“I don’t have a signature sound,” Pharrell Williams says. ”I would call it a signature execution.” While certainly popular, with over 100 million copies of his productions sold, Williams isn’t a pop star. He’s a modern artist. No matter what he’s working on, whether it’s a beat for one of the signees to his new label I Am Other, a design for his men’s apparel line Billionaire Boys Club, or an idea for his footwear line ICE CREAM, it feels like an invention and looks like the future. Williams has designed limited-edition jewelry and accessories for luxury goods brand Louis Vuitton, collaborated with French designers Domeau & Pérès on chair designs that were displayed in Paris, and partnered with Tokyo-born artist Takashi Murakami and jewelry house Jacob & Co. to create a sculpture that was shown at Art Basel in Switzerland.
Each effort boasts an unmistakable and instantly recognizable style. Fellow innovators recognize this trait and it’s why they seek him out. Williams has made music with Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, and The Hives, and re-inspired established vets like Madonna, Snoop Dogg, and even The Rolling Stones. Over the years, he and his partner Chad Hugo have been credited with a certain sound that’s marked a great leap forward for pop music at the end of the Millennium but what Williams actually does is more of a constant. “I think that’s my gift,” he says. “The ability to say ‘You know what? This would sound better behind purple. That would sound great in polka dots.’ You would sound great over something spicy.’”
For Williams, each endeavor is another platform for his unique creative expression, something he has been obsessed with ever since getting his start in music as a seventh grader at Old Donation Center, a school for young over-achievers located in Williams’ hometown of Virginia Beach, followed by playing in the school band at Princess Anne High School. A drummer and keyboardist, Williams was discovered performing with Chad Hugo at a high-school talent show by New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley, who signed the pair as The Neptunes shortly after they graduated.
Williams’ musical style emerged publicly on a single verse on the classic Wreckx-N-Effect single “Rump Shaker,” and since then there have been a dozen tracks that are also considered undeniable classics: Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give it 2 Me),” Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money,” and Snoop’s “Drop It Like it’s Hot.” If these songs were baseball players, they’d all have retired numbers. In 2010, Billboard selected Williams as its “Producer of the Decade” and the industry has honored him with three Grammy Awards (including 2004’s “Producer of the Year”) and ASCAP’s prestigious Golden Note Award. But a futurist isn’t allowed to look back for too long, no matter how established they’ve become. Early in Williams’ career, Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine told Entertainment Weekly: “Pharrell has such a vision for every aspect of culture. He’s the modern kid: he lives rock, hip-hop, R&B, he can do it all.”
In many ways, Williams is still that modern kid, whether he’s on the cutting edge (like with the four albums he’s released with the alternative rock/hip-hop band N.E.R.D.) or at the height of the mainstream (he was a music supervisor on last year’s Academy Awards). He is constantly gazing ahead and supporting newcomers with similar vision and drive. Williams’ latest undertaking is I Am OTHER, a multi-media creative collective that serves as an umbrella for all of his endeavors, including a record label and a dedicated YouTube channel featuring original programming, such as the shows Awkward Black Girl, Nardwuar the Human Serviette, and StereoTypes. The site’s manifesto — as Williams explains on his website www.iamOTHER.com — is to “celebrate the people who push society forward. The thinkers. The innovators. The outcasts” because “history has proven that it’s the rule breakers who have the power to change the world.” To that end, Williams has signed four exciting young artists: Buddy, Alyssa Bernal, Maxine Ashley, and Leah LaBelle.
In addition to his music signings and digital interests, the environmentally minded Williams is a partner in the NYC-based textile firm Bionic Yarn, which creates sustainable fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles for such brands as The Gap, Timberland, Cole Haan, and Nike. He is also the founder of the non-profit From One Hand To Another (FOHTA) — a resource center in Virginia Beach that provides kids in the community with alternative educational tools than those found in the school system. “Imagine how many kids would be able to do what I’ve done, even supersede what I’ve done when we line the stars up for them,” he says.
As he enters his third decade as one of our truly great contemporary artists, Williams isn’t slowing down. “One of the joys out of working in the business that I do is I get to explore textures all the time,” he says. “It’s almost like being in the fashion industry. We work with so many different materials, and I do the same when it comes to music. I’m constantly on the hunt for a new instrument or a new sound — not sound as in body of work, but literally, new instrumentation sounds. That is my business.” Williams’ touch, which relies on instinct and vision rather than any formal training or cynical formula, has changed the texture and color of popular culture.