Q&A: Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D.

Mystikal and Britney's hitmaker finds his own beatbox voice

N.E.R.D., aka The Neptunes, performs at the Central Park SummerStage in New York City. May 22nd, 2002 Credit: Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty

Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, better known as the hip-hop production team the Neptunes, are an omnipresent sound on your radio, crafting hits ranging from Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass" to Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U." (You may have seen the vaudeville-style video for another of their productions, Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier" — Williams is the guy singing underneath the table.) Last year, the Neptunes joined up with rapper Shay to make an album of their own, In Search of..., recorded under the name N.E.R.D. At the last possible moment, they pulled the album so they could rerecord it using live instruments. This year's version is first-rate funk-rock, ranging from the angry, stuttering jam "Rock Star" to the ballad "Run to the Sun" to "Lapdance," a metal grind that equates politicians with strippers. Williams called from his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and during our conversation did beatbox versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Sympathy for the Devil," complete with percussion and whoo-whoo's.

What makes for a good strip club?
That ain't my thing. What's the use of looking at a whole bunch of girls you can't touch?

Did you make Britney sexier?
Britney made herself sexier. She knows what she wants. But I think we did a good job creating the receptive sexual connotation, musically. I'm about to make a video with her, "Boys (The Co-ed Mix)." My record company doesn't want me to do it, but I don't give a fuck.

What movie have you seen the most times?
National Lampoon's Vacation, at least thirty times. I think Eighties humor was much better than in the Nineties. They don't make films like Porky's anymore.

You still live in Virginia?
Yeah. I'm getting a place in Miami, and they're finding me a house in Paris. They'll totally modernize it. It'll be historical on the outside and Star Trek on the inside.

Do you speak French?
Not yet. I need to learn it quick.

Were you brought up religious?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Baptist sometimes, other times Pentecostal. At the end of the day, the Lord knows I have no malice in my heart. But I've got tattoos, and I still fornicate.

Is "Rock Star" autobiographical?
[Water runs in the background.] Don't be mad, I'm brushing my teeth. "Rock Star" is about power: In rap music, there's a lot of songs about fakes and wanna-be's, but there's not a lot of those songs in rock. I like rock for what it is. It's a ghost town — there's a lot of room for growth. The beauty is, you get to tear it down and start rebuilding.

Were you a rock fan as a kid?
I've been a Michael Jackson fan all my life. Stevie Wonder, too. And Queen. When I was a kid, you watched MTV just to watch it [sings fragment of Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart"]. Then, in the seventh grade, we moved to suburban America, and I started hearing "Livin' on a Prayer," all that shit. Good music is good music. I still think Axl Rose is one of the biggest rock stars we've ever seen. I would love to sign that guy and put him on the road as a dope-ass acoustic act. Who's that kid who sang, "I'm a cowboy/On a steel horse I ride"?

Bon Jovi.
That kid is sick! He's still sick. Companies don't think that's still relevant, but kids are dying for it. In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, there was colorful rock & roll. Think about Steppenwolf, "The Pusher." [He performs an excellent thirty-second version of the song.] That's rock & roll. If I can beatbox it, and you can feel it, you know the original composition must be bestial. Now, money and the ideal of financial security — that's a cancer to music. There should be more to rock & roll than just rapping and screaming. And don't have angst just because you're being paid by the corporates to do that shit.

What bands do you like now?
Linkin Park, Staind and Puddle of Mudd. And Ben Folds — that kid writes dope songs. Everybody else is doing one-dimensional stuff, except the Strokes and the White Stripes. I love the White Stripes' sense of rebelliousness. So inventive, and they're brother and sister.

Actually, they're a divorced husband and wife.
That's even doper! That's Natural Born Killers on top of it! That's amazing!

What's your greatest vice?
Girls and listening to old records.

Do girls hit on you a lot?
I don't give them a choice. I jump all over them before they can decide whether they like me or not. If I like a girl, I tell her I have a good job and I work very hard. I say I make $20,000 a year, and I'm a good guy and a humanitarian. I tell her I'm willing to go jogging in the morning, and I'm willing to learn how to cook. Pretty funny, right?

Is there anybody special right now?
I used to want to hop right into being in love with the first good-looking girl that was worthy. And I've made a lot of money as a producer, so there was a lot of candidates. But I met this girl six months ago; she changed my mind on a lot of things. She's teaching me to be very patient. It's a beautiful thing, man.

Any other goals?
To be a good person all my life until I die.

What haven't you learned yet?
How to slow down.