NEW YORK How ironic is this? Major artists from Britney Spears to Busta Rhymes to Limp Bizkit are tripping over themselves to get in the studio with the Neptunes. Everyone, that is, but the one artist they most want to work with. Watching Busta, Ja Rule, P. Diddy, Run-DMC, Naughty by Nature and Salt-N-Pepa rehearse their hip-hop medley for "MTV20: Live and Almost Legal," MTV's 20th anniversary special, the production duo dispelled rumors that they've laid tracks for the new Michael Jackson album.
"No, we haven't," said the duo's flamboyant half, Pharrell Williams, who sings a duet with Mary J. Blige on her upcoming album. "But we would love to, because Michael is the best."
As Salt-N-Pepa performed "Push It" in the background at Tuesday's rehearsal, the Neptunes elaborated on other projects.
"Britney Spears!" Williams said, smirking as if he'd just won the NBA championship. But he quickly became more serious.
"It's cool, man. It's music," he said when asked about the studio sessions with the teeny-popper, whose third album is tentatively due in November (see "Britney Loves Rock And Roll, But Club Beats Also Pop Up On New LP"). "We don't wanna let the cat out of the bag, but it's exciting."
"It's electric pop," his partner, Chad Hugo, clarified. "Like how pop was back in the day, with a Neptunes twist."
The Virginia Beach, Virginia, duo also are looking to add that back-in-the-day flavor to the ghetto-funk feel of Kelis' second album (see "Kelis In Wanderland, But Still In Your Face").
"It's going to be retro-pop," Williams said. "Year 3000, but retro. That doesn't make sense, but that's how we are."
They may be music's most sought-after producers. In the 'burbs, you hear 'NSYNC's "Girlfriend" blasting out of poolside boomboxes. Turn on the radio, and you hear Busta Rhymes' "What It Is" in heavy rotation. Take it to the clubs Usher's "I Don't Know" is a favorite.
True, they've been criticized for beats that often sound alike. Still, the duo have been able to maintain a there's-no-tomorrow work schedule without burning themselves out.
As "Bad Boy for Life" played and P. Diddy swaggered across the stage, Williams reflected, "One can focus on one kind of music we do and get caught up into thinking that's [the only thing] we do. That's what most people think, [but] if that were true, we wouldn't have songs with Garbage and Limp Bizkit, and we wouldn't have songs [with] 'NSYNC, Britney Spears and Backstreet. You gotta actually check the charts and see where we are elsewhere.
"Music is very segregated," he added. "Pop doesn't know what R&B is doing. R&B doesn't know what hip-hop is doing. Hip-hop probably doesn't have that huge of a clue of what's going on in rock."
Moving even farther afield, he said, "We're getting into the country thing now." That's right, they're looking to replace their synthesizers with guitars at least for a track or two.
"Right now, that's just our aspirations, if the Lord is willing," Hugo conceded.
As for their own album under the name N*E*R*D, the duo said they've decided to push the project back until late fall because, as Williams puts it, "The THC level wasn't high enough" (see "Neptunes Step Up Front As N*E*R*D").