The “Neptunes sound” is candy sweet. Allow me to explain (so that I don’t have to say “no homo”)…
Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, despite their initial successes as hitmakers for the likes of Noreaga and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, are responsible for some of the most “bubble gum” music of the past few years. Britney Spears, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Kelis, Usher, Gwen Stefani — the ‘Tunes’ signature spaced-out drums, synths and keys, coupled with Pharrell’s crackly crooning, are all too familiar to 13-year-old white girls and “To Catch A Predator” detainees alike.
Yet, the “Neptunes sound” is also all too synonymous with another type of candy — the one that makes you dandy. Nose candy. Booger sugar. That white that, when cooked over a flame with water and baking soda, creates a rock-like substance that has contributed to such racial disparity in America’s prison system that Lil’ Wayne felt it necessary to dedicate about 5 minutes of Tha Carter III to discussing it. But I digest digress…
For all of their pop music and Kids’ Choice Award successes, they have continued to work with and develop artists like The Clipse, FamLay, and Rosco P. Coldchain, despite the label politic drama that seems to consistently rear its ugly head and shelve their albums. In fact, I’ve read at a couple of sites — and if random Internet blogs are no longer credible sources of information, I don’t want to live in this crazy world — that the Neptunes refused to sign off on their contributions to Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds album if Jive Records did not release Hell Hath No Fury (which would have been the second shelved Clipse LP). The end result was an insanely-successful Timberlake album with no input from the ‘Tunes, and a horribly-promoted album release from The Clipse’s former label.
Most would probably kick themselves when considering the amount of money lost by refusing to work with Timberlake, one of the biggest record sellers of our generation, at the expense of convincing a major record label that hasn’t cared about rap music for years to toss a “hit single”-less LP to the public, essentially as a tax write-off. But, I don’t think that the Neptunes regret this costly decision. Why?
Because Pharrell and Chad could have gone the easy route, ditched the flailing genre that is hip hop music, and stuck to making pop records, but they haven’t… at least, not yet. (Pharrell, Chad — if y’all are reading this, don’t let me give y’all any ideas). That’s why I respect ‘em, and why I was willing to break away from paying homage to the oft-praised “boom bap” producer — your Primo’s, Pete Rock’s, Large Pro’s and what have you — and tip my trucker cap* to the guys that “lace the beat like one of the best”. The Neptunes spent years crafting their unique sound, dating back to the days when they were carrying Teddy Riley’s bags and ghost-producing “Rump Shaker”, and deserve the right to share it with fans of all musical artists — even shitty ones.
[* - Reference intended solely for metaphorical significance. I proudly state that I have never owned a trucker cap, and have only worn one occasionally for the purpose of jokingly making an ass of myself.]
In the comments to the wildly-successfully Kanye West Beat Drop from last month, some of y’all expressed interest in contributing to future Beat Drop posts. If you are interested, the easiest thing to do would be to email me (check “Contact Info” on the main page), and you could join the ranks of this post’s contributors…
- Brandon Soderberg from No Trivia;
- Clyde from Find A Soul For Sale;
- Dan from The Elitaste (who also manages ML favorite Wale);
- DJ Franchise from Know The Ledge;
- GForce from bounce/oz;
- Josephlovesit from Geek Down;
- $port from Way More Fresher;
- Wes from Sit Down Stand Up;
- Zilla Rocca from Clap Cowards;
- … and, a very special guest, VA’s own Skillz, whose new album The Million Dollar Backpack hits stores on July 22nd… that’s tomorrow! (check snippets over at The Rap Up)
AND, if that’s not enough, check back very soon for an interview with The Clipse, where we ask them about their favorite Neptunes beats, and much more.
And I just wanna let y’all know… the world… is about to feel… something… that they’ve never… felt before…
- Ma$e – “Lookin’ At Me” (off Harlem World, 1997)
Clyde: I hear you guys snickering but lest you forget that Ma$e was The Source‘s rapper of the year in 1997… so the guy could rap. This track hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles and #8 on The Hot 100. This was a greatly produced track and it didn’t over shadow Ma$e’s monotonic/mellow flow. The beat did have The Neptunes signature sound and a distinctive drum pattern.
- Jay-Z – “The City Is Mine” featuring Blackstreet (off In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, 1997) [produced by Teddy Riley and Chad Hugo]
Clyde: Yea, I know this song flopped and that it is was some pop tart shit. But I’ll be damned if y’all hit this shit, cuz I liked it! Jigga was on that braggard shit. This was the first song that he vocalized that he thought that he was a better rapper than Biggie: “I’m the focal point like Biggie in his prime/ On the low though, shhh, the city is mine”. I also don’t think that the beat was ‘that’ bad… on here you can hear a young Chad Hugo playing sax and contributing on the snare drums. (Samples Glenn Frey’s “You Belong To The City” and The Jones Girls’ “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”.)
- Noreaga – “Superthug” (off N.O.R.E., 1998)
Wes: The first hard hip hop beat of theirs that I heard (I’d heard some of their R&B work with Total and SWV before) and I was an instant fan. One fond memory I have is my dad (who does not enjoy hip hop at all) picking me up somewhere and us driving in the pitch dark night blasting this song on the car stereo. I had prefaced it by telling him I wanted to play him my favorite song of the moment. After it was over, my dad asked if we could please never do that again.
DJ Franchise: The Neptunes have done a great job in their career of lending their synth/drum sound to many artists while giving the artist a fresh take on the song. This Brand Nubian track is no exception. In the late ’90′s, I was just happy to hear all 4 members back on any track but to get a remix that was so not “Brand Nubian” was a bonus. The original was an inspiring social commentary laid over a soft, mellow soul sample. The Neptunes flipped this theme but made it into a track suitable for a NY club. It was great to hear the Now Rule crew over an uptempo beat versus the common wannabe DITC beats they had been using. Now remember, this was in 1998 — Noreaga’s “Superthug” just dropped a few month’s earlier and they weren’t getting those million dollar checks yet. So, The Neptunes were eyeing a future in remixing and exploring untraditional sounds before the hype. Also, it was the beginning of Pharrell’s belief that he should be on the chorus/bridge of every song The Neptunes produced.
- The Clipse – “Taiwan To Texas” (off Exclusive Audio Footage, 1999)
Josephlovesit: One of the most hardbody beats The Neptunes produced is found on this shelved Clipse album. The kick and snare hit furiously, accompanied by a thin tambourine sound, keyboard-sitar and horror-piano lines. It suits a young and possessed Clipse perfectly, but it wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Hypnotize Minds album. There’s this music sequencing program called Reason that has a built-in snare sound called “Clipse” that’s the same snare The Neptunes use here and all over Exclusive Audio Footage. I owe hours of self-satisfied head-nodding to that snare sound.
- The Clipse – “Power” (off Exclusive Audio Footage, 1999)
$port: The triple kicks and horns run the table on this song. I remember I had to find this on Napster because the album itself got shelved. You had to download stuff track by track back then, so an full album would take at least one day. I didn’t need the whole album after I found this.
- Maxi Priest – “Mary’s Got A Baby (Neptunes Remix)” featuring Beenie Man (off CombiNation, 1999)
Clyde: This was their intro to the U.K./Caribbean music scene (that would later prove fruitful with collabos with Beenie Man, Sean Paul, T.I., Kardinal Offishall & Madonna). Despite his dancehall past and flavour, The Neptunes teamed up with Maxi Priest for this combination of soul balladry, dancehall and hip hop. This song may not have tracked in the U.S., but in the U.K. (Maxi’s home country) this was a big hit amongst fans of Lover’s Rock. This is the antithesis of what we expect from The Neptunes — no spacey sound effects, and exotic snare drum patterns. This was minimalism Neptunes.
- Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Got Your Money” featuring Kelis (off N***a Please, 1999)
Clyde: Before Gnarls Barkley, Andre 3000 and other oft kilter groups emerged, ODB was the first rapper (to me) to produce a commercially viable non-formulaic hip hop album. This song crossed genres and sampled everything from film (Dolemite) to rap (“Children’s Story” by Slick Rick) to pop (“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson). This was one of 3 Neptunes tracks that made the N***a Please album. In hindsight, the track seems very autobiographical — ODB discussed many of his problems (alcoholism, women and paternity tests). This is also one of the few songs that The Neptunes have produced that uses the sampling technique. By using very popular songs it gave ODB a bit of familiarity because it wasn’t some obscure sample(s).
AaronM: The ‘Tunes swipe the drums from “Billie Jean” and slow them down, making them sound thicker. They top the track off with repetitive piano keys, tinny synths, and finish with some pitch-perfect hand claps. This all adds up to a surreal disco backdrop for ODB say some of the craziest shit ever spit on record: “They said he had his dick in his mouth/ Eddie Murphy taught me that back at the house!”
GForce: Not only one of my favorite Hugo/Williams jernts, this is possibly one of my favorite songs of all time. It has everything — filthy lyrics, big-bottomed bassline, crisp drums, and references to prostitution. Recorded relatively early in The Neptunes’ career, it doesn’t have much of what would become their signature minimalistic production, but it’s brilliant still.
Knobbz: The infinitely-gully ODB working with The Neptunes sounds like high heresy, but for some reason, Dirty singing his heart out about bitches owing him money over a bouncy Neptunes beat with Kelis of all people singing the hook just works. This beat has a late-night filthiness that matches ODB’s exuberance perfectly. I remember watching the video when I was a little kid and recognizing something tantalizingly
vulgar about it without understanding a word. Rather than trying to emulate RZA’s grimy production, The Neptunes created a unique sound that was entirely worthy of ODB. Cherish this song, because you’ll
never hear anything like it again.
- Kelis – “Suspended” (off Kaleidoscope, 1999)
$port: You have to listen to the little intro before the song to really get the full effect. Kelis is buying pills or whatever, next thing you know, she’s high. “Suspended” worked wonders for her description because it’s so beautifully lazy. If you can find the track, you can best experience it in a totally dark room at truck volume.
- The Backstreet Boys – “The Call (Remix)” (single, 2000)
DJ01: Completely changed the OG track from a cheesy pop song to something fit for the clubs. Crazy simple during the verses — just a tight bassline with some whistle noises — then the beat during the hook changes when the vintage sounding Neptunes drums come in subtly. The only Backstreet Boys that is OK to bounce to this day, in my opinion. (Just in case, “pause” on all of these prior sentences.)
- Beenie Man – “Girls Dem Sugar” featuring Mya (off Art & Life, 2000)
Dan: I can listen to this song on repeat for hours on end. I have memories of making out with this chick freshman year of college in my tiny ass dorm room. I had replaced my fluorescent lights in the room with fluorescent black lights and just had this one lamp that provided normal light. I had the Parrot Bay bottles filled with water and highlighter, black light posters and wrote on my wall with highlighter (ended up costing me at the end of the year), but when the lights were on it was like some psychadelic dorm room. I remember I’d rock videos on my TV when girls would come over and this was the first one on the video mix I’d made. The melody of the beat is so beautiful and Mya’s voice just melds gorgeously with it. Beenie Man keeps his patois under control and this is just a real sexy banger. This and LL Cool J’s “Luv U Better” are two of my favorite sexy Neptunes songs. And you gotta love Pharrell saying “sim simma” in the chorus.
- Jay-Z – “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It To Me)” (off Dynasty Roc La Familia, 2000)
Wes: Probably my favorite pop hit spawned by our beloved hip hop genre. Makes even the most jaded people dance. The programming on this is great.
- Ludacris – “Southern Hospitality” (off Back For The First Time, 2000)
DJ Franchise: In 2000, Luda changed up his image and sound with his second single. “Southern Hospitality” had these strong bass beats, crisp snares and a crazy “Nascar car” sound that made every person that hated “What’s Yo Fantasy?” for its typical southern sound reconsider Ludacris. I recall having friends in NY, Chicago, and LA all yelling out “Throw them bows!” at one point in a club, car or on the phone. Ludacris’ energy and comical rhymes were perfectly matched with this beat. A true testament of this beat’s staying power is that you can drop this instrumental at any club and get a reaction. I challenge my fellow DJs to try this out in their next set.
Knobbz: The amalgam of thumping bass, a whizzing noise and a gong make “Southern Hospitality” the definitive Neptunes club banger. It begs to be played loud. My high school was called South High, so when this song came out, I was dying for it to become our school song. You can’t fuck with a team that has this blasting before a football game.
Dan: I vividly remember the first time I heard this song. It was at this Naughty By Nature concert my freshman year of college. I knew Ludacris’ “Phat Rabbit” joint and “What’s Yo Fantasy?” was bubbling hard in ATL, but when I heard “Southern Hospitality”, it was game over. It was Atlanta at it’s best, kind of like when I heard Lil’ Jon’s “Bia Bia” for the first time. Southern rap has kinda collapsed upon itself at this point, but back then, there was so much interesting music coming out of ATL. I love the video for this song too. Again, it’s very signature Neptunes but Ludacris’ voice is so powerful on the track that you don’t really realize just HOW Neptunes it is. And then Pharrell saying “Throw them bows!” — you don’t even know it’s him.
- Jadakiss – “Knock Yourself Out” (off Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, 2001)
Dan: A lot of people don’t know this but The Clipse, on their first unreleased album Exclusive Audio Footage, used a simpler version of this beat. I guess when it became clear that joint wasn’t coming out, The Neptunes jazzed it up and sold it to Jada. I was really feeling Jada’s first album, this and “We Gon’ Make It” were awesome, but this was a lot better in the clubs since it blended really well. I was sold on the first line of the song, “She said she was a model for a year and half”, and then they did an R-Rated video which was so sick. I love the classic Neptunes sounds on the track, I love Jadakiss’ wreckless over-the-top lyrics and Pharrell’s whisper chorus. Honestly though, Jada’s second verse starts out weak but the beat keeps you in it and then he drops the “I’m running out of my patience” line and you’re like, “Oh, okay.”
- Shea Seger – “Blind Situation” (off May Street Project, 2001)
Wes: This girl released a great album back in 2001, soulful singer-songwriter type, and for some reason completely disappeared afterwards. A shame. I don’t know if ?uestlove has ever heard this album, but I think he’d like it. (Note: this is technically Pharrell only, no Chad, but still.)
- P. Diddy – “D.I.D.D.Y.” feat. Pharrell (off The Saga Continues…, 2001)
Josephlovesit: “D.I.D.D.Y.” features a lazily-comped, one-note keyboard line as the main hook. This line goes on through the entire length of the song’s four minutes, barely dropping out more than a handful of times. If you focus on it the whole time, you’ll probably go insane. How the hell does this manage to be such a great song? Well, there’s the wild, syncopated drums being played, occasional bass accents, Diddy’s excellent verses (yes, seriously) and the stupid chorus that I still sing all the time. That tangled “Diddy did” chorus is almost absurd. The first dozen times I heard it, I didn’t even take time to make sense of the phrase in my head. I just assumed Pharrell didn’t have enough chorus time to spell out “Diddy” twice, but still kept the take ’cause it sounded cool. I’m completely serious about that.
- Fabolous – “Young’n” (off Ghetto Fabolous, 2001)
Josephlovesit: Forty-eight seconds into “Young’n”, Fabolous tells us to “listen to the two-way alert” and then the corresponding sound effect cuts in. Aside from that being the main standout in an all ready standout song, it’s a good summation of The Neptunes’ mission statement. The two-way and its sound-effect show a melding of fetishized lo-fi sounds and a modern fashion sense (technology as fashion). The Neptunes are all about using these budget keyboards with obvious/cheesy preset patches (for instance, the bland funk-guitar patch used in this beat). They match that with this dryly-futuristic composition/production style that favors clarity through isolation of its sonic elements. It’s really modern and stylish, but still practical and never garish, because of those budget sounds. I would bring up Pharrell’s fashion sense, which also fits with this analysis, but then I’d have to throw a “no homo” out there.
- T.I. – “I’m Serious” featuring Beenie Man (off I’m Serious, 2001)
Buhizzle: The Neptunes were churning out bass and synth-heavy beats like these at a machine-like pace in the early 2000′s, but I always dug this one for being a bit more unique than all the others. The beat is almost Latin-sounding, Tip is spitting his usual Southern drawl (though it’s much lighter than what we’ve become accustomed to), and dancehall star Beenie Man throws some “zig-a-zao”‘s on top for good measure. It was a pretty risky move to break a new artist, which didn’t really pay off at the time — it seems like the public wanted to hear more of what T.I. had in store before accepting this as a hit. But, some 7 years later, this shit still bumps.
- T.I. – “What’s Yo Name” (off I’m Serious)
Dan: Having gone to college in ATL starting in 2000, T.I. was already running shit down there. His first album had two Neptunes joints, this and “I’m Serious” featuring Beenie Man. My guess is that they did “I’m Serious” for Beenie Man and it didn’t make the album so T.I. ended up picking it up. But “What’s Yo Name” is my favorite T.I. song of all time and this song is legendary down in ATL. When I used to DJ in ATL, this was one of my staples and back then if you were white and knew T.I. people were like “huh.” It wasn’t until Urban Legend with “Bring ‘Em Out” that he really started getting mainstream. I used to have this F-150 Harley Davidson Edition truck (now I rock a Prius, lol) with the most ridiculous sound system and I’d always throw this on when I was leaving a club with a girl. The song is so dirty but so smooth and the sub would just pound in the back — that coupled with Pharrell’s falsetto is a beautiful thing.
- Kelis – “Intro” (off Wanderland, 2001)
$port: I was pissed once I learned that my baby’s second album would only be released in Europe, so once again I had to Napster it out. Again, the way an album starts is key for me. Once you feel those strings kick in, you really don’t have a choice but to stay put. The outro after “Little Suzie” is better because it lasts longer. If you’ve ever seen the cover of Wanderland, you’ll know that it’s pretty much sky blue and white. This track matches the artwork to a tee.
- Britney Spears – “I’m A Slave 4 U” (off Britney, 2001)
Clyde: Although they produced for N*Sync (“Girlfriend”) and had a few charting rap songs, this was the track that made them go-to producers for pop princesses. This was the song that remade Britney Spears from a virginal girl to a sexual woman. The song was originally written for Janet Jackson, but she passed on it because it didn’t fit her “sound.” Although the song didn’t do as well as others in the U.S., internationally it was a huge hit and was a top ten hit in Europe, South America and Australia.
- N*E*R*D – “Stay Together” (off In Search Of…, 2002)
$port: Any real fan of The Neptunes will tell you how special these few seconds are. You weren’t expecting it in the least, but as soon as you hear the noise after the drums, that’s it. The combination of the acoustic guitar and the synths took a lot of us on a serious ride. I’m not mad at anybody who skips to track 12… only to search back to the last bit of 11.
- N.O.R.E. – “Nothin’” (off God’s Favorite, 2002)
DJ01: The Neptunes were kinda heavy on the Middle Eastern sound trend of the time, it definitely shows on this song, as it sounds kinda dated today. But eff it, I loved this song before I even heard Nore spit his signature randomness. This song had so many people checking Nore just based on incredible catchy flute sample loop.
- N.O.R.E. – “Full Mode” (off God’s Favorite)
Zilla Rocca: Noreaga can’t rap. In fact, he fucking sucks. Save for The War Report, he’s been able to make a million dollars while saying nothing on the track. Thank God for piracy. The only redeeming quality of Jose Luis Got’cha’s past decade is his collaborations with the Neptunes. “Full Mode” is an overlooked gem from the I Spy soundtrack that hits harder than the frat party-approved anthems “Nothin’” and “Super Thug”. The hook is just as live (“I’ll hit you ’til you drop (WHAT!), I’ll hit you ’til you shake (WHAT!)”). The rhymes are just as retarded. Never has a clarinet sounded so grimey. With a drum pattern that is more in tune with Harry Connick, Jr. than “Grindin’”, this track relies on a Spaghetti Western guitar and vicious synth stabs for the knockout blow. At least one good thing came from an Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson vehicle.
- The Clipse – “Grindin’” (off Lord Willin’, 2002)
Skillz: ‘Nuff said.
$port: The greatest thing about Star Trak in its heyday is that the ones under the umbrella got the best stuff first. This was the case with “Grindin”’ because, before that point, no one had done anything even remotely similar. Everybody was so wrapped up in biting the ‘Tunes and their work on the keys, it was a perfect time for them to monkey wrench everybody and come with no melody at all. “Grindin”’ is all drums and reverb, with a little sonar and a laseresque stab serving as parsley. As an aspiring producer, this one track definitely let me know that, when done right, the absolute least can be the absolute most. Oh, and after that, how many songs did you hear by other people with that damn clap???
Wes: Legendary and cliche to pick, but this is probably the hardest beat to ever launch a new rap group into popular mainstream culture consciousness in the last 10 years and that alone makes it inevitable as a pick. Raw, minimalist, perfect.
Buhizzle: The Jive execs that signed off on this as the first single from Lord Willin’ probably didn’t sleep too well in the days/weeks leading up to its eventual catching-on with the public. I wasn’t sure what I was listening to the first time I heard it — crack rap over a live performance of Stomp? — but, like most things, it got better with time. The uniqueness of this beat isn’t in its sound, but its originality. I’m sure that any number of producers could’ve replicated “Grindin’”, but none thought that it could’ve been a success until the ‘Tunes pulled it off.
Knobbz: The bare bones trash can drums on “Grindin’” coupled with some of the greatest crack-dealing metaphors ever jump started The Clipse’s career. Its simple, hard-knocking drums easily made it a summer anthem and an instant classic. “Grindin’”‘s reliance on its dope drums make it a new generation’s “Top Billin’”.
Dan: Again, I can vividly remember the first time I heard this song. I was DJ’ing a Ludacris concert at my college and after I was done, Luda’s DJ got on and this was one of the first records he dropped. The beat was absurd. I looked at his vinyl and it said Clipse on it and I had just heard about them but hadn’t heard the music yet. I asked him about the record and he was like, “This shit is crazy and gonna be huge.” He was right. People try to hate on this record because apparently the sounds in it are all right next to each other on a certain keyboard sound package, but who cares? Nobody else made this beat. This beat was so cinematic to me. And then you put Clipse on there? They were the pioneers of the coke rap and they just paint pictures all over this beat. I personally liked the Selector Remix with Sean Paul and Kardinal more than the original, I would actually spin that more, but the beat is fire nonetheless.
- The Clipse – “When’s The Last Time” (off Lord Willin’)
DJ01: My favorite off Lord Willin’ (“Grindin’” is a very close second). The bass is so crisp on in this, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better song to break in some speakers. The fax-like/electronic noise sample (truly a Star Trak sci-fi sound) takes this to the next level — without it, it wouldn’t really stand out from other early 2000-era Neptunes’ productions.
GForce: This is what I hear in my head whenever somebody mentions The Neptunes. All you need to do is hear the opening lyrics — “Top. Down. Chrome spinnin’” — and it’s over for the next 4:14. And there’s something so funny to me about how these polo-shirted suburban boys like Pharrell and Chad can put such a grimy banger for drug dealers like The Clipse. But they do, and damn.
- Justin Timberlake – “Like I Love You” feat. The Clipse (off Justified, 2002)
Zilla Rocca: This song was released around the time of the first N*E*R*D album when The Neptunes added live percussion to their arsenal. Sadly, Justin Timberlake was the first person to benefit. “Like I Love You” was built on Spanish guitars, swinging drums, an ambient drone on the hook, and Skateboard P’s infectious “HEY!” It was the most underproduced single of Timberlake’s career at that point. The breakdown at the end with the homage to “Planet Rock” was fresh as well. All parties involved went on to do bigger and douchier things, but “Like I Love You” sounds like a bunch of guys walked into a studio with a lot of time and money and spent the majority of it on vinyl copies of Michael Jackson and Ultimate Breaks and Beats.
GForce: I’m not gonna front at all — I’m a straight JT stan. If we can just forget about the Nelly Furtado mess he made last year, it’s clear — this white boy is no joke. But back when he was working on his breakaway-from-cheesedom solo album, he had his work cut out for him, so he wisely enlisted a little Neptune magic for his first single. The result was this effortless jammie that somehow makes one note on a guitar and a snare one of the hottest singles of the year. And please — don’t even act like you didn’t learn the video dance (**side eye**).
- Baby – “What Happened To That Boy?” featuring The Clipse (off Birdman, 2002)
Ziilla Rocca: I can’t front — this jawn came out while I was in the midst of my backpacker/Okayplayer/college elitist mode. And I still loved it on the low. Sure, the bird call sounds more like a turkey rape whistle, and Baby unfortunately has to marble-mouth his way through a 16, but this track is inescapable. It’s hollow, cold and catchy all at once. It’s like the best elements of trip hop marrying the trap. Pharrell and Chad bypass the kick drum for a tabla, replace snare drum with a femur bone tapping against a wooden fence, and ditch smooth organs for a faint synthesizer that sounds like the entrance of a Jon Carpenter villain. Fellow producers: don’t compare them to you, you ain’t this, whoa!
Wes: Minimalist, great use of delayed handclaps and they even make the “Birdman call” work. Here they again employ the silence between the sounds to great effect. It’s what they leave out that makes this song so good. The only Birdman song worth having in your iPod. There, I said it.
- Snoop Dogg – “Beautiful” featuring Pharrell and Charlie Wilson (off Paid Tha Cost To Be Tha Bo$$, 2002)
AaronM: A bouncy, summery rhythm that stutters in all the right places. A snaky guitar loop accompanies a fantastic mix of bongos, snares, and hi-hats tightly clustered together. Pharrell and Wilson’s falsetto backing vocals fit the beat like a glove. I love the outro where the beat drops entirely and Pharrell is singing over handclaps. Then the drums kick back in and the beat slowly fades out, yet the beat stays in your head for days. The song is the perfect summer jam; it’s only right that the video is set in Rio.
- N*E*R*D – “Locked Away” (unreleased, 2003)
Brandon: It’s no surprise that The Neptunes dudes are basically these band nerds, especially on “Locked Away”, which starts off with what sounds like the cool kids in your high school jazz band goofily jamming before the winter concert, but eventually turns into a real song and a melody stumbles out. The entire thing feels almost tossed-off, which is sort of The Neptunes’ appeal. It’s hard to explain why or how the minimalist clap of a track by Chad and Pharrell gets in your head but it does and slowly, all of its complexities and weirdnesses pop up but never become clear. There’s not the club-ready resound of Timbaland in The Neptunes and from the outside, they’ve got none of Kanye West’s pop appeal, but they have it too — it’s weird. N*E*R*D’s a great example of how out-there The Neptunes are without even knowing it. It could’ve been a rock concession but instead it’s this weird funk-rock vanity project. The songs still have those Neptunes signifiers like heavy drums, lots of bass — it’s still totally rhythm-based — and best of all, this Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on-speed synth-line.
- Jay-Z – “La La La (Excuse Me Miss Again)” (off Bad Boys II OST, 2003)
DJ01: Some of the bongo-ish sounding drums on this almost sound like something Kanye would use around that period. Add this with the “Neptunes sound” snares, distorted snyths and the result is you’ve got a hypnotizing banger.
GForce: I love a remix that sounds nothing like the original. As soon as The Neptunes got their hands on “Excuse Me Miss”, it went from a come-hither joint with a pretty melody to a dirty, menacing demand that got you ridin’ tonight. The topper is that insane repeating piano sound that makes you pretty sure somebody’s about to squeeze some clips up in here. The best part of Bad Boys II.
DJ Franchise: Much like Brand Nubian’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head”, The Neptunes took a very mellow, 2-step song and flipped the mood to a club banger. The synth reverb bass track, the haunting piano loop, Pharrell’s wanna-be James Brown “Come watch me now!” — these elements made this an immediate classic that demanded your attention. This song evokes energy and swagger, hype and cool, clever lyrics and infectious beats. This song was both a comeback for the Bad Boy franchises (movie and label) as well as a recovery from Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2. Not a bad job.
AaronM: The best Jay/Neptunes collaboration, in my opinion. That music box piano locks with the buzzing synths into an endless loop and Hov rides the drums effortlessly. The chanted “Ho”‘s and the distorted backing vocals are just icing on the cake.
- The Neptunes – “Intro” (off The Neptunes Present… Clones, 2003)
$port: I’m a stickler for how an album starts. The beginning of an album should always sound like a genesis of some sort. This is one of those songs where you would argue with your folks about who should’ve rhymed over it. It was a genius move to make it only eight bars long because you had no choice but to keep on playing it back. One thing that nobody has on Chad is his ability to freak the hell out of a synth lead. It’s damn near screaming at you.
- The Neptunes – “Frontin’” featuring Jay-Z (off The Neptunes Present… Clones)
Brandon: “Frontin’” is basically a funk song — short synthetic guitar stabs, squelchy keyboards, Pharrell’s Bootsy Collins register — and like most good funk songs, it’s not so much about doin’ it as it is the complexities of doin’ it. A lot of Neptunes beats, especially their more conventional “hits” or club songs, follow the funk and disco formula of layering more and more junk over a main, snapping riff or melody and then falling back, only to bring it back even stronger. But unlike funk or disco, even the most “banger”-like Neptunes beats let up for their hook or chorus; there’s no glorious explosion. Notice the bridge on “Frontin’” loses energy and gets really warm (and way less funky) and moves along with Innervisions-esque keyboards and some soul strings. This step-down for the hook is weird, but it might be a symptom of how direct and immediate most Neptunes songs are from the start. They explode the second the song begins and so, they have to calm down and take a breather for the hook.
- FamLay – “Rock & Roll” (off The Neptunes Present… Clones)
Buhizzle: One of my Kanye picks that got left on the blogging-room floor was “Get ‘Em High” off The College Dropout, not so much because the beat itself was great (it was good, but not “Top 5”-worthy), but because it was a great example of a producer taking a beat out and bringing it back — the type of thing that makes a great beat into a great song. Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know” is another great example of this (as 50 recently mentioned), as is “Rock & Roll”. The way the silences place emphasis on certain lyrics (“Hustlin’’s in my veins, you cannot stop it/ Walking down the block with life in my pocket”) makes Fam’s lyrical display sound that much better. And the violin-sounding synths take on a life of their own.
Knobbz: I love how dangerous this beat sounds. The heavy synths make it sound like some serious shit is going down. And while such a grandiose beat would seem to lend itself to someone with an equally commanding voice, The Neptunes brought in FamLay instead, whose calm flow is juxtaposed with the imposing beat in a cool ass way.
- The Clipse – “Hot Damn” featuring Ab-Liva, Pharrell and Rosco P. Coldchain (off The Neptunes Present… Clones)
Zilla Rocca: The best song on an otherwise skidmark of an album (Clones), “Hot Damn” has all the elements of a normal Neptunes production — plastic cup Triton drums, catchy melody, Pharrell moaning on the hook. But that’s where the similarities end. “Hot Damn” introduced Havoc keys and declarative war horns, the kind the guys would never include on a beat tape for Britney or Bow Wow. It sounded like the streets of North Philly dipped in gold then thrown right back into a ditch, and the newly-formed Re-Up Gang tossed dirt all over the track and buried the motherfucker. “Hot Damn” was actually a single from an album full of failed singles, but it would’ve been the perfect album cut that you always go back to on a great rap LP.
- Jay-Z – “Allure” (off The Black Album, 2003)
Skillz: Smooth beat, and it made sense to have it close the end of the album is was on. I just remember the organ on that — it was mesmerizing.
$port: In order to fully appreciate “Allure”, you have to watch the scene in Fade To Black where P is telling Jay to get back in the studio because he has the equivalent of Carlito’s Way ready for him. [Not sure if this the whole scene. — Buhizzle] One thing I learned from that scene is how you have to sell songs. Pharrell set it up so that all Jay had to do was deliver his verses. You can even see him rapping the hook to Jay. Now, do we really have to talk about the piano/string combo???
Brandon: With uncharacteristically weak drums, organic-sounding keyboards, and just sounding generally introspective, this beat is like a Neptunes approximation of a Just Blaze/Kanye West beat for The Blueprint. Plenty of Neptunes tracks employ strings, but it usually sounds like the “strings” setting on an expensive keyboard and maybe that’s all “Allure”‘s strings are too, but they feel more real, which fits the almost-stumbling, naturalistic keyboard playing here. The only thing that really stands out and nears Neptunes heavy is the occasional gun-shot percussion sound. They pull the listener out of the relaxed feeling of the song and also fit Jay’s verses about being perpetually pulled back by the “allure” of “the life.” The shots put you a little on edge, like at any moment it’s going to go crazy and explode like most Neptunes/Jay-Z collaborations. But it doesn’t; it just fades out. Given Jay’s two post-”retirement” albums and no apparent intent on re-retiring, “Allure” would’ve been a more fitting closing track for The Black Album than “My 1st Song”.
- Snoop Dogg – “Let’s Get Blown” featuring Pharrell (off R&G: The Masterpiece, 2004)
Skillz: That beat was soooo smooth. The hook was perfect and Pharrell killed it. When I heard Snoop singing in a Steve Arringtion tone, I was done — that shit was incredible.
- Natasha Ramos – “Midnight Hour” (2004) [NOTE: The mp3 is mislabeled -- it's NOT Vanessa Marquez.]
Skillz: I remember seeing this video on YouTube where Pharrell was making it from scratch, and once he came up with the melody, I was hooked. The way he played those chords was stupid!! I loved that song from the jump. The funny part is he was trying to come up with a melody and the guy filming him was trying to help and was totally throwing him off. YouTube it, its craaazy. [I think this is the clip Skillz is talking about. — Buhizzle]
- Slim Thug – “I Ain’t Heard Of That” featuring Bun B (off Already Platinum, 2005)
AaronM: Damn, the drums on this are crazy. Insistent bongos and a variety of other hand drums are densely packed and thinly mixed for maximum catchiness. The ascending and descending waves of synthesizer glide smoothly over the drums. The blend of the organic yet stilted percussion and the robotic synth lines makes this a natural choice. With “I Ain’t Heard Of That”, The Neptunes crafted the ideal blend between a regional sound and general commercial appeal. The track fits Slim’s slow Houstonian drawl to a tee.
- Skillz – “Suzie Q” featuring Cee-Lo and Jazze Pha (off Confessions Of A Ghostwriter, 2005)
Skillz: Pharrell played me this beat and I wasn’t feeling it at first, then he sang the hook to me and it was a wrap. I knew then I had to have it on my record.
- Twista – “Lavish” (off The Day After, 2005)
Brandon: A lot of more recent Neptunes stuff is either the super-minimalist scronk of “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and “Mr. Me Too” or the super laid-back airy new-age vibe of “Lavish” or, say, “Don’t Stop” from Beanie Sigel’s The B. Coming. The drums are still weird and thick and tumble around a little off-kilter, but this near-Vangelis synth tone pulses in the background along with a Care Bears-like piano twinkle and it’s just really strange and unexpected. It’s not an evolution of their sound, it’s really just a change. A skim of their discography still reveals stuff that mines the typical Neptunes sound (Nelly’s “Flap Your Wings”, Slim Thug’s “Like A Boss”), but they seem increasingly disinterested in that sound and only do it because if they don’t, who else will?
- Pharrell – “Can I Have It Like That” featuring Gwen Stefani (off In My Mind, 2006)
DJ01: I wasn’t crazy about this track when I heard it first. I thought it was too abstract, but it grew on me like none other. When you close your eyes, the low-frequency beat feels like a movie score piece, you can really picture Pharrell’s own little grand movie sequence. The Chad Hugo remix of this is also fantastic.
- Sleepy Brown – “Margarita” featuring Big Boi and Pharrell (off Mr. Brown, 2006)
Buhizzle: Borderline-cornball stuff, but smile-inducing nonetheless. Makes you wonder why Dungeon Family and The Neptunes haven’t collaborated more. The summer is creeping away quicker than you think — have a BBQ and throw this on the playlist. 4th of July would be perfect… oh yeah, sorry.
- The Clipse – “Wamp Wamp (What It Do)” featuring Slim Thug (off Hell Hath No Fury, 2006)
Brandon: What’s the deal with Hell Hath No Fury? Technically, this is credited as “produced by The Neptunes”, but only Pharrell’s name appears on the song-writing credits. Oh well, it doesn’t really matter because this late-period Neptunes or just Pharrell stuff is all really bizarre. The first thing you notice about this beat is its steel-drum sound but soon enough, your ears make it over to the main drum loop. It sounds like Pharrell or Chad just banged on something, recorded it, almost randomly chose a place to chop it, and then looped that shit and layered it with steel drum pings and obnoxious synth for four minutes and had The Clipse kill it. The drums remind me of one of those maybe-true-but-near-mythological stories of how Dilla would go out on the street and record things like kids’ off jump-rope rhythms and shit and make a beat out of that.
- The Clipse – “Keys Open Doors” (off Hell Hath No Fury)
Josephlovesit: The main bell sound in this track reminds me a lot of the bell sound in Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper”. But the track is too cold and isolated to come off as throwback. I love that crappy chorus sound in the background, providing the only concrete harmony in the whole track, quite creepy (and it’s only two notes!). But the dynamic, syncopated drumming is what really sends this shit into banger territory. That and The Clipse’s intense flows provide a nice counterpoint to the other spare and repetitive (but perfectly awesome) elements of the song.
Buhizzle: Upon first listen, Hell Hath No Fury didn’t do much for me. It’s grown on me a lot over time, though I still can’t claim to have ever drank the same Kool-Aid as the XXL staff that gave it a perfect rating. I guess the appeal of Pharrell’s beats on that album (Chad was M.I.A.) were that they didn’t have that quirkiness that pounded listeners over the head — their strength was in their simplicity. The drums on this track aren’t particularly out-of-the-ordinary for a Neptunes’ production, but the haunting humming underneath those drums are. It’s that great balance of moodiness and braggadocio that make Pharrell and The Clipse such a perfect combo.
$port: Pharrell doesn’t get enough credit for his hip hop work, and that’s mainly because he’s the go-to for singles and not bangers. Around this time, the general public really began to down him because he hadn’t really done much of anything that was really meaningful for a hot second. So my guess is, he took all that angst and channeled into an extremely exceptional album. Except for “Dirty Money”, the rest of the album was pretty much classic. It holds a lot of weight (no pun, but if you found it, gold star for you) due to the fact that it was unlike anything P had ever done before. Easily the darkest track in his catalog with those haunting voices and a rimshot that could break your orbital bone.
- The Clipse – “Ride Around Shining” featuring Ab-Liva (off Hell Hath No Fury)
Zilla Rocca: “Ugh ugh ugh!” That’s my favorite part of this jawn. Minimalism was the key to Hell Hath No Fury and this was the shining moments — no weird filters or digital farts to impress nerds and critics, no N*E*R*D noodling to impress Byron Crawford. The sustained harp loop sounds like the murder scene in a ’70s Dario Argento film. The drums are baptized by Marley Marl. The hi-hats skip around like a cricket in a shoebox. And the Re-Up Gang remind us that we are “fish the sharks’ll swim.”
Knobbz: It’s songs like this, “Mr. Me Too” and “Keys Open Doors” that made Hell Hath No Fury a classic. The Neptunes pulled out some Twilight Zone shit on this one. The sinister ringing is an excellent backdrop
for the Clipse’s crack rap. The paranoid sound of the beat comes through especially well when the drums drop out in the beginning of Malice’s verse. “Let that 9 millimeter turn a fella ghostly” — metaphors don’t get much iller than that. And to top it all off, The Neptunes deliver on their penchant for weird little sounds with that yelping noise that just makes the song complete.
- The Clipse – “We Got It 4 Cheap” (off Hell Hath No Fury)
DJ Franchise: How could you not include a Clipse song in a Neptunes Beat Drop? Many would claim “Grindin’” or “Cot Damn” as the best Neptunes/Clipse collabo ever. But I gotta go with this one for both the beat and story. Now, I don’t know this firsthand but supposedly this song was the first that a very pissy Pharrell handed to the Brothers Thornton after they told him to resubmit all new beats for this album. Pharrell, high off his “I have a Reebok Deal and do songs with Gwen Stefani”-attitude, sent Pusha and Malice some medocre and recycled beats for the Hell Hath No Fury project and they were like “Get that shit outta here and bring some heat!” Not happy with the reaction, Pharrell went back to the studio and found a grittier, street, cocaine-based sound for his boys. And as many know, although The Neptunes are credited for production on the album, this was basically a Pharrell-produced project because Chad was M.I.A. The song with the organ riff and congo drums makes a slept-on classic. It doesn’t hurt that they titled this song for the fans who followed them between albums.
- Twista – “Give It Up” featuring Pharrell (off Adrenaline Rush 2007, 2007)
GForce: Deliciously stupid, and says nothing. This song is basically a drum and two notes, but it’s somehow hotter than the surface of the sun. I guess it’s kind of like modern art — seems like it took almost no effort, but the thing is, they thought of it, and you didn’t. So just go with it and pop that ass.
- Kenna – “Say Goodbye To Love (Remix)” featuring Lupe Fiasco (original version off Make Sure They See My Face, 2007) [album co-produced by Chad Hugo]
AaronM: Sounds like U2 pressed through a dance-rock filter. The track is built off a bouncy bassline, doubled hi-hats and shouts of “Hey!” in the background. The keyboard-driven bridge leading into the chorus gives Kenna just enough room to sing the chorus before that bassline kicks in again. A gem of a single off Kenna’s unfairly overlooked sophomore album, this is a perfect modern pop song.
Clyde: I remember when I met this dude back in 2003, I actually thought he was a basketball player that hadn’t made it in the league. He sat next to me on the flight raving about some concert he did and that he was actually a musician. I was in disbelief (how many 6′ 5″ African dudes would tell you that they’re singers and you’d believe them?). His first album was a dismal (commercial) flop, but he recovered nicely with his second album has received much more acclaim. (Also check out “Loose Wires” and “Out Of Control”.)
- Jay-Z – “Blue Magic” (off American Gangster, 2007)
DJ Franchise: Like most Neptunes productions, this song lives in this blurred area of musical familiarity of synths/drums/falsettos and a emergence of a new sonic image for the artist. I think I would give this credit of customizing a beat to an artist while making you still ask “Is that a …. beat?” to a few talented producers (The Neptunes, Kanye, Just Blaze). The Neptunes have a created a niche for themselves when sampling suffered from the record industry and a cheaper alternative production for hip hop was needed. Many “hip hop” producers who could play a riff on a keyboard or a drum were being hired to make hip hop music and the music suffered. But, The Neptunes were true musicians and looked to elevate beyond the mediocrity. Now, they aren’t perfect (remixes for All Saints and The Backstreet Boys and common recycling of beats are still unforgivable) but they have a great track record for creating a new image or life to the artist or song. This is where “Blue Magic” comes in. “Blue Magic” gave us a synthesized late 80′s feel to the beat that let Jay go into it about with a Golden Era swagger. They created the simple riff and 808 bass to make us feel like we were back in ’89. Through this beat, Jay also got a chance to express himself without worrying about being hip hop’s bourgeoisie and just looked to be the street rhymer/hustler that’s in him.
- N*E*R*D – “Everyone Nose (All The Girls Standing In Line For The Bathroom)” (off Seeing Sounds, 2008)
Josephlovesit: This sounds like the type of song that someone makes when they first discover how much shit you can pile onto a song with a digital sequencer. The way that the crash cymbal is synched up with the kick drum rhythm, the combination of both synth-bass and standup bass, record-scratching sounds laid over the pre-chorus, screwed vocal sounds, it all looks overwhelming and amateurish on paper. And when you hear it, it is overwhelming, but in an energetic way. The composition conveys a sense of excitement and spontaneity. And then to add to the chaos, after that awesomely spliced-in piano breakdown in the middle, they layer the pre-chorus sounds over it, creating a beautiful contrast. It makes for some of the densest music I’ve ever heard from The Neptunes.