Chad Hugo is nervous.
He’s sitting backstage for an interview after his band, N.E.R.D., performed a rousing set in a sold-out Madison Square Garden as part of Kanye West’s “Glow in the Dark” tour. He’s affable and gracious, but admits that the questions are “freaking me out.”
“You’re like my shrink right now, and it’s really scary that I’m spilling all this (stuff) to you,” he says, laughing.
Maybe that’s because he’s not used to the spotlight. Although he’s spent more than a decade as one half of The Neptunes — the superproduction duo whose whirring, funky soundscapes have become a signature in pop, R&B and hip-hop — he’s always been overshadowed by the team’s omnipresent face, Pharrell Williams.
Pharrell is a one-named global celebrity as famous as some of the Neptunes’ superstar clients, which have included Jay-Z, Beyonce, Madonna, Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake. He’s the one who makes the video cameos, gets the boldface mentions in gossip columns, has the clothing line (Billionaires Boys Club and Ice Cream sneakers, in case you didn’t know) and released a solo album.
While their side group, the punk/hip-hop/R&B amalgamation called N.E.R.D., is a trio that includes friend Shay Hayley (they released their third album, “Seeing Sounds, this week), Pharrell is the lead singer and unofficial frontman while Hugo is the silent, mysterious element.
‘You’ve gotta get recognized’That may be changing — just a bit. Hugo has recently branched out by producing outside of the Neptunes, working on projects by Alicia Keys and Ashlee Simpson. He’s looking for more creative outlets, and even says half-jokingly that he wouldn’t mind a clothing line of his own.
“I used to think that being in the back was cool and it is cool,” says the married, 34-year-old father of two. “But nah, you’ve gotta get recognized.”
Not that he begrudges Pharrell, 35, whom he has known since they were kids growing up in Virginia, his time in the spotlight. “Pharrell is a talented mastermind and he gets what he deserves, he works hard and he’s very creative and I don’t think that anything should be taken away from that.” Both use the word “brother” to describe each other.
Nor is he necessarily soliciting attention for himself: during the N.E.R.D. set, Hugo happily blended into the background with the rest of the musicians as he played keyboards. In group interviews, while Hugo will articulately discuss the band’s mission and music, he doesn’t attempt to dominate the conversation (this interview was not sought out by Hugo).
Asked if he’s felt overlooked at times, Hugo responds: “I don’t really stress about it too much like that. ... I never thought of it as an issue.”
Yet moments later, he admits that “people wanna be praised for the work that they do ... absolutely that’s one thing that I strive for is recognition, and when you don’t feel that, yeah it sucks.”
‘Brilliant collaborator’The singer-songwriter Kenna, who worked with Hugo on Simpson’s latest record, says his good friend is not bitter at all, and has simply chosen not to be famous.
“Chad’s a really humble character and his focus is music and the furtherment of music. He has everything in his mind to make the best possible sonic jumps for music,” Kenna says. “I think that Chad could be as great a frontman as anybody else but he’s really focused on being the producer.”
Pharrell, who calls Hugo a “brilliant collaborator,” says the image of Hugo as the quiet shy type doesn’t really jibe with his colorful personality.
“He’s just trying not to show the world his true mad scientist and unapologetically styled humor,” he says, suggesting a YouTube check to see some vintage Hugo moments. A search finds videos of Hugo tearing up the dance floor, laughing with friends and showing a much more animated persona than his typical media moments.
Unlike the single Pharrell, he’s also self-proclaimed family man, who spends a lot of time with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 10. “I’m like a regular dude, I’m a nerd, so I totally embrace that as much as I can. ... There’s more to life than just music.”
But of course music remains Hugo’s lifeblood. Kenna describes him as the backbone: “He’s the reason why any of this stands up. Chad is prolific on all levels, from drumming to keys to arrangement to mixing ... when you listen to anything that Chad’s been involved in, if it has any color or any depth, it’s probably coming from him.”
To that end, Hugo is interested in exploring music outside of the Neptunes and N.E.R.D.: He talks about wanting to play his saxophone more, and perhaps putting together another band to play with, just for fun.
But don’t expect a Hugo solo album or clothing line anytime soon. For now, Hugo is committed to being a part of a team.
“I brainstorm a lot, but this is my band — N.E.R.D. is my band.”