NEW YORK -- Bass vibrates through the wood-paneled studio, and the green monitor lights jump with the playback of a rapper named Jade spitting out a verse about guns and money. But what stands out in the mix is the trebly, metallic voice in the background, punctuating the verses: "Yea-uh! Uggghhhh-ah!"\nIt belongs to Pharrell Williams, who with Chad Hugo makes up the production duo the Neptunes. \nThe pair are doing for Jade what they've spent the last three years doing for Britney Spears and Jay-Z, among others: creating music laced with the off-kilter flourishes that have earned them a reputation as the most inventive of today's top producers. \nThis month, Williams was listed No. 1 in Billboard's top 100 songwriters of the year for writing or co-writing 11 hits, including "Girlfriend" by 'N Sync, "U Don't Have to Call" by Usher and "I'm A Slave 4 U" by Britney Spears. \nWilliams nods along with the music and stares at the floor. Leaving the studio, he seems satisfied — until an engineer asks if it sounds OK.\n"Drop the compression off of her, raise her lead, turn my 'yeah' up, and ... there's one more thing," Williams said. He thinks about the hum of that bass, created with drum-machine effect called an 808. "That kick, that 808 kick. See if you can turn it up a little bit." \nMeticulously crafting strange and infectious songs for other people is the Neptunes' first job. The second -- the group they've formed with high school pal Shay Haley -- is harder to define. \nCalled N.E.R.D., an abbreviation for "no one ever really dies," the group defies genres, merging punk rock's do-it-yourself sensibility with hip-hop beats and minor-key melodies as disorienting as they are infectious. \nN.E.R.D.'s debut album, "In Search Of ...", is stocked with songs that seem at first to be about sex and nightclubs but reveal themselves after several listens to be about exploitation, frustration and perseverance. \nThe phrase "no one ever really dies" reflects the group's spiritual beliefs, but the name "N.E.R.D." is also about feeling comfortable being different, and making different kinds of music. \n"For the ones that don't know what we're doing, we're trying to show them that there are more aspects to music than what they hear all the time," said Haley, who handles vocals with Williams. \nIf anyone likes making noise more than the members of N.E.R.D., you may not want to be within earshot. Group members fill every moment singing or shouting whatever pops into their heads. \nDuring a recent group interview, Williams sat quietly for the most part, coming alive only for this occasional shout: "AYYYYYY! Macarena!" \nDriving to a photo shoot through the section of Manhattan called Fashion Avenue, Hugo suddenly remembers an early '80s hit. \n"Ay! We're gonna rock -- down to -- FA-SHION AVE-EN-UE!" he sings. "And then we'll take it higher!" \nSomething about his takeoff on Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" reminds him of a song by the reggae group Inner Circle. \n"Girl, I'm gonna make you sweat," he sings. "Sweat 'til you can't sweat no more!" \nSays Spears: "They're the funniest guys. I love them. Actually, I don't know if I should be saying this, but they're the funnest guys I've ever worked with." \nThe three members of N.E.R.D. started hanging out in high school partly out of shared love for the music of hip-hop innovators A Tribe Called Quest. \nThe intellect and playfulness of their own music recalls Tribe's, but the group also notes the influence of rock groups like Steely Dan, known for obsessive detail in the studio. \nHugo remembers making multitrack recordings when he was 12 without any special recording equipment. He recorded songs on a Casio keyboard and on a boombox with a built-in microphone. \n"I played it back on a home stereo at full blast. While that was playing, I put on another tape in the boombox and recorded the stereo along with another live track of maybe piano or banging on the table for a beat. And I'd just keep doing it over and over." \nHugo and Williams met in music class and got their first break when producer Teddy Riley discovered them at a high school talent show. He later enlisted them to produce for his group Blackstreet. \nThe Neptunes' popularity exploded in 1999 with their production on Noreaga's "Superthug" and ODB's "Gotcha Ya' Money."\nMore hits followed. The latest is Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier," on which Hugo plays horns and guitar and Williams sings. \nLater this summer, the Neptunes will tour to support their album.\n"e're trying to make the record sell at least platinum so that when we do the next album we don't have to tour at all," Williams said. "It's a dope studio band that's gonna be around forever"
Get stories like this in your inboxSubscribe