After producing countless hits for a who’s who of hip-hop and pop artists, as well as scoring a few films, Pharrell Williams took a break from the boards to focus on N*E*R*D, his group with longtime friends Chad Hugo and Shay Haley. The trio recently released their third album, Nothing, which actually covers a lot of wide-ranging topics and genre-bending backdrops. recently caught up with the Star Trak captain to pick his brain on the art of hip-hop, Hollywood and getting back on his camouflage hood shit. First and foremost, why did you guys decide to call this latest N*E*R*D album Nothing?

Pharrell: Well, we were working on a big body of music. We had amassed like 26 records, and to be honest, it just felt like it was good music—it was dope—but it just didn’t feel like I was pushing the envelope enough and I really wanted to go and just make something like next level. Not artsy-fartsy, but just something next level that was kind of like pushing the envelope. I was like I wanted to take another approach and make something that like when you hear it you’re like, “What is that?”

The weird thing is, though, the content on the album is actually about something. Was that a purposeful thing you guys decided to do?

Well, I’m sorry. I actually negated to tell you that part. Once I started over, we started from nothing, so that’s why we called the album Nothing, because it started with nothing. We scrapped everything and started with nothing. At the end of the day it’s kind of like the Big Bang. What was there before the Big Bang? There was nothing, so I just sort of like tried to draw that parallel between then and now. The title, and like the [feel] of the album, just talking about a lot of the things going on in the world, so that album is like a time capsule if you will.

This is the fourth album for N*E*R*D. How do you guys differentiate what goes to a N*E*R*D project as opposed to a Neptunes or Pharrell solo project? Like, what’s the mind-state for approaching each?

Well, actually I don’t do solo stuff so much. I only did that one album, and that proves that that was so much that I wasn’t ready for it. I kind of like producing. When I produce I’m able to just push other people further, and being in N*E*R*D that’s just who we are. Even with making this album it was kind of like how do we express ourselves, and I wanted to make records that you go digging in the crates for. The difference in this music versus what we would do, like I just did some records for T.I. N*E*R*D we wouldn’t do that. Those records were meant to push Tip further, whereas our records are kind of like more reflective of who we are versus pushing ourselves. If we would’ve pushed ourselves that’d be a whole different thing. I felt like the album that we made that we didn’t release was that it was us pushing ourselves. It was kind of like putting steroids in the music, and while that doesn’t sound like it makes sense or would be counterproductive I don’t know I just felt more like let me push the envelope versus putting the steroids behind the drums or whatever. Let me do what I feel like no one else has done or just make classic rock.

You’ve also stepped into Hollywood a little bit, scoring for Despicable Me. How’d you even get connected with that film project?

They approached me, man. I was really honored. That’s another thing, too. I got two other films that I’m about to score as well. I love scoring, but I love making beats as well, too. I just hadn’t been so motivated to do it, because you don’t want to do the same shit. You want to go out and discover new shit, and cool news sounds, and new soundings, and experience new styles and so, and bring them back. Now that I’ve done my fourth N*E*R*D record I can really let lose the virus.

In terms of the scoring process, how different is that in terms of producing music for an artist or yourself? Do you prefer one over the other?

I love scoring and I love making music in the studio…. Seriously, I’m thankful for every Grammy I have, but I need to see some Oscars.

You helped introduce fans to the Clipse; what are your thoughts on their progression as artists? Pusha T is now with Kanye on G.O.O.D. Music and Malice is working on releasing his book soon.

I love it! They’ve been on their own for about three or four years now. And I think they’ve done a good job. In terms of their choices, they really stuck to their core in the face of like the wintertime and everybody else feeling like they got to go pop. You know, [Pusha] really stuck to his guns and I feel like the marriage of him and Kanye, I feel like that’s going to be incredible.

And what about Malice penning a book?

Malice is a genius! People don’t know Gene Thornton—that’s a really smart guy. And when his book comes… It’s going to go, it’s probably going to be like one of the craziest books when it drops.

Speaking of crazy; did you know that you made No. 7 on XXL’s greatest rapping-producers of all-time list?

Really? Oh, wow.

You were in good company with the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Dr. Dre, Diddy and Kanye. You didn’t know?

Nah, man, you know what I been on the road. I’ve been out of everything I just been on the road with N*E*R*D just concentrating on that. The shed is full of a lot of artillery now though… I just been out of everything for like three years straight just doing N*E*R*D. but now I miss it—I miss hip-hop. I miss all of that good stuff.

How does that feel that you actually know you were named in the top 10
rapper/producers of all-time?

I’m very thankful, I’ve spent a lot of my time, you know, being in fashion and doing a lot of N*E*R*D-oriented stuff, so to be acknowledged is completely an honor, I respect XXL and what you guys do, and I look forward to doing more with you guys. You know I just been doing that, man, so for you to tell me that is super cool.

So what’s next on the horizon after this N*E*R*D tour?

Just more music… You know what it is? I just needed to get that art side out. Like I said [the N*E*R*D album] wasn’t intentionally artsy-fartsy, but I just needed… You know, sometimes you got to push yourself and do things. Now I’m kind of like back on my camouflage hood shit. All them beats is coming. —Anslem Samuel