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Exclusive: Chad Hugo On N.E.R.D. & Finding His Musical Freedom

Chad Hugo

Photo: Burak Cingi/Getty Images

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Exclusive: Chad Hugo On N.E.R.D. & Finding His Musical Freedom

From The Neptunes to N.E.R.D. and beyond, the GRAMMY-winning musician and producer taps into what makes his music magical

GRAMMYs/Aug 13, 2018 - 09:51 pm

Chad Hugo is a musician first. He's become famous for not wanting to be famous, preferring to let superstar friends such as longtime musical partner Pharrell Williams, or Jay-Z or Justin Timberlake, stand in the spotlight, while he stayed in the studio fine-tuning their tracks.

Through a career as a producer, as well as member of his own band, N.E.R.D., Hugo has always focused on always keeping his records vital and fresh. For years he did this using the same digital toolbox everyone used until he realized what was missing was the soulful authority achieved only when real musicians play in real time. The dimension of human artistry real musicians can bring to a track is undeniable and can’t be attained in any other way.  We spoke to Hugo about that revelation, and other ideas which have informed his remarkable career.

His story starts in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where music first enlivened his world. He was only 12 when he met Williams in the school marching band. They both were drummers, but Hugo was the Drum Major, the leader of the band, while his friend was behind him in the drumline. In time, as the world knows, Williams happily stepped into the frontman role as Hugo held it down in the back.

It was over beatboxes though, not snare drums, that they bonded. Forming a duo called The Neptunes, they got signed to a production deal by Teddy Riley, who heard them at the school talent show. For nearly a decade they produced other artists, before starting their own band, N.E.R.D. (No-one Ever Really Dies), with Shay Haley.

They created their debut, In Search Of, as they did their previous productions, with digital drum beats, samples and loops. They released it first in Europe before agreeing to reinvent the album with a slant both old school and new, fusing mechanical beats and samples with actual instruments in real time. They enlisted Spymob, a rock band, to do the playing since they felt they couldn’t. But by their next album, Fly or Die, they did it all. With incessant woodshedding, Hugo gradually grew more fluent on guitar and branched out in many directions, to saxophones, accordion, keyboards and more. Williams played the drums.

“It’s not mandatory,” Hugo says, when asked how important a mastery of real instruments was to a modern producer. “But learning different instruments allows one to take on another voice, another character. I also joined the choir at church and to sing a given song on paper, a composition, and contribute to make the message stronger is something to appreciate.”

N.E.R.D. have banded and disbanded a few times, but now they are about to embark on a major tour. Being an artist in the band instead of the producer is a role he relishes, as its liberates him to make the music most singular to his own spirit.

For his most recent production, working with Justin Timberlake on his Out of The Woods album, his mission was not to express his own soul, but to enable the artist to express his soul while devising the perfect frame.

But when allowed to do his own thing, he’s freed from other perspectives to honor his own. “In No-one Ever Really Dies,” he says, “we were given the freedom to set the trends.” 

Hugo has always been a collaborator since the start, and it’s working with others, he explained, that creates the sturdy and friendly foundation that he needs. “Making music is best as a team effort,” he said, “so I'd add elements and take out elements. To be trusted on my judgements, that took time. That’s in a mix down, and during the songwriting process.”

That organic foundation still grounds every production, and always allows experimentation with the newest tools that emerge. “There’s always new technology,” he said, “and plug-ins being released. We share these technologies and implement them in production. Though we still maintain the foundation in the studio setting with the provided drum kit guitar and wind instruments.”  

Being an authentic musician, Hugo knows, is all about being engaged. But as he explained, that engagement isn’t exclusive only to one’s work writing or recording a song.  To create engaged art, he said, means being engaged not only with music, but with all of life. Asked to explain his own creative process and how he maintains that dynamic connection, he pointed not towards the studio but towards being a human: “Live life to the fullest,” he said. No more words were needed or offered; it was time to get back to the music.

Chad Hugo is a member of the Recording Academy and can be seen in the Academy's We Are Music campaign.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

Mumu Fresh On What She Learned From Working With The Roots, Rhyming & More

Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

Director Allen Hughes' four-part documentary takes home Best Music Film honors for its portrayal of the unlikely partnership that changed the music business

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 02:09 am

The team behind The Defiant Ones celebrated a big win for Best Music Film at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. The crew awarded include director Allen Hughes and producers Sarah Anthony, Fritzi Horstman, Broderick Johnson, Gene Kirkwood, Andrew Kosove, Laura Lancaster, Michael Lombardo, Jerry Longarzo, Doug Pray & Steven Williams.

In a year rife with quality music documentaries and series, the bar has been set high for this dynamic category. The Defiant Ones is a four-part HBO documentary telling the story of an unlikely duo taking the music business by storm seems better suited for fantastical pages of a comic book, but for engineer-turned-mogul Jimmy Iovine and super-producer Dr. Dre, it's all truth.The Defiant Ones recounts their histories, their tribulations and their wild success. These include first-hand accounts from those who were there in Iovine's early days, such as Bruce Springsteen and U2's Bono, as well as those on board when Dre and Iovine joined forces, such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

The competition was stiff as the category was filled with compelling films such as One More Time With Feeling, Two Trains Runnin', Soundbreaking, and Long Strange Trip. 

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Photos: WireImage.com

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Also see James Fauntleroy, Reba McIntire, Latroit, and more after they stepped off the GRAMMY stage

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 05:39 am

What do artists do the moment they walk off the GRAMMY stage from presenting, accepting an award or performing? Now, you can find out.

Take a peak at Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner Bruno Mars, 60th GRAMMY Awards Host James Cordon, Cardi B minutes before her electrifying performance of "Finesse," and more!

Also see Best Pop Duo/Group Performance GRAMMY winners Portugal. The Man posing with their first career GRAMMY Award, Best Roots Gospel Album GRAMMY winner Reba McIntire right after she walked offstage, Best R&B Song GRAMMY winner James Fauntleroy, Best Remixed Recording GRAMMY winner Latroit, and many more, with these photos from backstage during the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

The Hawaiian native takes home Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like" at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 08:11 am

Feeling the 24K Magic, Bruno Mars' successful progress through the categories he's been nominated in at the 60th GRAMMY Awards picked up another one at Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like."


Christopher Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence co-write with Mars under the name Shampoo Press & Curl. The other winning songwriters for Mars' hit tonight in this category are James Fauntleroy and production team "The Sterotypes" — Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and  Jonathan Yip.

For additional "Finesse" on stage at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Mars was joined by Cardi B for a reprise of their 148-million-views hit remix.

The Album Of The Year GRAMMY Award wrapped up the night and wrapped up Bruno Mars' complete rampage through his six nominated categories — now six wins.

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