The Grammy-winning producer behind The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. looks to the future.
Chad Hugo isn’t afraid of AI. “You can’t fight technology,” the Filipino-American record producer tells Vogue Philippines. In the same breath, he brings up jazz legend Herbie Hancock’s 1983 track “Future Shock,” written about “what people experience when technology is ahead of them and don’t know how to deal with it.” As excitement and concern surrounding ChatGPT fuel public debates, Hugo shares, “people are always going to talk about that kind of stuff, but if you utilize it, it teaches humans how to be human. We have to feel and give emotions. [We have to] give our human touch to these things that are computer generated.”
With tech giants and music companies battling it out over AI’s financial threat to copyrighted songs, it’s refreshing to hear Hugo rolling with the changes. “I was messing with the AI stuff in a song. It sounded pretty good. It was a start. A good icebreaker, type of catalyst, or way of thinking.” After all, Hugo’s success has its roots in forward thinking and innovation— starting with the songwriting and production duo, The Neptunes, and later, with the genre-bending hip-hop and rock band N.E.R.D.—both of which he started in the ‘90s with longtime friend and creative collaborator Pharrell Williams.
Over the years, Hugo has built a repertoire of music that’s crossed genre after genre, from Beyoncé to Rosalía, from Britney Spears to Snoop Dogg. On Spotify, there’s a playlist titled: Written by Chad Hugo. Open it, and on your scroll, you’ll recognize hit after hit—the music that shaped our youth, and even arguably, our wider pop culture. At the top of the playlist is Snoop Dogg’s most iconic track, “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” followed by Kelis’ seductive “Milkshake” with Britney Spears’ even more seductive “I’m a Slave 4 U” just a few rows down. Other honorable mentions include “I Care” off Beyoncé’s album 4 (2011) and more recently, “Love Language” off SZA’s LP SOS (2022) and “Freak” from Doja Cat’s album of the same name released in 2020. All these projects from the early ‘90s to the present led up to Hugo being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022, and if you ask us, it was about time.
Before collecting song credits from the biggest acts on the planet, Hugo recalls his early influences stemming from his youth in 1980s Virginia Beach. “When I was growing up, my father bought a turntable. In the house, I spent time listening to records, like B.J. Thomas,” he says before trailing off and breaking into song: “Raindrops keep falling on my head!” Other records on rotation included the music to both the Wizard of Oz and My Fair Lady.
Notably foreshadowing his interest in tech, Hugo remembers how the birth of synthesizers in the ‘80s sparked debates even back then. “When I was a kid, we bought a record from the grocery store, Music from Star Wars by The Electric Moog Orchestra, a covers album of the Star Wars soundtrack played on synthesizers. At the time, I was fascinated by synthesizers because in the news, everyone was saying that it was replacing all the musicians,” says the producer.
Growing up, Hugo remembers how his childhood home was soundtracked by his parents’ own singing and musical tastes. His father was in the military, but off the clock, Hugo shares how his “dad dabbled with the trumpet in the Philippines. He’d be whistling and singing happy songs, and he brought home the records. We watched everything from Lawrence Welk to Soul Train just to see what was going on in the world.” Hugo’s mother worked as a medical technician at the hospital and enrolled him and his siblings in piano lessons with the other Filipino kids in the community. The songwriter fondly recollects memories of his mom’s voice. “She couldn’t really sing in key, but I remember as a kid hearing her sing off-key. Her vibrato was comforting.”
In school, Hugo picked up the saxophone in fifth grade, spurring his interest in jazz that would eventually follow him into adulthood. (As an aside, he divulges, “I got reacquainted with the saxophone again” after all these years.) By the time he reached middle school, the garage parties he attended completed his early musical education. “We’d go to these garage parties, where local folks were DJing. That was probably the most influential experience, where people would make do-it-yourself flyers, have it printed at Kinko’s, cut it out into fours, and hand it out to people. They would crank up the garage doors a bit, so you’d see people’s feet. There would be dancing with a siren light. That was the birth of the mobile DJs.”
Against the backdrop of DJs, breakdancing, and garage parties, Hugo notes how he witnessed the way technology influenced music and hip-hop culture. “As we grew older, we saw these machines integrated into making music, like the drum machine. Like people doing the robot. Seeing how people interact with it was fascinating.”
Fast forward to 2023, Hugo’s long list of accolades (including two Grammy wins) brings him to the red carpet for the second annual Gold Gala on May 6 in Los Angeles. In an event celebrating AAPI talent across entertainment, sports, and beyond, the award-winning record producer reflects on how much the industry has changed since his start in the ‘90s. “Growing up, we had the PCC (Philippine Cultural Center), which was once a trailer in a field. There, people would practice ballroom dancing and line dancing and hold community events. I remember going to those events and seeing people display their talents. Now, here we are at the Gold Gala with people we respect and see on the big screen. It’s definitely a step up from where we started,” he says.
These days, Hugo is back in the producers’ box looking to the future and working on a new project from his Virginia Beach studio, Galaxie Gâteau. “I have an album coming out, so I’m concentrating on bodies of work that are instrumental and replacing them with artists that work in these studios,” he says before mentioning his recent session with Spanish rapper C. Tangana. “We have a song. We remixed it several times, trying to figure out what its latest version is.”
Other than that, he remains tight-lipped on what to expect on his new album. But there’s one thing he does reveal—his upcoming project won’t be released under Chad Hugo, or N.E.R.D., or The Neptunes. “Chad Hugo has done his thing. It’s time for the spinoff,” he explains. “It’s been a great decade of making music as Chad Hugo from The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., and that’s a great thing. The stage has been great. The airwaves have been blessed. But we gotta move on and listen to some new stuff. You know, to keep it fresh,” he adds.
Before signing off, I ask one last question on the achievement he’s most proud of. At this point, he tells me a second time that his mom worked the graveyard shift and answers with, “Having my mom listen to my music. She passed away in 2010. She loved a few of The Neptunes songs. Hearing her be proud of what we accomplished as a team, and what I’ve accomplished in the music industry.” Hugo adds, “One of her favorite songs [that I worked on] was [SWV’s] ‘Use Your Heart.’ She liked everything, so just to know that was an accomplishment.”
“Other than that, I’m proud of the marching band awards we won in high school,” he concludes cheekily, before he picks up his massive marching bass drum and plays it.