The Search Continues: Reflecting On 20 Years Of N.E.R.D.’s Debut Album

Revisiting the unique creation process and lasting legacy of N.E.R.D.'s classic album 'In Search Of...' with Chad Hugo and other players involved in the classic

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Photos courtesy of Eric Fawcett

nerd in search of era photos

Chad Hugo is sitting on the other end of the phone in Virginia as he tells me all about a talk he just had with his son. It wasn’t “the talk” that parents have with their kids when they reach a certain age. His son is 23. Instead, it was the type of talk that only a member of Virginia’s very own N.E.R.D. can share with his kid, about a debut album that—two decades after its release—is still inspiring young creatives and impacting culture. 

The conversation surrounded the only album he’s ever made with two versions, In Search Of…, and which version his son preferred. By the tone of his voice, it seems Hugo’s son didn’t give him the answer he, himself, was quite searching for.

“He likes the original version,” Chad explains with a laugh. “He likes the electronic version better.”

That original version (dubbed the “electronic version”) was already seven months old this week in 2002, when Hugo and Pharrell Williams, who made up the legendary production duo The Neptunes, joined forces with childhood friend Shae Haley to finally release their debut album in the U.S. via their own Star Trak Entertainment and Virgin Records. The updated March 11 release was as defiant as it gets from a pair of guys who were known at the time for producing some of the most interstellar hip-hop and pop hits on airwaves.

The new version of the album, which instead featured a funk-rock splash of live instrumentation courtesy of Minnesota quartet Spymob, was an escape from the original 2001 European release, which has appropriately been dubbed the “electronic” version by generations of fans. But the new version, notably coined as the “rock” version despite those involved not necessarily seeing it as a rock record, gave new meaning to the band’s second single “Rockstar.” 

And that was exactly what N.E.R.D. were soon to become.

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“After the [first version], a goal of ours was to try to get played on rock radio,” Hugo explains. “Places that would play Linkin Park, Cypress Hill, Limp Bizkit. We met those guys and were inspired by music like that, people who had embraced hip-hop. So we just wanted to see what would come out of it sonically, because as producers we would demo-up stuff and make the music and shop it to other people. And those would just be considered demos. It was astonishing that the record label accepted the [first] album as if it was a final copy. But to us, we thought it was a demo. So they just called it an electronic version.”

Regardless of the album’s unexpected rollout, In Search Of… went on to inspire a new breed of music fans to reconstruct every formula and, just as Hugo explains of the album title’s inspiration, start “searching for that sound that would get us noticed.” The album also altered the lives of Spymob band members Eric Fawcett and Brent Paschke, who both earned a second chance at success re-tracking the album and touring with N.E.R.D. after being dropped by their label just months before. And it even afforded Phillip Leeds a job like no other as N.E.R.D.’s tour manager, and gave manager Rob Walker a chance to see The Neptunes have their musical evolution come full circle.

The First Version

In Search Of… supplied music fans and band affiliates with what they were searching for and more, and it all started with a group of friends looking to change the game. Of course, the story of Pharrell, Chad, and Shae meeting as students has been told plenty of times before. Hugo and P first linked at the school for the Gifted and Talented in Virginia Beach, before a 1992 talent show performance caught the attention of music great Teddy Riley. From there came the placements, from Noreaga’s “Superthug” to ODB’s “Got Your Money” to debut albums from Clipse and Kelis to Hov’s “I Just Wanna Love U.”

The Neptunes—which is how the duo chose to identify thanks to their affinity for Star Trek—were the hottest in the game, and besides a few Pharrell choruses and music video appearances, they were still keeping that magic relatively concealed behind-the-scenes in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

“I think throughout the years, when the Neptunes were producing different songs, when Pharrell and I were making songs for other people, we would just set aside other beats and tracks that would be initially for the side project, N.E.R.D.,” Hugo recalls. “It started as a Neptunes project by the band, and then Pharrell and I started making music for other people and called that The Neptunes. And it wasn’t until later where Pharrell came up with the No One Ever Really Dies acronym.”

Making N.E.R.D. a trio, much like the band’s now-iconic logo that appeared on Pharrell’s go-to trucker hats, was a no-brainer. Chad reveals that Shae Haley, who would dance alongside the duo back in school, was always “down with us,” so the trio went to Master Sound in Virginia Beach and recorded what soon became In Search Of…, minus the live instrumentation. 

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“We had a four-track and recorded some stuff on it, put some demos on the TASCAM and came up with some basic grooves. I think Kelis was the first artist on Virgin and then N.E.R.D. followed,” Hugo recalls. “After they heard Kelis, the guys at the record label were interested in hearing what N.E.R.D. was about. So we presented that project.”

Using an ASR-10 sampler to chop up drums, with Pharrell distorting a clavichord (since Hugo had yet to learn guitar at the time), and recording it all on Pro Tools, N.E.R.D. laid down their first album, or at least its first version, based off of some tracks they kept for themselves over the years. But even the first version that Hugo felt was demo-like, released in Europe on Aug. 6, 2001, wasn’t necessarily something that Neptunes fans would be expected to immediately gravitate toward. It wasn’t meant for the clubs like their inescapable radio smashes. In fact, Hugo remembers going out at night and deciding that nightlife bangers would pretty much become the antithesis of N.E.R.D.’s sound. 

“Pharrell had the Lexus at the time and we would just vibe out, man. And we would go to the clubs once in a while. But we wanted to do our own thing outside the clubs,” he says. “We made music for the clubs as the Neptunes, but I think we were just making stuff that was another dimension. We tried to make another world with N.E.R.D. The experience was all experimental as far as we were just making music, having fun. Enjoying each other’s company, making music at the same time and making interesting records that people hadn’t heard of.”

Despite the absence of the types of tracks that would put the Neptunes themselves on the map, N.E.R.D. still tapped their universe of Neptunes collaborators to play a role in shaping the band. As Hugo recalls, N.E.R.D. and Star Trak Entertainment, co-founded by Hugo and Williams with Walker, had their own clique, from Kelis to Clipse and everyone in between. It meant a lot to see the hip-hop community back them up, too. “We wanted to be part of a community and we wanted to try different things to see who would accept us,” Hugo says. “I didn’t know if hip-hop radio would take to it. We didn’t know if rock radio would take to it.”

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Watching N.E.R.D. take shape was special for Walker, a longtime friend of the group’s members and eventual manager of the Neptunes, who pointed out that there were different versions of the group, with different members, before the trio of Chad, Pharrell, and Shae found its footing. One version had just called themselves The Neptunes. Plus, Star Trak wasn’t even formed at the time N.E.R.D. was born, either, but Walker was able to see his friends shine in ways they hadn’t yet before. 

“This was a group that was sort of evolving and finding its own groove, sound, direction and focus,” Walker recalls. “I got to know the guys first as the Neptunes as producers and through working with them I got the chance to see them go through their bag of ideas and thoughts about what was to come. And that’s how I found out about N.E.R.D. It was always in development and happening [during] down time from producing for others or in between studio sessions. So hearing it start to form and have a real sound and direction of its own, you knew they were on to something special.”

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The Search Takes a Detour 

For rock radio to accept the album with open arms and to make something completely unexpected and separate from the Neptunes, there needed to be rock elements, or at least some live funk elements. That’s how Spymob came into the picture. The Minnesota group had just been dropped by Epic Records after turning in their debut album and was open for work when a chance encounter between Pharrell and a shared lawyer led to Pharrell revealing that Spymob was his favorite band.

“In June, we got the call,” remembers drummer Fawcett, who founded the band in the early ‘90s alongside Paschke, bassist Christian Twigg, and singer/keyboardist John Ostby. “I got a call from Pharrell saying, ‘Hey, we made this album. It’s a group that we have called N.E.R.D, and we are thinking of rerecording it with real instruments. Are you guys interested in the band?’ We were all like, ‘Well, we don’t have anything else going on right now.’ They sent up a big Rock-It Cargo truck and we put all of our instruments in there. It was really important for Pharrell to have all of our vintage Ludwig drums, and Ludwig vintage guitars and old Rhodes piano and everything. He just wanted the Spymob sound on there.”

At the time, Fawcett didn’t know too much about Pharrell outside of him being the “I’m a hustler, baby” guy, but Pharrell knew a hell of a lot about Spymob. After their six-song 1998 demo that somehow wound up in the superstar producers’ hands, Hugo recalls that N.E.R.D. felt Spymob was “on a different level chord wise.”

“[Fawcett] flew out then to meet them at some point,” remembers guitarist Paschke. “I think that’s when Eric came back with a CD and said, ‘Want to play on this?’ And so we all had the CD and I remember listening to it thinking like, ‘God, this is really freaking cool. It’s really, really dope shit.’ And I was really excited too because 20 years back, it’s a little more complex to be matching up program drums and real drums and kind of doing that little mismatch of styles. So that was exciting for me. And I think for everybody.”

Re-recording the tracks in Virginia Beach, the band knocked out the sessions for the live-instrumentation version of the album in just a 10-day stretch. In an effort to include the “Spymob sound” on the album, Fawcett, Paschke, and their fellow band members even arranged their own Spymob demo version of In Search Of… to see what the N.E.R.D. thought of where they were at creatively. But, as they soon found out, Pharrell, Chad, and Shae were searching for something a little different.

Part of the magic of what Chad and Pharrell do is that they choose who they work with [in the same] way that they’ll choose a paint or they’ll build the palette. And so if they choose the right blue, they’re not going to worry how the blue’s going to perform when it hits the canvas or how it’s going to perform tomorrow. Just bring the blue.

“We thought that we would present these to the guys and they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, Spymob. That’s so cool. It’s got Spymob on it.’ But when we pulled the sessions up, I remember Chad just went. ‘Yeah, nah. Let’s just have fun here.’ Those guys just really trust the moment,” Fawcett recalls of the summer 2001 sessions, which were more spur-of-the-moment than he expected. “I think about good hiring practices in businesses—you can save yourself a lot of work and worry later on if you just hire the right person. Part of the magic of what Chad and Pharrell do is that they choose who they work with [in the same] way that they’ll choose a paint or they’ll build the palette. And so if they choose the right blue, they’re not going to worry how the blue’s going to perform when it hits the canvas or how it’s going to perform tomorrow. Just bring the blue. And I think that’s what they did with us.”

During the recording of the 2002 release, Pharrell was across town chopping up an album with Brandy, likely 2002’s Full Moon, as Chad and Shae handled more of the day-to-day. But at the end of each night, Pharrell would show up at the studio to hear what Spymob would be cooking up.

For their part, Spymob filled in previously empty spaces on the demo version with muted drums, translating electronic guitar riffs to the real deal, and even moaning during the re-recording of “Things are Getting Better.” Listen closely, you’ll hear Fawcett, alright.

While N.E.R.D.’s process seemed a bit unconventional as they were balancing being the biggest production duo in the game while holding down sessions for a new rock-adjacent project, Spymob still trusted their instincts, even if that meant just making noise and seeing how it all progressed, as Chad often insisted they did. 

“I remember thinking, ‘If Pharrell’s 50% of this, how could this possibly work?’ And like, ‘What if nothing is right?’ Calvinist work ethic, Midwestern sensibility definitely was alive and well in me,” Fawcett recalls. “Just like on any project, we wanted this to go really well. But at the same time we didn’t know what we were making.”

‘Still Searching...’

What N.E.R.D. and Spymob ended up making was a cross-genre classic—an album that despite a few negative reviews from Neptunes purists (and in-person slights from Randy Jackson of American Idol), would quickly earn a top-50 song on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart with “Rockstar,” peak at No. 31 on the R&B albums chart, and eventually spend 35 weeks on the Billboard 200. 

“I think the live version gave it something different,” Walker says. “It gave it a different energy, it took it more into the alternative space and I think it kind of opened it, didn’t pigeonhole it to one direction. It was hip-hop. It was alternative rock. It then became a mixture of a bunch of different energies and sounds… It was special and it was definitely gonna take some time for people to get used to it, these young Black kids entering into this space where it was dominated, you know, by a different audience.”

If Chad, Shae, and Skateboard P were searching for decades of adoration from fans that were barely old enough to pick up on the Leonard Nimoy reference in the album’s title, or even play the Playstation game that Haley is transfixed on in the album’s updated cover, they certainly found it. 

Leeds, who met Pharrell and Hugo while both he and Walker worked at Def Jam in the mid ‘90s, started touring with N.E.R.D. from around their third show onward. The N.E.R.D. years took him to Donatella Versace’s home for dinner one night, and even opening for David Bowie on a whim. But while he was just getting up to speed on The Neptunes’ career in hip-hop after working as tour manager for heavy metal bands in years prior, those first few N.E.R.D. gigs marked his first time hearing the album himself. And he insists he still hears the intro to “Brain” in his head every now and then. 

“People didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into,” Leeds recalled of the early crowds. “They had seen Pharrell in videos, singing hooks on rap songs. A lot of people would come to an N.E.R.D. show, expecting it to be rap music, and were really surprised. On all the first tours, Spymob got the opening slot. So basically, people were very confused.”

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Being on tour with N.E.R.D., Leeds—who ended up working for Billionaire Boys Club years down the line as his relationship with Pharrell grew—said he would consider himself part of the band in those early days. “Even the concept of ‘No One Every Really Dies’ and ‘nothing lasts forever,’ is really part of my operating system and my philosophy. You have to be in the moment and enjoy what you have when you have it. Nothing lasts forever, N.E.R.D. is gone, those days are gone, but I’m lucky to still have the friendships.”

And the music world is lucky to still have the music to provide ongoing inspiration. Songwriter Lily Lizotte, whose pop project THE BLSSM just earned them a Fueled By Ramen signing, still remembers the first show they ever went to as a kid being an N.E.R.D. gig, and their love for the album was sure to follow. “Discovering In Search of… and getting into N.E.R.D. was such an identifying experience for me,” The BLSSM says. “Everything visually and sonically represented a collage of cross cultures that felt so visceral, free, unique, and authentic. Listening to N.E.R.D. fulfilled everything I wanted, like they were fully genre-less and free. Rap, rock, funk, and R&B all cut from the same fabric sewn together with energy. The whole project just oozed with self-expression and they were SO incredibly ahead of their time.”

Of course, fans of the album have covered its songs throughout the last two decades, including The Internet, which first shared a rendition of “Tape You” back in 2016. Bassist Patrick Paige II says that he still hopes to someday put together chords that are as cool as those at the end of “Bobby James.”

“Hearing ‘Rockstar’ on KROQ, a rock station I used to love as a kid in 7th or 8th grade, not fully aware of who N.E.R.D. was or what kind of music they made, was my introduction, and I hadn’t even realized it,” Paige recalls. “I was more into rock at that age and a piece of this album still found its way to me through that avenue. I’d say that alone just goes to show how versatile and musical and such a reach that album really had.”

Paige adds that while their third album in 2008’s Seeing Sounds influenced his life on a deeper level than In Search Of…, “N.E.R.D. is a perfect example of freedom of expression and so much more beyond that, and I can’t really put any of their albums in a genre, and I don’t want to.”

Of course, the album had its haters, too. “Some people just have strong opinions,” Paschke said. “I think there’s some songs that their straight digital version might be better. We were also cautious. We didn’t want to lose our sound. So you go in to put big drums and guitars on ‘Rockstar.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to keep this crazy, weird, Fuzz Factory, gated guitar.’ Eric kept his funky old Ludwig drums. If we’d done that differently, taken a more traditional rock approach, it wouldn’t have had the effect that it does.”

The effect is undeniable. One of its biggest fans, who caught on when he was just 11 years old, is Tyler, The Creator. The multi-talented creative has cited the album as an influence for as long as he’s been in the game, from Camp Flog Gnaw reunions to tweets demanding that Walker hand over old-school N.E.R.D. beats. 

Paschke met him a few years back, which marked an encounter that Tyler certainly was fan-boying over at the time. Even Fawcett’s 13-year-old daughter has a Tyler poster up in her room, and the N.E.R.D. connection has earned him his own cool-dad points.

“There is no expiration on your creativity and/or freedom of expression,” Walker says. “That’s what the album means to me 20 years later. I’m seeing a kid that doesn’t age. What it meant at the time is for kids to be themselves, have the courage to go out there and not be pigeonholed in one box and really explore with whatever they wanted to explore. And today, it’s good to see that the narrative is still going and you have artists like Tyler, The Creator that still carry that narrative. That you can be yourself and you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself into one category. And I think here we’re talking about music, but we also need to see it as having a much wider impact than music. It’s fashion, it’s culture. Pharrell specifically has had an important voice and street culture and fashion. He’s the one that had those brand partnerships with the big companies early on. This sound and movement has had so much impact and it’s been able to open doors and welcome many to have a voice.”

When Chad, now in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, is asked to think back to the album itself, he treats the question almost like an acceptance speech, and rightfully so. “I’m thankful, man. Just really thankful. I thank God. I thank Pharrell and Shae and the crews that were behind us, the record labels and engineers and just the music community all in all. It’s a group effort to promote something and we just try to do what’s what’s right in life and continue to kind of make good decisions, what our parents tried to instill in us”

And at the end of my call with Hugo, I ask him a pretty standard question, to get a gist of just how much the project resonates with him still. I asked Chad what In Search Of... means to him today. 

“Still searching,” he says.

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