like being on Mount Olympus, where Apollo and the gods were, to be around these people. Think about it: Busta’s voice is not ordinary. You don’t go to school with a guy like that, and you don’t know anybody’s dad that sounds like that. But here he is. And he’s chewing gum, not even looking up one time, and I was so honored. That song went out to be Kelis’s “Caught Out There.”
Well, you wound up making a pretty rapid jump to Olympus yourself …
The funny thing is, I still don’t think I made it there! I don’t even know if I’m halfway. I don’t know. I think I’ll know when I get there, but I’m nowhere near. And now I see what I can do, and I realize that my performance could be so much better. Lyrically I could be so much sharper. Melodically I could be so much stickier. Musically I could have so much more texture. So I’m constantly doing that, trying to find new ways to mix things up.
I keep going back to “Blurred Lines,” because I was just on a call talking about it. Like if you notice what I’m doing on the chorus, what I’m doing is taking southern, white, Bible Belt, seventies … you ever see Dana Carvey do Church Lady? That’s really what I’m thinking. Those incredible triad harmonies on the chorus of something that feels funky and Marvin Gaye–ish. And the thing is I’m playing Rhodes where, in that Dana Carvey world, that might be a banjo. Like Quaker meets southern seventies white Baptist meets funk. That was an interesting pairing to me. So I just aspire to continue to do that, because somehow it works.
I was going to ask about this when you were talking about reefer music. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but … ten years ago, you did a lot of beats that were crisp and chilly and minimal. And now, it seems like there’s a lot more harmony coming through — the stuff you’ve done with Frank Ocean, or that track with Yuna, “Live Your Life” — they have these major seventh chords, this Stevie Wonder–ish —
Because I miss it! Remember, I try to put out what I feel is missing. There was a lot of minimal stuff for so long. It was like: Boom. Pssh. And I could just — [he makes the snare sound again, miming a shotgun to his head]. It was just too much. So I needed color. Everybody else was like steel, minimal. I was like color, rainbow, many different versions of the rainbow. Rainbow, but tertiary colors, not primary. Rainbow, gingham print. Polka dot. Color, color, color.
I have to ask about your guest spots with Daft Punk. You work fast — anyone can tell from your discography that you can turn out a lot of good songs very quickly. Daft Punk go the other route, disappearing and taking years between albums. Are they really spending all that time making everything just perfect?
Well, they’re robots. Think about it. The very definition of a robot, that’s the way they approach everything. Everything is concise, precise, everything is gridded, there are no gray areas for them. I’ve learned a lot from them. Just not settling. They don’t understand settling — they just don’t understand that. They believe in doing it 200 times more than the previous 200. But that’s why this album is absolutely unbelievable, second to none. Will it change music? I don’t know, because music is a funny thing these days. But will it change man? Mankind? And mentality? Absolutely. There’s a record they did with Paul Williams — it is going to change your life. Not your mind, your life. It’s the best song I’ve heard in years. It lifts you to a different place. You’re just like, “I thought I understood what music could do to me.” It’s magical and majestic at the same time. It is unbelievable. It made me emotional. I heard that record, and I was fucked up. I didn’t know that sounds could be put together that could do that to people. And what he was saying? He’s one of the best writers. Paul Williams is one of the best writers ever.
Do you know how they hooked up with him?
I mean, they’re robots. They’re hooked in to everyone. They just pulled us all together, and I cannot believe that I was a decimal, a comma in that equation. Forget it. Cause I’d be there just to hold up the equals sign. But I was allowed to be a digit. I cannot believe I was allowed to be a hyphen in that equation.
Can you tell me about the other track you worked on, besides “Get Lucky?” [“Lose Yourself to Dance,” which wasn’t out yet.]
I’m not at liberty to discuss it. One of the things they do, you ever watch Men in Black? They just zap you and shit. And that’s for the shit that you can’t remember. The other things, that you can remember, they show you this really nasty, gruesome, crazy scene of you dying and getting fucked up by all these monsters if you decide to go against their will.
I really liked the first Despicable Me soundtrack [Williams recorded a few solo songs for the animated film], because it was a side of you we never really get to see — all sunny and kid-friendly — and the songs were very charming. What can we expect from the music for the sequel?
Even more fun and even more focused. You know, one of my biggest things I never got over is that I have demo and concept-itis. [“Demoitis” is what happens when you fall too in love with your early demos, and get reluctant to change or rebuild them.] I love “Fun Fun Fun” [from the first soundtrack], and when I did that, I wanted Donald Fagen [of Steely Dan] to sing it. No one would agree with me. I kind of got demoitis, and they wanted to stick with it. I’m a huge Donald Fagen fan — The Nightfly is definitely in my top twenty. And top twenty is tough, when you love music. Arguably he’d be top five, but I try to be fair to all the other people in the world. Fagen is my favorite, and when that didn’t happen … low-key, I was super hurt. And most people would be like, “What do you mean, it’s you, they kept you on it,” and I’m like “Yeah, that’s what fucks it up for me!” Because every time I hear it, I’m hearing … remember, it’s what I told you, when something ends up staying somewhere and I hate it, I wind up hearing that for the rest of my life, and I always have an issue with it. It’s like the sock that no one sees, that you know is wrong. I love “Fun Fun Fun,” but imagine if Donald Fagen had sang! It’d be amazing.
But this soundtrack, this piece of music, I wrote with the intention of me being on it, so it felt different to me. There’s a record I really, really love called “Happy,” and another called “Just a Cloud Away”— they make me happy.
Yeah, it’s some really feel-good music you’ve done for these!
I’m just in that place, because I feel like everything is just so … “I’m mad! I’m super mad! Cocaine! Drugs! Guns! You wanna get shot? These chicks is on drugs! Everybody’s on drugs!” And I just feel like there’s so much more to life, you know? I grew up in an era when people would talk about everything, and even Kermit the Frog had a hit. Random shit, like “She’s got Bette Davis eyes”— and that was a hit! I remember, it used to come on Solid Gold — you ever watch Solid Gold? Really bad outfits. That costume director was balling, because they never wore the same shit. It looked like Richard Pryor in The Wiz: “Today, the color’s gonna be green,” and he had all those outfits, and suddenly they were all green. They would do that. I think I might need to go back and get all the seasons of Solid Gold, with Marilyn McCoo.
A lot of hooks that you’ve wound up singing on hit songs were those kinds of “placeholders,” right, where you recorded it for reference, and they decided to just leave it that way?
I was never supposed to be on “Shake Ya Ass.” I wanted to go and get … I think it was Eddie Kendricks, from the Temptations, because he was still alive then. [The song’s from 2000, and Kendricks passed away in 1992, so this might have been a different Temptation.] How great would that have been? Because I was sounding terrible! In and out of key, the worst vibrato on the planet, still to this day. I’ve just now been able to stomach the fact of singing on songs. Because when I sing, people aren’t looking at me like I’m a Justin or Usher or Chris Brown. I’m the weirdo guy to the left, over there with Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo, and my boy Kanye. We’re just expressing ourselves. Because I’m such a perfectionist as a producer, I know what a real good voice is. When people can really sing well. I don’t fit that category.
Cee-Lo’s on the new Despicable Me soundtrack, and in the movie. He killed it. On a song called “Scream,” which is amazing. Me and Miley Cyrus are doing background vocals on it.
I should ask about stuff you’ve got upcoming. You were working on something with Frank Ocean and Jay-Z, right?
[Makes a non-committal mmmmmm sound while nodding slowly.] You’re recording that sound. People will just have to believe you about the rest.
Azealia Banks — we know that track’s coming.
Yeah, that’s what we’re working on next door. She recorded an extra verse, so we’ve just gotta put the right music in the right places.
She’s been so adventurous with the beats and producers she’s chosen.
Yeah. That record she made when she was going at Angel Haze — I’m not condoning anyone going at anybody, but the song, the track? That shit was amazing. That beat was unbelievable.
And Beyoncé — you worked on the upcoming stuff?
Yes. She’s got an amazing body of work. But, you know, she’s the queen bee, so she’s got to arrange the beehive the way she wants to. I think I’ll have some honey in there.
I wanted to ask about your schedule, because you do a lot—
No social life. That’s all it is. I love it, I’m thankful, I’m cool. You can’t get anything done hanging out all day long.
How do you keep up with music, and art, and fashion, and all that? Do you set aside time to read or look around and check things out?
No, I don’t set aside time, I just do it all day. I have a great relationship with Emmanuel Perrotin, so he keeps me up on artists that I should know and understand. And then my blogs, like the BBC Ice Cream blog [for his clothing line Billionaire Boys Club] — that’s pretty ethereal in its positioning and where it gets information, so I learn a lot there. I learn a lot from my experiences and collaborations. Most of my collaborations are meant for me to learn. So I’m always doing collaborations and always going somewhere. I just try to take it in.
I did see a video of you working with Kendrick Lamar, and asking “who produced this” about some of his tracks …
When things move me, I ask. When they don’t move me … sometimes I ask too. I’ve always been this way, as a young Aries child — when something moves me, I’m like wait, what’s up, shh. Who did that? When did they do that? What was the engineer’s name? What does the dude eat? What was the assistant going for? Chocolate doughnuts? Why? What brand? When? Because I want to know — to me, in order to figure out what something is, you have to figure out the how and the why.
What’s excited you lately, in terms of new sounds?
I like this young guy, Flying Lotus. I like the producers on Kendrick’s album. I love Diplo’s stuff, Diplo’s the shit. And I still like some trap stuff. I just love where the robots [Daft Punk] are right now. You hear that album, you’re gonna be moved. It’s brilliant.
I wanted to ask about sci-fi, by the way …
Sci-fi? I’m so terrible. Here’s what you don’t understand: I named my label “Star Trak” after Star Trek, and I don’t know shit about Star Trek. I only know Captain Kirk, Doctor Spock. I don’t even know the black lady’s name.
Oh, I was gonna ask if you’d seen the reboot movies!
J.J. Abrams is a genius. I would do a lot to just have a track in the middle of one of those things. And speaking on movies, [composer] Hans Zimmer and I are doing something, but I’m not at liberty to say what at the moment. Hans is like the king of all kings. I carry his books, sharpen his pencils, get his coffee, and I listen to every punctuation that comes out of his mouth. He is a genius. I am lucky to be around him while he’s creating what he’s creating, so when he asked me to do something with him? Of course. I’m around my teacher. That guy is like a walking Da Vinci. When he was doing The Da Vinci Code, one of the things Dan Brown talked about was the Fibonacci sequence, so Hans actually wrote the music for the score so that if you played it forward and played it backward, it played the same thing. That’s the genius of Hans Zimmer. And for my birthday he got me a vintage, original manufacture of a Moog [a much-prized old analog synthesizer]. That’s the king.
You seem to have done a really good job, and had good luck, when it comes to being able to be a “pop star,” known to a lot of people, and still make niche products that are just for your audience.
I’ve always just thrown caution to the wind. Because it could end right now. That’s what I think about: It doesn’t have to be this way. So I’m privileged and blessed. And it could end right now. So just throw caution to the wind and go. Haul ass.
Well, it never seems like you’re really trying to get exposure or be more of a star.
Because I’m so lucky! Gotta be thankful for what I have. That people pay attention to me — you don’t have to be writing a story about me right now. You could be interviewing other people who are far more successful, far more talented, far more interesting, more articulate, able to really express what they’re feeling in a way that people want to hear. I’m a little bit left of center, and I like it that way. When you’re the center of attention, you’ve got to entertain everyone, 360 degrees. So I’m cool to the left. That was the spirit I tried to put into my clothes, with Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream — these other things already exist, so we’re going to give you the twist.
And you’ve got the clothing line’s tenth anniversary this year.
[There’s a Billionaire Boys Club marketing person in the room to answer questions about anniversary promotions; she explains some of the events and roll outs they have coming up, then throws things back to Williams.]
You see the smart, super-talented, intuitive people I have around me? That makes me the luckiest guy in the room. They don’t have to want to be around — they could be like, you suck, you’re stupid, your style is wack, and poof. But instead, for whatever reason, they keep showing up. I’m excited. I’m just a little boy from Virginia, who didn’t know it was ever going to end up this way. I have an exciting team around me, really super-talented individuals, who all have their specialties, and then when they hold hands they kind of turn into Voltron. When we’re apart, I’m just a boy with a couple ideas. They lift me and hoist me to a new level, and take me to a frequency I’ve never experienced before, so it’s just been cool. I’m really happy, man. I never had it all. But with these people, I have more than it all. I have everything.