They feel totally ready and able...
It’s not an entirely everyday occurrence for hitmaking producers to step out from behind the mixing deck and put on a show of their own. Still fewer producers venture into music that’s radically different from their productions.
Until this lot, that is. First known as The Neptunes, Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams were true prodigies, responsible for club bangers like Noreaga’s ‘Superthug’, Jay-Z‘s ‘I Just Wanna Love You’, and Mystikal’s ‘Shake That Ass’. At an age when most people are still experiencing post-University life-crises, that signature Neptunes sound – crisp beats, stuttering funk and Pharrell’s off-kilter falsetto – was plastered all over the radio. But nobody was expecting to be thrown a curveball like ‘In Search Of…’, the groundbreaking album The Neptunes released early this year under the N*E*R*D moniker (an acronym for “No One Ever Really Dies”).
Tonight, N*E*R*D (Neptunes plus rapper buddy Shay) are playing their debut New York show. It’s an important milestone for any act, but the members of N*E*R*D seem inordinately relaxed and confident. Maybe it’s because the house is entirely packed with a capacity crowd. Or it could be because they feel totally ready and able. “What we do onstage is kind of the same thing we do in the studio,” says Chad. “We’ll blast the speakers and jump around. It’s just that when we play live, there are people in front of us.” “The thing that I think is really beautiful about these shows is the diversity of the crowds,” Shay interjects. “You’ve got straight alternative heads, hip hop heads, country fans, whatever.” While NME doesn’t notice any ten-gallon hats in the house, Shay does have a point. Irving Plaza, a venue just off Union Square in downtown Manhattan, all dark red walls and baroque couches, looks like a model UN this Tuesday night. Every race and cultural demographic is represented, from Latino, black, and white to skater, hip hopper, jock and geek.
Backstage, the atmosphere is less Hammer Of The Gods rock hog debauchery and more like a Home Counties branch of Rymans’ employee picnic. Marketing reps and publicists mill about congratulating each other, while the celebrity count consists only of wild-haired R&B ingenue Kelis. Accompanied by her cute little sister and a friend, for a few minutes the suits’ quaffing of complimentary beer is soundtracked by Kelis singing quietly under her breath as she does her make-up in the mirror.
N*E*R*D take the stage with Pharrell giving the brief obligatory “it’s good to be in New York” spiel, and they’re off, busting directly into album highlight ‘Brain’, a confused ode to getting head. The set has an infectious energy, lapsing only occasionally into funk-rap cliches. N*E*R*D and backing band Spymob mostly keep it tight, thankfully shunning opportunities to meander off into self-indulgent jamming. When Kelis reappears to rock her new Neptunes-produced single, ‘Popular Thug’, the crowd goes through the roof, pumping fists in the air and (shock of shocks for usually aloof New York crowds) dancing.
After the set an ecstatic Shay reflects on tonight’s audience. “It’s overwhelming to look out into the crowd and you can’t even finish half your verse without them singing over you.” Chad is busy thinking about the state of American music, meanwhile: “In the U.S., it’s hard to mix genres,” he says. “Corporations have drawn lines to package music. It’s like, when you buy a Quarter Pounder, you know you’ll get a Quarter Pounder. What we’re trying to do is make some tailor-made sushi for everybody.”