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.
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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’?”