Pharrell’s NYU Conversation Dissects “Geek Chic” & Native Tongues’ Inspiration (Video)

Earlier this week, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts hosted Pharrell Williams, after naming him their Artist in Residence as part of the school’s 50th anniversary. As part of his residency, P visited Tisch for an in-depth talk with host Jason King a part of NPR’s “In Conversation” series, with whom he chatted in front of a live audience for more than 90 minutes.

Much of the conversation, not surprisingly, dealt with P’s illustrious career as an artist and producer, with songs like “Freedom” and “Happy” earning special attention. They also discuss alien life, P’s relationship with Kanye West, the beginnings of N*E*R*D, the days of early Neptunes producing for the likes of Mase, why Kelis is so important (there’s even an analysis of “Milkshake”), and much more.

Around the 32:30 mark, conversation turns to the Native Tongues, a family of artists including A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to whom Pharrell admits he felt a kinship with, even before his own music career had really taken flight. King appears to make a parallel between the Tongues and N*E*R*D, as the latter are “often credited with bringing together this thing that’s called ‘geek chic’…which is sort of a return to nerdiness,” he says. He then begins to read from a review of the band’s debut album, In Search Of…, in which N*E*R*D is credited for bringing forth a new motif in popular music, that of the “Black nerd…the smart-ass who defies the laws of ‘Black cool.'” When asked if he feels like he’s important when it comes to the rise of that kind of identity in music, P modestly says “my participation in that was given to me by the audience…there are tons of people who have made great music, great art, great whatever, but you don’t know about them until the people lift you up to a certain height.” In continuing the theme of his influence on Black youth, particularly in ways that were unusual at the time, King brings up what was once P’s ubiquitous skateboard, which in the early ’00s was still a new concept; at least in mainstream, popular music, there weren’t many Black artists sporting skateboard culture the way he was, King argues. P rebuffs that argument, immediately bringing up Harold Hunter in the film Kids. But, despite his unending modesty, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree that Pharrell Williams is one of the most influential artists, perhaps in music history.

Near the 47:00 mark, the interview nearly grinds to an awkward halt, as King brings up “Superthug,” the 1998 N.O.R.E. single produced by The Neptunes. King mentions that he is going to play a bit of the song, as well as the video, and Pharrell asks him “why?” For the next couple of minutes, he explains how he’s always suffered from a nearly debilitating sense of shyness, remarking that while King was on stage, listing various accolades in his introduction, Pharrell actually began walking back upstairs rather than out on stage, and a very vulnerable, authentic release of something that is clearly deeply personal for him is released live, on the stage, and something that could have derailed the interview in fact strengthened it, as there is a palpable sense of togetherness that takes over the hall. In a particularly down-to-earth moment, Pharrell gives the audience a disclaimer, pleading with them to “forgive any attire” and that “as my fellow Aries know, we go through our phases…we really mean it at the time…but five years later, we don’t want to see the photo,” alluding to what folk are about to witness in the “Superthug” video. As it plays, there is a sense of catharsis, and it seems as if the audience’s unflinching embrace of Pharrell, despite what may have been to him some particularly silly choices in fashion (which may sound superficial, but is in fact just a metaphor for P’s career-long reinvention – something he has managed to successfully continue without ever losing his artistic integrity) become obsolete.

Watch their entire conversation below, which includes some closing Q&A with NYU students.

Related: From the Beastie Boys to Pharrell: This Film Looks at the Merging of Hip-Hop & Skateboard Culture.