Key Takeaways from Pharrell’s Career Retrospective with NPR’s Jason King

Photo courtesy of Ebru Yildiz for NPR.

On Monday, October 26th, 2015, Pharrell Williams sat down with with Jason King, professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and host of NPR Music’s R&B channel “I”ll Take You There,” for an in-depth career retrospective.

The conversation, which took place at New York City’s Town Hall, touched upon everything from Pharrell’s humble beginnings in Virginia Beach, VA to the writing process behind some of his most-famous hits like “Drop It Like It’s Hot” with Snoop Dogg, Kelis’ “Milkshake,” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Over the course of two hours, King guided Pharrell with questions that traced his success, from his love for the Native Tongues and the impact A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebaum,” to Teddy Riley giving him a shot at songwriting, to meeting key players in his career like Chad Hugo, DJ Clue, and Puff Daddy. Most importantly, however, the conversation allowed for a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, and how he navigated his way through the music industry from a kid in the suburbs who loved making music to eventually shaping the worlds of music, fashion, and art as we know them.

While one can argue that the entire conversation was a learning experience, here are the three most important lessons creators can learn from Pharrell and Jason King’s in-depth discussion:

1) Do what feels right, and never lose sight of why you enjoy your work.

Early on in the conversation, Pharrell discusses how he is the ‘Mr. Magoo’ of music; Searching for opportunities never works out, and the way to success is believing that the right opportunities will naturally find their way to him:

“I cannot tell you there was a blueprint… For whatever reason these opportunities are presented to me and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’ll be fun.’ And as long as I concentrate on the fun, it usually turns out cool… When I just let it go, and just go with the flow, and just do things that I enjoy, I’ve just had this incredible, incredibly eclectic journey of great opportunities to collaborate with people who were far much more experienced than I was, and that’s what’s been beneficial to me.”

An invaluable piece of advice to creators, Pharrell is emphasizing that an authentic approach and maintaining a strong sense of enjoyment for your work can lead to greater fulfillment.

2) Creators are multidisciplinary, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When it comes to being a creator, it’s natural to want to blend out into different mediums. With this, Pharrell is driving home the point we highlighted in lesson #1, and is also establishing that one does not necessarily have to create within a set of boundaries in order to be successful.

“What I love about [this generation] is what I’ve always loved about anybody I’ve respected — We’re all pluralist. Society wants to put us in a box and say, ‘OK, you do this, and you do that, and you do this.’ And it’s like, ‘No, I like this, I like that.’ It’s the reason why tapas restaurants are so popular right now. Everyone wants a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Right? You guys would be so offended if someone said to you, ‘Stick to this, this is what you are.’ And it’s like, ‘No, I’m gonna color outside the lines. In fact, I’m gonna start on THIS side of the page.’ See?”

3) Understand and nurture your audience.

At one point in the conversation, Jason King reads a quote from Rolling Stone that praises Pharrell as the pioneering force behind the resurrection of black nerd culture, to which Pharrell responds that without his audience, he would have no part in that:

“My participation in that was given to me by the audience. If they didn’t buy it, they didn’t support it, then that person couldn’t say all those things. If anything I just feel grateful to be lifted to that place because there are tons of people who make great music, great art, et cetera… So I give that acknowledgment right back to the people who helped me get here.”

For creators, reaching the right audience is the driving factor behind finding success. Without an audience to engage with, art goes unconsumed. Know your audience, and do not be afraid to take them into consideration when it comes to creating.

You can learn more about Pharrell, In Conversation, here.

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