How Pharrell Williams makes stars relevant again
Pharrell Williams knows no boundaries when it comes to his entertainment empire. Few music producers can easily dabble in both hardcore hip-hop, friendly R&B ballads and bestow the kind of street cred on mainstream pop stars like Williams has.
Musically, one of his specialties has been resurrecting pop-star careers. Along with his Neptunes production crew he has helped boost sales for legends like Britney Spears, Madonna and Shakira. He’s a savvy businessman, too, branching out to produce music for genres far outside hip-hop.
This month, Gloria Estefan, 80s Latin pop queen from Miami will release her Williams produced Little Miss Havana, her 26th album. He’s experimented before with the Latin music genre with tracks on Madonna’s last album and on Shakira’s She Wolf. This will be the first time he’s overseen an entire project by an established Latin artist.
“Pharrell actually came to me with the idea. He had written this song ‘Miss Little Havana’ for me,” Estefan said about the title track to a conference room full of young bloggers. Her record company held a listening session yesterday in Manhattan for various online media. She talked up her return to music and played a few new tracks, mentioning Williams as the impetus for her getting back into the studio. The album will be released through Verve Music Group. The album will be sold exclusively through Target stores.
Estefan said Williams has immersed himself in Miami music culture since moving there recently. “He loves all that freestyle, even though he must have been a baby when this stuff came out,” she said regarding the dance music that put Estefan and her Miami Sound Machine on the map.
Freestyle music exploded in Miami and New York during the mid-80s and Williams was trying to capture some of that vibe while working with Estefan in the studio. The new album mixes some hip-hop along with traditional freestyle beats to produce something of a musical journey through time, Estefan said. Williams made this with an eye on the Hispanic market.
If the album or some of its singles prove to be hits, it would be another lucrative move for Williams, whose career has already made millions of dollars with tracks for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Clipse, and his own work with The Neptunes and N.E.R.D.
To offer Spanish-speaking and bilingual music lovers an album sprinkled with Spanglish, meregue music and a traditional conga vibe, Williams is reaching into one of the fastest growing retail markets in the country. U.S. Hispanics have $1.1 trillion in buying power, according to The Pew Hispanic Center.
“He wanted to experiment a lot further with Latin music,” Estefan explained. “That’s why you have songs like “Say Aye” and “So Good”; straight up cumbia from Colombia. Wepa, the first single is a meringue gone ballistic through [Pharrell’s] sensibilities with modern sounds like the 808s,” she said.
Pharrell Williams is considered the new embodiment of original super producer Quincy Jones, another Estefan collaborator. But Williams has a modern twist with an “urban sensibility” and expertise in staying in touch with his fans. “Social media helps a lot…on Twitter, which Pharrell got me to do,” Estefan said. She posted pictures of their studio session, which included a shot of her with a baseball cap tilted to the side.
The album has that hip-hop feel from the title track. There’s also some of that R&B sex appeal the singer said, brought on courtesy of Williams. Estefan changed her voice for the rapper/producer, “He wanted to focus on my tone, we kept the keys very low, which added a sultry flavor to the record,” she explained.
Williams’ moves out of the hip-hop box has led to forays into high fashion (Luis Vuitton sunglasses and jewelry), acting, footwear, television programming, liquor and even animated movie soundtracks. He’s known these days as much for his business acumen as for his skills with a drum machine and keyboard. Executives worldwide have taken notice of his branding power.
The magazine Fast Company listed Williams 36th on their list of 100 Most Creative People in Business, last year. Forbes magazine listed Williams #13 on their list of 20 Hip-Hop Cash Kings, just last month. According to the magazine his $10 million net worth—slightly down from his 2007 when he got a #9 ranking with $17 million — doesn’t include proceeds from his clothing licensing deal with Jay-Z’s Rocawear.
As music sales continue to decline, Williams shows what it takes to stay relevant and help other artists along the way. “I think that Pharrell is so eclectic and so talented in so many ways. I love when an artist explores and evolves and grows,” Estefan gushed about her collaborator. “I was happy to be a part of that for him — as he was for me, too.”