By Chris Williams. Early tales from the world of Pharrell and Chad. Over the past 20 years, Virginia has been a hotbed of musical innovation. Missy Elliott. Timbaland. The Neptunes. Teddy Riley. D’Angelo. Over the past month, Chris Williams has taken an in-depth look at this area of the United States, examining why it’s birthed such talent.
In part one of our series; we discussed the origins of Missy Elliott and Timbaland. Part two featured an interview with Teddy Riley about his years in the area. In part three, we discussed the origins of Michael “D’Angelo” Archer. The final installment of this special series sees Chris Williams sitting down with Gene “No Malice” Thornton, one half of the rap duo the Clipse, Tammy Lucas, a singer and songwriter, and Shaquan “Skillz” Lewis, an MC and ghostwriter, to discuss their relationships with The Neptunes at the beginning of their career, thanks to Spaceman.
When and where did you first meet Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo?
Gene Thornton: The first time I met Chad I was working on some music. I went to a music store called AL&M, and I rented a drum machine. My friend Alex and I got this drum machine, but we didn’t know how to work it. So Alex said to me, “Let’s go over to my friend’s house. His name is Chad.” We went over to Chad’s house, and he was showing Alex how to work the machine. It was cool. This was in 1988.
Pharrell and I had a mutual friend. My man was always telling me that I needed to get with his boy because his beats were crazy. I was known for being a lyricist. He was telling me this for a few years. I was hanging down on Virginia Beach’s oceanfront, and that’s where everybody would be on the strip freestyling, rapping, and kicking it. Pharrell was out there, and he asked me for my name. I told him, and he said, “Yo, Cam told me a lot about you.” I replied, “Yeah. Cam told me a lot about you, too.” It just so happened that he and Chad were partners then. We just clicked. From that point on, we always would be on the phone communicating with each other. I met Pharrell in 1990.
Tammy Lucas: I was staying in Virginia with Teddy Riley and doing work for his company. The high school that Pharrell and Chad went to was within walking distance from Teddy’s studio, and Teddy started putting on these talent shows there. Those talent shows were kind of boring, and I left one of them because my mom came down to visit me one day. When I came back, I believe Pharrell’s group came on last. I remember sitting there with my mom and I told her, “He has something.” [laughs] He was the front man of the group, but the whole musical vibe they were bringing to the stage was so cool.
They won the talent show. I think the prize was to meet Teddy Riley in person and come to his studio and record a song with him. Before the talent shows, I heard that Pharrell was just showing up there on his own with cassettes. He had a drive from the beginning. I first saw them at this talent show in the winter of 1991.
Shaquan Lewis: The first time I met Pharrell was at Hampton University. Pharrell and I were the biggest A Tribe Called Quest fans ever. I had a relationship with Q-Tip which started in 1992. He was very instrumental in getting me on The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show. He used to invite me to Tribe’s shows when they were in Virginia, and he would let me rap at the end. So I was in the parking lot after the show. I just got off of the stage and a couple of my people from Richmond were there, so I was feeling good about my performance.
We were participating in a cypher. I was rapping with this dude I used to rap with named Kalonji, and this dude walked up to us. I’ll never forget it. He was wearing silver rain boots, black pants, a silver Donna Karan puffy vest with a black shirt underneath of it, silver and black ski goggles, and he was like, “Yo, weren’t you just on stage with Tribe? You have to introduce me to Q-Tip.” I was like, “Huh?” He said, “You have to introduce me to Q-Tip. He has to hear my beats. I make beats.” I was looking at him because he looked so different. I asked him, “What is your name?” He responded, and he’s probably going to kill me for saying this, but he said his name was Magnum, The Verb Lord. As we’re standing there, Tribe’s tour bus was at the light about to turn left. I said, “Yo, that’s the tour bus right there.” It looked like he was about to cry.
We started beat boxing and rapping together. He and my partner had a serious style when they were rapping together. They had this Keith Murray style of using big words. They had a very extensive vocabulary. I was just beat boxing for them. That guy was Pharrell Williams, and it was the first time I met him. This was in the fall of 1993. By the time I met Chad, they were already established as The Neptunes. I met Chad after they made Noreaga’s “Superthug” song. They were starting their hip hop production as The Neptunes. They did a remix for The Lox’s “If You Think I’m Jiggy” and Mase’s record “Lookin’ at Me.”
What was the hip hop music scene like in Virginia during the early 1990s?
Gene Thornton: Well, we had our rappers, the occasional dudes that thought they could rap in school. We would gravitate to each other. It is much different down here now. Everybody is a rapper here now. As far as hip hop music is concerned, I didn’t listen to anything other than New York hip hop. The only person I knew of from Virginia that made it was Skillz.
Shaquan Lewis: I always received more love from where Pharrell and Chad were from in Virginia Beach than I did from my city, which is Richmond. Once Pharrell and them started to break with “Rump Shaker,” we could see success around us. I would see Teddy [Riley] riding around in a Ferrari, Chauncey from Blackstreet, and all these hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cars parked outside of the studio. We could see that something close to us was turning into a movement. Virginia became a hotbed for talent, but we already knew what we had. I feel like, musically, we were so different because we had to be. Luke and them had bass music down south in Miami, New York had that boom bap, hardcore hip hop, Washington, D.C. had go-go music, Baltimore had club music, the west coast had G-funk, Texas had their chopped and screwed music, so we couldn’t do any of that. We had to do something different.
I believe this is why Timbaland started doing the double time drums and sampling Godzilla, cats, and babies on his tracks. We had to be different. With Pharrell and Chad, I feel like that their music was closest thing that we ever had in having a sound that represented Virginia. I was this little hard-headed rapper running around screaming VA because I wanted to represent my hood and my state. But I feel like they were the closest thing we had to having a sound for our state.
After you met Chad through your mutual friend Alex, did you immediately start working with Chad on music before you met Pharrell?
Gene Thornton: Chad and I kept in touch. Chad will always tell this story. When I came to his house for the first time, and this is so stereotypical, they had some chicken on the oven, and you had to walk by the kitchen to get to the attic where his studio was, and as I was walking through the kitchen, I took a piece of chicken. I came upstairs eating the chicken. [laughs] Before I even met him, I was eating his chicken. He never lets me forget it, either. [laughs] I don’t know why I did it. This tells you where my head was at back then.
Can you describe what the studio in Chad’s attic looked like?
Gene Thornton: We got so much accomplished in that attic. The attic didn’t look like an attic. It was a carpeted room. It was perfect. Chad’s equipment was all over his room. He had three keyboards on a rack. His keyboard was an ASR-10.
Tammy Lucas: It was also his bedroom. He had a keyboard, some recording equipment, and microphones. This is where we did everything for a long time. Teddy allowed us to record a few songs for my project at his Future Recording Studios. Most of the recording was done at Chad’s house, though.
Did all of the early recordings with Pharrell and Chad take place at Chad’s house?
Gene Thornton: Yeah. Everything was always done at Chad’s crib. I clearly remember how nurturing Chad’s parents were to what we were doing. Anytime we would come to their house, they would just open the door for us and let us upstairs. They knew what we were there for. This was before we earned any kind of money. It didn’t matter what time it was they would always welcome us, and they were always super cool. They were the epitome of a great support system for us. What they did was so crucial to us becoming who we are and the contributions we made to this music game. This is something that people will never see or hear about. I’m here to tell you firsthand that without them, none of this would’ve been possible.
When you first started working with Pharrell and Chad, did you believe you and your brother were going to become successful recording artists?
Gene Thornton: Hip hop was always a hobby to me. I really believed that this was something I could do, but I was in Virginia and there were no outlets here and that type of stuff only happened in big cities. When I considered making music, it was only because one of my homies told me he found a guy who could make beats. This was when I was in high school. He said, “I know you don’t really rap because you don’t like anyone’s beats but I found this guy, and he makes good beats.” The dude was Timbaland, but his name was DJ Timmy Tim at the time. Tim and I used to make music as kids in high school together. We were in a gang at the time. Tim would make beats for the entire gang. Everybody in the gang had a partner. We were called DDP which stood for Def Dual Productions. He made beats for all of us.
This was the first time I thought about being a rapper. When I knew Timbaland, I didn’t know Chad or Pharrell yet. Pharrell and Tim knew each other because they went to the same church. Timbaland lived behind our childhood home. Where we used to hustle at, he lived in a townhouse there. We hustled in a place called Bridle Creek. So when I met and starting working with Chad and Pharrell, I thought it could be a possibility. They were always practicing. It was non-stop. Where they are now is a reflection of all the hard work they did back then. It makes total sense.
When was the first time you collaborated in the studio with Pharrell and Chad?
Gene Thornton: We made a common practice of going to Chad’s house to make demos. I can clearly remember getting the beat from Pharrell and writing to it, and then going to Chad’s house to lay it down and record it. This was happening on a regular basis. Those early studio sessions were a barrel full of laughs. It was never a dull moment. I have CDs of our sessions where we were supposed to be working, but it would be joke sessions. There would always be something comedic going on. Pharrell would do the percussion and Chad would come in with the chords. This is how the chemistry developed between them. I saw Pharrell playing the keyboards and live drums. Chad could pick up anything. He would play the flute, saxophone, guitar, and some instruments you’ve never heard of.
One thing I can tell you about Pharrell is that he has always been a visionary. I used to think he was crazy. He would say things sometimes and I would say to myself that it was too far-fetched, but he literally saw things. He would see the music, the video, and how people would respond to them. Sky was the limit for him. It was the first time that I witnessed that life was what you made it. I didn’t know where he got his drive from, but I paid attention.
One day, my brother was there at Chad’s house and he decided that he was going to take a stab at rapping. We did a song together and it was called “Thief in the Night.” The song featured me, my brother, Pharrell, and this girl named Tracy. We thought it was a really good song. What really sparked the fire was the fact that – when we did our first few songs – we would go to New York to shop them to record companies and talk to A&Rs and just to be on the verge of getting a yes or no from them was a high for us.
They always loved the music, but it was the money part of it. Chad and Pharrell had been through so much and learned so much from being with Teddy [Riley], so they knew what was acceptable and unacceptable. It was one of the greatest assets that we had coming into the industry.
Did you ever work with Tammy Lucas when she resided in Virginia Beach?
Gene Thornton: Yeah! I don’t know if we did any work together, but we were really good friends. All of us had fun together. She was like our big sister.
When you arrived in Virginia Beach from Harlem, was there any type of a music scene going on in the area?
Tammy Lucas: Not that I knew of. It seems like all the attention was on Teddy and us. I was born and raised in Harlem. When I went down there, it was quiet and there wasn’t too much music happening or anything else. [laughs] It was a drastic change, but I grew to love it. I ended up staying there from 1991 to late 1997. A lot of it had to do with my relationship with The Neptunes. The first reason I came there was because of Teddy, but the second reason was my on-going work relationship with The Neptunes. We began to build our relationship, even after we left Teddy.
Take me back to the time when you started working on music with Pharrell and Chad and showing them how to write songs after you took them under your wing.
Tammy Lucas: When I wasn’t writing stuff for Teddy or singing, I had a lot of free time because I was new to the town at that time. Pharrell was very eager and inquisitive; he asked a lot of questions. He began to call me and ask questions about everything. I shared with him information about ASCAP and BMI and copywriting songs. It wasn’t about just doing music, but talking about different songs. He would ask me about songs that I did with Teddy. Then, him, Chad, and their little crew started coming over to my place all of the time. This is how our working relationship started. I was working on my project at the time. Then, it became one of those things where Teddy got really busy with other projects and acts like me, Pharrell, Chad, and whoever else were waiting around to get his full attention. That’s why we all started working together because we had so much free time while we were waiting.
What was your daily routine with them when you were working on new material together?
Tammy Lucas: Pharrell was the leader of the pack. He always had a lot of ideas. He was always making a new mixtape. Chad and I are both Pisces’s. I think we made a great combination. Pharrell liked to do a lot of stuff that was different. His company, I Am Other, was something I saw from the beginning. He was always like that. I think a lot of times people just want do the normal thing. I think that’s what made us click so much because we wanted to be different. He had his own way of doing things, even though Chad and I didn’t spark it, we seemed to be right in tune with him. He had a lot of ideas from the beginning. He was a forward thinker and a visionary about everything. He wore a lot of crazy clothing styles. [laughs] His friends would ask him, “What is that?” He would respond, “You don’t know about this. You’re not up on this yet.” He wore his clothes with pride. It’s one of those things when people ask me, “Are they different now?” No. They’re exactly the same way they were before they became famous.
Did you guys work with some of the local talent coming up in the Virginia Beach area during that period of time?
Tammy Lucas: One of the genius things that Pharrell did back then was he started working with people he already knew, and they were from Future Recording Studios. He got a reputation when he was working at Future, but even after he left Future, he was still in contact with other artists. He had a cousin that had some singing ability, and we did some songs for him. We worked on songs for some rappers in the area. This is how he started working with Terrence and Gene [Thornton], The Clipse. They lived in Virginia Beach.
When I first met Pharrell and Chad, they weren’t The Neptunes yet. I won’t take the credit for their name, but what I will say is that when they told me their original name, I told them, “Bruh, the name that you got ain’t going to work.” [laughs] I hit them with that one. He called me up every day because we were buddies. He would say, “Tam, this is what I’m working on now. What do you think about it?” He would do it with everybody. Even when he was still with Teddy, he would ask Markel or Teddy, “What do you guys think about this?” He wanted to hear what other people thought because when you’re making music, you’re trying to sell it to other people not yourself.
Did Pharrell or Chad ever mention Star Trak as a concept when you were working with them in the beginning?
Gene Thornton: Pharrell has always been that lunar, out of this world type of personality. It was Chase Chad, The Clipse stood for full eclipse, The Neptunes represented outer space, and Tammy Lucas went by Venus which was in outer space, too. It was just this outer space thing. I knew that it was Star Trak from the very beginning. That’s who we were and what we are today. It was a great movement.
As you look back on the impact Virginians have made on popular culture over the past twenty years, can you describe what it was like being a part of the movement to change not only the perception of Virginia but the overall sound of music?
Shaquan Lewis: It’s been a special experience. I’ve seen when Missy and Timbaland linked up with Devante Swing, while Pharrell and Chad were learning under Teddy Riley, D’Angelo was sitting in a room studying Prince and George Clinton, and I was learning under Q-Tip. We were paying attention to the people who came before us, but we knew we couldn’t do exactly what they were doing. To watch Missy become a superstar, and see how Timbaland changed the sound of music. To see Pharrell and Chad control almost half of everything on radio at one point was crazy. D’Angelo was the first artist I saw that made it. He didn’t flop. He actually came out and won. I was carrying around the VA flag and screaming Virginia.
Nowadays I’ll be performing overseas in places like Japan, and they’ll come up to me and ask me to sign my first album on vinyl. To be a part of this whole experience is something nobody can take away from us. We were the precursors to Trey Songz and Chris Brown. The fact that we staked our claim in Virginia made it OK for other artists to say they’re from Virginia. It’s not corny to say that you’re from Virginia anymore. It means something. I remember when it didn’t mean anything.