Revenge of the N*E*R*D

After stepping out of the studio, Pharrell Williams finds the rock-star role suits him just fine

Pharrell Williams wasn't supposed to be at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 29. According to his busy itinerary, Williams and the other members of the rock band N*E*R*D, the super-successful producer's ambitious little side project, were supposed to be enjoying a day off between their Holmdel, New Jersey, and Charlotte, North Carolina, concerts, playing a little PlayStation 2 on the tour bus, watching the special director's cut of National Lampoon's Vacation on the DVD player for the hundredth time -- and generally blowing off the whole smarmy music biz star fest that is the VMAs.

Never mind that Williams and his partner Chad Hugo, as hip-hop's most in-demand production team the Neptunes, had produced the tracks for a good majority of the night's award nominees, from Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and *NSYNC's "Girlfriend" to Usher's "U Don't Have to Call" and Nelly's "Hot in Here." MTV's annual must-see TV night for party-hardy music fans is a showcase for the camera-loving rock stars and cred-craving film directors and choreographers who rule the music video world -- not the nerdy, Pro Tools-tweaking computer geeks like Williams and Hugo who create all the real magic behind the scenes in the studio.

Hugo, in fact, had already bowed out of the N*E*R*D live tour, opting instead to stay home with his family while his more gregarious partner got the performing bug out of his system opening for Jay-Z and Nappy Roots on the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour.

From left, Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Sheldon "Shay" Haley are N*E*R*Ds.
From left, Chad Hugo, Pharrell Williams and Sheldon "Shay" Haley are N*E*R*Ds.

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But when Williams got the call at the last minute to appear onstage at Radio City Music Hall, singing the one little chorus he adds to Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy's Neptunes-produced hit "Pass the Courvoisier, Part II" (that's him singing under the table in the clip nominated for Best Rap Video), the world's most unlikely R&B singer -- the guy who lambastes wanna-be music celebrities as nothing but bullying posers in N*E*R*D's rising hit "Rockstar" -- simply couldn't resist basking in the spotlight for his own MTV minute.

Like the popularity-challenged high school smart guy suddenly offered the dubious job of water boy on the football team, Williams blew off a schedule of press interviews (including one for this publication) and made a quick detour to NYC just for the chance to make a short onstage cameo during P. Diddy's extravagant hits-of-the-year medley.

Strutting out onstage wearing a simple black tee shirt and a baseball cap bearing the N*E*R*D logo (a green diagram of the human brain that, from a distance, curiously resembles a cannabis leaf), Williams looked decidedly out of place slouching between the nattily dressed Diddy and the leather-jacketed Busta Rhymes -- two of hip-hop's most high-profile, bigger-than-life personalities. Competing for the viewers' attention amidst a high-flying team of gymnastic dancers and flashy stage lighting, Williams' few seconds on camera were probably missed by most of the millions tuned in to the event.

But the appearance did get Williams' picture flashed across the screen at the beginning of the awards extravaganza right between P. Diddy and Pink (announced by the sexy female off-camera voice as simply "Phar-rell"). For that moment, at least, Pharrell Williams made the grade as a bona fide rock star.

True nerds are nothing if not smart as a whip.

It was supposed to be Williams and Hugo's "Steely Dan project" -- a studio-created album by a non-touring, non-existing band designed only as a vehicle for all the more radical Neptunes experiments Britney and Babyface and the Backstreet Boys passed up on. Recorded last year by the two multi-instrumentalists along with rapper Sheldon "Shay" Haley, a boyhood buddy of the Neptunes from their Virginia Beach stomping grounds, N*E*R*D's debut album In Search Of . . . was prereleased to the press, where it was almost unanimously well-reviewed, but held back from the general public while the fastidious producers repeatedly remixed the tracks more and more to their liking. Finally, Williams and Hugo decided to ditch their trademark programmed beats and grooves altogether and rerecorded the album's 12 songs with a live band -- a risky move for a duo famous for crafting irresistible dance grooves out of nothing but keyboards and computers.

The revamped, ready-for-retail album was finally released last March (to even better reviews), and the hard-rocking singles "Lapdance" and "Rockstar" quickly found an audience with the tracks' bracing mix of rock and rap. But the people the album really connected with were those often-overlooked minions saddled with the label represented in the band's name.

Ostensibly devised as an acronym for the high-concept philosophical ideal "No one Ever Really Dies" ("Nobody" would have worked better, but hey), the name also served to represent a personality type previously unaddressed by both hip-hop and rock: the brainy, unrepentantly intellectual "black nerd."

The album's cover, a shot of the Neptunes' pal Shay all engrossed in video games on the couch while a foxy female moves about unacknowledged in the background, hinted at the archetype. But Williams himself has come to perfectly personify the image.

Taking care to be photographed in publicity shots wearing his decidedly non-bling wardrobe of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd tee shirts, Williams deliberately flaunts a taste for white rock most people wouldn't expect from a hip-hop mogul -- and invites other disenfranchised African Americans to come out of the closet with their love of music styles that never manage to show up on BET's 106 & Park.

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