Pharrell Williams is a Grammy Award-winning producer and artist responsible for some of the world’s biggest hits like Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like it’s Hot” and Kelis’ “Milkshake” but on the stage of Manhattan’s Town Hall he proves that he’s still the backpacking nerd who found his cool through being himself.
The “Beautiful” singer is set to be the next artist-in-residence at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and on Monday (Oct. 26) he sat down for a Q&A with NYU Clive Davis Institute professor and NPR host Jason King to talk about his 20-year career in the music business.
The auditorium, filled with the university’s students, had their collective ears tuned to the 42-year-old’s words. But, the “Frontin'” singer is still shockingly uncomfortable in the spotlight — he can’t bear to listen to a list of his accomplishments and nearly goes red-in-the-face when having to watch old music videos and past fashion choices from Noreaga’s “Superthug.” And it seems he’s still coming to terms with being at the forefront as an artist.
In the hour-and-a-half conversation, the N.E.R.D. member drops several gems of advice and insightful stories on how he became the successful artist he is today. Check out a few below.
On working with Kelis:
Brazilian women — and music — were the ones who inspired “Milkshake,” and made him want to create something for the ladies who want to dance without judgement. He also shared that it was Kelis who introduced him to Prada when he was wearing all Polo everything.
Seeing himself as an artist:
Pharrell is still coming to terms with seeing himself as an artist. He shared that he always saw himself as the producer who got to sneak into the music video, like a cameo, rather than the main attraction. Now, after being the forefront man for “Happy” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” he’s just starting to get used to the idea of being the center of attention.
His Mr. Magoo theory:
Skateboard P calls his songs “gifts” and insists that he’s the “Mr. Magoo of Music,” since he relayed that he stumbles upon hit songs like the ’60s cartoon character inadvertently stumbled upon trouble and adventures. “When I aim, I miss,” he said, so instead he just goes with whatever guides him. He also shared that he was surprised that “Beautiful” became a hit. Instead, he thought “From tha Chuuuch to da Palace,” would be the most popular Neptune’s song from Snoop Dogg’s Paid tha Cost to Be da Bo$$.
Advice to those trying to make it on the Top 100:
Don’t force it. “You don’t want to get famous being something you’re not,” he said. “You’re going to get tired of wearing that mask.”
Pharrell said that he is not an activist, but he does think artists (and human beings in general) have a responsibility to relay what they see in the world. “As an individual, our biggest responsibility is to be self-aware,” he said. He’s also for Hillary Clinton. “It’s time for a woman,” he said.
The full interview is set to be archived on NPR soon.