N E R D with High Speed Scene at the Kool Haus (1 Jarvis), Monday (July 19). $36.50. 416-870-8000, 416-869-0789. Rating: NNNNN
Austin, Texas - Slouching in a comfy chair in a lavishly appointed Hyatt Regency conference suite, grinning Neptunes producer Pharrell Williams shoots me a knowing wink while yukking it up on his cellphone. The frantic business of South By Southwest may be buzzing all around him, but the relaxed Williams remains in full chill mode while recounting the surreal details of the previous interview. An Australian music journalist thought that asking to suck Williams's dick on camera would make for good television.
"I looked at him, like, 'What did you just say to me?'" chuckles Williams, still dumbfounded by the unusual attempt at provocation. "The dude turned pink. There was dead silence - I mean, I could hear his muthafuckin' heart beating.
"I kinda felt bad for him. When Shay got up to leave I thought the dude was gonna start crying."
Although the bizarre proposition clearly threw Williams for a loop, it didn't take him out of his game. As soon as he's off the phone, the incident is forgotten and he's back to selling the concept of his NERD studio project as a fully functional live-band incarnation of the Neptunes.
That's really the reason they've chosen to launch the group at SXSW, the annual Austin gathering of the world's most jaded music hacks and industry professionals. He isn't suffering from lack of exposure, and as the brains behind Justin Timberlake's multi-platinum Justified album, that McDonald's I'm Lovin' It jingle and numerous chart smashes from Nelly's Hot In Herre to Kelis's Milkshake, Williams certainly isn't doing it for the money.
"NERD needed to be a real band to perform the music, because people wanted to see, hear and feel this music being played. And while I think being onstage with just some microphones and a DJ is dope, that wouldn't work for us. It's important that people see what we're doing."
Judging by NERD's show at the tightly packed Austin Music Hall later that night - during which Williams almost singlehandedly turned around the hate vibe created by their Spymob rhythm section, who opened the show - there is definitely something going on that's missing from the group's disappointing sophomore disc, Fly Or Die (Virgin).
It's that unquantifiable x-factor of Williams's charisma, and it comes across just as clearly onstage when he's leading the crowd in a singalong of She Wants To Move as it does when he appears in videos with Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z or P. Diddy.
"I'm not fakin' it with NERD, you know. I'm really saying what I want to say, so to have people listening and singing the words with me - it's amazing.
"When you're onstage doing a song and the whole crowd seems to be feeling exactly what you're feeling, you get this incredible rush that's like nothing else.
"The only thing that can top it is the feeling of euphoria when a song comes together in the studio. That's better than money and definitely better than drugs. A heroin addict will tell you that you can never recapture the feeling of that first high, but I find the high I get from creating a song just gets better and better each time."
While there are some who argue that hit-making producers like Kanye West and Williams should stick to the studio and leave the stage to the artists, Williams doesn't see his double duty as a problem.
"I don't think of myself as a hiphop producer trying to make it as a rock musician. I'm just someone who makes music. It's all one thing for me."
At the time of this interview, Williams and his Neptunes sidekick, Chad Hugo, had just finished work on the new Nelly album, but there's also the highly anticipated Gwen Stefani solo disc. And before you think they've started playing it safe, there's word of a Neptunes-go-Nashville project with twangy Texas country upstart Christie Carter.
With a list of satisfied clients that runs from Britney and Beyoncé to Kardinal Offishall and Sean Paul, it might seem like Williams will work with anyone. But he's actually very particular about who he'll get busy with in the studio, and he insists that money or friendship is never the deciding factor.
"It's only about the music. If the song is important enough to me, I could probably even work with someone who was my enemy.
"I'm not the kind of guy who doesn't get along with people - I'm not up in anybody's face - but neither am I hanging out with muthafuckas after a session. That's not what matters to me. I want to make great music."
Evidently, Williams also wants to design great clothing. Later this summer he plans to officially launch his Billionaire Boys Club clothing line and clear-sole Ice Cream sneakers he's created with innovative Japanese designer Nigo of Bathing Ape fame.
"Growing up, I always dressed differently than the rest of the crowd because I had a sense of what was right for me. So I'm just offering my perspective on clothing and sneakers like I'm offering my perspective on music with the records I make.
"But I don't want kids to buy my clothes to mirror me; I want them to mirror themselves. That's what Billionaire Boys Club is all about. It's what's in your mind that counts. Ideas make you a billionaire, not paper."
He's got more than enough projects in the works to keep him busy around the clock, but that hasn't kept Williams from reading the film scripts that keep coming his way.
"I haven't seen anything really interesting yet. I'm not an actor, so for me to move into the movie world would require a project that was so exciting, I'd want to work at being the very best actor I could possibly be.
"I believe I can do it. I just don't want to take any role so I can say I did a film. I'm not in this to be a Renaissance man; I just want to do things I'm passionate about."
Listening for the future
Even before New Jack swinger Teddy Riley discovered Princess Anne High School students Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo in a Virginia Beach battle of the bands competition 10 years ago, the future N*E*R*Ds were already serious music geeks with a voracious appetite for new sounds unbounded by stylistic classifications.
Today the 29-year-old Williams has a platinum-plus production client list that covers the spectrum of contemporary music, but he hasn't stopped listening for the future in the past. "Lately I've been checking out some Afro-conscious or spiritual jazz, particularly the Gary Bartz NTU Troop stuff like Harlem Bush Music . That song Celestial Blues fucked me up so bad you don't understand. Oh my god, the way Andy Bey sings over those chords is just so dope. [Williams starts singing.] That's the shit that really moves me right now. "Since I heard Celestial Blues, I've been thinking about taking N*E*R*D in that direction. Because of our contemporary influences, it wouldn't be spiritual jazz, or jazz of any kind really. We'd transform it into something else, but I think it could work.
"I mean, just think of what Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson were doing on Winter In America with The Bottle: [singing] See that black boy over there running scared, his ol' man's in a bottle. If someone came out with a record like that today it would be huge. I think America is waiting for that kind of conscious black music."