Pharrell Saved My Life
Let me kick this off with a controversial debate. Some would like to argue between who’s the better creative, artist, producer or the most influential between the Kanye West or Pharrell. For me, it’s Pharrell over Kanye any day of the week in every which way. Pharrell takes the crown over Kanye as a producer & musician, as a creative, as an icon, as a fashion mogul, and as a person. No disrespect to Kanye because he truly is a genius but if you strip away all the noise of controversy and publicity and dial it down to just the positive impact and influence of their accomplishments and art, then Pharrell takes the cake. Plus, Kanye produces off of primarily samples while Pharrell is a purely rooted musician that often produces from scratch. Want to fight me yet?! My opinion is a bit biased because 20+ years ago, Pharrell & Chad Hugo (The Neptunes) saved my life. Let me give you my point of reference.
Fall of 1998, I was a freshman at Carson High School in Carson, California (a city right in between Compton and Long Beach, the 2 meccas of West Coast Hip-Hop ). This was around the time not long after the Golden Era of Hip-Hop and around the decline of West & East Coast Gangsta Rap. Hip-Hop didn’t have much of an identity at this time even though the scene was made up of artists such as OutKast, No Limit Records, DMX, and solo artists stemming from groups like N.W.A and Wu-Tang Clan. Pop music on the other hand took the forefront of music at the peak of boy bands such as N*Sync, Backstreet Boys, and 98 Degrees. This was the context of music for me at this point in time.
Back then, I was heavy on DJing and dancing due to the nature of that being the culture around me (through my friends and family that also took interest in it). Whether I’m DJing or dancing, I’m around music constantly. I remember when I first heard “Superthug” by rapper, Noreaga. I was sifting through a stack of records when this one landed on the turntables. At first, I wasn’t crazy about the song but the beat and production was so unique and unsettling that I couldn’t get it out of my head. Over the next few weeks, more songs started surfacing that had similar sounds (such as “Lookin At Me” by Ma$e and “Got Yo Money” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard) only to realize they were all produced by the same group, The Neptunes (Pharrell & Chad Hugo). As soon as I saw their swagger and learning that Chad Hugo was Filipino (like myself), I instantly became a fan. I’m proud to claim that I was a fan even before The Neptunes became known in the mainstream.
The Neptunes influenced a lot of my sound and swagger in High School and even going into college. From their preppie skate fashion, to dancing to their music in our dance crew performance routines. During this time, The Neptunes had revolutionized music in a way that most people, even to this day, still haven’t realized. With Chad and Pharrell going beyond Hip-Hop and producing music for rock and pop artists, they had blurred the lines between genres. This carried Hip-Hop even more into the mainstream and some would even say some “Hip-Hop” became “Pop” (i.e. Nelly – Hot In Herre). Not only that, but their Hip-Hop roots made it “cool” for some kids from the hood (like myself) to be openly into boy bands and pop music through their work with Brittany Spears, N*Sync, and Gwen Stefani. Their evolution and fast growth in the 2000s was definitely a fun ride to be on and I was there for all of it.
Getting into my years of young adulthood (post-college 2007), The Neptunes were still killing it in music with tracks like “Blue Magic”(by Jay-Z), “Wind It Up”(by Gwen Stefani), and Everybody Nose (by N.E.R.D.) on heavy radio rotation. Through the years, their sound became more experimental while still maintaining its uniqueness. Though still a duo, Pharrell became the frontman of The Neptunes as he released solo records and explored other creative projects in fashion and art as part of his creative evolution. At this time, I also began expanding my creative outlets and outlooks while still wanting to be in the culture of music. I co-founded and created a new dance crew called Beat Jerkeez and our acronym tagline was J.E.R.K. (Just Expressing Raw Kreativity), inspired from The Neptunes’ artist group name N.E.R.D. (No one Ever Really Dies). As long as the Neptunes were still around, they still played a part in my creative life.
As I approach my late 20s, a new level of maturity started to kick in. Although dance was a big part of my life, I knew I couldn’t do it forever and that I wouldn’t be able to sustain the livelihood I wanted doing it. I had to start thinking of putting myself in position for what I wanted the rest of my life to look like. I just knew I wanted to stay in the realm of music and my goal was to always somehow end up working for myself and run my own company. My professional background and expertise was tech and software development with just about a decade of experience (including 5 years of studying Computer Engineering at UC Riverside). Internet Radio was barely a thing at the time and I knew a ton of talented DJs so I figured “let me put them on the internet.” So I then developed an internet radio platform that streamed live DJ mixing and called it Traklife Radio. To be quite honest, I don’t know why I called it “Traklife.” All I can remember was that I wanted a “.com” domain and “traklife.com” was the first one that I found available. And to be even more honest, up until I was brainstorming for this write-up, I came to the realization that Pharrell and The Neptunes had engrained inspiration in me so deeply that I unconsciously derived “Traklife” from The Neptunes’ Record Label “Star Trak.” Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Over the recent years, being that Pharrell had already established himself as a cultural icon, he started doing more interviews and speaking events that showcased more of who he was beyond the creative, but instead, who he was as a person. This is when he went from becoming an influence to becoming a role model for me. He had a way of articulating his thoughts and beliefs that always hit home for me. From his belief in God, to his selflessness, and desire to create for the greater good. This resonated with me heavy because not only did I also have the same beliefs, but I felt like Pharrell and I grew up together as if we were in each other’s lives. As he evolved and matured in music, I was going through the same phases at the same time in my personal life. So every time he spoke on almost any subject in interviews and other speaking engagements, I often find myself thinking “Me too!” Okay I’m sounding like a fan boy, but in actuality, I was past “fan boy” status a long time ago. In all seriousness, the culture of music is lucky to have Pharrell and The Neptunes for not just what they accomplished but for what they influenced and revolutionized into the next generation. That generation is what makes up today’s music landscape through artists like Jaden Smith, Tyler The Creator and his whole Odd Future movement.
Pharrell had been pushing the concept of embracing your individuality and uniqueness and that only then would you find your purpose in life. To create outside of the box instead of inside trends and to create from internally rather than create for the masses. That perspective always inspired my creativity, especially at times when I would be having mental blocks that would prevent me from thinking creatively. Not only did we share a common passion for innovation and creativity, but also our passion and belief in God that keeps us always humble and grateful. These are personal qualities that I think about on a daily basis and look to somehow instill onto my kids. As I continue to find my way in music, creativity, and entrepreneurship, my ambition is built on a path that was inspired from Pharrell’s success and ideologies by instilling that sense of vision in me early on and even to this day. As he continues to still do his work and push the culture in music, fashion, business, art, and now skincare apparently, he unknowingly is also providing light for my path and countless others. That path being Traklife and our vision to evolve the music community and industry through more collaboration and less competition using technology and unique business structures (but more on that later, you’ll see).
To bring it back to the debate I brought forth in the beginning of this article, Pharrell and Kanye have different forms of influence at different eras. So I guess it might not be fair to each of them to even compare but let me ask you, many years from now after they both have left this earth, which of them left a more positive imprint on the culture of life at that point in time? There’s no right or wrong answer because everyone’s opinions come from different reference points. But I will leave it at this, the contrast between the two is evident after watching both of their Drink Champs episodes (hosted by Noreaga and DJ EFN) which were only months apart in 2021. Either way, the legacy and imprint they both left behind is a thing of beauty and we’re all blessed to have witnessed it. “Trak” life for life!