"Do you see millions of people running up to me right now?" Pharrell Williams asks innocently. "I'm not a celebrity." And it's true. As the world's most famous record producer walks down 57th Street in Manhattan, the hoi polloi leave him alone. Still, there are some definite celeb signifiers, like the jumbo bodyguard, the foxy swimsuit model at his side and the chichi shopping spree -- we've just hit Gucci and Louis Vuitton, and Prada is up next.
Whether he likes it or not, Pharrell Williams is a star -- a new type of star, the likes of which we've never seen before. As the more gregarious half of production duo the Neptunes and lead singer of the pop-punk, funk-rap band N.E.R.D. (his partner, Chad Hugo, works with him on both ventures), Williams has created the sound of the 21st century. He makes songs, specifically big, irresistible hits for everybody from Britney Spears and Nelly to No Doubt and Jay-Z. The sound is a new sort of soul (think Marvin Gaye filtered through Slayer) that recognizes every pop genre from shiny-legged R&B to sheepskin-lined jean-jacket stoner rock.
Pharrell's skills are such that he's a star with the power to make other stars -- he's like an oracle. Millions of folks know the lyrics to Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Britney's "I'm a Slave 4U" and Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You," all written by Pharrell. On our way out of Prada, we bump into an industry exec from Nashville, who tells Pharrell she wants to introduce Roy Orbison to hip-hop fans. "You pick two masters," she explains, as he is circled by a well-wisher and an eager salesgirl. "Like 'Blue Bayou' and 'Pretty Woman,' say, then cut a new break around it with, say, Nelly singing along." There's also a rock band he must hear. "Luna Halo," she says. "They're like Freddie Mercury meets Coldplay. EMI wants them, Sony wants them, you've gotta listen. Let's talk, okay?"
He is all the more bewitching when he acts dumbfounded by fame. "I have no idea," he says, of how he arrived at such cult status. "Ambition was never part of it. I never thought that I would be involved in music. I thought I was gonna go to college. Work just kept coming after I was discovered," he says, referring to the day in 1991 when he and Hugo were spotted by veteran producer Teddy Riley at a talent show. Before that, they marched in the high school band and Pharrell had been fired three times from the local McDonald's. He was axed, he says, for slacking off. "I'm lazy. I work very hard now, but I love what I do and that's different."
The Neptunes soon forged a creative alliance with Timbaland and Missy Elliott -- two other influential producers who grew up near them in suburban Virginia Beach -- and hit it huge in the late 1990s. Even then Pharrell was unique. "He's always been different, ever since I've known him," Elliott says. "Personally he hasn't changed; he is always pleasant and humble. It's the Virginia hospitality [in him] that makes him so loved."
Indeed, amid the music industry's bottleneck of violent, silly and outrageous gangsterism, Pharrell is treasured not only for his astonishing talent and humility but also for his good manners. It's always "Okay, sir" this and "Thank you, sir" that when speaking to receptionists or salespeople. "I don't reflect on the yeses too much," he says of all the praise he receives. "I'm not programmed to pay attention to that. I'm programmed to pay attention to every new opportunity I have to be in the studio and make something. Whatever I do has to be different and dope."
His lifestyle is clean -- no drinking, no drugs. "Everybody else can do what they want, but that stuff isn't for me. I've been drunk nine times in my life, and I ate some weed brownies once," the 30-year-old says. The pastimes he does admit to include 400 sit-ups every morning to maintain his lil' six-pack and healthy helpings of cartoons and cereal (The The Smurfs and Kellogg's Corn Pops, respectively).
The formula works. Accordingly, he plays things close to his chest. "I don't want people to become desensitized to me. I have to have it in me and in my heart to say, 'Yes, this [song] is hot, it could be a chart-breaker,' or 'it could be the biggest angst-rock track in suburban America.' But I have to be the bigger man and let that song go because 20 percent of it sounds like something I did three weeks ago," he says. "But now I'm getting into the way, I think, with my music, and that's a no-no," he says, stopping abruptly. "It's nothin' to talk about. You don't want people to unzip you and see your gears."
The going rate for a Neptunes-produced track is rumored to be in the $150,000 range. And considering that Pharrell is always working, this makes him a very rich man. In an interview last year, he told a reporter that one of his goals is to "make $500 million" someday, but these days he's more tight-lipped. After mentioning something about a new car, he thinks again and begs me not to mention it (it's somewhere in the Rolls-Royce-Porsche-Ferrari ballpark). Pharrell's 26-carat yellow diamond ring and earrings are standard issue bling from folks like Lorraine Schwartz and Jacob the Jeweller, who also made the platinum-and-gold skateboard that dangles from a rope chain around his neck.
Though he helped spark this year's trucker-caps 'n' tube-socks trend, Pharrell is so over that gear now. At the Paper photo shoot he avoids the stylist's tattered vintage T-shirts, saying, "I don't wanna be looking like no Chris [Martin] from Coldplay." Instead, he sticks with the Japanese vanity label Bathing Ape and his own line of duds, Billionaire Boys Club. Today it's BAPE sneakers and skullcap; saggy BBC jeans and a T-shirt. Far from looking "60," he's handsome as can be, a fact not lost on the women in his life.
Ack, the women. That's one of the tough parts. As for Jessica, whom he met "at Naomi's party after the Rosa Cha show" during Fashion Week, Pharrell maintains that she's just a friend (the type he holds hands with) and that he's single. He is notorious for telling reporters that he wants to have a family and fall super-duper in love, and he talks incessantly about his search for a soul mate -- he even wrote a song for Usher called "Wifey," which he has said is a "telegram to my [future] wife, wherever she is."
But since he's a bachelor now, the press fixates on his past. He's been linked with Beyonce, Jade Jagger and the ever-rallying R&B dark horse Kelis. When Beyonce is brought up, he gets downright pissy. "I hate it when motherfuckers bring that shit up," he says, saying only that her current beau, Jay-Z, is a close friend and that the whole affair was a "heartfelt situation." As for Ms. Jagger, a reporter once wrote a story in which Pharrell bragged about an erotic romp with the sexy Brit, but he swears the quotes were fabricated. "Jade is a good person. We're not involved like that. So for rumors to be circulating? That shit ain't cool," he says, squinting his eyes in frustration just thinking about it. And the oodles of ladies on his lap in magazines and music videos? It's really not like that, he says, and declines to discuss it further. "I also have a lot of fingers in my videos, but that doesn't mean I want to talk about them."
His jaw drops when the expression "lady-killer" is mentioned. "Lady-killer. Where do people get that shit from? I think the more proper, responsible thing to say is that 'Pharrell is a po-ten-tial
lady-killer. Because until you seen some lady slain with her head half-decapitated, that term isn't necessarily factual."
As charmed as it all seems, Pharrell does get spooked some times. One afternoon last fall, he was driving through Manhattan's Union Square, looking at a stage where N.E.R.D. was scheduled to perform in 45 minutes. "Man, it's naked out there," he said, cringing as he looked into the empty park. "They better be paying us a lot of money." The show turned out to be pretty dope. Hugo jammed on keyboards, Spymob (N.E.R.D.'s backup band, which consists of a bunch of gangly white guys) twanged out some funk, and Pharrell worked the girls into a frenzy. But it was a mediocre-size crowd -- "a bunch of people on their way to get hot dogs" is how Pharrell described it afterward. To be sure, even with a hit compilation album under his belt (last summer's The Neptunes Present . . . Clones sold 250,000 in its first week); the second N.E.R.D. LP, Fly or Die, out next month; and scads of bootlicking critics, Pharrell is still in the early-adopter phase.
That hasn't kept him from staying busy. Though there's no energy drink or signature vodka, the music mogul lifestyle isn't lost on him. He set up Billionaire Boys Club in conjunction with Bathing Ape (the company's reclusive founder, Nigo, is a close friend) and Reebok, and the Neptunes made a straight-to-video movie with Snoop Dogg down in Rio last year. His next musical venture involves country music (Why does that not surprise us?). He and Hugo's label, Star Trak, now has a country star-in-the-making named Kristi Karter, a saucier version of Kelly Clarkson, and country contacts down in Nashville.
Shopping blitz completed, we're in a town car driving to the studio where Pharrell is working on a song for Jadakiss. Foxy Jessica, the bodyguard and the chauffeur sit quietly while we talk a lot about why he doesn't want to talk about a lot. "I think my music should speak more than me. Prince didn't do a lot of press. Michael Jackson didn't do a lot of interviews," he argues. And, well, he's totally wrong, but, heck, Pharrell can think what he wants to think. Through him we're learning how music we love is made. And it's not just about the music; he even makes us flip for celebs we used to abhor. Remember when Justin Timberlake was a lunkhead with a white-boy Afro? Thanks to Pharrell's falsetto and Billie Jean beats, now the 'Lake is a Face-gracing, ass-grabbing pop behemoth.
It's time to make a song. He walks into the studio, sits down at the keyboard and starts tinkering with beats. Many music producers buy original music or samples, work them into a song, then put their name on it. When asked if he does this, Pharrell looks as if he's just heard the dumbest question ever. "I make everything," he says. Within 30 minutes he's tinkered enough to start grunting along with a spare, sexy groove. "The sound tells you what to do," he explains. "You know when you inhale from a helium balloon? And the first thing you say when you do that? You say, 'Follow the yellow brick road' or 'I'm a dwarf' or something? Whatever that is, that's kind of what happens with music for me. I call it the ghost. The ghost tells me what to do."