Foreign Gists

The synth that connects The Neptunes to Wiley


Hip-hop, across the years, has undoubtedly seen its fair share of legendary producers. Whether it’s Timbaland, Kanye, Dr Dre or Swizz Beats, US hip-hop most definitely had and still has a plethora of talented producers churning out incredible beats. However, when it comes to instrumentalists, there are none more pioneering than the legendary producer duo The Neptunes.

Comprised of the renowned Pharrell Williams and the lesser-known Chad Hugo, The Neptunes rose out of a small Virginia town in the late nineties. With their unique sound and beautifully simplistic sonics, they swiftly took over the hip-hop charts with their beats and were a household name by the early 2000s.

Some may think that The Neptunes can’t be connected to East London’s Wiley, but they are, and the reason is interesting. 1999 saw the release of an exciting new synthesiser and soundbank, the ‘Korg Triton’. Commonly known as the Triton, it was a must-have for producers worldwide. The year it was released, one ended up in Pharrell Williams’s hands and another in Wiley’s clutches. With the apparatus, the two icons would change the course of US and UK hip-hop, respectively, forever.

Having forged their lane, the Neptunes undoubtedly had a unique, specific sound, and much of it has been traced back to particular sounds and patches found on the famous Triton. One can find stylistic similarities and consistencies upon listening to many of the hits made by The Neptunes. For example, the 2003 R’n’B hit ‘Frontin’ features the same funky guitar sound as, ‘Rock Your Body’ does.

This legendary guitar can also be found in ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis and ‘I Just Wanna Love You’ by Jay-Z. Hit records, known the world over, the guitar sound eventually became synonymous with The Neptunes, and people were crazy for it. This sound was straight from the Triton. Appearing in the synthesisers’ plucked instruments’ selection, Korg had named the sonic ‘Strato-Chime’. A simple yet effective sound that aided The Neptunes as they pioneered hip-hop with their refreshing style.

Speaking to Sound and Recording magazine in 2003, Chad Hugo disclosed how, during the 1990s, The Neptunes “basically used the same instruments that [they] used in Noreaga’ Superthug’. Korg 01/W for sequencing, Ensoniq ASR-10 for the drums, and sound modules like the Roland 1080 or the 2080.” However, Hugo later revealed at that present time (in 2003), they were “using the Korg Triton and the Korg MicroKorg a lot”.

With regard to their distinct sound, The Neptunes were also known for their epic, off-beat, unquantised, in-the-pocket drums. These were also straight out of the same machine. With what Korg had dubbed the ‘Percussion Kit’, they created the entire instrumental for the 2002 Clipse smash hit ‘Grindin’ by using just three keys. But if we’re talking about 2002, this is when the UK must be mentioned.

So many beloved American hip-hop anthems were being churned out of the Triton by The Neptunes in the early 2000s. However, in the UK, the same piece of equipment was being put to use by another musical pioneer but in a completely different way.In the late ’90s, while US hip-hop was thriving, the UK needed help finding where it could fit into hip-hop culture. With acts such as Big Brovaz rapping in American accents, there was en masse confusion. That all ended in 2002 when Wiley switched on a Korg Triton.

Born and raised in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, Wiley (real name Richard Cowie) is commonly known as the ‘Godfather of Grime’ because, in 2002, he produced and released an instrumental that would (like The Neptunes did) go on to pioneer a genre. This beat was named ‘Eskimo’.

Produced using a sound in the Triton called ‘Gliding Square’, ‘Eskimo’ sold many units, and the rapper caught on. Following the ‘Eskimo’ success, Cowie continued utilising the Triton. Within a year, Cowie produced over 15 instrumentals using one sound and called the beats “Eskibeats”. These became the foundation of the grime genre and helped the UK find its answer to American hip-hop. After Wiley, other well-known UK artists, including Jammer and Skepta, began to use the Triton for their music.

The keyboard is still so legendary that only last year it was on display at the Museum of London’s exhibition, Grime Stories: From the corner to the mainstream. 

This is how The Neptunes are connected to Wiley. With ingenuity and untold amounts of creativity, they both used the Korg Triton to shift culture, and both managed to advance a genre with their Triton-made masterpieces. Below you can watch a video about The Neptunes’ use of it and a video in which Wiley explains his ‘Eski’ sound.