Please don’t tell him, but in fifth grade I stole my big bro’s friend’s Ma$e cd.
It was the first rap CD I ever listened to.
My favorite track that blared through the Sony Discman on the bus was“Looking’ at me”, produced by a young Pharrell Williams and company.
You probably have a similar story. Until later in life, you didn’t realize one of your favorite songs was masterminded by Pharrell. Before our parents fell in love with the soft spoken “aw sweetheart” from The Voice, Pharrell was already riding his first tsunami as a musician.
Two decades later, when I didn’t have to steal CD’s anymore, I found myself in the studio for two weeks straight with Pharrell. I should say it wasn’t my studio session. I was Asher Roth’s creative partner and playing a role to help with the content he was making at the time.
For that stretch of time in Miami, FL, I hit the creative jackpot. Whether Pharrell was leading by action or directly teaching, that experience transformed how I came to understand the creative process.
There were moments when Pharrell was dropping priceless knowledge, and I was low-key typing his gems into my phone.
“I hope he doesn’t think I’m texting!” I thought.
Quickly, I overrode my neurosis by thinking, “What he’s saying will change the way I exist for the rest of my life. Or maybe even show up on a blog post one day that will make my Mom think I’m cool.”
Last week, during an attempt to send a snapchat to bae while riding my bike, my phone fell, ricocheted off the blacktop twice, then banked off a curb. Needless to say, bae didn’t get a cute snap, and all of my priceless Pharrell notes vanished.
I’m sure they’re backed up on some cloud thing in a digital universe, but I figured it was time to finally share. (Also to prove to Pharrell, if you’re reading this, I promise I wasn’t texting.)
Here’s what I learned in those sessions:
#1. The Routine
Everyday around noon, Pharrell walked in wearing a backpack and a stylish outfit that made me feel less cool than I already was. Sometimes, he wasn’t even wearing shoes. Only Spongebob socks with glove-like toes. Sometimes, he was solo. Sometimes, he was with his fam and his assistant.
Let me reiterate, this was everyday around the same time.
He’d put his backpack down. Look us in the eyes with childlike enthusiasm and say “What’s the idea today?”. Such a fire way to start a conversation.
We’d toss up ideas. Sometimes he’d riff back. Sometimes not.
Once an idea for a song was crafted, he’d put his headphones on and produce the music. Around 4pm-5pm, the track portion and the chorus were finished. Him and his family jetted and he’d leave the verses up to Asher.
If this seems normal, you haven’t spent that much time in a typical music industry studio setting. We were accustomed to something quite different: never on time, late nights, I mean very late, so late it was tomorrow, more chaos than consistency, more playing than working, and a buffet of options for mind-altering substances.
We all have this image of what it takes to be a rockstar: Partying is an obligation. It’s not a question if you do drugs, the question is what kinds of drugs. You have to overdose because you’re under inspired. You have to hit rock bottom to be grounded. You have to meltdown to heat up. Groupies validate that you’re loved. You’re too important to be prompt.
While magazines certainly do numbers by perpetuating this category of celebrity, Mr. Williams is living proof that the opposite can exist. You can have a high quality of life. Strong character. Family values. Drink water. Maintain a consistent routine. And still be one of the world’s most important rockstars.
#2. The idea of the conversation.
One day we were all going back and forth telling stories in the studio.
His assistant. Engineers. Security. Some others.
I mentioned how I noticed that there were a lot of girls in Miami with “daddy’s credit card”.
“What did you say?”
A curious Pharrell squinted at me.
I repeated what I said and what inspired my remark. I thought he was mad. Then his eyes started darting. He started bouncing back and forth shifting his weight from one Spongebob sock to the next. It looked like he was close to finding the solution to a word problem on a math test. His brain was moving. We all stopped talking.
Twenty-three seconds later, he sang the entire hook for “Daddy’s Credit Card.”
In our eyes, it was a useless conversation, but to Pharrell, it was a foundation to create and connect.
It makes you wonder. Who said what when Pharrell solved the word problems for “Lapdance”, “Frontin”, or “Lucky”?
#3. Flintstone’s Vitamins.
We played him some weak shit one morning. But Pharrell didn’t tell us it was weak. That’s what an average person would say.
Instead, as a leader of ideas, he paused for a second after he heard the song and said:
“That’s a lot of medicine. It’s good and smart and all. But if I want to get smarter I’ll read a book. This is art. You have to deliver art in accessible ways. We need melodies and patterns that inspire emotion in everyone from toddlers to grandparents. Medicine is good, nutrition is good. But let’s make it bright, colorful, attractive!”
With his left hand out like MomMom offering Tylenol, “Yes. We need the medicine.”
Slowly positioning his right hand in the same fashion, “But what we really need are Flintstone’s Vitamins!”.
#4. Everyone’s a rockstar.
On the final Wednesday, after Pharrell left the studio, his engineers told me to lay down bars on one of the songs they were working on. Initially, they wanted Pusha-T, but I guess they thought I could serve as a suitable placeholder.
I didn’t want to. My excuse was that I wanted to stay in my lane. It wasn’t my session. I was there to support. That’s all.
Between you and me, the real excuse was that I didn’t want Pharrell to hear my verse and be disappointed.
It was at that moment, my friend Jason Salvador offered me some “inspiring expletives” that would get this article banned from the internet if I attempted to repeat them.
Fearing his reaction if I did otherwise, I walked in the booth and I recorded my verse in one take.
I’ll be the first to tell you, I am not a good rapper. I’ve never been able to record something in one take. It takes 11 tries and I never know where the verse actually starts. Asher is an incredible recording artist. It’s a natural gift of his. My flow is the same for every song, but I can write one liners.
Young Gucci Mane meets Jim Gaffigan.
I went home that night fearing for my life. “If Pharrell doesn’t eff with my verse,” I thought, “I’m quitting everything, going home, and putting my Phys. Ed. degree to use.” (Some people still think I should do that btw.)
The next day, a straight faced Pharrell was standing with his backpack still on, reviewing the song for the first time. Ash ripped the first two verses. That’s expected. That’s what he does.
The beat dropped and Pharrell heard the voice of that “awkward honkey in the corner who has ok ideas sometimes” on one of his original productions.
He started nodding his head double time. Half smiling, he pointed at me from across the studio.
Right after the verse ended with a mention of kick-flips and Flipcams, he started walking towards me!
“That’s what I’m talking about!” he said.
He dapped me up then directed his engineer to run the song back.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m sure he didn’t love it. He probably actually hated it. At most, it was just aiiiiight to him.
But he respected it.
His mission was to facilitate a creative environment. He understands the courageous act of creativity. All ideas matter. Get the bad out to get to the good. All personalities matter. If you’re in the room, you’re a rockstar.
Most super producers would be offended at the idea of a non-professional recording artist making eye contact with them in the studio.
But his response gave me the ammo to fearlessly create for years to come.
Months later, myself and a friend were watching Pharrell & N.E.R.D. perform in San Francisco.
What did Pharrell do when he saw us in the crowd?
He yelled my name and told us to come on stage.
We became Pharrell’s official hypemen for two songs before shuffling off to the side stage.
After his set, he walked right up to me and gave me the same hard dap and hug he gave after hearing my song in the studio.
The kind of rockstar greeting a rockstar only gives another rockstar. But I was still only Tom, the Phys. Ed. Major.
#5. The wave of success.
I don’t remember this one verbatim, so I’ll attempt to sum up his stance on success in the entertainment industry in my own words:
Popularity is something that can’t be calculated. It comes in waves. A lot of artists and creatives don’t realize this. They hit their first wave and when they feel the momentum waning, they lose their way. They stop their routine. The team that got them there is perceived to no longer be enough. They push their initial supporters away. They flip the whole script. They start doing drugs and everything else that distracts them from their work. They search to artificially connect with the highs they once felt.
When you’re in the swell, it’s hard to see the waves that are coming. If the artist would simply keep working, stay the course, without letting it get to their head, they would eventually catch an even bigger wave than the first one.
He made these comments two years prior to “Happy”, “Blurred Lines”, “Lucky”, and his participation on “The Voice”.
Although he was still killing it, compared to the popularity he had at earlier stages in his career, Pharrell himself was in the middle of a swell.
By showing up everyday, paying attention, and paddling strokes of genius, he’s created a storm of never ending waves for his Spongebob toes to hang lots of tens.
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