Pharrell Has Found His Happy Place In The Mainstream

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    It's hard to imagine an artist who has had more of a direct influence on pop music and hip-hop over the past 12 months than Pharrell Williams. The Virginia-born producer has helmed hit after hit after hit for the likes of Jay Z, Beyoncé, Robin Thicke and Daft Punk, to name just a few, and his first solo album since 2006, <i>G I R L</i>, was released yesterday (Mar. 3) to critical acclaim—<a title="xxl" href="http://www.xxlmag.com/rap-music/reviews/2014/03/pharrell-girl-album-review/" target="_blank">including from <i>XXL</i></a>. He's also riding the wave of his current No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, "Happy," and an electrifying performance at Sunday night's Oscars, where he narrowly missed out on winning the Best Original Song award.<br /><br />But it didn't all start out with chart-topping displays of musical mastery; Pharrell started out grindin' just like everyone else, hustling to get placements and features before finally breaking through with his Neptunes cohort Chad Hugo by producing Noreaga's "Superthug" in 1998. Since then, Skateboard P has surfed through the musical landscape with a chameleon-like ability to both dictate and adapt to the mainstream's tastes. Last Thursday (Feb. 27), before he took the stage at the Oscars wearing his now-trademarked Smokey The Bear hat and made the entire theater get up and dance alongside him, the man himself hopped on the phone with <i>XXL</i> to talk about his recent successes, his ability to stay current after 20 years in the business and how he broke through in the music industry out of sheer love for the game. <em>—Dan Rys (<a title="danrys" href="https://twitter.com/danrys" target="_blank">@danrys</a>)</em>
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: You've got the number one record in the country, you're performing at the Oscars, you just won Record Of The Year at the Grammys, and you got your first album in eight years coming out on Monday. How do you feel right now?</b><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>Unbelievable. It's an unbelievable feeling. Especially when you consider the fact that it's the fans that have taken it to this place. And by the way, I'm just telling you right now, this might come off as generic, but it's the truth, and I don't really have anything else to say. But dude, it's the fans. They're the ones who have pushed that song to No. 1. They voted for it, they've been requesting it, they're downloading it, in certain cases they've been uploading it.<br /><br />It's just perpetuated this whole entire scenario to new heights that I never dreamt of. Especially as an artist. I was used to being the frontman of N.E.R.D., and in terms of production, I was always the guy in the video standing next to the guy. I didn't see this coming at all. But it's the fans, man, they jumped behind the songs and it's been pretty amazing.<br /><br /><iframe src="//www.youtube.com/embed/y6Sxv-sUYtM" height="380" width="670" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0"></iframe>
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>Let's go back to the beginning of your career a little bit. When you were first making music for yourself, what was the most important thing for you?</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>For me, our mantra has always been making music, our way and method has always been, making music that feels good. 'Cause that's the thing; there's nothing like going to a house party and hearing music that moves the whole room, that erupts the whole room as soon as they start playing it, you know?
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>When you were first getting started, what were some of the things you were doing to get your music out there?</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>At that time, a lot of people were posting stuff online, but then there was a big huge community that was still feeling very dependent on the traditional music industry. So you waited for a slot on someone's album to produce something, or jump into the opportunity to be featured on something, you know? Chad and I, I think what worked out in our favor, as bad as we wanted it and as much as we wanted to be on, we still love making music. As much as we wanted it to be recognized, we loved making the music. They balance themselves out. Our desire for people to hear our music was just as heavy as the weight of our wanting to make music every day.<br /><br />So that's just what we did. We made <i>so</i> much music. And all of the rejection only made you work harder. It only built your music storage facility—I'm speaking metaphorically—bigger. We had beats upon beats upon beats stockpiled around and so much soul, different styles kind of laying around. Because we would go into these different eras of things we really liked, and it would always be there once you did it. I'll never forget, we used to carry around this big floppy disk book, filled and filled and filled with floppy disks at that time. [<i>Laughs</i>] Probably people reading this interview don't even know what that is, it was so long ago. But yeah, it was just a different time.
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>How have you stayed current, musically, throughout the last 15-20 years? Music is constantly changing, and you've been consistently at the top of the charts.</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>I think my love for music is just the same. I love the way it feels, so any time I get a chance to do it, I do. I think that's really all it is—you gotta love what you're doing. And you don't let it go, by the way. You don't put it down. You continue to go. Like wine does not stop. Wine doesn't take a break to age, it don't do that. Right? It has to stay consistent. As does your love. The longer you work at it, you realize your shortcomings, you realize what you need to overcompensate for, you realize what you could pull back on, you realize what could be better, what could make the taste of your music sweeter. The people's feelings. So that's sort of how you gotta look at it. There's no breaks, by the way. That doesn't mean you have to stay as busy as you were, but you have to be as consistently interested as you always were.
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>Is there an element of paying attention to musical trends? Or do you like to set that part of it aside?</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>You should just listen to the ether, period. Not just the radio, but you should listen to, like, forest sounds, listen to the voice in your head, listen to your heart, listen to what your girl says, listen to what's being said on the news. That's where all inspiration comes from. It's not limited or blocked in any kind of way from certain dimensions or certain platforms or disciplines. Inspiration comes from everywhere.<br /><br />So, should you go scouring the radio to figure out what's going on? No. But you should be open to whatever audible source, because that's for the perpetuation of your craft. And you can't do the exact opposite, which is to only listen to one genre. That's a mistake. A complete mistake. Because if all you are doing is focusing in on what's going on in a particular place, then the only thing you're doing is following. You're not leading. And you're not there for contributing to the game, you're just picking up space.
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>One of the biggest thing in production is always sampling. You'd gotten into a little bit of an issue with "Blurred Lines" and Marvin Gaye's estate. Did you see the similarities in those tracks? How did you deal with that fallout?</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>Well listen, I have the utmost respect, the most, utmost respect for Marvin Gaye and his music, and he is one of the patriarchs, he is one of the best. But here's the thing—you can't trademark a groove. If I play a song—which a lot of my new hip-hop, rap records are—that's done in 6/8 time signature, Charlie Parker's family is not going to sue me for that. Do you understand what I'm saying? If I do a salsa beat right now, I know that Ricky Martin's family is not going to come looking for me.<br /><br />Because that's what we're dealing with. We're dealing with the idea that someone feels like a groove is proprietary, and it's not. Music is, and the notes are, and when you look at the sheet music, then you'd know. And just for a bit of humor, the percussion that I use on "Blurred Lines," aside from the music notation being completely different, completely different—the sheet music is available online, by the way—but the percussion, I was trying to pretend that I was Marvin Gaye, and what he would do had he went down to Nashville and did a record with pentatonic harmonies, and more of a bluegrass chord structure. So unfortunately there's no comparison between the minor, bluesy chords he was playing and my major, bluegrass-y chords, and that's very plain to see for anyone who can read music.<br /><br /><iframe src="//www.youtube.com/embed/yyDUC1LUXSU" height="380" width="670" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0"></iframe>
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    <b><em>XXL</em>: </b><strong>Musically, do you feel like you're at your height right now with this new album?</strong><br /><strong>Pharrell: </strong>I would've had to have seen the highest height before, to tell you that. There's no gauge, so I don't know.

Previously: Pharrell Felt Like His First Album Had No Purpose
The Rise Of Pharrell: Mapping The Career Of The Summer’s Biggest Hit-Maker
Pharrell Continues His Hot Streak With G I R L
Pharrell Makes Them Dance At The 2014 Oscars
Pharrell’s Album Cover Starts Controversy
It Took Pharrell 9 Tries To Make “Happy”