The Neptunes are an American production duo, composed of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who are credited with contributing the sound for many successful hip hop, R&B and pop artists in the late-1990s and 2000s. The Neptunes' sound is a distinctive brand of off-kilter, stripped-down electronic funk with sounds from Middle Eastern and Asian music including percussion and woodwind. Pharrell sings and (later) raps on records and appears in videos, unlike his production partner Chad, and sometimes vocal partner Shay Haley, who tends to stay behind the scenes.
Before gaining success and forming The Neptunes, Williams and Hugo along with local producer Timbaland and rapper Magoo formed a group "Surrounded by Idiots" in the late '90s, but disbanded before even recording together. Later, The Neptunes emerged and Timbaland & Magoo emerged as a hip hop duo, occasionally collaborating.
The Neptunes are estimated to have a net worth of $155 million and are considered one of the most successful producers in music history, noted by twenty-four Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits during the late 1990s and 2000s. In 2009 Billboard ranked The Neptunes No. 1 on their list of Top 10 producers of the decade. Readers of Vibe Magazine named The Neptunes as the 3rd greatest hip-hop producers of all time behind Dr. Dre and DJ Premier.
Pharrell and Chad met at a summer camp for the school of The Gifted and Talented in Virginia Beach, where Williams was a drummer and Hugo played tenor saxophone. They were also both members of a marching band; Pharrell played kettle drum and Chad was a student conductor. In 1990 Chad and Pharrell formed a 4-piece "R&B type" group along with friends Shay and Mike Etheridge, which they named The Neptunes. Upon entering a local talent contest, they were discovered by Teddy Riley, whose studio was close to Pharrell's school. After graduating from high school, they signed with Riley as a group.
Through working with Riley, Pharrell went on to write a verse for Wreckx-N-Effect's 1992 #2 (billboard hot 100) hit "Rump Shaker". In 1994, Hugo and Williams had established themselves formally as a production duo under the previously used name "The Neptunes", and assistant-produced "Tonight's The Night" from Teddy Riley's group BLACKstreet's self-titled debut. Over the next three years they continued to produce occasionally. Some of the production, such as for SWV (1996) and Total (1996), had little resemblance to what would become their distinctive sound, while other songs such as Mase's 1998 No.8 (Billboard hot 100) hit "Lookin' At Me" (from the Harlem World album, 1997) showed clear signs the Neptunes sound was developing.
Their first major production hit, and the most clear beginning of the distinctive Neptunes sound, came with N.O.R.E.'s "Superthug" in 1998, reaching #36 on the Billboard Hot 100, and gaining them widespread attention for the first time. The duo then went on to work heavily with Kelis, producing her first album Kaleidoscope which was the duo's very first full album production and Ol' Dirty Bastard's record Got Your Money, on which Kelis is featured. They achieved huge commercial success with tracks like Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)", Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass", and then-newly renamed Diddy's single "D.I.D.D.Y". Other notable hits during their commercial rise were Busta Rhymes' "Pass The Courvoisier pt. 2" and Usher's "U Don't Have to Call".
Kelis was one of several artists whose careers Hugo and Williams have helped launch; artists such as the Clipse, Vanessa Marquez and Justin Timberlake's solo career were also closely tied to the Neptunes' involvement. They have also helped re-launch the careers of Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke and Mystikal.
In 2001, The Neptunes gained their first worldwide hit with Britney Spears' single, "I'm A Slave 4 U", which reached #1 in several countries in Europe and South America. The following year they reached #1 in the U.S. with Nelly's single, "Hot in Herre". In August of the same year, The Neptunes were named "Producers of the Year" at both The Source Awards and the Billboard Music Awards.
In 2003, they released a self-credited album called The Neptunes Present... Clones, featuring songs and remixes from various Star Trak artists. This album topped the US Billboard 200 Albums Chart.
The Neptunes went home with two Grammy Awards in 2004, one for "Producer of the Year, Non-Classical", and another for "Best Pop Vocal Album" for their work on Justin Timberlake's No.2 Billboard hit Justified. They also gained their first UK #1, again with Nelly, and Flap Your Wings.
The Neptunes sound:
Their 'sound' is mostly synthesizer riffs, sampling keyboard and modules. The Neptunes sound was first heard on Noreaga's 1998 track "Superthug". Although not their first production, the song became known as an example for the "Neptunes Sound". Another example of the Neptunes Sound is their remix of the Daft Punk song "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger". The song was released on Daft Punk's remix album titled "Daft Club," which was released internationally on December 3, 2003 and in the U.S. on January 27, 2004.
A Neptunes production is typically characterized by flat, punchy drum machine sounds and the use of module presets. "Grindin'" was a drum track that paid tribute to Eric B. & Rakim's song of the same nature, "My Melody". Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" paid tribute to the drums of the funk era, where the loop consisted of various snare sounds. On Busta Rhymes' "Light Yo Ass On Fire" they used a heavy chorus effect on the rhythm track suggesting an industrial or robotic theme. They have used the popular Roland TR-808 drum sound on such songs as LL Cool J's and Jamie Foxx's collaboration "Best Dress" but later production work introduced 'live' drum sounds similar to the ones they would frequently use under their N*E*R*D guise. Both The Neptunes and Pharrell as a solo producer are well known for their extensive use of percussion other than drums. Examples of Pharrell's use of percussion are in Robin Thicke's 2013 hit "Blurred Lines" on which he featured with rapper T.I., and also Get Like Me by Nelly, which featured Nicki Minaj and himself.
The Neptunes' engineer, in an interview with Sound on Sound magazine, revealed many of their production techniques. In reference to their drums he said, "Williams will play a standard drum kit, then I will cut 16 bars of it into a loop, before using the same method for other instruments including guitars. That's where a lot of the feel of their records comes from -- it's not just machines and loops."
Many Neptunes productions feature a hook with Pharrell singing falsetto, including Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss", Jadakiss' "Hot Sauce To Go", Kelis' "Flashback", and Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful". Pharrell also adds his own rhymes to his productions, including "Drop It Like It's Hot" in 2004 and "Can I Have It Like That" from his solo debut album In My Mind. Sometimes he is credited as a featured artist and other times he is not.
Another sound found on Neptunes productions are their distinctive use of synth lines (popularized by Dr. Dre in the early 1990s with his G-funk subgenre). Examples include the sharp unfiltered sawtooth bass on Busta Rhymes' As I Come Back or Kelis' Milkshake, the heavily phased strings in Jay-Z's "Excuse Me Miss (Remix)", and hard clavi sounds which are used in N.E.R.D's "Lapdance", reminiscent of those associated with rayguns or video game sound effects from the 8-bit era. The synthesizers they use include a MicroKorg, and a Minimoog Voyager.
There has been much speculation about their tools of the trade. For sequencing they use the Korg 01/W, for drum sounds they use the sampling keyboard Ensoniq ASR-10, their sound modules include the Roland JV 1080 and JV 2080 and for basslines and filtering they have used the MicroKorg. They are also well known for using the Korg Triton and incorporating live percussion and acoustic instruments into their music.
Other Neptunes-related ventures:
The Neptunes' record label, Star Trak Entertainment, includes acts such as Snoop Dogg, Slim Thug and Robin Thicke. Star Trak artists generally benefit from more frequent production from The Neptunes, however, criticisms include poor promotion and release scheduling. Former artist include (due to parent label disputes) Kelis.
The alternative group N*E*R*D is composed of Pharrell, Chad and Shay Haley. It is a backronym of No One Ever Really Dies. Their group hits include "Lapdance", "Rock Star" and "She Wants To Move". The first two singles came from their debut album In Search Of... released in 2001, while the latter came from their eagerly anticipated follow-up Fly Or Die in 2004. The band released a third album, Seeing Sounds, on June 10, 2008 and released their fourth studio album entitled "Nothing", on November 2, 2010.
Pharrell as a solo artist:
In 2003, Pharrell released his first solo single, "Frontin'" featuring Jay-Z. At the time he claimed it was a one-off song, and that he was not a singer in his own right. However, after several delays, Pharrell released his debut solo album on July 24, 2006, titled In My Mind. The first single from the album was a collaboration with Gwen Stefani titled "Can I Have It Like That", released in 2005. The album features numerous guests, including Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Slim Thug, and Kanye West.
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