Pharrell Williams is on a Gravity high. “Whew! Whew!” he says. “Listen to me, it is crazy.” The 40-year-old musician, producer, and mini mogul is seated on a rolling chair in the tranquil recording studio at the top of Miami’s Setai Hotel; he’s small and delicate, like an Egyptian cat, with ropes of delicate gold necklaces and bracelets encircling his neck and wrists. The windows behind him look out on the Atlantic Ocean, and, sitting with his back to the brilliant sun, his silhouette flickers as if a mirage. Naturally, Williams has a home theater, but he couldn’t wait and saw Gravitysoon after it opened, in 3-D. “I was so happy with the pixelation,” he says. We talk about the scene where George Clooney drifts off into space. “I woulda ruined that moment,” he says, picturing himself in Clooney’s place. “I woulda cried like a baby.” I wonder if the idea of a black void, of being completely alone, scares him. “I don’t fear any-thing; I know what to avoid.” Williams laughs. “I like looking at space, but I don’t need to go there myself.”
He’s adding Gravity to a list of favorite films that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, and Cloud Atlas–metaphysical explorations of the nature of being and how we grapple with the obstacles placed before us. Dreams, in each, are achieved by rejecting commonplace conceptions of what’s possible, an ethos that guides everything he does. His personal bible is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the best-selling fable about following your destiny or “personal legend”–the enthusiasms that get buried as we grow up, by prejudice, guilt, and fear. “That book confirmed what I always thought in my heart and felt in my mind,” says Williams, who is building a small empire, brick by idiosyncratic brick.
He aspires to something like Andy Warhol‘s Factory: a hive of creativity that is also profitable, with a heavy dose of altruism. But though he designs clothes and chairs, dabbles in sculpture and architecture, and mentors kids, he will tell you that he is “a musician and not much more than that. Sometimes musicians say things like, ‘I’m so happy they see beyond the music.’ I’ve said it too. But people aren’t seeing beyond the music; they’re seeing something in it. I’m always thinking I’m so eclectic, but the truth is that everything boils down to music for me. That’s the key to my success.”
Certainly, it all started with music. His two decades in the business have yielded 17 top 10 hits, a No. 1 album, and three Grammy Awards. Williams’s career started with his performing-producing partner, Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes (ranked No. 1 on Billboard‘s list of the top 10 producers of the ’00s). Eventually, he and Hugo formed N.E.R.D., a group that, with its deft fusion of rock, R&B, funk, and hip-hop, remade pop music in its image. Last year, in addition to his Neptunes work, Williams began to write and produce on his own. Since then, he has, among other things, produced tracks for blockbuster albums by Miley Cyrus andJay-Z, cranked out the soundtrack for the hit movie Despicable Me 2 and, at one point in June, had the rare distinction of occupying both the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on Billboard‘s Hot 100, with Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which he produced and cowrote, and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which he cowrote. He is currently worth around $80 million and takes in roughly $10 million a year, after taxes.
But even Williams will acknowledge that at this point his production work is “just one pixel in the screen” of i am OTHER, his media and philanthropic company–a sort of creative cardiovascular system with Williams at its heart. Included at the moment are fashion labels Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, the cloud-based music-creation platform UJAM, a YouTube channel (also called i am OTHER), andFrom One Hand to Another, a not-for-profit empowering kids in underserved communities. His partnerships include the enviro-friendly textile firm Bionic Yarn andCollaborative Fund, financier of outside-the-box creative endeavors such asKickstarter. More tangentially, he’s flexing his tastemaker muscle as a guest curator oneBay.
The name i am OTHER speaks not only to the mythology Williams has created for himself; it’s a clue to how he innovates so effectively. “I’ve always been the kid who didn’t fit in the box,” he says. The one who grew up in the projects of Virginia Beach wearing Led Zeppelin T-shirts and playing drums in a hip-hop band. The year-old company is headquartered in New York, with satellite offices in Miami and Los Angeles, all cities that, like his hometown, are close to water, an element Williams finds both inspiring and calming.
He surrounds himself with people who “recognize that they are different, and they’re unafraid of that and don’t mind shaking hands with the next different person. Most anything I do I do because it involves someone I can learn from,” he adds. “Sometimes you just gotta put your pride aside and be quiet so that you can absorb not only what a person is saying but how they are saying it–their energy, their body language. It’s all for a reason.”
Though he says he has no idea how many people now work for him (for the record, it’s 10), he’s very clear that only two of them are men. “Oh, I would go crazy with an office full of dudes,” he says. “What am I going to talk about? Football? I don’t know anything about sports.” I am OTHER’s vice president, Mimi Valdés, who has been tapping away on her iPad, looks up to mouth the wordnothing. Williams laughs. “Women have always been my motivation, and equality is quite naturally a theme for me. So it’s all estrogen: estrogenic–I’m going to create a term–intelligence. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and everyone works way, way, wayharder than me.”
Williams’s lodestar–the secret, he says, behind all of his disparate ventures–is collaboration. Whether it’s partnering with film composer Hans Zimmer to create UJAM or working with the artist Takashi Murakami (their sculpture, The Simple Things, fetched $2 million at the 2009 Art Basel) or running i am OTHER with his staff, “you are only as good as your team,” he says. “When you envisage success, you should see all the people you work with, in addition to yourself. When I look at that picture, I see giant angels who are much smarter than me, who can oversee the things that I don’t know shit about. I used to hire 21-year-old monsters with a twinkle in their eye,” he adds. “I saw potential, but it was what I thought they could do, not what they couldactually do. But you know what happens when you surround yourself with people with experience, who’ve seen everything a million times? A lot of them are gonna be older than you. When they vet people, they need to see more than twinkles; they need sparks.”
Williams’s productivity is remarkable, but perhaps more impressive is his humility. In the two hours we are together, he takes credit for . . . nothing. “He has every right to an inflated ego, but he’s extra humble,” says Tyson Toussant, cofounder of Bionic Yarn. “It has to do with the way he was raised. He’s a very amenable Southern gentleman. He calls everyone sir or ma’am. I grew up in Manhattan, and there are friends of mine, you’d think they had invented Twitter. He’s not like that. He’ll treat a doorman and Bill Gates the same way.” The sentiment is genuine, Toussant adds, but also smart. “If you want people to have your back, you need to appreciate them.”
Craig Shapiro, founder of Collaborative Fund, agrees. Because of Williams’s clear appreciation for his staff, “P really doesn’t get stressed, which allows him to be more productive.” In addition to Kickstarter, Collaborative Fund and i am OTHER have invested in Quarterly Co., an online site that curates “packages” from artists to their fans, and, more recently, the website Rap Genius. “P’s energy is endless,” says Shapiro, “and his thirst for knowledge is unparalleled. He truly enjoys learning new things and meeting new people–something most people are overwhelmed by.”
Williams is a fan of what he calls tapping in: being open to the kinds of peripheral ideas that lead to innovation. It requires an environment that permits fixation–the antithesis of multitasking–so that you have the ability to, as he puts it, “be quiet and absorb.” And walking into the hushed lounge on the floor below the Miami recording studio is not unlike entering a Zendo. Pleasant people–some plugged into laptops, some bustling about–work in near silence. It appears to be, as Williams
describes it, “an extremely well-disciplined environment,” and his preternatural calm trickles down. Shapiro says that the i am OTHER team makes it possible for “P to focus on the big picture and thought-provoking ideas. They fill in the blanks. They prioritize and get shit done.”
That dynamic is clearly working. Williams’s four-year partnership with Bionic Yarn, which manufactures fabric out of discarded-plastic-bottle fibers, has been profitable for the past year, in part because Williams encouraged the brands he designs for–including Moncler, Timberland, Topshop, and Gap–to use the fabric. (Williams, who grew up in an area with a big military presence, is now courting the army to make uniforms.) “Pharrell’s decisions are emotion based,” says Toussant. “If he were reading spreadsheets, he wouldn’t have joined our company when he did because it wasn’t close to making money. The ideal of it took a lot of work, but that’s the beauty of visionaries like P, who can see what’s possible. He’s not a celebrity who simply attaches his name to an already thriving franchise.”
Yes, emotions are a big part of Williams’s decision-making process, “but I use my mind just as much,” he says. His “legends,” or role models, include architect Zaha Hadid, with whom he’s collaborating on a prefab house, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and artist Jeff Koons–visionaries who understand instinctively how to protect creativity within a business. “They are 100% decisive,” he says. “Snap, no. Snap, yes. It’s right there with them.” He singles out the apparel companies Supreme, Adidas, andOpening Ceremony; the advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy; and London’s Dover Street Market for operating outside established methods for attracting customers. Each is profitable, he believes, because they put “taste first. The aesthetic matches the acumen.”
Shapiro and Toussant each describe a similar process of collaborating with Williams: meetings once or twice a month, where big decisions are made; assistants taking it from there, with emails flowing back and forth. Williams recently designed a line of Bionic Yarn snowboarding parkas and coats forBurton. “He doesn’t do the tech specs,” says Toussant, “but he gives very specific direction and references–where a cut line is, how to use a color, or where to put texture. The executors will give their best interpretation of his notes, and a few drafts will go back and forth until they meet his vision.” How would he describe that vision? “It’s hard to put your finger on,” Toussant says. “P’s interested in so many things, and whatever he’s working on at the time, he brings inspiration from that.” I ask Toussant if Williams is responsive to input from others; he knows what I’m really asking. “You mean, is he open to hearing that he’s wrong?” he asks with a laugh. “Yeah, definitely.”
Williams invested in Bionic Yarn in part because Rush Limbaugh shamed him. In 2007, he and a few other celebrities went to Rio to announce a benefit concert for Live Earth, created to increase environmental awareness. “I’m thinking, Okay, cool, we get to do something sustainable, the ecosystem, blah, blah, and I don’t have to wear Birkenstocks or be seen with trail mix in my hand,” he says. “Limbaugh sees the announcement and immediately identifies me. ‘Here’s a guy who probably has 40 cars and flew down on a private jet. It doesn’t make sense.’ And I’m like, Whoa, why me? What did I do?”
It made Williams think that if he had been better educated about sustainability, or more passionate about it, or had an organization committed to it, he could have fought back. Not long after, opportunity knocked; a friend introduced him to Toussant. “I realized that, yeah, it checked the box of getting involved,” says Williams. “But I really do love the technology.”
Growing up, Williams had no interest in how the world was presented to him, as hard rules or lines. As long as he can remember, he’s wanted to blur them. The few times he had a boss, including a stint at McDonald’s when he was a teenager, “I got fired–every time. I had good managers, I was just lazy.” It wasn’t laziness so much as boredom, and his fuel is enthusiasm. Williams describes himself as a visual person, a kind of intelligence that isn’t celebrated in most schools. “The school system isn’t spending a lot of time looking for specific potential. We are bred to be worker bees; to grow up, get married, have a kid, drive a Volvo, do our taxes, invest in something, find a hobby,” says the man who did finally marry Helen Lasichanh–his girlfriend of five years and the mother of his son, Rocket–in October. “I spent a lot of time in school not paying attention.”
Luckily, someone couldn’t help noticing him: Teddy Riley, the Grammy-winning R&B producer, serendipitously opened a recording studio near Princess Anne High School in Virginia Beach, in 1991. Riley happened to catch a pre-Neptunes performance by Williams and Hugo at their high school talent show and signed them when they graduated. Before long, they were producing as well. Williams, in turn, has mentored countless young artists. He asks them–and anyone he collaborates with–two questions: “What do you want?” and “What haven’t you done?” Capabilities come into play, of course, but his chief mission, he says, is “actualizing potential.” There is no failure, “only lessons.”
And, as with everything he does, he puts their creativity first. Williams remains deeply affected by the implosion of the music business. “It’s the only industry where the artists have historically been considered to be at the bottom of the totem pole they built,” he says. “And when lawyers started running the labels, you saw the best groups and producers get dropped or turned away. But that’s true of any art-dependent company run by venture capitalists who don’t respect the content, who put their money behind accountants, not creatives.” His various collaborations–with UJAM, YouTube,Quarterly Co., and now Rap Genius–are all about empowering and protecting artists. “We never go backward. That’s the plight of the human species, but also our privilege. So as always, a new equation will emerge, and that will be led by the artists and likely powered by them as well.”
Williams used to believe in luck, but not anymore. “I’d say, ‘Me? Really? Okay, cool!’ But then when I looked over my shoulder, I could see that there was a clear path. Someone might say that Teddy Riley building his studio five minutes from my high school was luck. I mean, why leave New York and go there? But I don’t see that now.” For Williams, there is always judgment and choice. “Existence is all mathematics, and I see it as me listening to the math that is right in front of me. There’s a key for every door,” he adds, “and if you can’t find it, you can make one. That’s always an option.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Fast Companymagazine.