In the early 2000's, Pharrell was everywhere.
Along with his production partner Chad Hugo (the other half of The Neptunes) Pharrell had some gargantuan production successes hitting the market: Kelis’ Wanderland, Clipse’s Lord Willin’, parts of both Justified and Britney, not to mention N.E.R.D.’s In Search of…
Knowing this, it's a believable fun fact that in 2003 Pharrell was responsible for 43% of all American Radio. This statistic gets thrown around frequently and seemingly makes a comeback every time folks start to worry we may be losing sight of Pharrell’s eminence.
Upon closer examination, though, it’s an odd stat. What does it mean to produce 43% of the songs on the radio? Surely it can’t be true that, of every song played on American radio that year, almost half were his work. So 43% of new songs? Charting songs? Pop songs?
These are problematic questions if we want to believe this number. More problematic is the fact that there’s not really any proof.
Don't get me wrong: Pharrell was dominating the charts and radio play in 2003. Songs like "Milkshake" by Kelis and Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful” dropped, making that 43% statistic feel spot on for many radio listeners. But where did it come from?
The stat can be traced back to an article written in 2004 by Mel Campbell called "Like the song? These guys wrote it". It was about Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. Together as The Neptunes, they are "these guys” she refers to. Her headline, if not the statistic she used, was probably accurate for most people: The Neptunes had so many hits in the early 2000's that Pharrell told The New York Times he and Chad had to delay the release of their own singles, because "otherwise, the airwaves could be in gridlock."
Mel Campbell didn’t invent the statistic. In her article she cites "a survey" as the fact’s source: "a survey in August last year found the Neptunes produced almost 20 per cent of songs played on British radio. A similar survey in the US had them at 43 per cent."
It’s a passing statement with the classic journalistic flare. No big deal. Until that 43 number gets picked up by other publications, who spread it to other publications, and it eventually takes on the status of public record. One of those things that feels just true enough to let slide.
But Campbell, no doubt aware of the impact her article had, ultimately decided she couldn’t. 10 years later, in 2014, Campbell wrote an article about how she might have "changed hip hop history" with her use of the statistic.
Campbell started to look into the merit of the 43 number when she was mentioned in a tweet by the Danish journalist Mads Mathiesen.
Mathiesen pointed out to Campbell that the statistic “is oft-cited, but nowhere does it say who conducted the survey or where to find it.”
As Campbell poured through her own archives, researched online, and sent emails, she quickly realized that every avenue was a dead-end. She wrote an account of her attempts, which you can read here.
Like I said before: that there's no record of any such surveys taking place doesn't automatically make the statistic untrue.
Pharrell has been quoted saying it wasn't uncommon for them to have 5 songs on the radio every week, and some of their songs have been getting radio play since they came out; he and Chad made classics.
Pharrell remains a player music industry to this day, working with artists like Rhianna, Lil Uzi Vert, Kendrick Lamar, and SZA. But it’s a different role than the one he played in the early 2000's, when he was literally shaping the sound of pop culture. Today, he mostly guides the next generation in their endeavor to do the same.
And of course it’s not just music. It never is with him. It’s clothing, jewelry, and artwork. It’s taste. It’s cultural history. So maybe the statistic being true is beside the point. Pharrell probably wasn’t a part of 43% of the radio's sound in 2003, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s the metaphorical nature of the fact. It was as if… Sometimes grasping something requires a good metaphor, and to understand Pharrell’s mark on sneakers, clothes, production, rapping, jewelry, podcasting, and skin care, we need a false fact or two.