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It's a very busy life, being a N.E.R.D.

As the Neptunes, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are hit makers for hire. On the side, they're remaking hip-hop as part of a trio that knows no boundaries.

June 01, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — TALK about a tour manager's worst nightmare.

Chad Hugo had missed his flight from Virginia, skipped rehearsal and wasn't picking up the phone. Worse still, with less than an hour until show time it appeared the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist and superstar pop producer wasn't going to be anywhere within three states of the Big Apple in time for a taping of "Late Show With David Letterman," where he was scheduled to perform with his gold-selling hip-hop/rock/new wave group N.E.R.D.

Inside Midtown's Ed Sullivan Theater on a recent Monday, the news of his absence provoked two divergent reactions: astonishment and near total apathy.

It's a lot for a band like N.E.R.D. -- a self-described "niche" act on the cusp of a potentially paradigm-shifting mainstream crossover -- to land the kind of broad cultural pedestal provided by "Late Show." And several of the broadcast's producers seemed incredulous that Hugo should be M.I.A.

Meanwhile, N.E.R.D. tour support staff and band mates Sheldon "Shay" Haley and Pharrell Williams barely registered Hugo's absence. Their attitude wasn't so much "The show must go on" as a dismissive whatevs.

But then, Hugo and Williams have become well versed in each other's peccadilloes. Over the course of a 14-year recording career, they have come to rank among the most elite hit makers in R&B, hip-hop and pop.

Their other group

Working under the professional alias the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach, Va., natives, who have been buddies since middle school, have crafted multi-platinum hit after hit for an eclectic roster of major stars, including Britney Spears ("I'm a Slave 4 U"), Snoop Dogg ("Drop It Like It's Hot") and Gwen Stefani ("Hollaback Girl"), in addition to several songs on Madonna's new album, "Hard Candy."

And since 2001, after the release of N.E.R.D.'s forward-looking debut, "In Search of . . ." -- a record that helped break down musical walls and infuse mash-up culture in hip-hop at a time when the genre's abiding aesthetic was defiantly homogeneous -- Hugo has skipped out on tour dates and promo duties pretty much at will; a keyboard tech is always at the ready to serve as Hugo's understudy (as he eventually did for the producer-musician on Letterman). It got so chronic, N.E.R.D. entourage members joke about making a cardboard cut-out of Hugo for photo shoots (such as one Hugo blew off for this story).

Which wouldn't even have been a problem if not for the fact that the group was about three-quarters of the way through the highest-profile tour of its career, performing as an opening act on Kanye West's Glow in the Dark tour, which concludes in Cincinnati this month. And that band members describe N.E.R.D.'s genre-blurring new CD, "Seeing Sounds" -- which equally recalls P-Funk and the Beatles, Metallica and the Isley Brothers, Gary Numan and Curtis Mayfield, sometimes in the span of a single song -- as an exercise in creative cohesion, band unity and a statement of renewed "purpose" for N.E.R.D.

On "Seeing Sounds" there are political manifestoes and odes to voyeurism (the Curtis Mayfield-esque "Love Bomb" and the '60s-tinged "Window," respectively), a funk banger called "Kill Joy" that's reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even a seven-minute opus, "Sooner or Later," that features Williams singing in his trademark falsetto and rapping over crescendos of guitar, synthesizers and crashing beats. The album's lead single, "Everyone Nose" -- with its unforgettable chorus shouted by Shay: "All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom!" -- takes aim at badly behaved celebutantes on the Paris-Britney-Lindsay axis of empty celebrity.

"Until now, I've been living my life just to have fun," Williams, 35, said in the back of a Cadillac SUV inching through traffic on the way to "Late Show." "But now, having a vertebrae of creativity is more -- not even challenging, but more fun. You realize there's an actual statement to be made. Now we're these creative guys that have a purpose."

To emphasize that the men of N.E.R.D. are on the same page, Haley noted that Hugo's failure to make the gig was a relatively isolated incident. "Chad's been a lot more of a part of this album," Haley said. "The first two albums, he wanted to stay home and be more of a family man. This time out, he's only missed two shows. "

Encountered much later the same night at a downtown nightclub, where he stood quietly nursing a beer, Hugo put a different spin on what went into making "Seeing Sounds," due out June 10. "We had anger, quiet angst," Hugo said. "We had something to get off our chest. And we wanted to show we could do it as a band."

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