- Noncommittal N.E.R.D.: The hectic schedule of Chad Hugo (right) will force him to miss much of Liquid Mix.
Hip-hop hitmakers the Neptunes are so busy that one-half of the white-hot duo can't even make it to most of the shows scheduled for the group's current headlining tour.
But even though Chad Hugo, the musical mind of the Neptunes, is staying home and taking the Brian Wilson role, composing and recording songs for the upcoming album he and partner Pharrell Williams are making as N.E.R.D., the little he saw of 2002's Sprite Liquid Mix Tour convinces him that its multigenre, multiracial musical ethic is a perfect fit for his own group's anything-goes credo.
"It's great, because the fans range from different backgrounds. You'll see some straight-up skater dudes, you'll see some straight-up nerds. It's pretty strange at first, to be honest," says Hugo, from the New York offices of the Neptunes' label, Star Trak, where he's promoting the duo's new all-star compilation, Clones. "But it's great to have them all in one place. It's hard to accomplish that in one show."
Now in its second year, Liquid Mix has assembled an even more diverse roster of artists in 2003 than it did for its inaugural run, which featured Jay-Z, 311, Nappy Roots, and Hoobastank, in addition to returning guests N.E.R.D. and Talib Kweli. This time out, the hip-hop acts are more adventurous -- including the live pyrotechnics of the Roots and Aussie tough girl Jessy Moss, who appeared on the first leg -- and Columbus's O.A.R. fills the obligatory jam-band slot.
"This tour has really had some really high highs, and some pretty low lows," says O.A.R. saxophonist Jerry DePizzo. "It is what we signed up for. We wanted to go out and play in front of a diverse audience that wasn't necessarily there to see O.A.R. There's shows that we come out and we're represented well, and the audience absolutely loves it. And there's days when we get blank stares. It is really cool to see people's head turn. It's also fun watching the guy in the front row with his ears covered up, wrenching in pain, because he can't stand to hear another note. And you're like 'Hey man, I've got a 20-minute version of 'Poker' to play. You're fucked.'"
And there are some even bigger surprises on Liquid Mix this year, like "sacred steel" guitarist Robert Randolph and his Family Band. Those accustomed to the DAT sterility of the typical urban-music show may be scratching their heads when Randolph and his cousins swap instruments and make up their whole set as they go along. But that's how the New Jersey native learned his style and his instrument in the House of God, a Black Pentecostal church, where the pedal-steel guitar has been a prominent part of services since the 1930s (and sounds nothing like the Nashville-style weeping most people expect).
"In the church, you don't know what's going to happen, who's going to play guitar or who's going to play drums, chord changes, those things. You just have to get up and go," says Randolph, who grew up idolizing Stevie Ray Vaughan, after a friend outside the church passed him a cassette as a teenager. "But it all comes together -- the energy, the excitement."
If it seems a long, strange trip from Randolph's old-time religion to the futuristic beats of the Neptunes (who have been fueling hip-hop and R&B chart-toppers from Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake since Williams and Hugo burst out of Virginia in 1999), that's the point of Liquid Mix. Besides, the distance might not be as great as you think.
"Let's face it: Music is changing crazily right now. That keeps things unconventional," Hugo says. "It's a change of eras. You can't do what you did with the last group; what worked for the last rock group might not work for the next rock group. And are they even rock?"
That question could apply easily to N.E.R.D., which debuted in 2002 with an impossible-to-classify collection that ranged from familiar hip-hop beats to new wave, rockabilly, and heavy metal -- all largely taboo for urban artists. Recorded twice, the second time with N.E.R.D.'s backing band, Spymob (which gets a solo set for its own Steely Dan-style pop during Liquid Mix), replacing the programmed grooves, the album was a rare case of artists using their popularity to push boundaries.
N.E.R.D.'s label, Virgin, "was supportive, as far as in meetings, in that sense. But there's a lot of key elements that have to be in sync for something to hit right," Hugo says diplomatically, admitting that the old dilemma of "How do we market this to a hip-hop audience?" probably hurt sales. But the band and Virgin will try again with a new album, tentatively set for November release.
Hugo describes the work-in-progress as having a heavy "'60s and '70s rock influence -- just expect the unexpected!" One unanticipated development is that he and Williams won't be using Spymob to flesh out the grooves this time around. "It's us actually playing the stuff. Pharrell's playing drums, I'm playing guitars and keys and bass."
While Hugo works on that project, he's also "in the studio taking care of Neptunes shit" for the pair's usual hip-hop clients, including an upcoming effort from fellow Virginians Clipse, and planned trips to Japan and Australia to promote the Clones album. "It's been kinda crazy, to be honest. But I think the Neptunes' system has always been spontaneous, so I'll make what [dates] I can.
"Too much of one thing is not good for me. If we could have it where life gave you the opportunity to split things up the way you want, it'd be lovely. But we just gotta keep the ball rollin'."