In the 60s, Phil Spector had his fabled wall of sound. In the 90s, hip-hop's Dr. Dre created hits for Tupac Shakur and helped Eminem develop a rhythmic throb that was dance-floor catnip.
But it is 32-year-old Pharrell Williams who stands as the sonic mastermind of this era and its hits: Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," Brittany Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U," Nelly's "Hot In Herre" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl."
Typically, Williams' songs don't get strummed on guitars or crooned at weddings. But they are artifacts of a digital age in which hip-hop style is king. It's an age in which melodies take a backseat to beats and in which some performers will pay up to $2 million dollars for a fresh, hit-bound brew of beats. Now, he's creeping out from behind the scenes and becoming his own performer with a solo debut CD, "In My Mind," to drop in the next few weeks.
But before his diverse talents led him to be a musicmaker and a multi-millionare, Pharrell Williams grew up in The Atlantis Projects in Virginia Beach. He hadn't been back there since he was seven years old. Without opportunities, says Williams, these residents have few options.
"There's a fence right there. Does your neighborhood have a fence? Like that? How does that make you feel? Closed in? Don't you feel claustrophobic? We're not animals! Why do we have fences? The answer is this: so that when we're being chased, it makes it harder to get away," Williams said.
When Pharrell was 7 years old, his parents moved out of the projects and into the suburbs less than 5 miles away. What would have happened if he hadn't moved from there?
"I'd would probably be dead or in jail or on drugs," he said.
Pharrell's big break came in 1992 when he was just 17 and still living with his parents. He produced a track for Wrecks-N-Effect called "Rumpshaker," which become a major hit. He said his first royalty check was somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. He spent the money on clothes.
"Come on! I was a kid, man. I was still in high school, so we got to wear the record company jackets going to school. Double platinum at 17 years old."
More than a decade later, he's a pre-eminent hitmaker, and insightful in the ways which lyrics and tracks work with a pop star's persona, like Gwen Stefani's.
"With Gwen, I just wanted to just extract characteristics out of her and turn them into songs, and sayings from her and turn them into songs, and moments between me and her," Williams says.
What kind of characteristics were those? Pharrell smiles, "just her girly thing. Her strong thing. Her sensible but emotional thing. Because girls do that. They're all over the place!"
And how's Pharrell showing Brittany Spears the way into pop adulthood?
"With Brittany I felt, you know what? She's got a shape. People need to see it. She can really move it. She's an entertainer, so let me give her a super sexy record and I made her a slave to the world. I made her a slave to the camera and a slave to the microphone. It was necessary to me. And it was necessary for my career. Like, this is what I can do corporate America! I can get into that kind of thing and turn it around."
With his solo debut, "In My Mind," Pharrell Williams will not only be reaching for the sort of producer-turned-frontman success enjoyed by Kanye West. He says he'll also be hoping that others will get the chances he did: to learn and to dream.
Chris Connelly is a correspondent for ESPN and ABC News and Sarah Rosenberg is a Nightline producer.