Happy to be N.E.R.D.s

NEW YORK — NEW YORK --Talk about a tour manager's worst nightmare.

Chad Hugo had missed his flight from Virginia, skipped rehearsal and wasn't picking up the phone. Worse still, with less than an hour until show time, it appeared the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist and superstar pop producer wasn't going to be anywhere within three states of the Big Apple in time for a taping of Late Show With David Letterman, where he was scheduled to perform with his gold-selling hip-hop/rock/new wave group N.E.R.D.


Inside Midtown's Ed Sullivan Theater on a recent Monday, the news of his absence provoked two divergent reactions: astonishment and near total apathy.

It's a lot for a band like N.E.R.D. - a self-described "niche" act on the cusp of a potentially paradigm-shifting mainstream crossover - to land the kind of broad cultural pedestal provided by the Late Show. And several of the broadcast's producers seemed incredulous that Hugo should be missing in action.


Meanwhile, N.E.R.D. tour support staff and band mates Sheldon "Shay" Haley and Pharrell Williams barely registered Hugo's absence. Their attitude wasn't so much "The show must go on" as a dismissive "whatevs."

But then, Hugo and Williams have become well versed in each other's peccadilloes. Over the course of a 14-year recording career, they have come to rank among the most elite hit-makers in R&B;, hip-hop and pop.

Working under the professional alias the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach, Va., natives, who have been buddies since middle school, have crafted multiplatinum hit after hit for an eclectic roster of major stars, including Britney Spears ("I'm a Slave 4 U"), Snoop Dogg ("Drop It Like It's Hot") and Gwen Stefani ("Hollaback Girl"), in addition to several songs on Madonna's new album, Hard Candy.

And since 2001, after the release of N.E.R.D.'s forward-looking debut, In Search of ... - a record that helped break down musical walls and infuse mash-up culture into hip-hop at a time when the genre's abiding aesthetic was defiantly homogeneous - Hugo has skipped out on tour dates and promo duties pretty much at will; a keyboard tech is always at the ready to serve as Hugo's understudy (as he eventually did for the producer-musician on Letterman). It got so chronic, N.E.R.D. entourage members joke about making a cardboard cut-out of Hugo for photo shoots.

Which wouldn't even have been a problem if not for the fact that the group was about three-quarters of the way through its highest-profile tour, performing as an opening act on Kanye West's Glow in the Dark Tour, which concludes in Cincinnati this month. And that band members describe N.E.R.D.'s genre-blurring new CD, Seeing Sounds, as an exercise in creative cohesion, band unity and a statement of renewed "purpose" for N.E.R.D.

On Seeing Sounds, there are political manifestoes and odes to voyeurism (the Mayfield-esque "Love Bomb" and the '60s-tinged "Window," respectively), a funk banger called "Kill Joy" that's reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and even a seven-minute opus, "Sooner or Later," that features Williams singing in his trademark falsetto and rapping over crescendos of guitar, synthesizers and crashing beats. The album's lead single, "Everyone Nose" - with its unforgettable chorus shouted by Shay: "All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom!" - takes aim at badly behaved celebutantes on the Paris-Britney-Lindsay axis of empty celebrity.

To emphasize that the men of N.E.R.D. are on the same page, Haley noted that Hugo's failure to make the gig was a relatively isolated incident. "Chad's been a lot more of a part of this album," Haley said. "The first two albums, he wanted to stay home and be more of a family man. This time out, he's only missed two shows."

The notion of hip-hop as a "hybrid" cultural expression is nothing new. From the genre's inception, DJs have repurposed the break-beats of existing records, and rappers have cribbed liberally from TV jingles, cartoon theme songs, movie dialogue and refrains from classic R&B.; As far back as the early '80s, rock 'n' roll guitar and song structure began to influence rap, coming to an apex in 1986 with Run DMC and Aerosmith's groundbreaking collaboration, "Walk This Way."


Enter N.E.R.D. in 2001. A "side project" of the Neptunes, In Search of ... went certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America while leaving rap purists scratching their heads and incidentally prompting a run on trucker hats - Williams' signature headgear.

N.E.R.D.'s predilection toward musical melange can seem downright prescient. Until you talk to the band members, that is, who are quick to point out that their initial efforts were hardly about changing the future face of hip-hop. "The first two albums weren't really even about connecting with the world," Williams said, seated in the Late Show green room. "It was about connecting with people who thought like we did."

Chris Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.