JaQuel Knight is a busy man. As we’re talking he’s getting his head shaved and preparing himself for N.E.R.D.‘s comeback concert at this year’s ComplexCon, serving as the choreographer for the dance routines that serve as an integral part to the performance. He is also the choreographer behind N.E.R.D’s recently-released music video for “Lemon,” the trio’s first new song in seven years.
If you haven’t seen it yet you should definitely stop reading and catch up. Beautifully directed by Todd Tourso and Scott Cudmore and produced by Stacey Thiel, the visuals capture a rebirthing process of sorts as Mette Towley has her head shaved by Rihanna, leading to a very intense and passionate sequence of dances that you can’t help but look away from, because you feel it.
Knight is behind that, although he may not outright say that. His humility stops him from taking credit for being a part of N.E.R.D’s return, a hearty and playful laugh accompanying him as he tells me “I’m just here doing my part, helping them create history.”
Here’s our interview with Knight where we discussed how he became choreographer for “Lemon,” working with Pharrell, and other things he has in the works with the musical trio.
Okayplayer: So first and foremost “Lemon” drops and everybody goes insane particularly because of the choreography. Give me the whole background in regards to how the whole process came about.
JaQuel Knight: Well, Todd Tourso, who’s working on the creative for this project and who I’ve been working together with for the past six years now, he was like “Yo, Pharrell is working on this crazy project with N.E.R.D, it’s dance thing, who else could kill it but you? Can you come down and check the music out let me know if you f**k with it? Come listen to it and then let’s talk.” I went to the studio and I heard the records and the records were crazy. And now here we are, that was three months ago.
OKP: So it was immediate for the most part?
Knight: Yeah. We met and we talked — it was a lot of meetings. It was like “Ok, Quel’s gonna do it” and then we went back with his creative group and just continued to brainstorm the project — what it was going to be — and then finally two months ago we started working on it and moving everything forward. So the turnaround was rather quick considering the amount of work we’ve done two months ago until now.
OKP: How did the choreography for the “Lemon” tutorial come about? Was it more a 50/50 collaborative thing or did Pharrell already envision everything with dancer Mette Towley and all that?
Knight: No. How we got to Mette was a real process. We saw a few people that we loved. I auditioned 1,200 dancers in LA and throughout those dancers I was keeping my eye open to who could be the girl. We knew we wanted a lead girl for the video so it was like keeping my eye on the streets, making phone calls to people I know in Atlanta and people I know in New York. And Mette actually toured with Pharrell this past tour he did so her name came up through his camp and then I had people’s name that I brought up through my camp, and Todd had names. So we kind of saw our favorite girls and we did an interview process, and photo shoot with them, and then we put them through a week of dance rehearsals because to take on that lead position was more than the choreography. It’s a pretty deep project on so many levels s we just wanted them to be there physically, emotionally, mentally — just be in the same space where Pharrell is with the entire N.E.R.D thing. So that was like a full blown process of finding her.
OKP: And what ultimately led to you choosing Mette?
Knight: Just the magic. Magic speaks volumes. She’s in the same head space as Pharrell, they’re like the same person right now. With everything that’s going on in the world they have the same outlook on things and want the same kind of change in the world. So it’s like the perfect marriage.
OKP: How did you coach Mette through it? It’s like you said there’s that emotion. It’s not just the choreography; you feel it.
Knight: You know working with me is not easy, especially when I’m in my zone. I have a job to do and that’s to deliver something that can impact culture, impact the world, change the world even, heal the world. So I take my job very seriously especially when you want me to oversee choreography and oversee anything with movement and how it’s perceived to the masses, I take that very seriously. So when I get into my rehearsal space it’s full out from start to finish. We’re there eight hours, ten hours a day, dancing all day. And I have my squad of choreographers who assisted me on the project, people I think are the best dancers in the world and I approached everything just by surrounding her with love and talent. Get them into the same space, let them sweat together, let her learn something, let them put her on game, let them out dance her, and that just makes her pull up. And the kind of girl she is she’s in it to win it. So we did that for like two weeks and here we are. She’s a new individual, before the haircut to now, it’s like two different people, two different performances, two different dancers. It’s been pretty awesome working with Mette.
OKP: A noteworthy part of the tutorial is Mette getting her head shaved. Was that something you had brought up with the team and what did that symbolically mean to the context of the tutorial?
Knight: That was one of P’s favorite things with the treatments, just because it means so much — out with the old, in with the new. Out with what the world puts on you and just be yourself, let go of the stereotypes. Pretty girls need long hair? No you don’t. You don’t need hair to be pretty. You don’t need hair to be a strong woman. You don’t need long hair to be confident. So I think it speaks on so many different levels. It says so much without having to say it. The haircut is like the rebirth. You’re a newborn creature now. It really hits home for all of us.
OKP: I imagine the entire process and the entire treatment was fun for you but was there one specific part of the tutorial where you were like “Wow, this is it”?
Knight: For me it’s seeing her on set. You can rehearse weeks, days, months, whatever your timeline is, but you never what that true person is until it’s time to get in front of the camera and the lights are rolling. I was wowed the entire time like this b**ch is really bringing it. And after every take it’s like “What can I do? How can we get this right? Quel can I do this better?” After every take it was like “How can we make it better? What do I need to do? Can I help with camera movement, anything?” She was completely involved. I was memorized the entire shooting period of the joint.
OKP: What was the importance of shooting in the space the tutorial was shot in?
Knight: It’s a good old swap meet and everyone in the hood has been to the swap meet. All our people been to the swap meet. If we’re doing this for the people why not be where the people are? Why not be in a space people can relate to? It was just cool and it made sense with the project. Also, the cool thing with “Lemon” is that every piece of it has a name. Every dance step in there has an identity so it’s really cool for me to present something that is completely unique to a project. It’s the first time I think anyone has created an entire dance where every piece of it has why you do it and how it makes you feel. We have a dance called “The Obama” in there and another one called “I see Dead People.” A few really cool names that make sense with the dance and that’s coming soon too — the release of the dances.
OKP: Now it makes more sense why they’re called Tutorials.
Knight: The whole tutorial thing is for people to get back to themselves. Watch the video so you can learn what to do when you hear the record. This is how you should feel when the record comes on, when the beat drops you should want to do this. Those are the tutorials.
OKP: That makes me think of the Lemon Challenge where once the song dropped there were so many people on Twitter who spoke about wanting to learn the choreography.
Knight: That’s exactly the project. We wanted people to see it and be like “Ok, I’ll be back you guys I’m about to go learn this real quick to be ready for the weekend and I’ll let you see what’s happening.” That was the vein that the project was created in.
OKP: Fast forward and we’re here for ComplexCon for the performance. How long have you guys been working on this performance?
Knight: We’ve been working on everything N.E.R.D for the past two months and we’re just getting started. So I’m really excited for people to see the show tonight because that’s the start of everything — the prelude to the era. “Lemon” dropped and now we’re here at the performance and this is going to give us so much insight to what’s to come from them, so it’s a big moment in history.
OKP: How does it feel to be a part of N.E.R.D’s reunion?
Knight: It’s only the biggest deal of all biggest deals. I can’t believe it. I still haven’t taken it in yet. It’s fu**ing N.E.R.D and they’re coming back. That’s how I really feel. I’m just here doing my part, helping them create history, helping them create the magic. I haven’t even had a chance to digest it all. But I’m glad they’re back, the music is fu**ing sick, it’s just a real exciting time for music for me, because they have so much to say and it sounds so different.
OKP: Pharrell means so much to black culture. How has Pharrell, the Neptunes, N.E.R.D impacted your life?
Knight: I mean let’s start with I wanted to be Pharrell. That was my dream, to be a big time producer. I had my beat pad, I had my DJ system. People don’t know I was a musician first, I played saxophone for six years. So I just knew I was gonna end up producing somehow. What can we say about all the marriages of the Neptunes and the artists? Kelis and Pharrell, Clipse and Pharrell — it just goes on and on. I literally wanted to be Pharrell so now being in this space with him is mindblowing. He’s like “Quel your ear, how you hear music is so wild. Why you hear that? How do you hear that? Only me and so-and-so are the only ones who hear that stuff.” It’s trips him out how I hear the records. Some of the best records in the world comes from these people.
OKP: How would you say the new N.E.R.D stuff sounds?
Knight: Next level, man. It’s just high art. I’ll let the music speak for itself.
OKP: Is there anything else you can tell me in regards to what you’re working on with N.E.R.D? If there are anymore tutorials or anything else?
Knight: You know, let’s just see what’s coming in the future. But there’s some really exciting things coming. N.E.R.D is fucking back.