“That’s my goal, to have the older black folks have their version of mosh pittin’. Just in the church snatching off wigs! That’s when you know you’ve achieved something,” Pharrell Williams says as he whips around his chair, explaining the changes he’s making to “Letter to My Godfather,” from The Black Godfather, which he plans to remaster. “In the third verse, I don’t like what’s happening there. It took it down, and I think it just needs to stay up.”
We’re in Miami for a studio session put together by the president of Beats Electronics, Luke Wood, in celebration of the new More Matte Solo Pro Beats By Dre, which Pharrell is the brand ambassador for. Inside Miami’s Hit Factory, P plays music as he talks through his creative process. Going through original stems of “Happy” and making small updates to “Letter To My Godfather,” he says a form of the word “feel” over 35 times.
At one point in the session, he throws his hands in the air, leaps out of his seat, and explains how elements like how a wood block or snare make him feel. For Pharrell, the key to leveraging his intense feelings is recognizing and trusting them. With acceptance of the feeling, comes clarity for his next moves. Looking back on an uncertain time early in his career with the Neptunes, he recalls emotional meetings as a group. “I was just so crazy and living in the future—not where I knew music would go—but just the way I felt,” he says. “Eventually, music cats caught up and artists were able to express themselves the way that I was in rap music.”
He’s still guided by a mission to create a feeling through music. “That's what James Brown was doing,” he says, offering an example of a legendary artist who had similar goals. “When something felt good, it was: ‘Huh! Ha! Hey!’ He was giving you a feeling most of the time. It wasn't even as lyrical as much as it was rhythmic, and he was just telling you what you were feeling in that moment. It was great.”
The pursuit to capture this feeling leads Pharrell all kinds of places to find samples, like where he got the “Wait a minute!” ad-lib in the 2017 Rihanna collaboration, “Lemon.” It’s actually the late politician Arlen Specter’s voice. “He was doing a town hall and there was this one guy who was just giving him a hard time, and Arlen Specter’s microphone was so distorted, but it was so good,” Pharrell explains. “And the guy was telling him, ‘You and your cronies down in Washington, you know you're taking over our jobs and your health care,’ and Specter was like, ‘Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Wait, wait a minute.’”
As someone who pays close attention to astrology, Pharrell will tell you it’s the earth signs in his life that are so detailed-oriented, intentional, and specific—like Pusha-T, who is a Taurus—in the same sentence he refers to himself an impulsive Aries. His process is meticulous, thoughtful, and as decisive. As he’s playing through “Lemon,” I ask whose idea it was for Rihanna to rap on the song. He looks at me as if it to say, how could they not have Rihanna rap the verse? Then he shares, “With any N.E.R.D. song, we just try to take an against-the-grain approach. Sometimes that goes too far, but I think that one worked.” He adds, “As a producer, I want to make sure every time I do something, there is a moment in the song where you go, ‘Whoa! Wow!’ And if we're not doing it, what are we doing it for?”
This is the nexus of all things Pharrell. At this point in his career, he’s tallied a long list of impressive accomplishments, like the fact that the Neptunes were responsible for 43 percent of the songs on the radio in 2003, but you will never ever hear him highlight those things. And if you do praise them, he’s more apt to talk about how blessed he is than oblige in his greatness. So, as we sit down to talk one-on-one, at the end of our time in the studio together, I decide to speak with him about the mundanities in his life that invoke important feelings.
As we speak, he reveals how hearing free-form songs on SoundCloud helped shift his approach to music and avoid making music with traditional song structure. The conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
During every episode of your Beats 1 show, you ask guests what their zodiac sign is. Why is astrology important to you, and how does it inform your life?
Wow. That’s a complex question, but I just ask because it's no different than asking what a person's genetic makeup is. There are some immutable facts and patterns with it, but then at the same time, you have free will. So, it doesn't mean you're tethered to the way that is. You know, like no Monday is the same. So, you can say, “Oh, this person has the same birthday as me, and we're nothing alike.” You’re right. And no Monday is the same. You know? It may rain on one Monday and it might snow on another, but all Mondays come after Sunday, and right before Tuesday.
So, I ask those things because it's a little more of a hint toward some of their possible tendencies, and some of the possible things that they might be into or not into. I first started out being intrigued by those kinds of things because I noticed patterns within certain people, and I’d be like, “What’s your sign?” I noticed that it would always be a lot of the same signs. It just became a hobby to be able to guess people’s signs, but I don’t hold a person to whatever it is. You know, like, just because you’re African American doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily be into certain things—or because you’re a certain gender. If you consider yourself in any gender boxes or not doesn’t mean that you’re going to like what the textbook should say. What I'm saying is, you still have to allow people to be themselves.
Is there a specific sign that you find you work with best musically? Or have you found a pattern in artists you’ve worked with?
Personalities are just like music for me. I don’t rule out any of it because there’s always something new to learn and experience. I used to have this thing about Capricorns being so rigid—and they can be. But man, when they use that rigidness for something, they’re amazing and they don’t fucking miss. None of the earth signs do, in my opinion. Capricorn, Virgo, Taurus—the Taurus are just so sharp about details. A lot of my favorite directors happen to be Taurus, another earth sign.
Can you give an example of one?
Harmony Korine. Wes Anderson. They’re both Taurus.
Do you have a specific routine in the studio?
I don’t like to eat.
Before or during?
Both. As you can see, I got tea. Sometimes I’m brave about it and I eat. Then I’m just like, ahhh. [Sighs]. I don’t know if I feel like going back in here right now. Food weighs me down.
Right. Full meals make me tired, too.
I’m a Taurus moon, too. [Laughs].
You’ve said that the most exciting moment in your process is when you feel a need to play the song over and over again. Sometimes you’ll go for a ride with your wife, with the track on repeat. Can you tell me what one of those songs is?
“Happy” was one of them.
Where did you guys drive?
We drove all around Miami. We drove from the studio—at that time, I was working at a place called Circle House—and we drove through the hood and just kept driving. It was like, wow, this feels so good. Between then and when the song came out, that was all magical to me, because the world wasn’t fucking with the song. The movie came out and the song didn’t work at radio. We couldn't make it work. It wasn’t until the movie was out of the theaters and would go into DVD that they gave us money from the DVD marketing budget to do a video. Then it popped. So, we have all that time listening to the song before it came. That was our shit. We just listened to it all the time. [Claps]. Then, when the movie came out, it didn’t work. But before that video came out, we rode around to that song for months.
You told the Internet on your show that you’ve started making music with the idea that you want every section of the song to hit like a hook. But that wasn’t always the way you made music. Was there a milestone or song that made you make that switch?
I don’t know if there was a milestone as much as I just felt in the matrix that we live in, there’s musical chairs, and there's never really a clear declaration that everything’s changed. For example, there are certain things that people wanted to hear in songs in reference to women. And I have a lot of songs that are like that. Now, I wouldn’t dare write or say things like that, but there were women that liked it back then.
if you listened to music that was on SoundCloud, there are no hooks. There’s just vibes. That made me think to myself, I don’t know if I want to hear a traditional song structure anymore.
I mean, there still are. And I think a lot of us still like your old music.
But, there was a switch, and shit just changed. Certain things are just completely unacceptable. Like, if you looked at ’70s and ’80s commercials, it’s really, really wild what was acceptable.
To answer your question, musically, I just felt like, oh shit! Intro verse, B section, chorus, second verse, B section, double chorus, bridge, double chorus, outro—I didn’t want to hear that anymore. And, no one really made that declaration. But then if you listened to music that was on SoundCloud, there are no hooks. There’s just vibes. You know what I mean? And so, that made me think to myself, I don’t know if I want to hear a traditional song structure anymore. Let’s just do hooks. I could’ve said, “Oh, I just want to do a song for the bridges.” Hooks just felt like the fun part.
What kind of music are you playing for your children lately?
Classical music, because that just opens up different synapse connections. A lot of surgeons are some of the best string players, because it’s working and developing the same part of the mind. We’re just starting to play Stevie [Wonder] stuff, Earth, Wind & Fire stuff, just so that they can get acclimated to those jazzy chord progressions. Just yesterday I was playing some music in the truck and my daughter—she likes the hard shit, just like my sons. The 808s. “I like it hard, dad.”
What’s her sign?
No one's ever asked me that before! They are double Aquarius, Sagittarius moon. It’s real.
During your recent talk with Rick Rubin, you said the first time you heard “Rock The Bells,” you were like, “What the fuck is this?!” And you've described “Bonita Applebum” as being really influential for you. Do those moments still happen for you?
The last time a song fucked me up was “Them Changes” by Thundercat. When I heard that song, it was crazy! Scott Vener played me that record. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” Oh my God. Listen, that baseline. It was like, if Tribe was ever a band, but with El DeBarge singing. Yeah. Thundercat is the most underrated, illest bass players. He’s the fucking illest bass player! Sorry to everybody I love that plays bass! He’s unbelievable. He’s played a couple songs on the N.E.R.D. album. Unbelievable. Forget it! He is... I don’t sing his praises enough. But that “Them Changes” record?! [Sings the bassline]. I mean, woo! That’s the last time I felt that way! It was a couple of years ago.
When you talk about music, it’s so apparent how much you still love it. For those of us that have made our passions our work, what is a secret that you have to continue being so obsessed with it?
Does it get you high? And, what I mean by high is, does it have the ability to make you feel angst? Does it have the ability to excite you? Any job. Can it make you emotional at times? You gotta find something that moves your emotions—not just occupies your mind or bides your time. You’ve got to find something that you emotionally connect with. I wish that for every child.