15 years ago today, N.E.R.D. released "In Search Of...," a weird fusion of rap and rock that's become a cult classic.
It's the year 2002 and the phenomenon known as rap-rock or nü-metal is just starting to wane after a few years of dominating the spotlight. Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, P.O.D., and Crazy Town have already all released platinum-selling albums to mostly suburban, mostly white audiences who fell hard for the macho blend of punk and metal's aggression with hip hop's braggadocio. But of the many acts attempting this genre fusion du jour, very few had actual backgrounds rap music, with most coming off as rockers attempting to rap, and not vice versa.
Enter Pharrell and Chad Hugo. By this point, these two (collectively known as the Neptunes) are already two of the most in-demand producers in hip hop, having worked with seemingly every big name on the East Coast, and Pharrell's even started singing and rapping on some of the beats he makes. Along with their childhood friend Shay Haley, they formed a rock-influenced group called N.E.R.D in 1999. The same year, they made their first guest appearance on Kelis' "Ghetto Children," a track that bore the same type of snappy, tight rhythms and guitar-mimicking keyboard sounds that'd pop up on their debut album a few years later.
In Search Of..., N.E.R.D's first release, initially had Latin-influenced beats underneath synth tones that suggested rock music, but weren't all that far off from the sounds that The Neptunes regularly brought to rap and pop radio-- but this version of the album didn't last long. N.E.R.D's debut was released in Europe on August 6, 2001, but before they could get it out in the states, Pharrell decided to pull it from the shelves. It was a proto-Life of Pablo move that was probably even more costly in a time when physical sales still dominated the market, but the group felt that In Search Of... wasn't as strong as it could be.
Seven months later, and 15 years ago to the day, the album was finally released in the US. This time, the chintzy electronic backdrop was replaced by beefier live instrumentation, which made for a more instantly-detectable, in-your-face mashup of genres. It was still rap-rock with an emphasis on rap, but this time around, you couldn't miss the rock. In Search Of... eventually went Gold, but hasn't ever matched the pop success of the Neptunes' early-2000s heyday or Pharrell's ongoing solo career, but that never seemed like the goal. Instead, it's found its niche as a cult classic among skaters, weirdos, and outcasts, some of whom have even brought its influence into new music.
I wanted to learn what happened in those seven months between In Search Of...'s Europe release and its American one, so I got in touch with a member of the band that helped re-record the album. In 2002, Minneapolis funk/soul group Spymob had already been around for eight years, kicking it around their local scene before signing with Epic in 1999 and releasing an EP. They were dropped from the major label in 2001, and were struggling to write new material when all of the sudden, drummer Eric Fawcett got an unlikely phone call.
"[Our attorney] calls me and says, 'You're never gonna guess who's a big fan of you guys...' And I'm like, 'Mr. [sings] I'm a hustler babyyyy?!'" Apparently, someone had slipped Pharrell the band's EP a while back, and according to Fawcett, he "spent that summer listening to it on repeat." A few months later, Fawcett flew out for a meeting in New York: "Suddenly I was in the studio with Pharrell, and there was Puff Daddy, there was Mary J. Blige. We were in this different world."
Pharrell gave Fawcett the low-down on In Search Of... and its initial botched released, asking if Spymob would be interested in being the ones to translate the album's digital sounds into analog ones. "He sent us the tracks and we were like, 'Okay, this is nothing we've ever done before,'" said Fawcett, "And yet there was something really interesting about fusing what we were doing with the digital version of the record. We were coming up with ideas, tearing them apart and rebuilding them. We had no idea what our role was gonna be." The resulting sessions produced something heavier and more spontaneous-sounding than the digital version. "Chad would definitely throw out suggestions, but our assignment was to do what we do. They wanted to keep it raw, just bass, drums, guitar."
This would be the version of the album that's still on iTunes and all of the major streaming services today, with the digital version being relegated to collector's status. Comparing the two is like looking at a sketch versus a fully fleshed-out drawing-- the sound is fuller, the rhythms less staid, and Pharrell's wild-boy delivery more in-line with the music. Spymob helped N.E.R.D. touch upon various subgenres ranging from folk-country ("Provider"), to alt-rock ("Truth Or Dare"), to psych-pop ("Stay Together"), to, of course, funk. By tapping an experienced band for their "rock project," Pharrell and Chad had put their money where there mouth was, or walked the walk instead of just talking the talk. Spymob would stay on as touring members of N.E.R.D for a while, and a couple members would go on to play on future N.E.R.D releases.
Today, In Search Of... isn't exactly a household name in hip hop, but its presence is still felt. Tyler The Creator's definitely rap's current biggest N.E.R.D stan, famously declaring on his 2015 song "DEATHCAMP" that "In Search Of... did more for me than Illmatic." A$AP Rocky and Schoolboy Q have also name-dropped the group, and every time a new fusion of rap and rock happens-- Lil Wayne's Rebirth, or The Knux, or even 21 Pilots-- you can hear a little N.E.R.D in there. It would be a reach to say that In Search Of...'s genre blend was a reinvention of the wheel, but it is something that seemed to have never been attempted in the same way before, and it also seemed to impact plenty of kids on the fringes of other genres at the time of its release.
"I didn't know how it would be received, but I knew the mixture of synthetic and organic instrumentation was a whole different thing," said Fawcett. "What Limp Bizkit and other rap-rock bands were doing was fucking awesome, but it wasn't this. It was a weird fusion. There's never been anything as stinky/funky/cool that I've heard. There are other fusions of rock and R&B that are super awesome on their own terms, but that was just a super original thing that I don't think has been duplicated."
"In similar ways, but in different genres, I think of what The Replacements did for indie rock, or Todd Rundgren-- they influenced so many people, but if you're just a casual music listener, you just know, "Hello, It's Me," and maybe "I Don't Wanna Work," and maybe one other song. Of course it would have been great if a band like N.E.R.D. had become a household name, but I am so content and thrilled with [the album]. For instance, once every few weeks a friend of a friend mentions that I was in N.E.R.D., and a freaky N.E.R.D. fan emerges-- that's just so awesome. N.E.R.D. fans are just crazy cool, and they're all shapes and sizes and colors."
N.E.R.D helped break down boundaries-- those of sound, race, and genre. In that way, they really helped predict and usher in the later 2000s, a time when mashups, pop culture-savvy blog rap, and Punk Goes Crunk compilations would emerge as logical products of the file-sharing age. In Search Of... may not stand the test of time like Illmatic, but it is undeniably an important artifact in rap history.