Photography by Dexter Lander
I hear Chad Hugo before I see him. He arrives at the photo studio by cab, but no sooner has he set foot on the Shoreditch street than he is strolling back and forth down a side alley, belting out an improvised virtuoso performance on a mysterious musical device made of white plastic. It looks more like a Nintendo Wii controller than a woodwind instrument, but after stepping inside the studio after a few minutes serenading passers-by and café patrons, he explains that that’s exactly what it is. “This is called a Venova. It’s made by Yamaha. It goes everywhere with me, always at the top of my bag so I can just pull it out wherever and get to it.” He kindly offers to teach me how to play, and patiently offers instruction and advice as I struggle to produce a single note. It’s an unexpected start to our afternoon together.
Not that I entirely knew what to expect in the first place – media appearances by Hugo are few and far between, the rare occasion of an interview sporadically punctuating his 25-year career. It’s understandable - when your body of work has shaped the course of popular music for the past two decades, there isn’t much else to add to the conversation. Throughout our chat he is suitably softly spoken, so much so that I worry that the clatter of the café next door is going to drown him out on the recording. He apologises for being quite so quiet, explaining that his voice has deteriorated over the course of N.E.R.D’s summer tour appearances – getting it sorted out is the first thing he’s going to do when he gets home, he tells me.
Chad is in town on the European leg of the tour, a zig-zagging route across the continent that takes in festivals in Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and a handful of other locales. It’s a surprise to hear that this is the first time he’s ever “really” toured as part of the legendary genre-bending band he formed with Pharrell Williams and Shay Haley back in 1999. Being happily settled with a young family in one’s forties seems like a strange time to decide to sample tour life. “I just never wanted to tour before,” he explains. “But this time around, we finished the record and I saw that people were enjoying the new sounds. It was fun playing these new songs, and the old tunes, with a band, so I just thought ‘why not?’” It’s clear that having two decades’ worth of perspective on proceedings has given Chad a much deeper appreciation of the experience. Talking to BRICK a couple of days after N.E.R.D’s performance at Manchester’s Parklife Festival, the crowd reaction to their headline performance, stage invasion included, has left an impression. “The shows are so wild. It’s nice to see kids still enjoying tracks we put out over a decade ago. It tells me that our music will be around for longer than we will.”
“When you make music that can go on into the next generation, what you’re making is a time machine,” Chad claims, at his most animated. “If I can play a song and you’re transported back to a time that exists in your memory, that is an experience of time travel.” It seems a fitting juncture to point out that today marks 10 years since the release of SEEING SOUNDS, N.E.R.D’s third album – but Chad wasn’t aware of the anniversary. To his mind, the projects don’t age, they exist in the present day just as vividly as they did on release day. Time is a flat circle. So is a 12” record.
The course of our conversation takes us back in time, to cover the first decade of Chad’s career. After forming a teenage R&B four-piece called The Neptunes with schoolmates Pharrell, Shay and vocalist Mike Etheridge, they caught the ear of new jack swing impresario Teddy Riley when performing at a local talent show. Riley took the band under his wing, and soon Chad and Pharrell were permanent fixtures in the recording studio that was situated next door to their high school. As their production prowess grew, the pair recycled that Neptunes name to form a duo. They cut their teeth with work on projects from Wreckx-N-Effect, BLACKstreet, and a host of R&B stars, all the while developing a sound that eventually swept through hip-hop before going on to dominate the world.
Looking back on those days, I ask if there were any lessons learned along the way that he wishes he had known at the time; if he could dispense any advice to his younger self, what would it be? “Get more sleep,” he says with a broad smile and shake of his head. “Definitely try to sleep a lot more. And remember to enjoy the moment.” Talk of that unrivalled back catalogue leads me to ask if there are any of his many creations that particularly stand out in his mind. With a lifetime of music to select from, it’s telling of his mindset that he opts for a project that he helped to form in just the past year – Justin Timberlake’s MAN OF THE WOODS. Asked to elaborate on what stands out about his work on that album, he replies “Sometimes it’s just good to get back together with friends and create something. That’s what it was with Justin.”
In 2015, Hugo produced the original score for MANNY, a feature length documentary on the life of boxing legend Manny Pacquaio. “That was fun,” he recalls. “Obviously my heritage is Filipino so it was cool to work on something that touches that culture and to incorporate that into the music. I went to work out with Manny, it was an amazing experience to see his dedication – although I couldn’t keep up past the first minute.” When I ask if he sees more soundtrack work in his future, yet again his answer takes me by surprise and steers the conversation down a new illuminating avenue.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what I want to do next. I want to do new things. Do you have any suggestions?” He laughs off the idea when I propose that he return to Pacquiao’s training camp and tries his hand at stepping into the ring, before giving my original question further thought, eventually settling on answer he’s satisfied with. “What I really want to do for the next period of my life is be a teacher. I’m not sure if I want to do it with a formal teaching position or not, but what makes me excited is the opportunity to pass on knowledge and advice to the next generation.”
Speaking of the next generation, I had heard it mentioned during today’s photoshoot that Chad had spent some of his time in London in the studio with Rex Orange County. As I ask what it’s like to work with emerging artists, Chad’s face lights up yet again. “It’s always good to make music together – and when it’s people from different areas, they have different references and influences, so everything becomes a fusion of that. It’s a universal learning and sharing experience – I’m learning things from them, and they pick things up from me.”
In the course of my research for this piece, I had found it hard to pin Chad Hugo down, to identify the defining characteristic (beyond consistent musical excellence) of this shy, retiring, goofy, soft-spoken sage savant. Throughout our conversation though, it becomes clear that what drives him is pure creativity, and the alchemy that comes from the sharing and melding of creative concepts. No better example can be found than in his approach to our photoshoot. “He likes boiler suits, and is into weird stuff,” came the simple directive from his team. The styling rail met the brief and then some: tentacled hats, trousers made from electrical tape, a mallet (!), it was clear that BRICK was channelling new levels of “weird.” Such was Chad’s enthusiasm for the clothes that the shoot overran by an hour – each time he disappeared to change into another look, he would take the time to craft a costume that somehow came fully equipped with a back story. When I told him that he looked like a sidequest character from a Japanese RPG, he took it as the highest compliment.
As I end our chat by putting this idea to him, Chad answers in the affirmative and recites a personal mantra: “My Soul Shall Live ’Cause My Mind Never Dies.” It’s a backronym of MSSL CMMND (pronounced Missile Command), his DJ project in partnership with Daniel Biltmore, but it’s clear to see that it’s a code for him to live by. I’ve hardly finished thanking him for his time before he is back out on the streets of Shoreditch, Venova in hand, on his way to more creation.