Chad Hugo on The Neptunes’ Otherworldly Success
Silent partners are often obscured by overt counterparts – even more so when you’re in a group with Pharrell Williams. Producer and songwriter Chad Hugo actively choose the background.
As one-half of The Neptunes’ production team and one-third of the hip-hop/rock group NERD, Hugo sometimes slipped out of public view during waves of massive hits. The Virginia Beach-based musician is resurfacing to work with artists like Jay Z and Rhiannaor Nigos’ recent reunion track, “punch bowl“, which featured former Clipse collaborators.
All of this is consistent with Hugo’s withdrawn attitude. He has been called a silent scholar for his consistent lack of hubris, despite three decades of huge song credits. He prefers to imitate the clicks of the keyboard rather than explain how things happened, taking umbrage at the media when the questions strike him as a bit compelling: “What do you do after a magician reveals his tricks? That’s what I’ve felt and over the years I’ve tried to refrain from getting into music theory with people because artists have a freedom that comes without being too technical,” he told GRAMMY.com.
Hugo and williams met in band camp as a teenager and famous pioneer producer Teddy Riley at a local talent show. Riley took them under his wing, introduced them to the music industry, and unleashed them at his famed Future Records recording studios in Virginia Beach. The experience was “breathtaking”, recalls Hugo. Riley would later sign the Neptunes to Virgin Records in 1999.
By the time they reached their twenties, Hugo and Williams were among the most successful songwriting duos in the industry. The Neptunes’ diverse sound helped define modern pop music in the 2000s, and they became the go-to brains of top-tier bands. After Noreaga’s highest charting hit “Superthug”, the Neptunes caught the attention of Jay Z, who introduced them Justin Timberlake, of which they produced the majority of solo debuts. Consider 2004’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” a hit that not only gave Snoop’s career a much-needed adrenaline rush, but remains lodged on commercial radio to this day.
They have since worked with Gwen Stefani, Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears and a long list of others. Significant moments with Kendrick and Andrew 3000, too. Two GRAMMY Awards followed, including Producer of the Year, Non-Classical and Best Pop Vocal Album for Timberlake’s Justified.
On June 16, Hugo and Williams will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — a club that includes people like Burt Bacharach, Bruce Springsteen and Curtis Mayfield. Despite his reserved nature, the honor is not lost on Hugo, who nearly gushed: “I’ve always thought of myself as a studio rat, just offering song touches or whatever I could add. I feel so blessed to do this and be recognized. for that.”
Here, Hugo spoke quite openly – and perhaps in an unusual way – about the impact of his immigrant experience and his relationship with Pharrell on his worldview and musical philosophy. These days, Hugo basks in the foundational sounds that inform his futuristic pursuits.
I read that you recently got into the blues and made connections between swing and hip-hop. Unpack that a bit for us.
With all the crazy times we’ve been through, the blues seemed like such a fitting soundtrack for everything. Without getting too dark, things were getting crazy with the pandemic — for me and everyone else, I guess. And with the blues, there are chord changes and progressions that are rooted in people singing while working hard in the fields. There’s a connection to hip-hop that goes back to the slave days.
In some ways you can call the church the blues. It has a muddy, sad sound. The blues is a simple formula where you repeat mantras, say things that have happened and things you want to see happen, or just express sadness. I just focused on that, playing jazz, bebop, swing, and just old-time American music.
You’ve been seated with local music teachers and bands from Virginia Beach. What was this interaction?
Music was a way to meet and compete with other people, and to share new music that we had never heard before. We share riffs passed down for generations. Some of these transmitted melodic lines are like a vocabulary that we can still use today. It’s a way of bringing culture to life.
I would like to go back a bit to your beginnings. Teddy Riley discovered you and Pharrell and the next thing you know you’re in his studio. How was this experience?
I remember when we went to Future Records it looked like a surf shop [laughs]. I remember seeing fancy cars that you don’t see in suburban Virginia. Pharrell and our other friend, Mike Shae, and I went to Future after the talent show and caught the eye of Omar Chandler, who eventually became our manager.
I remember seeing a lot of records being recorded. They had three private studio rooms and loud music blared through the speakers at all times. It was like a big factory: engineers everywhere and people in the offices and everyone was there just to make sound. It blew me away.
What do you specifically remember from Teddy? How did it hit you?
I remember seeing Teddy react to all the beats coming out of the speakers. It was great to see him react to the music. He was also walking around and cutting or boosting the sounds on this huge multitrack mixer. He orchestrates things. Just seeing how his operation worked as an institution was amazing.
I didn’t know Teddy too well to be honest. At the time, Future Records was a scene unto itself. Black Street was of course there. It was like his own nightclub. We were too young to go late at night [laughs] and I just wanted to be a part of it all and make dope sounds. It was nice to see Teddy in control.
Much has been made of Neptunes radio hits, but not all of them were radio friendly. Your work with The Clipse has gained a large audience despite a lot of radio listening. In your recent GQ profile, Pusha T called you a genius. What do you think of Pusha and tell us what you remember from that time.
The street stuff he raps about, I can’t say I witnessed. Probably a good thing [laughs]. But really, I think he just tells stories through his music. I remember him arriving at the studio and reaching out and having a pad to write things down.
Back then, we were like a utilitarian Swiss army knife. We would add this and that as needed, you know, do vibes and eventually do dope records. pusha was always up to it and had such a positive attitude. We had two schools of thought in the studio. Pusha wanted to move people with her words and we wanted to move people on the dancefloor. So it’s really different frames of thought that have come together.
I know you come from an immigrant family. Given that it’s AAPI month, we’d be remiss not to touch on how being a child of immigrants may have impacted your outlook on music.
My parents were from the Philippines and we were in Jersey before moving to Virginia Beach. My mother was a medical technician, my father was in the navy.
We had a piano growing up, which was the go-to entertainment system in our home. I’m the youngest of three children, and my sister and brother used to meet at our piano teacher’s house to play. We always played music for my parents’ friends from the Filipino community. They were still working and doing what they could. They cooked for us when they had time and tried to get us to speak Tagalog. We knew the dirty words of course [laughs]. Enrolling in the Catholic school where we had to wear uniforms and had to wear a tie and a shirt teaches you that you are in the same institution and in the same situation as the others. One of the first hip hop I encountered was a Filipino pop locker at one of the community centers we frequented.
What are some of your earliest memories of exposure to music?
I grew up with everything. The first memories would probably be church carols, and then things like “The Sound of Music,” where I learned all those “do-re-mi” notes. I always had the idea… that there is such a concept that sounds and [knowing] how they connect to instruments and electronics. Also, I watched a lot of old TV shows, black and white shows from the 60s and 70s and still remember all of their theme songs.
You basically went from watching those TV shows to winning GRAMMYs in a few years. How does it feel to win a GRAMMY?
I felt like we had succeeded. We made these records, you know? There’s one thing my music teacher used to say is that you’re only as good as your last performance. If you haven’t practiced the part given to you on the score, then you’re only as good as that. Where you take it from there is the main question. So there was always pressure to win, sometimes too much. But it was a memorable day for sure.
Going to now, I also read your recent sax lessons. Why the sax specifically?
I just decided to continue. I played it in my elementary years and for my later sessions I used a sax I bought when I lived in California years ago. I’m glad I put it to use. The idea was to learn riffs that I kept hearing, so I just wanted to brush up on my game as an instrumental musician. I love to hear the sounds of the sax.
The idea of working my fingers has always been important to me. Some people know the gym routine better than others, so this, to me, is just doing a better routine. Shout out to my teacher, I still have to turn in my last homework [laughs].
We need to talk about your recent induction into the Songwriting Hall of Fame. After the GRAMMYs and all your successes, how do you feel about this one?
Man, it’s just a huge honor. What I realized recently is that the Songwriters Hall of Fame was founded by Johnny Mercer back in the days of Tin Pan Alley. I mean, he released a version of “Jingle Bells” in the 1940s! He wrote all those legendary standards. It is the greatest honor to be part of it.
It is remarkable how your career has unfolded and the monumental triumphs you have had. What’s the next step when it seems like you’ve already done everything?
Luckily, I’m still working. I’ve been focusing a lot on Filipino and Asian artists right now, and I’ve done some great things with Jo Koy, Dan the Automator, and some amazing new artists like the Blssm and Eyeglasses. It is an honor to raise my fellow Asian musicians and the next generation.
I’ve also done things with MIA that I’m very excited about. I like these projects because they added an element of challenge. If I don’t learn or challenge myself, I lose interest pretty quickly.
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