|Left to right: Chad Hugo,
Shay and Pharrell Williams
With the Pharcyde and the Roots just through
Tokyo, this spring is turning into a veritable cornucopia
of alternative hip-hop. N.E.R.D., the band formed by the Neptunes
production duo, represents the latest and perhaps most influential
among the hip-hop outfits currently giving commercially dominant
acts like Jay-Z and Ja Rule a run for their money.
Like the Roots, N.E.R.D. are that rarity in contemporary hip-hop:
a live instrumental band that forgoes turntables for traditional
bass, drums and guitar instrumentation in its stage show.
But N.E.R.D., which consists of the Neptunes Pharrell
Williams and Chad Hugo along with additional member, rapper
Shay, in fact recorded last years debut album In Search
Of (Virgin) with synthetic beats and even went so far as to
release the album in Europe before scrapping it and re-recording
it with a live band for its worldwide release.
The result was one of last years most talked about albums.
With production credits for everyone from Mystikal to Jay-Z
to Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit, a Neptunes solo release
would likely have met with success no matter what it sounded
like. But when African-American Williams and Filipino-American
Hugo replaced the machine beats with live drumsnbass,
guitars and keyboards, the outcome was an album that transcended
Captivating tracks like Provider, about a dead-end
drug dealer, not only position Williams front and center as
charismatic singer/frontman, but also put forward a fusion
of rock and hip-hop entirely different from the dominant rap-rock
model. Where million-sellers Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit
et. al. are all about white, teenage suburban aggression,
N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies) are soft, seductive old
school jazz and funk riffs that would rather seduce you than
The aggression is there; its just sublimated. Lapdance,
for instance, equates politicians with strippers, while Rockstar-Poser
is a dig at preening rock stars. In Search Of
seems like a bland title, but for us its in search of
love. In search of happiness. In search of happiness. In search
of smiling. In search of that bitch with the big ass. In search
of the answer to why my brother smokes crack, N.E.R.D.
say on their website.
But theres also a certain amount of vulnerability. Williams
is not a singer equipped with a strong pair of lungs, and
lacks the smoothness of most contemporary R&B singers.
The understated effect is just right for Bobby James,
in which he assumes the role of a high school runt who escapes
into drugs and dreams of retribution.
Ever since Run DMC hooked up with Aerosmith for Walk
This Way, theres been a confluence between rap
and rock. N.E.R.D. point toward a new fusion, but also mine
a rich musical vein that runs from psychedelic soul figures
Sly & the Family Stone to Parliament/Funkadelic and later
black rock outfits such as Living Color. This musical stream
has long struck a chord in Japan and can be heard in the loose
feel of current Japanese hip-hop groups like Rip Slyme.
N.E.R.D. play Studio Coast on April
30 and May 1. See listings for details.
of Three Vases