Born on April 5, 1973, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA, Pharrell Williams has made his mark on the music world as a performer, songwriter and producer.
He had had an interest in music from an early age and that musical streak was fed and nurtured within his family. “As a kid, my aunt and I used to sit in front of the stereo and just play records,” he told CosmoGirl magazine. But he felt constrained by his all-American town and the ordinariness of it all, “I lived in Normalville USA and I didn’t look like the average kid.”
That mundanity disappeared when he teamed up with friend Chad Hugo. The pair met when they attended the same band class at middle school, of which Pharrell says,
“Well, it was like any other, you know, music program. What that life was like, I think, is pretty much the same for any other musician, except for the fact that we just were given some opportunities afterwards to sort of follow up with all the things that we had learned in music. I would say that’s probably the only difference.
Our ambitions were the same as any other kids that were studying music and being classically trained. You do it because you love it, and, you know, there’s a genuine curiosity to want to know more and see how things work. Some of us get a feeling when we hear music and we feel music, and you want to figure out how to continue to feel that. And so, in band, that’s essentially what it was about for us.”
It was a class that his grandmother persuaded Pharrell to join as he used to “take all of her little pots and cake batter pans and the whisk and the soup spoons” and drum with them. “I used to set up my little makeshift drumset. And she just said, “You like the drums, so why don’t you learn?” And that’s where it started in seventh grade for me.”
Pharrell has said that he and Chad used to listen to music together and discuss what moved them and what didn’t. “I think Chad and I have been the same since we were young. We’re universalists first. We’re sort of, like, there’s room under the sun for everyone. So we didn’t really think about things in that way. We were too busy going inward and thinking about what music did to us. Just being kids and just asking ourselves, like, “Man, do you feel this like I feel this?” Like, “Does this take you over?” You know, “When you hear this Tribe [Called Quest] record, are you blown away by these chords like I am? Does this do this to you?””
It was a small step from there to Pharrell and Chad creating music together and he described the process the duo would go through, “We started dissecting Tribe records and trying to figure out like why those beats did those things to us. And then we started making our own tracks. Meanwhile, we’re still in high school or whatever. Once we get discovered, we’re just given the shot to sort of go in and do what we would do naturally, for free.”
Then came the fateful day when Teddy Riley sent his A & R person over to Chad & Pharrell’s school. A & R stands for artists and repertoire which in short, means a talent spotter. “Right, so, my high school, just so you know, is a five-minute walk from where Teddy decided to build his studio. He’s from New York City, and of all places to leave in the ’90s, New York City, where you gonna go? To other respective music industry areas, and regions known for music. Districts like Detroit, or L.A. or even Atlanta.”, Pharrell explained. “I look at how blessed Chad and I have been — and I know I seem like I’m at a loss for words, but it’s hard to quantify and it’s really hard to articulate. Like, you were meant to be where you are, you’re meant to be given the choices of today, because that’s gonna help you, it’s gonna take you to the next step tomorrow. And I know it sounds all philosophical, but quite honestly I really do believe this for everyone.”
Soon after Teddy Riley, asked them to contribute to the monster hit, “Rump Shaker” which was recorded by Wreckx-N-Effect in 1992, at the height of New Jack Swing era.
Working together as The Neptunes, Pharrell and Chad produced a string of hits including Noreaga’s Superthug and ODB’s I Got Your Money (featuring Kelis). Their success brought them to the attention of mainstream pop artists, eager to gain a bit of street cred, including Justin Timberlake (Justified album, along with Timbaland), Britney Spears’ Slave for You, and Gwen Stefani. They worked with and produced hits for a slew of artists including Jay-Z (I Just Wanna Love You) , Clipse, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Kelis (Kaleidoscope album), Mariah Carey (The Emancipation of Mimi album), Beyonce and Mystikal (Shake Ya Ass). The duo released an album as the The Neptunes, The Neptunes presents….Clones, and also performed as N.E.R.D.. Nominated for 18 Grammy Awards, they won 6 and were nominated every year from 2004 to 2007.
While still releasing music with the Neptunes, Pharrell released his first solo album, In My Mind, in 2006. This was followed by his soundtrack for the animated movie, Despicable Me, in 2010.
Huge hits with the singles Blurred Lines (Robin Thicke) and Get Lucky (Daft Punk), both produced by Pharrell, followed in 2013. Blurred Lines sold over 14 million copies worldwide and reached No. 1 in 13 countries, receiving 2 Grammy nominations. The song would later come back to haunt Pharrell, a few years down the line. Get Lucky reached No. 1 in the UK, France, Belgium Australia and the USA. In June 2013, Pharrell had the top two songs on the charts in the US, with Blurred Lines at No. 1 and Get Lucky at No. 2.
And he was thankful, “It’s awesome. But, by the way, the people did that. When you say, “You did,” and, “You have” — no, no, no. The people did and the people gave. The year that I’ve been having is the year that people have given me. If they don’t vote for the songs, request the songs, stream them, purchase them, or share and talk about them with their friends, then there’s nothing but a demo in your head or a demo that you’re shopping around to people. But people saw something in the songs, and they did more than listen to them. They actually took the extra step and did one of those five things, if not all five. And it’s just been a blessing, because I couldn’t have done this myself at all.”
The same year, Pharrell released Happy (which led to social media videos of people dancing and singing along with the song, in different countries the world over) followed, introducing Pharrell to an even bigger audience. Pharrell wrote the song for the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack and the track stayed at No. 1 for weeks and set a Billboard record as a crossover chart phenomenon. “Happy” also earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
At the 2014 Grammy Awards, Pharrell cleaned up, collecting 4 for Record of the Year with Get Lucky, Album of the Year (for contributing to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories) Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Producer of the Year, Non-Classical.
Legal case re: Blurred Lines
In March 2015, the court ruled in favour of the estate of Marvin Gaye against Robin Thicke and Pharrell. The estate had filed papers accusing Thicke and Pharrell of committing copyright infringement by taking major musical elements from the song Got to Give It Up and using them in their hit, Blurred Lines. Having upheld the Gaye family’s complaint, the estate was awarded $7.3 million in damages and profit shares.
During the depositions for the court proceedings, Thicke had denied writing the song, saying that Thicke was drunk and high at the time that Pharrell had written it (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/robin-thicke-admits-drug-abuse-732783). This was despite Thicke being shown on the credits as the lead writer and presumably, taking royalties commensurate with his lead writer status.
If you have the time, you can make up your own mind, listening to the videos below. The first is a mash-up of the two songs, followed by Blurred Lines, followed by Got To Give It Up.
The song had also attracted criticism for being misogynistic, presuming to know what a woman wants and what a woman does not want, and Pharrell was asked about this, “There’s always gonna be sensationalism, man, with what you do. And unless your song is completely perfect and has no — is not sexually suggestive, anything sexually suggestive is open season for coming under fire, and I understand that. But very clearly — two things: No. 1, in the song, it says, “That man is not your maker.” I don’t know anything that could be more — I don’t know anything that could be more clear about our position in the song.”
“That man is not your maker” [means] That whatever man that it’s in reference of the moment is not your maker. Whatever guy’s standing there, that guy is not your maker — he didn’t make you. You made yourself with God. I think it’s very clear. There’s nothing misogynistic about it. It takes the power from whatever “man” — if you’re looking at the lyrics, the power is right there in the woman’s hand. That man — me as a human being, me as a man, I’m not your maker, I can’t tell you what to do.”
“OK now he was close / He tried to domesticate you.” Listen to what I’m saying: “He tried to domesticate you / But you’re an animal.” And then they say, “Don’t call women animals.” OK, so what are we? Are we not a part of the animal kingdom? We’re at the top, but are we not? So the word is not Homo sapiens? OK, cool. That means that every human being — yes, we’re civil but we still have feral instincts, one of which is not to be dominated. So that man is not your maker. You understand? And, secondly, as for the visual, well, that was written and directed by a woman. And it was her concept.”
“I love women. I’ve made all kinds of songs. Let me just make it very clear — for those people that got really upset about it, I love women, man, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a human being on this planet that doesn’t benefit from the fact that a woman agreed to have you. We come through the conduit of a woman’s body and her willingness to say, “Yes,” for you to be born. That’s how I feel. And that’s not the totality of what a woman represents to me — I’m just saying that’s where it starts. So me, personally, I’m comfortable because I know what women represent to me.”