In Search of Chad Hugo
Chad Hugo has crafted some of the most futuristic hip-hop and pop music of the past 25 years. With Pharrell Williams, his longtime friend and partner in the Neptunes, Hugo’s production handiwork includes the hyper sonar pulses and thunderclap syncopation of The Clipse’s “Grindin’”; the comet trail of synth debris cascading through Britney Spears’s “I’m a Slave 4 U”; the colliding keyboard drones and cosmic dinner bells that nourish Kelis’s “Milkshake”; and the impeccably orchestrated steam hiss, drowsy slide whistle, mouth clicks and blissfully grandiose chords that compose Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
But today in his Virginia Beach home studio, Chad just wants to play the blues. “I think everybody needs to know the 12-bar blues,” he declares softly. “It’s easy to sing a song if you know the blues.” And he begins to quietly do just that.
12-bar blues/Interviews/12-bar blues/Interviews/12-bar blues…
In comparison with the flamboyant Pharrell, Chad is effectively the silent partner in the Neptunes, and he’s less interested in talking about himself than he is in, say, turning our conversation into an impromptu music lesson. “Instruments and music are different voices, so it’s like why talk about it?” he says. “Let’s make music. You play instruments?”
Not since I was a kid, I tell him.
“You should still play, man – if you want,” he says, and hands me a guitar. “You’re welcome to play this.”
I warn Chad that if I play the guitar it’s going to get ugly, but he’s undeterred. “I’d say all you need to know is the F-chord,” he calmly reassures me as he walks me through the fingerings. When I manage to strike the correct root note, my new guitar coach responds with an encouraging, “Good!” Is Chad Hugo… producing me?
“New Orleans blues got me in touch with a lot of things,” he explains. “Like how those guys play the Dixieland blues where they’re improvising at the same time on the same chord and they stop at the same time. A lot of people would think that it’s dinosaur music and it’s not really cool. But man, the swing of hip-hop is based on that.” He quickly beatboxes a rhythm in demonstration. “It’s just a vibe of the rhythm and how it syncs with your heartbeat, it’s just like b-boom, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“I don’t know if people [appreciate] that these days – everyone’s forward thinking,” he laments.
Though there’s no small irony in hearing this noted sonic futurist speak like a preservationist, his preoccupation with America’s roots music is no pose. The previous night, as he does every Monday evening, Chad sat in on woodwinds with a local big band, the Hampton Roads Metro Band. Some of the musicians he plays with are many years older and in declining health, and the experience is still weighing on his mind.
“My old band director happened to sit next to me playing bass clarinet,” says Chad. “Man, he was shaking. He had to take a pill in the middle of the session. He’s like, ‘I got Parkinson’s.’ And I thought about it last night like, wow, I play in this band with these guys… Damn, where am I gonna be in the future of all this stuff?”
Neptunes credits slowed in the last 10 years, as Pharrell did more solo work as both artist and producer. In 2020, Chad and Pharrell made waves by convening sessions at Pharrell’s Miami compound for old collaborators and new. Just the thought of Hugo and Williams working together again was exciting— the Neptunes dominated the late ’90s through mid ’00s, crafting hits for Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Gwen Stefani et al, while collapsing conventional styles into a continually inventive sound that blurred rap, R&B, rock, pop and dance. But things seem to have cooled off: Although the Neptunes were credited on the recent Nigo track “Punch Bowl,” Pharrell appears solo on other recent production credits, and the once-busy Neptunes Instagram account has been deactivated.
The Neptunes origin story is well-documented. The hyper-condensed version: Chad and Pharrell met at band camp, bonded in school and were discovered by legendary producer and New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley at a high school talent show. But where Pharrell over time made the transition from faceless producer to internationally-famous vocalist, Chad has remained something of a private figure, an enigma even. When I ask him how the duo collaborates, he’s initially reluctant, only elaborating in a follow-up conversation:
“I think it’s kind of ying and yang, yang and ying – we just kinda complement each other. When we got together it was just kinda like throwing stuff up. If you’d say it in graffiti terms, it was like we were making a piece. We were just collaborating all the time. We’d kind of help each other out playing chords. I [would] prepare the sounds and stuff and sample and chop drums to find the right sound.” A working DJ since his teenage years, Chad also found himself taking on the role of arranger, putting the important finishing touches on any number of classic songs: “Sometimes I would just [arrange the song’s] drops, like the mutes and taking stuff out. For instance, like [Jay-Z’s] “I Just Wanna Love Ya.” I’d kind of be like the DJ in a sense, doing breakdowns, and copying and pasting intros and doing like bonus beats. There is a science to that, and a feel to how things are broken down, and how the beat is sculpted, fine touches etcetera.”
“How I look at it,” summarizes longtime collaborator Terence “Pusha T” Thornton, another Virginia Beach native who’s worked with Hugo and Williams since high school: “Pharrell provides the bones and the structure and Chad adds color.”
“Chad Hugo is a genius level musician,” Pusha continues. “If you can just articulate to him what it is that you want to hear, he can find that mood and find that chord and find that synth and find that sound in a matter of minutes, seconds even. Or something near it. Once he starts then you can guide him: ‘No, darker.’ ‘No, meaner.’ ‘No, evil-er.’ ‘Oh no, we want this more happy.’ And he just moves his way through the keyboard like he’s navigating it. It just becomes like hopscotch for him.”
“Chad was always the x-factor to us,” he adds, referring to the Clipse, the hardcore rap duo Pusha formed with his brother No Malice before going solo, and for whom the Neptunes produced two classic albums. “Because he’d find more magic in a record that I would think was finished. We might even leave, and maybe Chad would stay back, or come in that night behind us. He always was the person to find more greatness and could find unorthodox sounds that made a perfect match with what it is that we had done vocally.”
That chemistry was still intact on “Punch Bowl,” the Clipse reunion track off Nigo’s I Know Nigo album: “The thing that was beautiful to me was seeing those old patterns of working [together]. Pharrell would lay drums, do this and that, and then he’d be like, ‘Chad, what do you hear?’ Or he’d try to articulate to Chad, ‘It’s some chords here I don’t know what they are, help me find them.’ And Chad would just get up there and play, and ultimately, man, it all just blossomed into something incredible. Watching them work, it just took me back to, man… ’97!”
Chad’s parents were both Filipino immigrants; his father served in the US Navy, while his mother worked as a hospital lab technician. They encouraged him, along with his older brother and sister, to study piano from an early age (“the Asian parent thing,” we commiserate). He began exploring jazz theory early on, improvising his first solo on tenor saxophone in 5th grade band class. “Back then [in the 1980s] there was a lot of pop music where you had the saxophone guy over here,” he says, and quickly mimics a Sadé-worthy sax riff. “That was pretty cool. I just tried to play what was on the radio.”
Chad stayed busy with organized music activities – boy scout bands, band camp. But he also recalls plenty of time on his own. “[My parents] were always working,” he says. “My dad was out to sea growing up. He retired later. But my mom was working graveyard shifts.” This provided the kind of gestation period in which a gifted kid with a vivid imagination – who loved Twilight Zone and space movies, and composed a school paper on Bob Moog after seeing a TV news segment about the threat of synthesizers replacing live musicians – could begin to coalesce his varied interests: “I got interested in Moogs and synthesizers and the basics of that, and electronic music and sine waves.” He began DJing community dances at church, where he got away with playing 2 Live Crew records. “It was after hours,” he deadpans. “The Eucharist was not present. The tabernacle was not present, so officially Jesus was asleep.”
Technology and gear still provide an organizing thread for some of Chad’s memories. Like when he recalls his first professional DJ gigs (“I had a Casio keyboard SK5 and a little microphone…”), or when he met Pharrell (“I had a TASCAM 4-track Portastudio at the crib, Casio keyboards, a sequential multi-track…”), even the night he met his wife, Priscilla (“We were supposed to DJ, but the MIDI wasn’t syncing…”). Eventually the gear migrated from the family living room to Chad’s bedroom, an attic space above the garage that would become the fledgling Neptunes’ ground zero/mission control. “I just remember skipping school and coming to his house and going in his room and there was just equipment,” recalls Pusha T of those early days at Chad’s crib, when he and his brother first teamed up as The Clipse. “His house was a hub, like for everything. It was the place that let me know music was real.”
That hub turned into 15 top 10 hits, two Grammys, and a 2020 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (which will now formally happen in June 2022). Later during my visit to Virginia Beach, as Chad dines on a salmon burger at a seafood restaurant down by the waterfront’s main drag, I ask him what it felt like to be in the midst of so much commercial and creative success. He thinks inordinately long and hard before responding, and it’s tough to gauge whether he’s simply being shy, guarded, or feels entirely detached from those halcyon days.
“I remember when we put out that Clones album,” he says, referring to 2003’s The Neptunes Present… Clones compilation LP, which featured Pharrell and Jay-Z’s mega-hit single “Frontin’.” “And I went outside the studio and just saw the bus with [the album cover image of] me and my arms folded. I was like, what the hell am I doing on that bus?”
Did you feel pressure?
“All the time.”
How did you manage that?
“Just keep on playing,” he says quietly. “Just keep on playing.”
For this Asian-American listener, Chad’s subtle presence in Neptunes-affiliated music videos only added to his intrigue. You couldn’t help but notice this spiky-haired guy lingering in the periphery of a Clipse crew shot or playfully pantomiming his keyboard riffing alongside Snoop, yet he was also so clearly organic to the scene. He effectively became a legit if low-key Asian-American role model, something he acknowledges with a polite “Thank you” but won’t elaborate on much beyond, “Yeah, it’s scary.” If the longstanding and sadly unshakable perception for those of Asian descent in this country is that of Other, Chad managed the elusive trick of never looking like he didn’t belong by being himself.
A few years ago, Chad faux-announced his retirement from the music industry via Twitter before quickly retracting. The mystique surrounding him can be attributed as much to his reticence as his choice to eschew traditional music industry hubs for his hometown, in order to be near family (in addition to his 7-year-old son with Priscilla, he has two older kids from a previous marriage). Ever since the Neptunes’ historic run, he admits, he’s often sought a drastically simpler existence: “Just being in a safe work environment. Kind of like a 9-to-5 type of thing. Where you go in and report to someone and sign-in and there’s a staff and there’s a set goal, a set thing, an agenda, you know, things that need to happen.”
So hearing his recent re-emergence as a solo producer is a joy. His hook-y lead synth riffing on SG Lewis’s pop-dance number “Chemicals” from last year, for instance, provides just the kind of sneaky melodic expansiveness that’s his hallmark. His piano-led co-production with Rex Orange County for Brockhampton’s “When I Ball” expertly steers a song about childhood aspirations and maternal guidance that might have succumbed to sentimentality towards poignancy. A slew of additional unreleased tracks that he’s produced on his own and plays for me (artist names and other details withheld by request) sound similarly strong.
He details a few other ventures from the past decade, the composite sketch of which presents a stark deviation from the methodical brand building of the Neptunes. Around 2012 he started Galaxy Gear – a rental service offering synths, guitar amps and laser lights for recording and DJ sessions – prompted by his wish to “collaborate with folks on the street and record,” through which he wound up fielding a few demos. Though the company is no longer active, a cargo van brandishing its logo is still parked by his home studio. He contemplated working at Guitar Center (“Just imagine having all those instruments to be able to use”). A stint at a local communal cubicle studio wound up as a space to store gear. “I was gonna be a paralegal at one point,” Chad volunteers. “Still do music, see what happens with the music. But have that fallback gig.”
One of the most accomplished producers in pop music history seeking a “fallback gig” may sound bizarre. But his current mood is decidedly solemn.
“I feel like this is the last round of… of making music,” he says. “I think… I don’t know, I think this is it.”
You mean within the music industry?
“I don’t know,” he replies wearily. Moments later he’s off to pick up his son from school, but not before adding, “I love creating.”
Nowhere was that more evident than earlier that day back at his home-studio. He’d momentarily disappeared from the room, only to return with his saxophone. He was preoccupied with playing his tenor part on the Gershwin-penned jazz standard “Lady Be Good,” the Lester Young solo transcription of which he’d been studying. This in preparation not for an important upcoming concert or recording date, not even for the weekly HMRB sessions he partakes in with the older musicians from around town. This was for a saxophone lesson, which he’d begun taking in order to improve his bebop chops. In the infamous words of a fellow esteemed Virginian, we talkin’ about practice.
Chad placed the mouthpiece to his lips, closed his eyes and began to blow, unleashing warm, full tones. Nimbly navigating the tune’s changes, he played through, focused, relaxed and in complete command.
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