N*E*R*D In Search Of (Virgin). Rating: NNN
To simply call the Neptunes the biggest producers in hiphop would be missing the point.
Sure, the Virginia duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams have produced massive tunes by Jay-Z, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Kelis and Mary J. Blige and redefined hiphop with their spacey, skeletal beats. One corner of the music business isn't enough, though. The Neptunes want to take over the entire pop industry.
How else do you explain the duo's eagerness to put a thump behind the Backstreet Boys, No Doubt and Britney Spears?
"Music is music, brother," Williams explains from New York. "It only becomes something different when you say so. We all grew up that way, didn't we? I mean, who didn't know Working 9 To 5? As much as you knew Planet Rock you also knew Living On A Prayer," he laughs, breaking into a bellowing version of the Bon Jovi stadium rocker that bleeds into Huey Lewis's If This Is It.
In a scene in which hiphop producers are obsessed with holding their own little patch of ground, the Neptunes thrive on pushing their sound further and further out.
So far it's working. They've had to schedule the release of their tracks carefully to avoid having their productions flood the charts, and artists like Nelly Furtado, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z are currently lining up to drop $200,000 for a Neptunes beat.
"There's this idea that you've got to maintain your ground, represent only one thing and show no love to anything else," says Williams. "Give people a chance, though, and they will be open. The world is screaming for artists who venture out.
"We're just lucky because people trust us when we say we want to take them somewhere new. It's a beautiful thing, and I'm having a good-ass time messing with people's heads."
That playfulness is perhaps best seen with the Neptunes' own group, the trio N*E*R*D they put together with MC pal Shay.
Just days before the N*E*R*D's In Search Of debut was about to drop, Hugo and Williams decided to remake the record, replacing the beats note-for-note with versions of the songs played by a live band. The new version pales in comparison to the original, but it's the idea of the whole concept that is most impressive.
"We wanted the music to be organic and live, which is what live instrumentation does," Williams explains cryptically. "We were about to approve the artwork and then just had this revelation. Our label wasn't really happy, but the great thing is that the original album was bootlegged like crazy, so fans can hear both versions.
"We put together a band and now we're playing concerts. I'm like the black Fred Durst now. You thought the Neptunes were fucked up before? Watch out."