Pharrell Williams: "Faith is about what you feel"
The rap legend, super-producer and fashion mogul talks creativity, inspiration and community with Kanye West, exclusively for i-D's created-in-quarantine summer issue.
How do you introduce a conversation between two of music’s biggest superstars? Two artists who have defined, reshaped and moulded not just something as simple as music, but the sound, look and feel of contemporary life. There’s not much left untouched by the creative vision of Pharrell Williams and Kanye West.
Pharrell is a pioneer. Since the early 90s, his work as part of the production duo The Neptunes, later bolstered by the left-leaning, genre-destroying group N.E.R.D he fronts, effectively shaped the sound of a generation of hip-hop. Today, his spirit can be felt up and down the Billboard Hot 100. As well as being a bonafide solo artist in his own right, he’s the go-to songwriter and producer for everybody from Ariana Grande to Megan Thee Stallion.
But he’s also the man who set the blueprint for hip-hop’s crossover into the world of luxury fashion. His influence has helped build empires. Not least, by this man’s own admission, the one headed by Kanye West. The planet’s most restless rapper, designer, architect and preacher of God’s word has long looked to Pharrell for inspiration. Yeezy may not have existed in its current, billion-dollar form if it wasn’t for Pharrell taking the first steps into an industry that felt detached from the one rappers were meant to exist in.
The two have collaborated and toured the world together throughout the 21st century, but they have, above all, remained friends first. Now, the duo find themselves cultivating creativity within the confines of a world on lockdown. The coronavirus pandemic has, in some ways, become a leveller: we are collectively navigating an era of political and social uncertainty. But many of us, disheartened by the words and actions of our leaders, look not to government officials for ways to make progress, but to the artists whose work we confide in. So from Miami Beach and Wyoming respectively, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West speak about beginnings, optimal creativity, and how we all must act together to bounce back from the impact of a world temporarily drawn apart…
Pharrell: What’s going on bro?
What’s good? I’m chilling out here in Wyoming. Where you at?
Miami. It’s great to have the beach. The air, the pink sky. My kids, my family, it’s just amazing.
Away from all the crowds... I’m cloud chasing, not crowd chasing.
That’s a beautiful feeling. When you don’t feel encumbered by the fog and the white noise. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview by the way.
No problem man.
I think when we first met it was at the very beginning of your career. I don’t think any of your music was out yet? I remember meeting you and thinking, ‘This guy is different.’ Your persistence was infectious, and when you released the music it was everything you said it was going to be. I think you’re a person who is able to reverse engineer a tangible product or a song or an experience by bringing the right people together, and that skill has bled into so many areas of your creativity. You’re a guy who will go to any length to bring people together. I saw that then, and so everything you’ve managed to achieve since is no surprise.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing now, sitting here in Wyoming figuring out how to do manufacturing during COVID. The Foam Runners we’re coming out with in June are our first American manufactured items and we gotta figure out how to do localised manufacturing. But it’s more of an approach than a description. Everything, whether that’s a time in history or a genre of music or a style of clothing is just a different approach to getting things done. I feel that this summer, when people are overly getting influenced by images – it’s like a dog chasing its tail. It seems like it’s harder for people to breakout and actually do something and really take on everything the world has to offer.
I was in Puerto Rico with my daughter for her birthday and there was a gentleman playing the guitar, and after he finished playing I gave him a big tip and spoke to him and thanked him and I said to him, “There’s no difference in you playing the guitar here or me in the middle of a stadium. It’s what we do, you know?” Music is an incredible platform for expression, but at a certain point you reach a bell curve of what the expression is. Even the whole thing with the idea of radio and media and marketing – there can be things that are overwhelmingly amazing and powerful, but if it hasn’t been set up to be what’s gonna play on radio, it just won’t break the mould. I think the hip-hop we grew up with and that we loved, that was a lot of what they talked about: do you want to be on the radio or not? It felt like we weren’t dictated too.
I think one of the things that you, Pharrell, inspired in me was this fearlessness to break the mould. You’re the inspiration. Before I wore a pink polo you were wearing a pink polo. That lineage is mapped out and proven, and you can go from then all the way up to the moment we have in culture now. You broke down the doors in fashion for us. Going out to Paris, you had this elegance, it’s not something that even can be learnt. Then to be the first guy to have a skateboard on the cover of The Source, for example. These moments, where we had to break out and just do something completely different, that basically has inspired an entire generation. Everything looks and feels more and more like what Pharrell started.
It felt like you really tore down the walls and the doors much like Michael Jackson did a generation before, and in a way, he’s very similar to Michael Jackson, in the ways where Michael Jackson was doing covert, super gangsta stuff, like he’d just pop the needles off. He kissed Elvis Presley’s daughter on MTV. Black culture used to be... we used to be fronting all night, but Michael was doing stuff that was different to what we were programmed to understand as being what we should do. He bought The Beatles’ back catalogue. That was Mike Jackson, right there. We should have something that says we can’t allow any company to tear down our heroes. Not on The Shade Room, not on social media and especially not in documentaries. I’m like every time the media isn’t happy with me it’s like, ‘Here they go. They’re gonna come and Wacko Jacko me.’ Which in some ways, they’ve tried to do.
I think back to when I was growing up, living in Chicago and all my friends are gangbangers, and then I’d go to the suburbs in the summertime and I’d be known as ‘the black kid’. And at that moment it’s like I related more to what Pharrell was saying in the midst of all the gangsta rap… Oh another thing I wanted to point out, I know I’m going off here, but I want to talk about Virginia and how important Virginia is to black music. People talk about the importance of Detroit, but modern black music is Virginia! From Teddy to Pharrell to Timbaland, and what’s my man from Jodeci? DeVante! Broooo! I cannot even put into words what those gospel chords do to me. They rip me out. And then Pharrell took a punk approach to gospel chords. Pharrell is punk. That’s what that is. When you started using live drums. That moment. Man, you’re one of the best.
Wow. That was quite a compliment, I mean... I’m speechless. But I wasn’t alone, you know? There were so many of us, whether people know us by name or not. And we all realised there were far more archetypes available to us than the media was allowing at that time. We were just like, ‘What about us?’ We’re not in one particular box. We happen to be pluralist. I see you continuing to do the same thing. You’re really the real thing. The real thing. I mean that. You can create something that you’ve seen so clearly in your mind. I think that is essentially the promise of all human experience. Everyone has the ability to tap into that, but some people seem to instinctively already know that innately. I think it’s up to people like yourself, who were gifted with that ability, to remind people that the human spirit is big – and that we meet in flesh, but we also meet in spirit.
They try to make us not know what is inside of us, and you have to protect that at all costs. You can drive down Sunset Boulevard and see all these billboards and you’re thinking about this movie that’s coming out, or that record, and you forget who you are. Sometimes you gotta turn the phone off and just go to Hawaii for nine months or just move your family, move everything, to Wyoming and find that answer. Time moves differently here in Wyoming, space is different. Just to have nothing but space and time instead of everything. It’s like a different stream of consciousness. It’s more about finding the things that drive you spiritually and remind you who you are.
They try to put a timeline on when a musician will do his best work, and then you look at so many great visual artists and painters and they’re just getting going at 50. And then I think about Polo, and when we discovered Polo, and the fact that Ralph didn’t start Polo until he was 40.
Somewhere between 16 and 25 is where they feel you peak at the moment, and sure there are some people who are exceptional, who figure it out at a young age, but the actual window for creativity isn’t the same as what the industry believes because they have no idea that we are fishermen, casting our nets out to sea and seeing what comes in. There are moments when it just flows and there are moments when you just don’t get something. Is it high tide? Low tide? Sometimes you just lose that signal. You can lose that fish. It’s all about that. It’s all about our connection to the universe, and that connection doesn’t have a time or a place on it, but the industry doesn’t know that because they don’t really think in those ways.
I’m out here with the farmers and sometimes the crops are good and sometimes they’re bad and it’s really up to God. I took my design team to the ranch two nights ago. I wanted them to see the sunset over the mountains because sometimes, out there, it looks like the cover from Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. But it was so hazy and there was no sunset – it just went from grey to black. But then we’re by this lake and we see all these swans and birds and animals and suddenly everything comes to life. We went out there with one plan and it came out a different way. They say, ‘Make plans and God laughs,’ but everyday, to be waking up in this game of life, God being in control, having this master plan… My dad once told me that life was about power versus force. It was one of the strongest things he ever told me. When you’re going with the flow your destiny falls into line, you see what God wants you to do, you recognise these connections.
Sometimes I go to the breakfast table and the combination of people who are sitting there – because my cousin runs the ranch – and I think perhaps God wants me to have this conversation, at this moment, with these people. Yesterday we got Songs in the Key of Life on, and we’re listening on this old school record player – when we have lunch we just play the record through. So, we had Songs in the Key of Life yesterday, you know why, and at one moment Chris Julian was talking, and he said, “Everything’s opening up, everything and anything,” and Stevie is saying the exact same words, at the same time!
Speaking of Stevie Wonder, actually, that reminds me – he wanted you to call him.
Do you know what, I was just thinking this morning that I should of called Stevie yesterday! Give me the number. Don’t put it in this interview!
Haha, I’ll text it to you.
So this is the Faith In Chaos Issue of i-D. What shall we talk about now? Creativity? Coronavirus?
I think we need to be clear that this is a plague we’re living through at the moment. I don’t think there will be such a thing as a new normal – it doesn’t do enough justice to the difference in who we were pre-pandemic and who we will be moving forward. I think it’s made a lot of people very wary and on edge. Life’s going to have a different kind of gravity than it’s ever had before. It’s also gonna make us really separated. We’re disconnecting from each other even though online we’re probably more connected than we’ve ever been. It’s a bit like the Tower of Babel, if you will. We’ve never been this close, and there’s a lot of advantages that come with that. There’s a lot of disadvantages, too, and a lot of grey areas.
But I also know that love is going to be a very deep emotion. Something people really feel you know. You can’t just shake a hand or hug a person and exchange that feeling in a way you could before. And then, look at things economically, regardless of whatever ways stabilisation reveals itself – not normality, but stabilisation – because like a wave it’s gotta stabilise at some point, and when that does, there’s nothing normal about looking around and seeing so many businesses closed and so many people without jobs. But we have been through many plagues before. We have been through pandemics. We survived. We’re gonna make it. In a lot of ways we got ourselves into this, we gotta get to work to get through it.
I don’t think there’s nothing else that needs to be said after that!
I’d love to hear what you’re feeling though. You know, when i-D asked me who I want to do this interview with, it was like you, that’s it. I believe you’re one of the most influential entities the world has ever seen, because of the way your presence and your point of view is rooted in so many worlds. When you speak, they’re going to listen. Whether they agree, disagree or whatever, they’re going to hear you, and there are going to be people who are reading this who are gonna need to hear from you.
When we’re talking about what people need or how we see the world, or bringing a healing vibration for people as much as we can. There’s nobody else I think, nobody I’d want to join this conversation with me, than you.
I was sitting here with my manager Bu, and we were talking about how people want to come to America and how amazing the country of America is. Then we got on the concept of what it meant to be poor in America, and then I started the sentence and I said, “When you’re poor in Africa…” and before the sentence was finished, Bu interjected and said, “You’re better off there than in America, because if you’re in Africa, the community won’t let you go hungry.” That’s the type of mentality that we’ve gotta apply moving forward [after] this pandemic. That’s the change that must happen.
We need to understand humanity as one species. We need to change our mentality, readjust our mindset and use that readjusted mindset to change the world. The only thing that can change the world is people changing. And we have this moment right now to just really reset because the world wasn’t heading in the right direction. Everything is up to God and we have this opportunity to collectively feel, to be saved and answered, to collectively think about what is happening really. We have this time to pause and reflect, to ask each other how we’re really feeling. What are we feeling? What am I feeling? What are you feeling? And then we need to ask what we’re thinking, and the deepest level is knowing. That gut feeling.
I believe that things can be simplified. We’re over inundated with everything and now we have the opportunity to readjust and focus on the essential and the simple things.
Agreed. I really do believe we’re in the Age of Aquarius. Everything is up in the air conceptually, literally and metaphorically. Faith is not about what you see, faith is not about what you hear. Faith is about what you feel, and mankind is absolutely in a place and in a state of feeling more than it ever has been before.
We’re in a place where we are aware now. You know, when you’re driving home it’s three or four in the morning and you are tired, and you drive, and you swerve real quick, and your friend or whoever is like, “Yo! Wake up!” And I’m like, “Oh I’m up! I’m up!” We are up now. It ain’t that we weren’t awake. None of us heard the difference. People say woke – we get it – but what about being up? Up means you’re not even tired. You’re no longer wiping the sleep out of your eyes. You are focused. We up now. That’s music, that’s artists, that’s art – you have to feel it. If you can’t feel it, then it’s just two-dimensional, a waste of space and time. Everything is about feeling. Everything.
I can only just tell you what I sense, in this power that you feel since all this isolation shit, it’s different no? Everything is intensified. Our visions, our feelings, our connections to the universe, I feel like it’s just intensified, is it like that for you? I was just wondering if you were able to take your experience and just say what it’s been like for you. What can people take from your experience?
It’s weird. I’ve got all these friends around me, and I hire people to give me advice and I ask a million questions, but no one ever asks me any questions. I remember like once or twice people have come to me and say, “Ye, how would you do it?” and I don’t even... I’m not positive that my exact approach would work for everyone, but I understand what you’re saying. Like at the moment I’m all about localising manufacturing, raising the village, forming a community. To me that’s beautiful.
And you’re doing that in Wyoming?
Yeah. Last summer I was building these homeless shelters, and a lot of the times when people build homeless shelters they build it like, ‘oh it’s for the homeless,’ whatever, but I want to build something with taste, an actual home. And people start to say, well what about the drugs, or the mental health problems. Take a gated community, I believe the drug and mental health problems there are equal to the drug and mental health problems of the homeless. The idea was to make a space that was also going to inspire, and in a place that I would live in, so I called it the T-shirt of homes because a billionaire can have a T-shirt and a homeless person can have a T-shirt.
We had to go where we could build it. We studied communal living in Africa, we studied organic farming, we studied solar energy. This is one of the opportunities we have right now. We’re learning how to build a city. You can go to a tattoo artist, and they have the worst tattoos in the world, but they’re the best artist. Why? Because they practised on themselves. Like if you take a lot of my media from the last past 20 years, well I was practising on myself.
Yeah, it was like that is what God gives you. You were in it, you went through it. That’s drive. You definitely get the award for, among many other things, drive.
Alright Pharrell, I’m a go eat with my wife and kids, and Kylie and Trav are coming in so you know, I’m gonna go do some family time.
Nothing better than that!
You have a blessed day.
Love to the family!
Photography Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott
Digital set up and operations Niccolo Pacilli at Dreamer Productions.
Local digital technician Mike De Janon.
Post production DREAMER POST.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.