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The Rise Of Pharrell: Mapping The Career Of The Summer’s Biggest Hit-Maker

“Rump Shaker”—Wreckx-N-Effect, Hard Or Smooth (1992)

The Apprentice
It’s easy to imagine a young Pharrell Williams, born to a schoolteacher and a handyman in Virginia Beach, soaking up the smooth, studio wizard pop and R&B of the 1970s as a teenager and thinking of how he’d bring that playful sensibility to bear on the dissonant, skeletal sounds of hip-hop. He played in the marching band in school, where he met Chad Hugo, his eventual producing partner in the Neptunes and later in the funk-rock side project N.E.R.D. Together, they created music that combined the steely cool of Depeche Mode with the rhythmic warmth of A Tribe Called Quest, eventually landing an internship under New Jack Swing-defining super-producer Teddy Riley, who owned a studio mere blocks from Williams’ high school. The Neptunes template is there on the Riley-produced Wreckx-N-Effect smash “Rump Shaker”: the infectious hook, the disruptive noises, the sense of space. Contrary to popular myth making, the group didn’t produce the song—Williams merely wrote Riley’s verse on the track, not the iconic “zoom zoom zoom” chorus—but you can imagine Williams scribbling notes in the corner, storing away insights for later and imagining his own future rump-shaking anthem.

“Tonight’s The Night”—Blackstreet, Blackstreet (1994)

The Neptunes would land their first production credits on “Tonight’s The Night,” a silky smooth-talk anthem from Riley’s boy band Blackstreet’s self-titled 1994 record, but their signature sound would take some time to evolve. The duo would write curious R&B songs in a similar vein for some time, before landing a plum production credit on “Lookin’ At Me” off Ma$e’s Bad Boy era-defining Harlem World, an album that represents the type of Puff Daddy 1990s excess the Neptunes would eventually strip down to its bare essentials.

“Lookin’ At Me”—Ma$e Harlem World (1997)

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