VIDEO & TRANSCRIPT: PHARRELL WILLIAMS CAREER-SPANNING INTERVIEW WITH JASON KING (NYU/TISCH & NPR Music)
October 29, 2015; Washington, DC – A video of Pharrell Williams' debut appearance as Artist in Residence with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts is available now from NPR Music. In an on-stage interview at Town Hall in New York City Monday, the multiple-Grammy winner shared rare insights into his prolific career as a performer, songwriter, producer, designer and entrepreneur. As he told NYU professor and NPR Music's I'll Take You There host Jason King, who conducted the interview, Williams sees himself as "the Mr. Magoo of music."
Over the course of the nearly two-hour career-retrospective interview and Q&A with students from Tisch, Williams discussed growing up in Virginia Beach, his early forays and fumbles in production, the artists that have inspired him in music and fashion, meeting and working with producer Teddy Riley, his experience with racial stereotypes, skateboarding, the time Kelis introduced him to Prada during his Polo phase, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and so much more.
Watch the full video now at NPRMusic.org. Excerpts are available below; a full transcript follows.
When asked about the responsibilities artists bear to address political turmoil circulating in society, Williams said: "Well, as individuals, I just think that our biggest responsibility is to be self-aware, and some of us are not. And as an artist, artists are like messengers, you know."
He continued: "A song is authored by you, but its interpretation is owned by other people. And you have no control over that."
On how he's gotten to this point of success in his career: "Honestly, I am like the Mr. Magoo of music."
"For whatever reason, these opportunities are presented to me," he continued. "[I think] oh, that will be fun. And as long as I concentrate on the fun, it usually turns out cool. It's when I become too, you know, too worried about how it has to be and, you know, that's when, you know, God spends a lot of time chuckling at me. You know? He's rolling over laughing all the time with me. He's just like, hey, check him out, there he is again. Watch what we do with him. But when I just let it go and just go with the flow and just do things that I enjoy, I've just had this incredibly eclectic journey of just great opportunities to collaborate with people who were far much more experienced than I was."
When asked about pressure to fulfill to a defined image: "You guys would be so offended if someone just said to you, no, you're this, no stick to this, this is what you are. You're like, no, I'm going to color outside the lines, in fact I'm going to start on this side of the page."
On how he and N.E.R.D. partners Chad Hugo and Shae Haley were able to rise out of the Virginia Beach community where they grew up: "Chad and Shae and myself, I feel like we were just super blessed... The odds are so stacked against you to have a music career in a place where there's virtually no music industry, you know? So I always attribute it to God."
On the moment he realized he wanted to pursue music: A Tribe Called Quest had put out their first record, and I heard 'Bonita Applebaum' and I [thought] 'Man, what is this record?'"
He continued: "Because they looped a part of the song, and they just made it. And I noticed that the loop kept giving this continuous feeling and that was just like blowing my mind as something that was just happening over and over again."
When asked whether his parents were supportive of his music work early on, he said: "I kept my parents out of it until I brought home my first plaque... Which is probably why the contract was so bad."
On how the black demographic is put in a box: "[Growing up], you would listen to a black station that would play R&B, and you would also hear Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust' or you would hear Tears for Fears' 'Shout'... those were big records. It's still sad that people, you know, place the black demographic in that box, you know? Like black people have been watching Seinfeld... That's why like when Kramer did what he did, that's why it was such a big deal, because it was like, man, we watch you, we know who you are, you know? Not to bring that up, but I'm just saying in general, you know, it's like it's the weirdest thing when people say, you watched The Sopranos?"
Recalling the time Kelis called him on his Polo, backpacker style: "[Kelis] was and is, to me, like one of the most forward-thinking people ever."
He continued: "She was a huge influence. And she was actually the one that, like, started me in, like, just sort of dressing a bit different. OK? At that point, everything was Ralph Lauren Polo for me - everything. Because where I was from, that's like what all the hustlers wore... I was a backpacker, but I had a Polo backpack. You know, it was kind of like everything. And she was just like, no, listen, you know, there's something called Prada."
When answering a question about projects he's currently working on, Williams said: "And so with all the people that I work with and the companies that have been so gracious to let me do things with them, I'm excited about those things... I know I just answered the question like Donald Trump. I know about these things, these things, these things. And a lot of people talk about these things."
And continued: "Wait, wait, wait, wait, but let me be clear. I'm Hillary, sorry... It's time for a woman."
NPR Media Relations: Caitlin Sanders
Email: mediarelations (at) npr (dot) org
PHARRELL WILLIAMS, 2015/16 ARTIST IN RESIDENCE AT NYU'S TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, INTERVIEW WITH JASON KING
BROADCAST AND RECRODED BY NPR MUSIC ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2015
ALLYSON GREEN: Hi, welcome. We are so excited to be here with all of you tonight. I'm Allyson Green, I'm the dean of the Tisch School of the Arts.
Thank you. And also, welcome to all who are viewing this around the world, live on our NPR stream tonight.
We are thrilled to welcome Pharrell Williams as our artist in residence for the 50th anniversary of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
Now, some of you around the world may not know Tisch, so let me share just a little bit about us. Fifty years ago, our school was founded and heralded as a daring adventure, uniquely in and of the great City of New York. We began with professional artists who cared deeply about educating the next generation of artists to learn by doing.
Today, Tisch is one of the world's eminent centers for arts education in the performing, cinematic and emerging media arts. An extraordinary, creative school inside a great global research university, we are nurturing artists and scholars who are engaged in changing the world. Four thousand students pursue degrees in 14 departments. No matter what the discipline, we have a singular mission, and that's to support, challenge and celebrate our fantastic students first.
Our Tisch Artists in Residence program celebrates and honors those outstanding individuals who are making a particular impact in their fields and can serve as a role model of excellence for our students. Who better than Pharrell Williams?
Pharrell is a remarkably gifted artist and entrepreneur and he graciously uses his talent for the good of others, with heartfelt generosity. You're going to be hearing a lot about him and from him in the next hour. But we are so grateful to him for agreeing to spend some of his time with us tonight, even just off the plane from a concert in Europe.
The exciting opportunity for our Tisch community to spend this year in conversation with Pharrell will undoubtedly influence all of us as we create the future for the next 50 years.
So let me take a moment to say thank you, Pharrell.
Please help me to also thank our media partners, NPR Music, Pharrell's entire management and creative team, especially Karen Veasey (ph), Mimi Valdez and Robin Frank for making tonight possible.
And I'm incredibly grateful to work alongside my colleagues in the fantastic Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.
Clearly in the house.
And to Nikki Mirasola for managing tonight's event.
Our first conversation with Pharrell begins this evening with Jason King as our moderator.
Jason is an associate professor and a director of writing, history and emerging media studies at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, a program he helped to create as its founding faculty member and first associate chair and artistic director.
In addition to teaching at NYU, Jason is an internationally recognized journalist and author of "The Michael Jackson Treasures." He's a musician and band leader, DJ, songwriter, producer, artist, manager, curator and event producer. He is also the host and curator of "I'll Take You There," NPR's 24/7 streaming radio channel devoted to all things R&B.
Ladies and gentlemen, please help me to welcome Jason King to the stage. Thank you.
JASON KING: Wow!
What's up, NYU?
December, 1999, most of you students in this room probably were still pretty young, so I'll paint a nice picture of it. It was the turn of the century, the cusp of the new millennium. While some of us were drowning in made Y2K fears that our clocks would wind down, that our computers would stop, that our banking institutions would cease to function and life on earth as we know it would come to a grinding halt, a young African-American producer from Virginia Beach and his Asian-American producing partner were not grinding down at all, they were just getting started.
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, otherwise known as The Neptunes — yeah, you can clap — truly broke out into mainstream visibility at the tail end of the 1990s by producing pop soul diva Kelis' debut album "Kaleidoscope." It was an unforgettable album cover, a naked Kelis hugging herself in a psychedelic body paint with an orange and pink afro.
You can Google it if you haven't seen it.
The lead single, "Caught Out There," blazed the charts with its screaming chanted hook "I hate you so much right now," channeling a decade of Riot Grrrl and Alanis Morissette and relationship angst and pop punk rage into a futuristic vision of alternative black female lists. The aptly named album "Kaleidoscope" was the furthest thing from conventional, ho-hum radio R&B. Journalists Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone described the song as having, quote, "paranoid synth hooks that sound like a Public Enemy police siren running low on juice as the battery drains and the lights spin backward." He called it, quote, "the rumble of the pop rhythm machine melting down."
So today in 2015, it's worth remembering just how wonderfully left-of-center, slick, funky and generally bad ass The Neptune sound was when it arrived on the scene.
What made The Neptunes great, alongside peers like Outcast and Timbaland and Missy Elliott was that Pharrell and Chad helped expand the creative constraints of the top 40 hip-hop, pop and R&B genres and they did so radically in that they introduced to us a genreless pop as the gold standard, the new convention in pop music meant to be ultimately free from convention.
For all its futurism, The Neptunes' avant garde pop stew drew plenty from the past, so tunes like "Shake Ya Ass" by Mystikal called forth James Brown, "I Just Want to Love You" Jay Z called forth Rick James and Chuck Brown on "It's Getting Hot in Herre" Nelly, Prince on "I'm a Slave for You" by Britney Spears, and Pharrell's own cameo voice recalled Curtis Mayfield and the chords and drum programming on a song like "Touch" by Omarion recalled Prince at his finest.
You could hear influences in The Neptunes from the Bomb Squad and Native Tongues' hip-hop, Jamaican dub, FM rock, new wave, country, soaring pop and jazz. This was a new music, this was a new sound, metallic, clanging, shiny, nervous, whimsical, mysterious, and yet accessible.
Pharrell's musical style could move between the stripped-down street hop of The Clips to the bladerunner replicant pop of Britney's "Why Should I Be Sad" to the introspective swagger of "Frontin," to the bombasticness of Jay Z's "I Just Want to Love You, Give It to Me" to the buzzsaw factory-like club banger Milkshake. These were capricious, computer and synth-generated grooves designed to send you shooting immediately to a dance floor where it would be hot in here and you could lose yourself to dance and feel happy and full of freedom.
In August 2003, a new story noted that The Neptunes produced 43 percent of all the songs at the top of the U.S. charts at the time. For a while, it seemed Pharrell was everywhere at once, stretching creative boundaries, crafting hot sounds for the likes of pop supernovas Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. He and Chad and partner Shay Haley formed an unpredictable hybrid as alt rock hip-hop group N.E.R.D....
... releasing four albums, chatting with the press about topics like "The Dukes of Hazard," sporting a Rush T-shirt and a yellow trucker cap, Pharrell emerged as a style icon with his cool alternative style. In doing so, he helped usher in a nontraditional mode of what it meant to be black, what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be cool, and ultimately what it meant to be a uniquely creative individual.
So Y2K is long gone, but Pharrell still hasn't turned down his gears. In his solo phase, he's a bonafide multimedia superstar. He was Billboard's producer of the decade in 2010 and his records have sold over 100 million units. He has 10 Grammys to his name, including 2004 and 2014's producer of the year, and numerous other awards, including ASCAP's prestigious Golden Note in 2012.
In 2014, I'm sure most of you know, he garnered an Academy Award nomination for "Happy" from the animated film "Despicable Me 2" a song which coincidentally remained on top the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 10 consecutive weeks, peaking at number one in 103 markets worldwide.
Beyond his musical talents, Pharrell has excelled as a fashion designer with his own company Billionaire Boys Club and ICECREAM apparel, plus textile company Bionic Yarn, as well as highly visible associations with brands like Louis Vuitton, Uniqlo, Adidas and Comme des Garcons. He's taken turns as a sculptor and a designer.
He's committed to philanthropy and social good. In 2008, he created From One Hand to Another which is his foundation that's focused on supporting the Pharrell Wiliams Resource Centers, learning programs for under-served youth in risk communities across the nation.
And of course, Pharrell blazes across our TVs each week as the coach on "The Voice" and this year made his debut as executive film producer of the critically acclaimed movie "Dope."
Ever the creative entrepreneur, Pharrell is the driving force behind I am OTHER, his multimedia creative collective that serves as the umbrella for all of his various creative interests.
Pharrell Williams is one of the defining creative forces of our times and so it makes sense to welcome him here at Tisch School of the Arts, one of the defining art schools in the world. His vision continues to push pop culture forward. True to the name of his record label, Star Trak, we can say that Pharrell is boldly going where no one has gone before.
Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, the Tisch School of the Arts 50th anniversary artist in residence, Pharrell Williams.
How's that feel?
WILLIAMS: Nice, but awkward.
KING: You're in schools, NYU.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, man. Thank you for having me here. And thank you to you guys. You know, it's humbling to be, you know, in a room filled with great minds, minds that are actively changing the world and are going to do so in the future as well. So I'm grateful. Thank you, guys.
KING: So Pharrell, let's start with "Freedom" since we watched the video.
WILLIAMS: OK. OK.
KING: The song came out this summer. You guys like the video?
Really provocative imagery, directed by Paul Hunter, the legendary Paul Hunter.
KING: Can you talk a little bit about how the song came to be? You've got some friends in the front row here.
How did it come to be and what was your purpose in making it and releasing it at this time.
WILLIAMS: It's really funny. The song was actually I saw two girls looking at each other, two women actually, and it was interesting to me because I was like, OK, wow, that's really deep, it was just like this real deep stare.
KING: Where were they?
WILLIAMS: They were looking at each other.
KING: I won't ask anymore.
WILLIAMS: But it was like — it was — no, no, no, no, no.
KING: Some context is helpful.
WILLIAMS: No, no, no, no. But it was like this mutual love, you know. And it was like, oh, wow, like, this is so deep, this is like, OK, this is not my regular line going somewhere else, this is like — this is deeper than that. And literally like the melody just suddenly crept up on me and I just was humming and going, oh, OK. And then it was just kind of like hold onto me, don't let me go, who cares what they see, who cares what they know.
And I didn't know what that meant, because like I said it wasn't anything sexual, it was it just looked like humanity, you know, in a way that I had never really looked at it before. Because usually as humans and especially as a man, we look at things in context. It's like, oh, I know what that is, that's this, or this, there's that.
But for this, it was more like, oh, wow, we are humans and we in society we're often oblivious to that. We forget that like we're like this intelligent species on this planet that's responsible for so many things.
You know, to some other alien race we are aliens, we do look funny. And we forget that because we only deal with ourselves. So this just kind of like made me look at us as a species and say, OK, man, this is love.
And so I thought — I didn't know what the song was going to be called. But after just writing it and you kind of go down the rabbit hole of like allowing the lyrics to continue to come to you, it got to the chorus and it was like, oh, and I was like, oh, it sounds like freedom. Oh, freedom.
And that's kind of like where it went.
Now, this was, you know, last year. And I had no idea that the song would have a different context at this moment, you know, when you look at all the things that are going on in the world. I didn't know, I had no idea. So it was not my plan to write something like that. Like I said, it started out as just like a conversation about love.
KING: Gotcha, OK. Can you tell me a little bit about the track itself, how you produced the track? Because it's got that kind of old school jazz thing going on, which also sounds a little bit like house music, too.
KING: Can you talk about how you came to that sound?
WILLIAMS: I just knew I wanted it to be based on like a riff, like something like jazzy. And then instead of playing upright bass, I played like a TR-808 tonally just so that it would hit as hard as, you know, something trappy. But I wanted — just wanted to introduce something different.
KING: Gotcha. OK. And so let's just talk a little bit about, given the fact that the song is called "Freedom," even though it wasn't your intention to sort of tie into what's going on politically...
KING: ...you know, you're in a room of students here who are, I'm sure, thinking about all of the stuff that's happening around them, the number of different kinds of political movements that have really taken off in the last few years, Black Lives Matter and prison reform and the Lean In movement, and others, and there's so many things that are happening right now. What do you think is your kind of responsibility, if any responsibility, as an artist to either address that in your work or to make music that somehow references some of the political turmoil that's happening right now?
WILLIAMS: Well, as individuals, I just think that our biggest responsibility is to be self-aware, and some of us are not. And as an artist, artists are like messengers, you know. They get these ideas from somewhere, right? Somehow it comes to you and you might not know where it's coming from, but whatever it is it's being given to you, it's transmitting from somewhere.
And so, you know, if you look back, if you want to know what's going on in the world, all you have to do is really look at the art or listen to the music and it just comes through. That's our job as artists is to be honest about what we're feeling. And what we're feeling is not always going to be perfect. Sometimes it's going to be controversial. Sometimes it's going to piss a couple of people off. Sometimes it's going to motivate people. Sometimes it's going to inspire.
Me personally, I just try not to be so on the nose with it, because those things never work for me. Like when I set out and say I'm doing this song about such and such and then nothing happens. You know?
WILLIAMS: If anything, I've learned that I'm not in control. I'm not in control. And as much as we think we are as artists, we think, oh, you know, we're going to do this, we're going to do that, and really at the end of the day it's the fans that make that determination. Because if they don't buy it, stream it, share it or talk about it, then you're just a crazy person with an idea.
So it's ultimately up to you guys. You guys really make the decisions of what works and what doesn't. I can stand here all day and stomp until my face is blue, but it's not going to change anything.
KING: So you just came from the MTV Europe Music Awards, yes?
WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.
KING: And you dedicated this song to the refugee crisis, am I right?
WILLIAMS: Well, all I said was let them in.
KING: OK. So all you said is let them in, but then did people sort of twist that as being a direct reference to that or do you feel comfortable with that?
WILLIAMS: It's OK. Because you know what? At the end of the day, like, a song is authored by you, but its interpretation is owned by other people and you have no control over that.
I know I said let them in because I feel like that's just what we should be doing, right? We should use our platforms where we can, even if it's on a subliminal level, you know. Just do what you can.
I mean, just think about it like, you know, think different is such a really, you know, aspirational and inspirational phrase that was used by Steve Jobs. But he was of German and Syrian descent. Imagine if Paul and Clara didn't allow, you know, didn't adopt him, I mean, where would our world be right now? Like we have to be open.
And it's a tough conversation, but America is built on immigrants. We wouldn't have a country right now if it weren't for...
KING: Europe as well, I would imagine.
KING: Most countries in Europe.
KING: OK. All right.
KING: Let's kind of winnow down a little bit because we're talking about "Freedom" on this kind of massive scale.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, and I am not an activist. I'm just saying I'm not.
KING: Do you feel like you have to be?
WILLIAMS: No, but I'm a musician and sometimes it just, you know, well, let's see what brother Pharrell got to say about this.
No, let's not.
KING: But don't you think that's also like a contemporary pressure that we want our artists to be politicians because our politicians are out there doing crazy stuff? So we sometimes look for our artists to do more than they probably actually should, but then there's also this history of the (inaudible) and the (inaudible) and the Dylans, people who were very politically active and did really important work.
WILLIAMS: It has to be in you, too. You can't force it, you know? Because people can tell when it's forced. They know and they don't particularly like that. That's the first thing you guys do is call somebody out. Like your favorite artist goes and does something and you're like, oh, now he's trying to the da da da da da.
Or oh, here she comes, she's doing the — yeah, she's doing it, too.
You guys hate that, right? So it's like you can't force it. It has to be natural.
And for me, I just realized, you know what, every time I aim I miss. So it's just better for me...
KING: You mean political? I thought we were just — you seem to hit a lot of your targets commercially.
WILLIAMS: Honestly, I am like the Mr. Magoo of music.
KING: I find that really hard to believe.
WILLIAMS: I'm just — I could come up here and lie, but this is my truth. My truth is imperfect. I don't know.
You know, some guys will be just like, oh, yeah, no problem. Cool. I'm not that guy.
KING: That's probably freeing to not try to be perfect all the time, too, right?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. Just be. As I was just told, speak your truth. It's not going to be perfect.
KING: But this is also we're in a time in terms of the development of social media where, you know, if you speak your truth sometimes, people jump on it and, you know, put stuff out there and so on. And there's a lot of...
WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah.
KING: It's not that easy.
WILLIAMS: That's no fun either.
KING: It's a tricky moment to kind of have a platform.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. It happens.
KING: I'll say no more about that.
WILLIAMS: No, it does. It happens and it's not fun, you know? It's not fun. And there are certain people who are just quicker at social media. It's like the minute you go to like say this or say that, it's like it's already there. And The Daily Best has picked it up, you know?
It's just — I realize that's not my thing. I'm not really fond of interviews just because I realize that like sometimes, yeah, as an artist you can become overly passionate, you know, you should keep your passion in the medium of your discipline. But some of us, we have bit mouths and we just get a little we've got to have the last word, you know, and that's usually the one that they print and turn into the headline, completely out of context.
But I just — I realized that like music is what I love to do. Music, fashion, you know, a couple of chairs, I'm cool, I'm grateful.
KING: Do you feel like it's OK just to do that and just to be a musician? Like I look at somebody like D'Angelo and I think, you know, he's just a musician, like he gets to make music and I don't know how involved he is in all of the marketing and whatever, he doesn't have clothing lines and so on, he's just focused on that. Do you feel that you have the freedom in your own life to just do that? Or do you feel like you want to pursue these other things because they're in you and you just have to have a clothing line and have a this and have a that?
WILLIAMS: I think that, I don't know, what do they call it, generation z, is that what they call that now?
KING: I don't know what number we're in now, what letter.
WILLIAMS: Generation zed. What I love about them is what I've always loved about anybody that I respected is that we're all pluralists, you know? Society wants to put us in a box and say, OK, you do this and you do that and you do this, and it's like, no, I like this, I like that, you know? It's the reason why like tapas restaurants are so popular right now. You know?
Everybody wants a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
KING: I'm suddenly hungry.
WILLIAMS: But right? I mean, you guys would be so offended if someone just said to you, no, you're this, no stick to this, this is what you are. You're like, no, I'm going to color outside the lines, in fact I'm going to start on this side of the page. See?
KING: And you've spent your career doing that, which is, I think, you know, the proof is in the pudding, it shows in your work.
WILLIAMS: Yes. But I cannot tell you that there was a blueprint, you know? Like Kanye, like he has a blueprint to all these things. Like he really did set out when he was like in fifth or sixth grade like I'm going to be a rapper, I'm going to be a producer, I'm going to have a clothing line, I'm going to everything. And he's done it. I don't know how he does it.
Me? Just I'm telling you, it works, just think about it. Mr. Magoo theory...
... just, you know, for whatever reason, these opportunities are presented to me and I'm like, oh, that will be fun. And as long as I concentrate on the fun, it usually turns out cool. It's when I become too, you know, too worried about how it has to be and, you know, that's when, you know, God spends a lot of time chuckling at me. You know? He's rolling over laughing all the time with me. He's just like, hey, check him out, there he is again.
Watch what we do with him. But when I just let it go and just go with the flow and just do things that I enjoy, I've just had this incredibly eclectic journey of just great opportunities to collaborate with people who were far much more experienced than I was. And that's what's been beneficial to me.
KING: OK. Can we kind of walk through a little bit of your history, do you mind? Let's start at the beginning.
For those in the audience and those out there watching streaming who don't know enough about your career, where were you born?
WILLIAMS: I was born in hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.
But I was raised, you know, day one in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
KING: So can you just kind of paint a little bit of a picture of what life would have been like for you in Virginia growing up in terms of your family. You're the oldest of three brothers?
KING: So you have two brothers.
KING: And can you just talk about what life was like for you?
WILLIAMS: I grew up in these apartments called Atlantis Apartments. Believe it or not, Atlantis. Seriously. And it was probably the most fun I ever had in my life.
KING: Was it?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, because the music was everywhere, you know, it was like air, it was like you go outside to hear music, you are in the house, someone's playing music. It was just music was just like second nature.
KING: So your parents played music a lot.
WILLIAMS: My mother did.
KING: Your mother played music.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And then my mom's mom lived in that neighborhood as well, so I would go over there and she used to play like gospel music. And my aunt lived with her. And she played a lot of music.
And I just remember like as a kid that it was just like music was just everywhere. And there were people who could sing, I was not one of them, and...
KING: What was that for you? Because I remember for me my first record was Kool and the Gang "Celebrate." And my mother bought me a Michael Jackson MoTown retrospective on vinyl.
KING: I remember watching "Solid Gold." I'm dating myself here. But "Solid Gold"...
KING: ...and Abba would come on and I was like, I mean, a lot of that music totally determined some of the stuff that I'm into today.
KING: Was that the same thing for you?
WILLIAMS: Totally. And "Soul Train."
KING: "Soul Train."
KING: I'm from Canada, so we didn't get "Soul Train."
KING: What can I say? You know, we just didn't get — I saw it later, I just didn't see it in the '70s when I should have seen it.
WILLIAMS: You didn't see Don Cornelius?
KING: I didn't see it in the moment in which it was on, but I seen it later.
I'm living my truth. I'm living my truth.
Is the interview over?
WILLIAMS: The interview's not over.
WILLIAMS: But you know, "Soul Train" and then these exotic aromas in the living room, you know?
It was the '70s.
WILLIAMS: You know, and then, you know — oh, never mind.
KING: How about...
WILLIAMS: I'm just saying that was the environment. I mean, in the '70s that was just like, you know, what a lot of people did, you know, in those type of neighborhoods. There was the exotic aroma was everywhere.
KING: OK, all right.
WILLIAMS: You know, it was just...
KING: And you recall it?
KING: OK, all right.
WILLIAMS: The music used to sound amazing.
KING: Got it. Got it. So beyond the aromas...
KING: ...church. Did you go to church?
KING: So did you like going to church? Did your mother kind of...
WILLIAMS: Loved it.
KING: ...force you?
WILLIAMS: That was another magical experience, too.
WILLIAMS: Because you could walk in there and when they're singing a song you could feel the vibration. You could feel the vibration not only of the music, but you could feel the spirit, it's something that was just completely undeniable.
KING: Was this the Baptist church or...
WILLIAMS: My mom's church was Mount Olive Baptist and my dad's was New Jerusalem Church of God and Christ, so it was Pentecostal.
KING: Oh, so you went to...
WILLIAMS: Yeah. But my dad's church was fun.
KING: Well, Pentecostal.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, because they were shouting and, you know, they would break into the song and, you know, it was amazing and people would testify and you just would get this really incredible story. You just hear these stories of people feeling like when they could feel the presence of the Lord, like that was another level.
KING: I've been working on a book for a long time on spirit and energy in popular music.
KING: Vibration and funk and flow and all those kinds of qualities that are, I think, there in the music, but we don't really have the language to discuss.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, of course.
KING: Do you think that that church upbringing affected the music that you make? Do you kind of operate at that sort of non-physical level when you're making music and you're interested in vibration and energy?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, because certain people when they sing they could like really pull the energy in and then everyone, you know, everyone would feel it. It's like the church would be on fire. And then other people would sing and, you know, just — that's all right, baby, take your time.
KING: You were definitely raised in the church.
WILLIAMS: There was those moments.
KING: OK. And tell me, as you got older, did you have a regular job or what did you do?
Somebody over there said it. I worked at McDonald's.
KING: OK. No shame in that.
WILLIAMS: I got fired.
KING: Oh, take it back.
WILLIAMS: I was lazy. That's all it really was. It was like, you know, go mop the — I forget what they call that. Oh, no.
KING: You did it for extra money on the side or what was the reason?
WILLIAMS: I forget the — I probably got the probably the lowest checks they've ever paid anyone.
Just because I just was like, oh, I don't know.
KING: You weren't feeling it.
WILLIAMS: No, I just was very lazy. I was a very lazy child. And I think I still am. I'm very lazy, it's just that I love music and I love the things that I get to do. That's why I feel so blessed.
KING: So when did you find that thing for music? Because you were listening to music, it was in your house, it was everywhere, it was ubiquitous, it was around you, but when did you get that moment where you said this is what I want to do?
WILLIAMS: Well, I got accepted to a school called Old Donation, the Center for the Gifted and Talented. And I saw Chad again because I had met him in the seventh grade.
KING: You guys were in bad together?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, in beginning band. And then A Tribe Called Quest had put out their first record and I heard Bonita Applebum and I was like, man, what is this record?
KING: I've heard you say that in interviews, but what is it about that record in particular that did it for you?
WILLIAMS: Because they looped a part of the song and they just made it. And I noticed that the loop kept giving this continuous feeling and that was just like blowing my mind as something that was just happening over and over again. Like I love Stevie Wonder songs and I love Earth, Wind & Fire songs and Steely Dan songs. And what I love about them is their changes, their bridges are always like these really dreamy...
KING: So you've taken that for sure.
WILLIAMS: I try my best.
KING: I think you have. I always notice your bridges. They're deep.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I just go.
KING: They go, they dream.
WILLIAMS: Go out somewhere else. So those are always my favorite parts of the song, you know? And I used to wonder like is it the, you know, this familiar aroma in the air or do I really love this?
Or is it because it was either in the car or it was in the house, right? You know? And at night, the stars used to really twinkle when the bridge would come on for me. And I was like, man, like, what is that? But it would always be, OK, this is my favorite part of the song.
But this was a song where the whole entire time I just kept getting this euphoric feeling and I was like, man, like, what is this record? So literally, like, for the next three to four years, every girl I dated just had to love that record.
It was like we couldn't be together because she just wouldn't want to hear about it all the time. Like, OK, yeah, that's cool, but look, listen to this.
KING: Did that go well?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it always went well.
It was like make-out song forever.
KING: Were you a whole like Native Tongues, head into all of the groups? Or was it just...
WILLIAMS: Those guys were like Greek deities for me.
KING: De La Soul...
WILLIAMS: (inaudible) understand.
KING: Really? So it must have been more than...
WILLIAMS: Busta is like...
WILLIAMS: ...minotaur to me.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Like and still to this day I still look up to him because, all of them actually, just because they just chose a certain thing, they were very different, you know?
I grew up funny looking, you know, so I was cool, you know, it's all right. But then here's this music that gave me — I felt like a misfit. I still am.
KING: I don't think you're going to get much agreement.
WILLIAMS: I felt like a misfit and this was just music that gave it context, you know, and it started with De La.
KING: Because they were alternative.
KING: And different Bohemians kind of, in a sense...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, 100 percent. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever. And especially because I couldn't afford gold so it was kind of like, you know, it just worked.
KING: OK, so this is in the late '80s, right?
KING: Yet you're also listening to a whole bunch of other stuff.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, but you asked me about music...
WILLIAMS: ...so those guys kind of got me started because it was like, OK, all of their music is super hypnotic. My best friend is Gary Lewis. Like we used to call him (Ga-nu ?). We, me, Shay, (Ga-nu ?), my man Cam, we used to all just like, and now (Portia ?) and his brother (Malice Machine ?)...
KING: Of course.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, we always just listened to these records, like wow, wow. And even the Far Side and the Hieroglyphics.
I was like, man, this is all like so representative of how we feel, you know?
KING: And the style and everything, not just the music?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. So by the time that Chad and I reunited in Old Donation, you know, there we started like learning about all kinds of music because our teachers in our respective schools saw something in us and saw that we belonged in this place and we could get more education that would suit us. And they didn't know what for and we didn't know what for, but we just did it because it was like a great learning place.
And so Chad had like a Casio keyboard, and that's kind of like where it started. And we just, you know, we would save up and get bigger keyboards and save up and get bigger keyboards. And we just kept going because we kept trying to figure out how this music we were influenced by was doing this to us and how could we possibly harness this.
And that's kind of like where making songs and making tracks came from.
KING: And your parents were supportive of it? Your mother was supportive or did she...
WILLIAMS: I kept my parents out of it until I brought home my first plaque.
KING: That late?
WILLIAMS: Which is probably why the contract was so bad.
KING: Why did you hold back?
WILLIAMS: Because how do you explain that to your mom in Virginia Beach, Virginia? Yeah, mom, so I'm going to go to the studio. What's a studio? Oh, yeah, that's a place where like you make music. Yeah, like TV? Like they wouldn't understand that.
KING: She was an educator?
WILLIAMS: But even still they didn't understand it until like one day I was like really explaining it to my mom and this is it, Mom, like...
WILLIAMS: And then, you know, it clicked. But you know, this is not New York City. It makes sense in New York City. It makes sense in Los Angeles. It makes sense in Ohio. I makes sense in Chicago or Atlanta. But this is Virginia Beach, Virginia, it was like weird. It's like saying, you know, I just seen Tupac two minutes ago.
They'd be like, what are you talking about?
KING: But interestingly enough, so many of our most defining musicians have come out of Virginia Beach or Portsmouth. So Missy Elliot, Timbaland, and so on.
KING: So what is it about the Virginia Beach locale or setting that actually created so many brilliant talents? Or what are some of the things, I would say?
WILLIAMS: I don't know.
KING: Chad once said it was water, that there's so much water around.
WILLIAMS: But that's Chad.
KING: That's Chad.
WILLIAMS: That's Chad. Chad is, honestly, Chad is a genius. He is musically that guy can play any instrument and he's done so much and is capable of so much still. Like he's just probably one of the most genius musicians I've ever met in my life.
KING: But the water thing is farfetched?
WILLIAMS: He might be right.
KING: I've also heard it said that for a young person or a teenager there's not a lot to do in Virginia Beach, that you spend time, you know, working on music with your headphones on and your generation created this kind of headphone music, right, with this really interesting attention to sonic detail that you didn't see before and maybe came out of that context actually. To some degree, boredom or looking for something to do can actually create a different type of music. Do you buy that?
WILLIAMS: It could be. I still — I don't know. I feel like, you know, Chad and Shay and myself, I feel like we were just super blessed. I mean, the odds were jut like — the odds are so stacked against you to have a music career in a place where there's virtually no music industry, you know?
So I always attribute it to God.
WILLIAMS: And we certainly didn't have to do it. You know? He didn't make that happen for us. But the conditions were pretty spot on and perfect and aligned for us to take the low-hanging fruit should we want to. So that's the way I see it.
KING: Gotcha. OK.
WILLIAMS: But I honestly feel that way about everyone, though. I feel like the opportunities are around you, you just have to have the sight.
KING: Gotcha. OK. And so, you know, we were just talking about this before in terms of the Native Tongues, De La Soul, Tribe and so on, that you felt a kind of kinship because of the way that they presented themselves, their music, their kind of alternativeness and so on.
One of the things that The Neptunes are often credited for is helping to bring in this sort of it's called geek chic, right, this sort of, and now we can describe it, but a kind of return to a sort of nerdiness, which is interesting because it's not like a 1980s sort of "Revenge of the Nerds," but a different type of nerdiness.
You've talked about it before in interviews and so on. Caldwell Rashun (ph) the great journalist, he actually said about you guys when you released "In Search Of" with N.E.R.D., he said, "If you listen to their dazzling debut album 'In Search Of' it will tune you into a newly resurgent archetype, the black nerd, the hyper smart and proud of it African-American geek, the smart-ass who defies the laws of black cool macho by flaunting their love of white music and sci-fi and comics in search of a manifesto for a new black geek chic. Geek chic is there in the novels of Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead, it's there in Elijah Price, Samuel Jackson's comic art, (Galera's ?) Super Villain and M. Night Shyamalan — I can barely pronounce his name...
KING: ...Shyamalan's film 'Unbreakable,' it's Outcast posing in Sherlock Holmes coats and pipes leaning against library shelves, it's in the snarky smile Big Boy gives as the end of the Ms. Jackson video, it's Kelis talking about science fiction, it's DJ Spooky remixing Steve Wright's 'City Life' one minute, collaborating with architect Bernard Tschumi the next."
What do you think?
WILLIAMS: Wow, that was super kind.
KING: I mean, you said Mr. Magoo is part of who you are.
KING: Do you think of yourself as being important in terms of the rise of this sort of geek chic culture? And it's not just in black culture, it's Quentin Tarantino, right, as sort of one of the defining filmmakers of the 1990s.
KING: Very different type of artist in a certain way.
WILLIAMS: My participation in that was given to me by the audience. If they didn't buy it, they didn't support it, then that person couldn't say all those things. So if anything, I just feel grateful, you know, to be lifted to that place.
WILLIAMS: Because that's what happens ultimately. Because there are tons of people who have made great music, great art, great whatever, but you don't know about them until the people lift you to a certain height so that you could even be visible and get any kind of recognition.
So that acknowledgment I give right back to the people that helped me get here.
KING: OK. What about skateboarding? That was such a big part of your early image, Skateboard P. I have to say, at the time it was relatively unusual, at least in popular culture, to see African-American men skateboarding. I think maybe now we're much more used to that. But you were on the vanguard of that.
WILLIAMS: Right. Well, there's so many black skaters, though.
KING: Yeah, there have been, but I guess not in popular culture really.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Actually, (inaudible) was in kids.
There's tons, there always was tons. It's just that the media just kind of puts things in boxes.
KING: Gotcha. OK. So I was going to ask you again also about some of the other influences that you had in the '80s. So Native Tongues was obviously one, but you were listening to a lot of rock music, too, yeah?
KING: I mean, I think we all did.
KING: We don't just listen to one thing, we listen to...
WILLIAMS: When I was kid like, you know, there wasn't really a lot of barriers, you know? You would listen to a black station that would play R&B and you would also hear Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" or you would hear Tears for Fears "Shout." Like those were big records.
It's still sad that people, you know, place the black demographic in that box, you know?
Like black people have been watching "Seinfeld."
KING: And "Star Trek?"
WILLIAMS: That's why like when Kramer did what he did, that's why it was such a big deal because it was like, man, we watch you, we know who you are, you know? Not to bring that up, but I'm just saying in general, you know, it's like it's the weirdest thing when people say, you watched "The Sopranos?"
KING: Well, the great writer Amiri Baraka once said, you know, black music is the ultimate cosmopolitan music, it absorbs all of these other influences. And you see it in house music, you see it in hip-hop music and so on. But also, listening, right? We listen to everything. You have to listen to everything, right? It's out there and so on. The idea that you only listen to one thing is such a limited concept. And you look at people like, you know, Sly from Sly and the Family Stone, I mean, he was inspired to dress the way he did by watching "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon" and "Star Trek" was huge for him in terms of helping shape the identity of that group.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, for sure.
KING: Yeah. But we don't really talk about those histories much.
WILLIAMS: No, we don't. I mean, that's just, I don't know, I guess the media just thinks — I mean, it's changing now, though, because this generation is just not having it.
KING: Yeah. Yeah.
I actually found this quote that you said back in Rolling Stone in 2001. You said, "Why don't all my friends from the hod admit they love 'Smells Like Teen Spirit?'"
WILLIAMS: Well, we did, though.
KING: Guns N' Roses back in the day...
KING: ...were, you know, making interesting music.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, "Welcome to the Jungle."
KING: Yeah, right. So tell me about meeting Teddy Riley.
WILLIAMS: Crazy. Our school was like a five-minute walk from his studio. You could actually see it from where the band room was. When you come outside, you could actually see it from across the parking lot, you could see his studio.
KING: By the way, I should say Teddy Riley, one of the great producers.
KING: Under-recognized, I think, still.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. One of the greatest producers. He did Michael's "Dangerous" album. He was a part of Guy.
WILLIAMS: Blackstreet. He did the big remix for Jane Child's "Don't Want to Fall In Love." That was a huge record.
KING: Amazing record with an actual bridge.
WILLIAMS: Little do people know he actually produced a show, "Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick." He produced "It Takes Two."
KING: Teddy, when will he get his due?
KING: He needs to get his due.
WILLIAMS: Human League "I'm Only Human."
KING: Did he do that, too?
KING: I thought that was — OK, all right.
KING: OK. So Teddy, meeting him, what influence did he have and impact did he have on you?
WILLIAMS: It was crazy. We got discovered at a talent show, but we never got a chance to really get with him. So it was like, OK, we got discovered at a talent show and then we were like trying to meet him, but it was the toughest thing because he was like super busy. I think he was like working on Michael's album.
So when we finally met him, he was like I heard about you. And I was like, what did you hear about me? He's like I'm going to give you a shot. He was like I got this song, I want you to write my verse. I was like, OK, so I wrote his verse for "Rumpshaker."
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And that was like mind-blowing to be in a studio for the first time. We were all like, you know, Chad, Shay, myself and Mike, who was a fourth member at the time, we were all like tripping out. We were like, wow, this is like crazy.
And I watched him like make so many records and also do like a ton of remixes. And he just had this style that was just unbelievable. And he's still such a huge influence mix-wise, too. But just watching his like his process was just like it was crazy.
KING: What was it about the process for you?
WILLIAMS: He just was meticulous about everything, like he would spend like an hour on a snare, just mixing a snare. I'm like, what is he listening to? You know, but for him it was crazy because he could just make everything pop, you know. And we were there for a while, we got signed as a group. And it was crazy.
We were signed to him, but then he needed to have a major label for distribution. And I'll never forget, it was MJJ, which is Michael Jackson's label, and I think we signed that deal and then something went bad and then there was another group called Men of Vision that actually ended up having that deal.
But in the process, we got a chance to like write and produce songs for other people because that's how he had it. He had it so that like, you know, he had all these rooms going and different people producing records and he would produce records. And so we were just happy to be in the mix. And there he gave us a shot.
And our first song that we produced was this record called "Tonight's the Night." And it was written by Tammy Lucas. And Tammy Lucas actually taught me how to write songs, because at that point I was just like rapping.
KING: What did that mean how to write songs, in what sense?
WILLIAMS: Just like how to like write to melodies and like how to like be led by a melody and not necessarily led by a lyric, which is a whole different skill set in itself and a whole different way of looking at it.
And then we decided like we really wanted to try and pursue other production. And so we ended up parting ways. And then I went to New York. This guy by the name of Kenny Ortiz, who was the A&R for SWV, Teddy had done a remix, ironically, right around the time we were getting ready to leave, he did a remix for SWV called "Right Here." And I did a rap that they didn't use anything of except the s-s-double-double-u-double-v part.
KING: The U.K. remix, huh? Yeah.
WILLIAMS: And so then he was like I gave him a demo while we were there and like he heard some of the music. And then he flew us up to New York and then that's when I met my future manager Rob Walker. At the time he was interning there.
KING: I think Rob's here, right?
WILLIAMS: He's right there.
KING: There you are.
WILLIAMS: We look alike.
KING: He's like don't point to me.
WILLIAMS: And the funny thing is like neither one of us really knew what we were doing. I was like, I know, you'll be my manager. And like we were like, you know, faking it until we started making it. And you know, we stayed working hard. He stayed hustling. And (Clue ?), who was also interning for DJ Clue, was interning for Steve Stoute at the time, was like, yeah, I know Puff. And he was like, you know Puff? Like Sean Puffy Combs Puff? And he's like, yeah. And he was like, OK, you know, I'm going to take your tape up there to Puff. And he took it to Puff, Puff heard it, he wanted to meet us.
And I'll never forget, we went up there and like Biggie was in one room, but I didn't get a chance to meet him, not that time. And they all was like that's Biggie, like that's a huge deal. Because at that time, you know, Puff was just like exploding.
KING: It was like '96, '97 probably, maybe earlier?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, '94.
KING: Oh, it's earlier than that, OK.
WILLIAMS: Right? '94...
WILLIAMS: '94, '95 (inaudible).
I'm sorry, that was everything to a nerd. You know, we had the last laugh, you know? It's like backpack (inaudible) driving.
And then just to clarify, so I met Puff and he was very influential. So he gave me the opportunity, he gave us the opportunity to do a song for Toto, which then turned into a song for — and I think this was after — "Superthug" hadn't happened yet. And then we had a chance to do Mase's "Looking at Me."
KING: Yeah, which is '97 I think.
WILLIAMS: And then we did "Superthug." And then like it just got crazy.
KING: It blew up.
KING: So let's just talk a little bit about "Superthug." I actually have the video right here. I'm not going to play the whole thing.
WILLIAMS: Now, why — why — why are we doing this?
KING: You led me there. But I just want to actually talk about the production.
WILLIAMS: Did you know that when you guys were making your intro that I walked back upstairs because I can't take it.
KING: Really? What, listening to your own music?
WILLIAMS: No, just kind of like hearing the accolades and like it just makes me so shy.
KING: Does it really?
KING: Well, there you go.
WILLIAMS: Come on. It just wears me out a little bit. It's kind of like you know when like you do something like a recital and like, you know, your mom's friends come over and you're in the other room, it's like and he did so good, and then da da da da da da da da. And then — and you know what? The darnedst thing just happened, and da da da da. And you're like, mom, like that's how I feel when people like introduce me and like say all the things. As much as I am so grateful...
WILLIAMS: ...it just makes me feel real funny.
KING: I hear you. I hear you. No, I understand.
WILLIAMS: And I'm like that about my voice, too.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. So like I call it voice-mail syndrome. Do you guys like listening to yourself on the voice-mail?
OK, so you understand how I feel. You know? And then if you're like giving someone advice on voice-mail, I mean, how's that feel? Do you enjoy that? Oh, you don't like it? Oh, OK.
KING: But this isn't just about praise, this is actually...
KING: I'll tone it down, I'll tone it down. But this isn't praise, this is actually trying to just say obviously this song is, I think, the thing that really put you on the map, but it's because of the production quality. So I just wanted you to actually talk about...
WILLIAMS: I can talk about it.
KING: Exactly. See, that's what I was going to go for. I'm not trying to be like, whoa, you did "Superthug."
WILLIAMS: I know. But do we have to play that?
KING: There you go. OK, but let's...
WILLIAMS: I'm just going to say this right now. Rob and I, since we've worked together, we've had this, you know, we joke each other, OK? And oftentimes I get the best of him, you know, like and he gets the best of me sometimes. But you're about to give him some material.
Lifelong material for the rest of your life.
WILLIAMS: Things that he warned me not to wear, but I was insistent on at the time because I thought...
And I'm an Aries. Any Aries in here?
Us Aries, my fellow Aries, you know what we do, we go through our phases. We really mean it at the time.
No one can stop us from it. Two months later, we're like, why did we do that? A year later, we don't want to see the photo. Ten years later we cringe. And now, almost 20 years later, this is not going to be good. OK?
So just forgive any attire. Forgive any awkward movement. It mattered at the time, it doesn't matter now.
KING: It's a judgment-free zone. It's judgment-free.
WILLIAMS: This is just my disclaimer. I cannot believe I have to sit through this.
KING: So we'll compromise. I'll just play the beginning, just 10 seconds of the beginning.
But only just — you guys can Spotify this. You can go listen. But I just want you to talk about why this was so...
WILLIAMS: You know what he is going to do to me after this?
KING: All right, here we go.
KING: All right, that's a compromise, (inaudible). All right. So again, not about the praise, but can you just talk about why that sound was so radical for the time?
WILLIAMS: I just remember thinking — you guys have seen me in that, right?
KING: Seen what?
I didn't hear, what did you say?
WILLIAMS: I just was just making sure that I wasn't singing in there.
KING: OK. No, no, I cut it off.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, you're very kind.
I just remember thinking like, OK, I used a clavichord for that sound and just thought, OK, and then it would be interesting to have something like a rock guitar riff, but just more with like but using a clavichord and using a bunch of like drum sounds that were used for the hip-hop that we were making, to just sort of make something that felt like it could be like Middle Eastern influenced.
KING: And has the rock thing going on. It feel rock, it feels like hard rock almost?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, if you played it on rock guitar it would feel like a rock riff.
KING: Yeah, yeah.
WILLIAMS: But really, I just was like trying to imitate something like from the Middle East.
'99, I just mentioned it, we won't stay on it, but "Kaleidoscope"...
KING: ...another huge record. "Caught Out There"...
WILLIAMS: Yes, "Caught Out There" was a track for Busta and he's like, no, son.
So it was cool.
KING: And Kelis took to it. She just like...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, she instantly got it. We had like such a crazy musical connection, Kelis and I. She was and is, to me, like one of the most forward-thinking people ever. I mean, she was doing clothes back then. And she would like make purses out of basketball jerseys. As crazy as it sounds, it actually looked cool, really cool. She was a huge influence.
And she was actually the one that like started me in like just sort of dressing a bit different. OK? At that point, everything was Ralph Lauren Polo for me — everything.
Because where I was from, that's like what all the hustlers wore. So I was like, you know, and I was a backpacker, but I had a Polo backpack. You know, and you know, it was kind of like everything. And she was just like, no, listen, you know, there's something called Prada.
And I remember we were like kind of like the first to start like rocking like the Prada sneakers, you know, you couldn't tell me nothing.
WILLIAMS: I was a different person then, though. I've got to say I was much more — it was much more — because all of my influences at that point were like the guys that would brag. So like I thought that's what I was supposed to do. So I hadn't really grown into myself yet. The only thing that was really signatory of me at that point was just the diversity that Chad and I tried to exercise at all points in music.
But other than that like it was just about bragging. So once she started teaching me like about like all the different brands then I kind of became like a brand label whore.
KING: Did you really, through Kelis?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah. I went — yeah. Yeah.
KING: But you guys have had interesting sort of kindred journeys in a sense because she's doing food now and she's got music. Like she is sort of somebody who follows her own passion it seems like.
WILLIAMS: One hundred percent.
KING: And that's OK.
WILLIAMS: But that music at that time was just that was like a transformation.
KING: Gotcha. And you knew you were making alternative record with this, didn't you? I mean, did you think, wow, this like...
WILLIAMS: Well, we were lucky enough to be on Virgin Records, you know, with Ashley Newton. And our A&R Keith, like we just — they were just really open minded and they didn't like lock us in the box like, OK, you guys are black, you know, where are the 808s, you know, where's the Throwback jerseys, you know. It wasn't that. We were lucky enough to where they were just like, oh, you guys are a bunch of weirdos, sounds good, though.
KING: That's the best kind of A&R.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. And that came from like, you know, making Kelis' album, that's how we were able to do our album.
KING: OK. And as I was saying in my intro, after that point you guys were really like the hottest ticket in town and you were producing a lot of stuffs. I just remember that period as being like every time you turned on the radio there was another Neptune song. And your sound was so distinctive, your style was so unique and so specific, like there was a stamp on it in the way that record producers like Phil Spector in the past or, I don't know, Mutt Lange, they had a very clear sound that you could recognize instantly.
WILLIAMS: Well, we just kept using the same sounds.
KING: So was that a kind of branding?
Good, that's a good thing.
WILLIAMS: Remember the Mr. Magoo theory. Just doing it because it felt right.
KING: Felt right, sounded right.
WILLIAMS: Definitely not saying like we're going to stay on this sound for a minute. It wasn't that, it was more like, oh, this sounds good.
KING: But did you not meet artists who were like — were they saying, I want your sound?
WILLIAMS: Yes, that became annoying. It was kind of like, you know, I need a club banger beat. You know, like the joint you just made for such and such. Just made that for such and such, though.
KING: But there's a history to that, Nile Rodgers and Chic, you know, that they had a sound that was so specific.
WILLIAMS: They knew what they were doing, though.
KING: You didn't feel like you knew what you were doing?
WILLIAMS: No, this was just — that's the thing I can't underscore enough to you guys. Like we didn't know what we were doing. We did not know what we were doing.
KING: But it worked anyway.
WILLIAMS: Yes, we just — and I keep saying, man, just have fun, that's usually where it ends up being cool.
KING: That's a good lesson. Because I think people think of you as a hip machine, like you were the person to go to to get a hit, like, you know, not everything is going to be a hit, but many times you were going to be able to deliver a vision for somebody that works, whether it's a Madonna or whether, you know, they go to you and it seems to work.
So for you, that's just about tapping into something that works in the moment?
WILLIAMS: That is fun.
KING: That's fun.
WILLIAMS: Because I didn't know like, for example, I didn't know "Beautiful" was going to work. I thought it was going to be the other one "From a Church to the Palace." And that did nothing. And then I looked up one day and it was oh, oh, oh, oh, and I was like, that record? Really? I'll take it.
WILLIAMS: But it wasn't on purpose. Like we didn't know. I didn't know. But Snoop always knows, though. He, you know...
KING: Does he?
KING: So like "Drop It Like It's Hot" — to me, that just was — the minute you heard it, it was like, what is this?
WILLIAMS: We did it and it was like super funny. He called me, he was like nephew.
We got one, nephew.
WILLIAMS: I said OK.
KING: So a song like that in the studio, obviously it's fun, but what's the kind of negotiation in terms of the sound. Because "Drop It Like It's Hot" did not sound like a lot of other stuff at the time. And it's unusual, right? There's these sound effects in it and so on. It's very spare, very minimalist. So what was the conversation about that? Because it doesn't sound like a typical Snoop Dogg track.
WILLIAMS: No. I think minimalism is something I just got attracted to just in general because I like the empty space, if you think about it, like there's a lot of empty space. So there are sounds there, there are chords, like coordinates, you know, to sort of tell you where the emotion is going, but then it leaves so much room for the voice to do other things.
But again, this is me like, you know, retrospectively looking backwards. At the time, I didn't know why. You know, I just thought grinding would be interesting, only using like, what, five or six sounds. I'm like, OK, this will be really interesting. But I didn't know, but I, you know, it wasn't like a Picasso thing where it's a long, drawn-out conversation as to why I was doing that. It just felt like the antithesis of everything else that was going on, it sounded so full.
KING: And part of what makes a good producer sometimes is sculpting, like creating something and then pulling stuff back.
KING: Do you often produce a lot and then make it more spare, more minimalist? Or do you start from very little and then just build it up a little bit?
WILLIAMS: It's a feeling. It's a feeling.
WILLIAMS: It's just like a — to people who don't make music or do any kind of art, I would compare it to a conversation. It's like you and someone are in like a just, say, argument, you guys are debating about something. It's the same reason you add a sound for the same reason you feel like you have to get the last word in. It's not done. That person doesn't really fully understand what you're trying to communicate yet, so you have to continue to talk, you have to continue to explain.
So layering sounds is the same way. And sometimes, you know, a direct statement is better than a whole conversation. So you take all those other sentences out and just leave that one profound, very clear statement.
KING: Gotcha, OK. Do you think you have a specific, distinct production style? I mean, people will often describe you in your heyday as having this distinct style, the kind of heavy mechanical quality, the unusual sounds, kind of staccato aspects to it. Do you think that defines your work at all in any way? I mean, when you look back on it, do you think, wow, The Neptunes had a sound.
WILLIAMS: It could. It could. It depends on what songs you were like grouping together.
WILLIAMS: Because like...
KING: Like something like "Hot In Herre" Nelly is like a very specifically, that just sounds like The Neptunes to me.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, but then "Life as a Fish" on N.E.R.D. doesn't sound anything like that. Or Britney Spears' "Slave for You" doesn't sound like "Excuse Me, Miss" you know. I mean, or like Busta's "What It Is Right Now" doesn't sounds like Kendrick's "Alright."
KING: Yeah, yeah.
WILLIAMS: You know, I mean, but that's the point. The point is to continue to try to just usher in new feelings and using new textures and new melodies and try not to do the same thing.
KING: OK. Pretty soon we're going to take some questions. I know the Clive Davis Institute students have a number of questions for you, so we're going to hear from them in a second.
I'm going to embarrass you one more time, though. So we've got some images of N.E.R.D. here, we'll just skip through that, look the other way.
I'm not even going to ask, I'm just going to play it.
KING: That's great.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
KING: That's a great track.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, man.
KING: So I always put that track in the same lineage as like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Louie Louie." It's like pop songs that are very indecipherable, but they just work and they just catch on in a public way and they become, it's like almost like before memes in a certain kind of way.
So please tell me about your songwriting process for "Milkshake."
WILLIAMS: We went to Brazil.
KING: End of story.
WILLIAMS: That could be the end of the story.
KING: That's the end of the story, right?
WILLIAMS: We went to Brazil to shoot — we shot "Beautiful." Yeah, we shot "Beautiful" and then we went to these clubs there.
KING: Generic clubs.
WILLIAMS: And I saw some things that...
KING: Yeah, Rob's smiling there.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. I saw things that I never thought I'd ever see before.
And I saw the most — Brazil was just filled with the most beautiful women that I had ever seen in my life and there were so many and they were everywhere.
And they had like this music that was like probably what is probably something that's a kin to like booty-shaking music. You guys know what I'm talking about, right? Like I want to rock, I want to rock, I want to — but they were like doing it in Portuguese and we were like, yeah.
Because we had never seen anything like that or heard anything like that. And so when I came back, I was like, man, you know, I want to do something that evokes that kind of feeling. So instead of doing like booty-shaking music, I tried to like use some more like Middle Eastern sounds and completely just twist it, my intentions, as much as I could, so that it would just be like something that even in Brazil they would go, OK, we like the rhythm of this, we like the feeling of this, but this is from somewhere else.
But Brazil 100 percent motivated me and took me to that place.
And at the time, was there a conversation about the lyrics and, I mean, at the label level or...
WILLIAMS: But I will say this. When I made that song, it was for the intention of like women moving, dancing, enjoying themselves, having a good time and without judgment. But as you ask that question, I'm like, yeah, well, you know, actually no one's really asked me that question. And had I thought about it, had somebody been in the studio, maybe. I don't know if I would have said that lyric in the same exact way. But at that time, that wasn't really seen as something. It wasn't seen that way.
Like when you asked me that question, instantly, because I've just been through so much, now my mind is programmed to look at, OK, "Happy," what did I mean by that?
You know, have I offended, upset people? Is someone who's like really depressed right now — I just...
KING: "Happy" is a trigger word.
WILLIAMS: I've seen a lot, you know. But when I think about it, no, definitely it was in the spirit of dancing and having a good time and nothing more.
KING: Gotcha. OK. So obviously you had serious MVP year in 2013, 2014 with the success of "Happy," Daft Punk. I mean, again, it's ubiquitous, like you were everywhere.
KING: And I mean, everywhere I traveled around the world, I'm hearing those songs being played.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
KING: And so they are gifts. But at the same time, it's rare that artists have so many lives in the industry. Like the shelf life of an artist can be very, very short.
WILLIAMS: But that's, again, I'm telling you, Mr. Magoo. When the robots ask me to...
KING: Are they still robots?
WILLIAMS: When the robots asked me to come in, they asked me to come in because I had seen them like at a Madonna party. And I was like, man, that "Tron" music was so sick, was it not? Like that, just my mind was blown.
KING: The soundtrack to "Tron."
WILLIAMS: Yes, unbelievable. And so I was like, listen, you know, talking to them like anything you want me to do, I'll even play tambourine.
KING: You had done a remix for them before, right, for...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, way, way, way back in the day. Yep.
KING: Way back.
WILLIAMS: And they were like, OK, cool. So then I got a call, so I go over to Paris. They're in the studio and they were like, you know, what are you working on? I'm like, man, you know, I've been inspired like by Nile Rodgers and his feel, you know. And they were like, oh, funny, we just had him play on this track, this is the one we want you to write to. No lie. That's the truth.
KING: That's synergy. That's synergy.
WILLIAMS: Mr. Magoo. OK?
KING: Mr. Magoo synergy.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, 100 percent. So I'm like, OK, cool, I'll write to it. You know, I'm doing my thing as I usually do, I'm pacing around the studio, I go outside and walk around for a little bit and just, you know, once the track is in my head do my little thing, pace and find the melody, find the chorus, go back in. I'm singing it to them, they like it.
So then I put it down and I was like super tired and jet-lagged, so I actually forgot how the song went.
KING: After you did it.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, just forgot.
KING: Which happens in the studio.
WILLIAMS: And I never got a copy. So like, I don't know, six months later they were like they email my manager and they were like, oh, yeah, we finished the song, we like it. We actually did two songs, you know, cool.
So they were like — I was like, so who's going to sing the song? They were like you are. I'm like, I thought I was writing it for someone else. So then it was like this whole weird thing, like wait a minute, I'm going to be on the song? So that was a little weird for me because it was like...
KING: Because it was not the right style or what? What do you mean?
WILLIAMS: No, it was just I didn't expect for me to be singing it.
WILLIAMS: You know, I just literally I thought I was writing it for someone else. Listen, 2012, did you guys see me as an artist? OK. So I never have this whole time. So when I'm on other people's records, I feel like it's like a feature or like a cool, oh, you're letting the producer sing a little bit or letting the producer rap, whatever. That's always been my perception.
So when that record came out, that was super awkward for me, like really awkward, because all the time, and still to this moment, I still consider myself a producer. You know, like one day I want to be like Quincy Jones, one day I want to be like Dr. Dre or Teddy Riley, like I want to be like those guys. I'm still not seeing myself as an artist.
KING: As a featured artist in the front, right?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'm still like, oh, you're like the producer on that, super cool. Like I'm thinking, yeah, they let a producer in. I've never seen myself as an artist. So when that happened it was like a whole other crazy thing.
KING: And it really took off.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. So thank you guys.
But I mean, I don't want to blow up your head, but I mean those early features, I mean, there's this Curtis Mayfield thing going on which is really interesting, that falsetto sound.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, totally imitating.
KING: Yeah, but it works. I mean, it's something...
WILLIAMS: Again, in my brain, in my delusional brain — and I think for anyone to be successful and dream big and do big things, you have to have a half a cup of delusion.
You have to, or it's never going to work. You just cannot be like filled with reality. It just is not going to work. There has to be some delusion in there, right?
So I'm just thinking, you know, what, I'm a producer and I'm kind of singing like Curtis Mayfield. OK, this is good, this is going to be cool. To me, that's like kind of cool.
So like when you think about like "Despicable Me" or, you know, "Happy" I did the first soundtrack and I did, you know, the "Despicable Me" song for it. So I'm thinking "Happy" is going to be the same thing. We were just kind of like high-fiving each other because we had this song with these like really jazzy chords in it that made the film. That was it. I didn't think anything was going to happen. At that point, I'm still like still trying to reconcile and deal with the fact that people are treating me like an artist when I know I'm a producer singing on this Daft Punk song.
So I'm like still trying to deal with that, you know?
KING: It works.
WILLIAMS: I didn't know.
KING: But you (inaudible) early on which is just you.
WILLIAMS: Again, producer guy getting away with singing on a song. I'm trying to work you guys through why all of this is why this is totally "Twilight Zone" for me.
KING: But I also have to say it's also the context of so many producers of that time also became performers, like Timbaland performing and, you know...
WILLIAMS: He's great.
KING: Yeah. But I don't know if he always thought of himself as a performer first or...
KING: Did he? Yeah? OK.
KING: Yeah? First, before a producer?
WILLIAMS: He is very sure.
KING: Yeah? OK.
WILLIAMS: But deservedly so, though. I mean, Timbaland's work, right?
He's a mastermind.
KING: All right. I'm going to turn it over to the students. But one last question. So what are you, if you can share, what are you currently working on, what are you excited about?
No, I am very grateful. And people probably get tired of hearing me say grateful and thankful. But now you've heard my side and you realize and you guys get to understand that like I'm still considering myself like this producer guy that gets all these opportunities.
So I know a lot of it seems mapped out. And if it does, the only thing that links everything together is like my intentions. My intentions remain the same. So when things work out, it always seems like, wow, OK, just line this up, OK, cool, he just lined this up. And really, all it is is just seizing these great opportunities.
And so with all the people that I work with and the companies that have been so gracious to let me do things with them, I'm excited about those things.
KING: That's great.
WILLIAMS: I know I just answered the question like Donald Trump. I know about these things, these things, these things.
And a lot of people talk about these things.
WILLIAMS: But then there's these things and we're going to work on these things.
KING: But David Brooks from The New York Times describes that as living the summoned life, right?
WILLIAMS: Wait, wait, wait, wait, but let me be clear. I'm Hillary, sorry.
Just in case.
KING: There's a revelation.
WILLIAMS: I'm learning about this media thing, you know? You say one thing and then it becomes a headline.
KING: That camera was right on you there, too.
Hillary. It's time for a woman.
KING: I think on that note we should take questions from students.
WILLIAMS: See, I'm not good at it, man, like you just like speak your mind and all of a sudden it's like there he is, he just said it.
KING: It was good. I think it was good.
KING: We've got a big spotlight here. OK, just say your name and just...
WILLIAMS: This is like...
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Jake.
WILLIAMS: How you doing, man?
QUESTION: And my question for you is, as an artist and a writer and a producer, what do you think is the most important thing to consider when writing and producing a song?
WILLIAMS: One, understanding who you are and appreciating the things, your differences. I always say that which makes you different is what makes you special. So if you have something that's different, then continue to work on that and push that. Because if it's ever going to work for you, it's going to be when you're being the purest version of you. You don't want to get famous being something that you're night. It would get tighter wearing that mask.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Nija (ph), I'm a producer, artist and songwriter. And I just wanted to know like what was your production process through LL Cool J's "Gonna Love You Better" and "Frontin?"
KING: That's specific.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, very specific. "Love You Better," the track was actually part of — I was like dying to work with Tupac. And we, at that time, Chad and I we had tracks that like had like hip-hop tracks that had like changes. And one side of it we didn't end up using and I just chopped that one section up and that's the section that you guys continue to hear. That was like a bridge. So we just used the bridge of one track for "Love You Better." And the singer on there was this guy by the name of Marc Dorsey.
And "Frontin" I wanted Prince to do, very bad, minus the lyrics. I sent that track to him and I never heard back. And I understood because he's Prince.
And when we did "Frontin," L.A. Reid at the time, he liked it, but he was like there's something missing. And so we got Jay Z and then it was like...
KING: There you go.
WILLIAMS: And he figured out what was wrong with the song. It needed Jay Z. And that was pretty much it.
QUESTION: All right, thanks.
QUESTION: I'm Salba (ph) a (inaudible) from Virginia. But I wanted to know, being from Virginia and basically in a place where there is virtually no music industry, if you had the opportunity to come to an institute like Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music to study, produce and learn the music business, which would you focus on first, knowing what you know now?
WILLIAMS: That's a very good question. When I was in Virginia Beach and working on music, Chad and I, the Internet wasn't what it is now. The ubiquitous nature of the Internet gives you an advantage to be in the music industry virtually wherever you are just through your phone.
But the business in the school that you're referring to right now is a huge advantage because you're around people, you'll be in the community. And when you're, you know, we're like a creature of habit, humans, and when we're together in concert, a school of us, they strengthen you and they actually make you better. So you're in the right place if you want to actually really learn the business. You're in a business environment, you're in an environment where like lots of ideas can bounce around and just even by mistake land on you.
So if you try, you know, there's just so much information at arm's length. Like you're in the right place to understand the business.
QUESTION: Thank you (Virginia stand up ?).
WILLIAMS: Yeah, Virginia.
QUESTION: Hello, I'm Mark, I'm a freshman at Clive.
WILLIAMS: How you doing?
QUESTION: I'm well. How are you?
You touched on it a little bit earlier, you have a line BBC, you have an ongoing collaboration with Adidas. And I'm wondering, what do you think your role is in continuing the bridge between fashion and hip-hop cultures?
WILLIAMS: I don't know if I necessarily have a role as much as I have like a blessed opportunity. I think what we try to do is just bring things that don't exist. And if they do exist, to try and usher in the difference. That's really what I'm like attracted to, for me. That's the closest I could come to a role is just trying to usher in something different and, you know, give people things that promote individuality. That's what (I am all about ?).
QUESTION: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Priscilla, I'm with (inaudible). I was just wondering how your creative process changes between working on your solo stuff, working with (inaudible) and The Neptunes and how much do you find yourself having to mold and adapt to who you're working with in the studio.
WILLIAMS: I'm often always molding and adapting because to me the artist is like the most important energy in the room. If they feel like they have to compete with you then they're never going to give you the best version of who they are. Your first job as a producer is to make them ultra comfortable in an environment where they, you know — produce the conditions to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they give you the best version of themselves.
I think I suck at working on my own stuff because I just have — I go completely off of feeling and usually it's like, I don't know, I'm just extra hard on myself. But with N.E.R.D. it's just really about that rebellious nature. And producing for other people, I take my ego off at the door. It's really honestly about serving that person and making sure that they feel comfortable letting everything out.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is (inaudible) I'm a rap artist in Clive. And I was wondering, what is your advice on like presenting industry personnel like A&Rs with your music? And what was your first instance in like pitching your music to someone?
WILLIAMS: My experience of like trying to get signed was always horrible. I was the one that would blow the meetings all the time.
WILLIAMS: One time I rapped so long that Chris Lighty answered the phone and he kept talking. I'm trying to say I'm still rapping.
I jumped on (inaudible) desk, I blew it several times. But that was a different day. And today you don't need an A&R. All you really need is like SoundCloud, you know, iTunes.
You know, the Internet is just it's great in a lot of ways and it has its disadvantages. But one of the great advantages is the ubiquity. You know, virtually anyone can be discovered and things catch like fire when they're great. So you kind of don't necessarily need that and there's only a few labels that I personally think offer like that total package service. And that's because the business has changed so much.
But there are a couple of labels where like actually the A&Rs are really, really, really good and they know about like development and can help push you and make you actually better. But I don't know that you need them in the way that you needed them 10 years ago or 20 years ago.
There's tons of kids who are selling records and getting zillions of streams without being on a major. You could do it.
QUESTION: OK. Thanks.
QUESTION: If you find yourself looking to discover some new music, I just released a EP on SoundCloud.
It's called "Just Me."
WILLIAMS: All right.
KING: Following your lessons very well.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Bailey. I was wondering why you decided to start From One Hand to Another and how it's impacted you since.
KING: Maybe you can explain From One Hand to Another, too.
WILLIAMS: OK. From One Hand to Another does a lot of things that I cannot completely define up here because my mom is super ambitious. But one of the main things that we do is, see how I can put this, everything from providing school supplies to children in need, down to like actually having workshops and after-school programs and summer programs where we get different people locally from the colleges to come and help tutor, and just helping academically.
We started it because I realize that there was so much more that needed to be done in the Tidewater area in terms of education. And there are so many teachers that were like working really hard and they needed help. And there were kids that needed the help academically as well.
And so we're just trying to help not only bridge the gap, but seal it. And it's growing, it's still growing. And I kind of stutter with the answer because there's so much more I want to say because I'm so passionate. But this is (press ?).
But it's something I'm very passionate about. And I feel like the school system there could be doing so much more, like those teachers are really working hard. And those kids deserve so much more. So we're just — we're trying. And it's hard not to, you know, point the finger because you don't have them, you're too busy lifting school supplies and you're too busy helping to teach a lesson.
So I feel like everyone that worked with and does work with From One Hand to Another does a really good job. And there are other associations there, too, and organizations as well. But we feel like that's necessary in the Tidewater area. Like those children are super smart and all they need is the tender, loving care. And we just feel like, you know, I don't think that we should ever be content with the school system. I always think that we should always continue to push and push and push. And I think that's what From One Hand to Another is really all about, never being satisfied.
KING: By the way, does your mother — your mother is an educator, multiple degrees. Does she know you're here doing this at NYU?
KING: She must be very happy.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Sophie. Can you remember the moment you realized that being a musician, artist, entrepreneur was exactly who you were meant to be?
WILLIAMS: You know, at one point in my life I thought that and I was cocky. And you could hear it in my rhymes and it was the way that I behaved in videos sometimes. But I kind of grew out of that and I realized that like every day is a learning experience and if I'm supposed to be that then I'm grateful that this is what I've become. But I now know it's not my right to say that this is what I'm supposed to do and I deserve this and I deserve that. Because at a certain point in my life, I realize all these things were given to me. You know, everything that I've ever been able to do, like afford for my family or whatever, it was given to me.
If people didn't buy those records or buy this or buy that or support this or support that, I would have never had that. So if anything, I feel like this is a relationship and it's a rapport with me and my audience. They have continued to support me.
That's the closest I've come to feeling like what I'm supposed to do is really just say thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you for your humility. People really need more people like you.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
QUESTION: Austin, sophomore in Clive, from Atlanta, the A. What advice would you give a pop songwriter and producer to be as unique and creative as possible to establish their own sound, but be commercial in their mind-set so that they sound like they belong in the Hot 100.
WILLIAMS: I would not advise trying to sound like you belong in the Hot 100. It will sound like that. It will sound like that's what you want. And that's the quickest way to get in and get out and no one ever look at you again.
I would say bettering yourself and even if it never hits the Hot 100, if it's hot to you and all your friends, 100 of your friends.
And believe it or not, you'll make it there if that's where you're supposed to be. But don't try because the people can hear it and they will call you out on it.
And now, listen, there are certain people who do it all day long and they love it and they're like, yeah, that's what I do, I bite, I try, yep. And it works for them and they go out and they buy big cars and big homes. And I don't know how they sleep at night. But I would say just have fun in your difference and just try to make your, you know, pumice your difference as much as you can until you can make that shine. And if that glimmers to a hundred people in the room, great. If it glimmers to the Hot 100 charts, then great. But you'll sleep really well every night.
QUESTION: Thank you.
KING: Probably just a couple more questions, OK?
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Nikayah (ph). I guess it kind of tails off what your answer was for the last question. But when you were coming up as a producer and sort of putting yourself out there and being a unique individual, were you thinking about as an African-American person I am removing myself from whatever mold of what we think that is in our media? Was that something you thought about or just sort of doing your thing?
WILLIAMS: That's a very good question. I did not go, you know, we're going to be different. We didn't fit in. We weren't from New York, we were from Virginia. There was no faking it.
You know, couldn't just walk around, you know, calling people son like we were from Queens. It wasn't going to work, you know? As much as we loved and respected New York and thought New York was the greatest thing ever, we had no choice but to be ourselves.
And what looked like me celebrating my difference, I've learned that now. And that's what I say to people now. But what looked like us celebrating our difference was really us just going, you know what, this is going to end sometime, like, you know, might as well just be yourself, like, you know, who knows how long it's going to last. And then it just started working.
And then you just never look back. That's what I suggest you do. Celebrate your difference.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hey, Pharrell.
WILLIAMS: How you doing man?
QUESTION: I'm holding. And I'm an Aries as well.
You're obviously someone who's had a lot of success in your career. And I wanted to ask you about failure and how failure has influenced yourself as an artist and as a professional.
WILLIAMS: That's a great question. Failure hurts pretty bad. It hurts pretty bad. But when you got good people around you they remind you that failure is actually just a lesson. It's how not to walk so you don't fall again.
And if you allow failure to take on more of a role in your life than possible, then you'll always look at it on the defense and you'll always shoot yourself down before it even goes anywhere. Well, I'm not going to do that because this is just going to happen, or I'm not going to do that.
And I was just the perpetual dreamer. And so every time I fail, I noticed where the scars were on my leg and I noticed the way I was walking and I just didn't walk that way anymore. Failure honestly can be like the best lesson and it's like the one that like God wants you to really pay attention to. That's why it hurts. The pain will help you remember how not to walk, what directions not to go.
But failure is not always a bad thing. You just have to be smart while you're in the middle of it. You're in the eye of the tornado of like disappointment to know that it's just a storm and it'll pass.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Max.
QUESTION: I'm wondering, how does the way you made your first real money compare to how a breaking producer/artist today could capitalize on their early success?
WILLIAMS: Wait, I'm sorry. I'm not sure if I follow.
QUESTION: Like how when you made your first real money when you were like making real money, if you had to do that today early in your career, how do you think it would be different?
WILLIAMS: I blew it over and over again. I bought the worst things ever. Cars and unnecessary things, I got caught up, totally intoxicated by not being used to things. It's very super nouveau riche, the worst. I mean, the worst.
But if I had it to do all over again I would probably do the same thing because I wasn't used to it. But it was such a great lesson because I was able to like then go on and then do greater things. And I was much smarter, much more smarter with those opportunities. And I pride myself on continuing to be smart about those things.
Because really, honestly, right now, for me, the most important thing is just like creativity and music. It's the one thing that you never lose if you just stay loyal to that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Yes, sir.
KING: All right. So we are out of time.
Professor Pharrell Williams...
... thank you for being here. And keep receiving these gifts and giving them to us because we value them.
WILLIAMS: And thank you. Thank you.
And thank you guys for like, you know, continuing to support the work we do.
KING: All right, good night.