Anthony Haden-Guest interviewed America’s foremost black artist in the last stages of his blazing trail, as he careened between art dealers and drug dealers.
Robert Aaron, who had stayed largely in the background as a musician, suddenly became a national news figure when he was presented as the man who sold deadly heroin to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
As with most tales of great American fortitude, the Wu-Tang Clanâs starts at the bottom. Robert Diggs spent his early life in poverty, shuttling between two-bedroom apartments projects in Brownsvil…
Pharrell doesn’t read much—he likes Wes Anderson movies and Coen brothers movies andClose Encounters of the Third Kind, stuff about misfits and science and outer space. But lately his favorite book is Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel, The Alchemist, about an Andalusian shepherd boy’s search for his “personal legend”—nominally a chest full of treasure, but more generally his purpose in life, the thing he most wants to be. The book, Pharrell says, is a way to make sense of his own life.
As a child he finds that he has synesthesia, sees colors when he hears sounds. When he thinks about his childhood it comes back to him burgundy and baby blue, in strings of numbers and letters. His mother would sign notes to him with the numerals 143. It took him years to figure out what she meant. One letter, four letters, three letters: I love you. After Pharrell was born, his mother waited ten years to have a second child, and then ten more to have a third—no accident. “My mom is weird,” Pharrell says fondly. She was a schoolteacher before she retired. His father’s name is Pharaoh, who was named after his father, also Pharaoh.
This is Virginia Beach in the ’80s, a place vibrating at some mystic frequency—Timbaland, the other major producer of the era that would make Pharrell a star, just so happens to go to the same church. “We used to be up in Timbaland’s bedroom, where he would make his beats. And his dad would be in the other room. When that shit got too loud, he would be like: ‘Tim! Turn that music down!’ ” If the house had collapsed at that moment, we would’ve lost so much. We’d all be on antidepressants.
Pharrell “was the different guy,” says Pusha T of Clipse, a Virginia Beach friend from those days. The different guy meets another different guy, Chad Hugo, a Filipino navy brat. He and Chad decide to call themselves the Neptunes and spend the next bunch of years producing for Teddy Riley, Blackstreet, SWV, whoever else would have them.
Finally, in 1998, the Neptunes write “SuperThug” for the Queens rapper Noreaga. It was the kind of beat that was about to make both Neptunes absurdly wealthy—a psych-rock riff played on a clavichord, disorienting drums, hardly any bass at all. Pharrell remembers walking into a club in Virginia after the song came out, “and it just hit so hard. They were like, ‘Fuck is that?’ I’ll never forget, like, dudes throwing chairs and shit.” He watches a small riot break out to his song and knows he is going to make it.
He buys a Lexus, then a Porsche, and because he’d been a backpack rapper first—anti-jewelry, pro-consciousness, allergic to stunting—he rides around in the Porsche with a backpack on. He begins connecting weird neural paths through pop culture—songs the Neptunes wrote for Michael and Janet Jackson would instead end up, say, in the hands of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, torches passing in the form of 808 claps and abrasive siren noises and teen lust. With N.E.R.D., the pop-funk-rock-rap-whatever-Steely-Dan-is group he starts with Hugo and another high school friend, he blazes a misfit trail that will later make possible Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, and dozens of other unconventional musicians.
“Being a young black kid, especially at that time,” Tyler says, “I was different from all my other peers. So when I seen that this dude was saying he was open to rock and jazz and fucking skateboarding and all this other stuff that I was interested in, I was gravitating toward it because it was like: ‘All right, I’m not the only black dude who’s probably called weird every fucking day.’ ”
The Neptunes win Grammys that Pharrell barely remembers winning. A survey in August 2003 finds that the Neptunes are responsible for a full 43 percent of songs played on the radio that month. The boy who worshipped pop culture as a kid basically becomes it. Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” ODB’s “Got Your Money,” Jay Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Fabolous’s “Young’n (Holla Back).” You could fill a museum with Neptunes work from this era. The songs sound like misfiring fax machines, like old Chuck Brown songs, like pager ringtones. They sound like outer space.
He moves to Miami for the women and the weather and just loses himself in the wild rich current of it all. He has custom jewelry made—a solid-gold BlackBerry, a gold skateboard chain, a gold N.E.R.D. chain, a jewel-studded pendant made in the form of a KAWS figurine. It was beautiful, the things he would do and say. He had turned his mind to being the best possible version of the worst possible guy, and we were all just witnesses. You can watch a video from 2006, Pharrell guesting on BET’s Rap City, promoting his solo record, achieving peak Pharrell-ness in the form of bejeweled nerd-icon: On the show he freestyles for a while and then fumbles in his pocket, finally pulling out a Rubik’s Cube, covered in diamonds on all six sides. He holds it out to the camera. It rotates and gleams in the light.
A dispatch from Morocco.
Kill the Past via buzzfeed
In September, a rapper known as Killah P was stabbed to death on a busy Athens street by a member of Golden Dawn, Greece’s thriving fascist party. For a country torn apart for years by nationalist violence and economic austerity, this was either a breaking point or the beginning of a whole new wave of trouble.
On fame, making money and agnosticism.
“When I saw ‘All My Sons,’ I was changed — permanently changed — by that experience. It was like a miracle to me. But that deep kind of love comes at a price: for me, acting is torturous, and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great — well, that’s absolutely torturous.”
Every Monday at eleven-thirty, the lead engineers for the Google car project meet for a status update. The Google car has now driven more than half a million miles without causing an accident, almost twice as far as the average American driver goes before crashing. Of course, the car has always had a human driver to take over in tight spots: the car has trouble in the rain, for instance, when its lasers bounce off shiny surfaces. And yet, for each of its failings, it has a corresponding strength. It never gets drowsy or distracted, never wonders who has the right of way. Unlike its riders, it can see in the dark. Left to its own devices, Sebastian Thrun says, it could go about fifty thousand miles on freeways without a major mistake; within a year, it should be safe for a hundred thousand miles.
Don King was offering me a $20 million settlement in exchange for him getting to promote my fights again. I told Jackie Rowe that before we could talk about working together and settling, I wanted three things of mine that Don still had—a green Rolls-Royce, a painting that the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had given me that was supposed to be worth a lot, and the thing I was worried the most about: a drawing of me in the middle of a bunch of X-Men that Stan Lee had done.
Don called Jackie and told her that he would fly us down to Florida and put us up so we could work out a settlement. Jackie, her son, my girlfriend Luz, and I got on Don’s private jet and flew down. I packed a big block of coke and a duffel bag with a half-pound of reefer. I was doing my coke and smoking my blunts and listening to my Walkman and I was higher than the plane was when an epiphany hit me.
“This is my motherfucking plane. I paid for this plane. And this motherfucker is acting like he’s doing me a favor sending me down on my own fucking plane. This nigga is playing me.”
The drugs were playing with my head and I was freaking out and getting jealous.
Don picked us up at the private airport in his Rolls and he had Isadore Bolton, who used to be my chauffeur before he stole him from me, driving some of Don’s associates in the lead car. We were driving down to Miami from Fort Lauderdale on the I-95. Don said some innocuous thing, and all that jealousy and rage spilled out of me and I kicked him in his fucking head. Boom! You don’t turn your back on a jealous cokehead.
Don swerved off onto the side median and I started choking him from the backseat. I got out of the car to get into the front seat and kick his ass some more, but Don took off down the median.
Now I was on the side of the fucking highway by myself. Don drove a little bit down the road and then let Jackie and her son and Luz out of the car. They came up to me carrying my bag with the half-pound of reefer. I had the coke stash on me.
“Why did you let him go, Jackie?” I screamed. “Now we’re out here on the fucking highway.”
All of a sudden, Isadore pulled up. He was there to pick us up because he lost our car and when he called Don, Don told him to turn around and get us.
He pulled up alongside me and rolled his window down and told me to get in the car.
“Fuck you, motherfucker,” I screamed.
Isadore got out of his driver’s door and I was right on him. I punched him in the face twice, shattering his left orbital bone. The force of the blows knocked him across the driver’s seat and I reached in and grabbed his leg and bit it. Isadore managed to kick me off him and close his door, so I punched the outer panel of his door and bent the steel. I was about to break his window when he managed to drive away.
His shoes were still on the side of the road and he was driving barefoot.
Then the cops came. They were talking to us and I had the half brick of coke and Luz was holding the duffel bag with the half-pound of weed. These cops were so excited to see me that the motherfuckers didn’t even ask me what we were doing on the side of the highway. They’d have put anybody else’s ass on that grass, and they’d be locked up for life for having all that coke. I’m an extremist. Why couldn’t I just buy an eight ball? No, I had to have a half a brick. The guys who sold it to me said, “Mike, this is sales weight. Police are not going to hear that you’re getting high with a half a brick of blow.” And I had this as my personal stash.
The cops offered to drive us to our destination. Jackie talked Don into giving us some money, and he sent a guy over with a couple hundred grand.
On Schooling Leo Dicaprio in Hoops:
He has other houses. He has one, famously, on Lake Como, in Italy, and he has built another in Cabo. In this, he is not so much of a throwback—after all, Leonardo DiCaprio has a house in Cabo. Indeed, Clooney and DiCaprio once ran into each other in Cabo and struck up a conversation based on their common interest in basketball. They each have ongoing games, and their ongoing games have attained a celebrity of their own. Clooney suggested they might play someday. DiCaprio said sure, but felt compelled to add, “You know, we’re pretty serious.”
They played at a neighborhood court. “You know, I can play,” Clooney says in his living room. “I’m not great, by any means, but I played high school basketball, and I know I can play. I also know that you don’t talk shit unless you can play. And the thing about playing Leo is you have all these guys talking shit. We get there, and there’s this guy, Danny A I think his name is. Danny A is this club kid from New York. And he comes up to me and says, ‘We played once at Chelsea Piers. I kicked your ass.’ I said, ‘I’ve only played at Chelsea Piers once in my life and ran the table. So if we played, you didn’t kick anybody’s ass.’ And so then we’re watching them warm up, and they’re doing this weave around the court, and one of the guys I play with says, ‘You know we’re going to kill these guys, right?’ Because they can’t play at all. We’re all like fifty years old, and we beat them three straight: 11–0, 11–0, 11–0. And the discrepancy between their game and how they talked about their game made me think of how important it is to have someone in your life to tell you what’s what. I’m not sure if Leo has someone like that.”
We were beefing with these guys called the Puma Boys. It was 1976, and I lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and these guys were from my neighborhood. At that time I was running with a Rutland Road crew called the Cats, a bunch of Caribbean guys from nearby Crown Heights. We were a burglary team, and some of our gangster friends had an altercation with the Puma Boys, so we were going to the park to back them up. We normally didn’t deal with guns, but these were our friends, so we stole a bunch of shit: some pistols, a .357 Magnum, and a long M1 rifle with a bayonet attached from World War II. You never knew what you’d find when you broke into people’s houses.
So we’re walking through the streets holding our guns, and nobody runs up on us, no cops are around to stop us. We didn’t even have a bag to put the big rifle in, so we just took turns carrying it every few blocks.
“Yo, there he goes!” my friend Haitian Ron said. “The guy with the red Pumas and the red mock neck.”
When we started running, the huge crowd in the park opened up like Moses parting the Red Sea. It was a good thing they did, because, boom, one of my friends opened fire. Everybody scrambled when they heard the gun.
I realized that some of the Puma Boys had taken cover between the parked cars in the street. I had the M1 rifle, and I turned around quickly to see this big guy with his pistol pointed toward me.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he said to me. It was my older brother, Rodney. “Get the fuck out of here.”
I just kept walking and left the park and went home. I was 10 years old.
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The Great Marijuana Crash of 2011 It’s remarkable that only two years ago, the whole system almost came crashing down during the most difficult economic event the infant cannabis industry has ever faced: The Great Marijuana Price Crash Of 2011. [businessinsider]
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Friends without Benefits This year, 81 percent of Internet-using teenagers in America reported that they are active on social-networking sites, more than ever before. Nancy Jo Sales uncovers a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers. What is this doing to America’s young women? [vanityfair]
“His sound isn’t hip or trendy. The references he makes in conversations can’t be found anywhere on the current American indie-music map. While sitting in Madison Square Park last week, Marshall, who is mumbly and skeletal, with red hair, mentioned rockabilly and jazz fusion as inspirations. His début album, “6 Feet Beneath the Moon,” which was just released, comes three years after he posted his first song on the Internet—“Out Getting Ribs,” initially available on the independent music Web site Bandcamp. Marshall’s music has little in common with that made by most of his peers; he sounds more like people who, for Americans, fell off the radar years ago—the Jam’s Paul Weller, or the Streets’ Mike Skinner, both of whom offer detailed, concrete descriptions of the daily lives of British youths. He has side projects that veer toward hip-hop, but, as King Krule, he performs with an electric guitar, backed by trained jazz musicians (he has no training himself), and sings in an unadorned South London accent, with deadpan affect. He looks as if he could be part of a jam band or a bar band or a songwriting jingle house with little change. It is a striking presentation from a boy who grew up on hip-hop and dance hall. Exactly when nobody expected a raw guitar troubadour, along came a Tom Waits several time zones removed.” - Sasha Frere-Jones, New Yorker
- ON HARD WORK: You can come from all different backgrounds. The real question is, do you have the desire and the willingness and the creativity and the moxie? And that’s all in your head. When people say, “It’s not fair, you had an advantage,” I’m thinking, Well, they had an advantage—they went to better schools, or they came from wealthier families. My father was a bookkeeper. He worked seven days a week until he checked himself into the hospital to die. My mother went the next day to the library, got a book on driving, taught herself to drive on our quiet street, because she said, “I’m gonna have to be the chauffeur from now on.” I know what hard work’s about. I still come back to what my strategy always was and will continue to be: I’m not the smartest guy, but I can outwork you. It’s the one thing that I can control.
- DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BUSINESS & POLITICS: In business, I would kiss you and then ask for something. In government, they tend to take a swing and then ask for something.
- NEVER CHANGE: I don’t think I’m any different than I was at age 24, when I came to this city. I cooked my own meals. My vacations were up on the roof of 333 East 66th Street—tar beach.
- ON BEING AN EXECUTIVE: What I do is make decisions, hire people, get ’em to work together. I’m not a consultant, I’m not an investor, I’m not a teacher, I’m not an analyst. You have to know what your skill sets are.
- ON THE INTERNET: It’s just another disruptive technology that has come along. You may want to do this story sometime: Try to figure out where the jobs of the future are gonna come from. My barber—it’s not inconceivable at some point you’ll stick your head in a box, and boom, out you come all coiffed. It is a very big problem for society. The knowledge world destroys jobs. I was on a panel with Mark Zuckerberg: “We’re gonna create so many jobs.” Go to Google and you’ll be shocked at the lack of diversity and how few people really are creating all that stuff.
- ON MISSING BEING MAYOR: Yeah, sure. But I never, ever, look back. The day I got fired at Salomon, I think I said, “Fuck them!” on my way out the door.