Back when Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo were busy producing mega-hits as The Neptunes, their rock-straddling side project N.E.R.D was rustling up a Grateful Dead-like cult following on the internet. Throughout the early 2000s, a couple hundred superfans flocked to two parallel, overlapping web forums—the official Star Trak forum and the rawer fan-site theneptunes.org—to swap behind-the-scenes info, post unreleased band demos, and soak up knowledge that they’d go on to pour into their own creative endeavors. Many frequent users went on to lead global cults of their own: alums include M.I.A., Drake, Janelle Monae, Tyler, the Creator, and more. N.E.R.D’s forums not only served as a talent incubator but also planted the seed for the industry’s full turn toward the internet as the primary means of music distribution, criticism and debate, and direct-to-fan engagement. Here, four of the forums’ users—producer Matt Martians, artist manager Shiv Pandya, rapper Remy Banks, and video director Shomi Patwary—reflect on their time spent lurking and learning.
“That sense of a kid in his bedroom having any sort of influence on this person creating something around the world is really powerful.”—Shiv Pandya
SHIV PANDYA: I first really got into the forums sometime in early high school. My whole internet existence at that time was finding music that was leaked online, and places where the people sharing it were talking about just one thing.
MATT MARTIANS: The forum is where you would go to find all the rare Neptunes songs, the scratch vocals. Certain people had inside information.
REMY BANKS: It was like an underground cult for kids that actually knew.
PANDYA: There would be little stories shared on the forums. They would talk about people, like [Pharrell’s former manager] Rob Walker, or about a studio session that happened but the song was never released. Those tidbits that you never got to hear anywhere else. It made you feel like you were a part of what was really going on, getting to know the backstories of how things come about.
SHOMI PATWARY: Forums were the only social media type of thing that existed. It was the earliest form of social media, basically.
MARTIANS: The unofficial forum, which we called the Grindin’ forum—that’s where I met Janelle Monae. I met Tyler. M.I.A. used to be on that one. That was the one that was the free-for-all. Drake used to be on that one.
BANKS: I first heard Drake there. He had a song with Malice from The Clipse. Somebody posted it in the threads, and I’m like, “What? Who’s this dude Drake?” Then I was like, “Oh, it’s that dude from Degrassi.” Then it was a whole thread about that.
PANDYA: I started working with Ryan Lewis my senior year of high school, so, like, 2004. Even early on, forums were big for how we gauged whether people were talking about the music. We would post shit to see if anyone reacted. To this day, that shit still goes on.
PATWARY: At the time, I was a producer; I was making beats on Fruity Loops with jacked Neptunes sounds. Other producers weren’t as computer-savvy as I was, so I would represent for them. Any of those local producers from Virginia that were doing something N.E.R.D-related, I was the one trying to videotape it on a small VHS camera. This isn’t even digital. You have to convert the video and then figure out what format to use, and it would look crazy. I was one of the few who could show all the fan-forum guys, “Here’s me in the N.E.R.D studio, here’s a picture of Pharrell’s plaque.”
PANDYA: When the leak of the Common album [2005’s Kanye West-produced Be] came out and it had the studio version of “The Food” featuring Kanye West on it, everybody on the forum was like, “The live version from Chappelle’s Show was better.” When the final album dropped, it had the live performance of “The Food” instead of the studio version. I remember reading threads where people felt like they were responsible for that change. Maybe somebody did read that and brought it up in a meeting, like, “Yo Kanye, you should put the live version on the album instead of the studio version. Nobody likes the leaked studio version.” That sense of a kid in his bedroom having any sort of influence on this person creating something around the world is really powerful. It’s powerful to know that voice could get heard, and not just in a monetary or business sense, but people appreciate how somebody feels about them.
MARTIANS: I’m in Atlanta, Georgia, at the time. I’m in the sixth grade. Having people in other cities that felt the same way as you, I had never felt nothing like that before.
PATWARY: For black kids and Asian kids, we’d never seen ourselves being represented like that. Seeing Pharrell, the black kids are like, “We’ve never seen somebody that’s wearing Vans and skateboarding. It’s OK to be different.” Pharrell was the prototype for that. For Asian kids, with Chad, even though I’m Bengali, just seeing somebody that’s Asian being in the industry was like, “Holy shit.” My parents were like, “You better finish up school, get your science degree.” But these guys changed my life.
MARTIANS: The whole punk attitude of being a minority and being able to do something cool with it and put a twist to it—that’s what N.E.R.D solidified. The reason Drake is so smart, the reason M.I.A. is so smart, the reason those people are so smart—you have to understand the fan element first. Your fans sell your music to people. They understand what it’s like to be a fanatic, so they know what’s going to make people care. When you’re on those forums, you see what matters to the fans.
PATWARY: Looking back on it, it’s like the nerdiest thing ever—no pun intended. But that’s what it was, a bunch of nerds. At that time, “nerd” could still apply. You could actually be a nerd. Now, you can’t be a nerd. The definition of a “nerd” doesn’t exist anymore. We’re all nerds.