A t this point in their reign as the world’s biggest band, the members of BTS are accustomed to hero worship and nervous fans. But as that group’s leader, RM, sits across from Pharrell Williams in early September, onstage in an empty, secured auditorium at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, he’s unnerved to find himself on the other side of the equation. It feels “embarrassing,” RM says with a smile, to talk about his artistic journey in front of “my own idol.”
Williams, eternally youthful and smooth-skinned (needless to say), is relaxed and full of small talk, in a leather jacket, matching leather shorts, boots, and a blinding array of ice-studded jewelry on one wrist. RM, in a Bottega Veneta double-breasted brown suit, is quieter, seemingly shuffling through the many questions he’s prepared in his head.
For all these two men have in common, thousands of miles and a couple of decades separated their coming of age. From the distance of Virginia Beach in the Eighties, a young Williams was able to observe the growth of hip-hop almost from its birth, before becoming a key force in that genre and many others as one half of the Neptunes and on his own. When RM was growing up outside of Seoul, rap had already gone global, to the point where Nas, Eminem, and local groups like Epik High could seduce a studious South Korean kid into devoting his life to music — which, after some twists and turns, led him to BTS instead of the underground hip-hop career he imagined.
Both artists move between behind-the-scenes work and performing. In addition to producing and writing for BTS, RM has done the same for songs by many other South Korean artists; Williams has been striking that balance like no one else since the Clinton administration — this year alone, he’s produced tracks for Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, and Rosalía, while enlisting 21 Savage and Tyler, the Creator for his own single “Cash In Cash Out.”
Even before this conversation, Williams and RM joined forces. As Williams reveals, he recently recorded a song with BTS, working remotely, for his next album. RM has a debut solo album of his own on the way, and during their conversation, Williams makes him an enticing offer related to it. A few weeks after this conversation, BTS’ label, Hybe, announces that the group’s members will be serving mandatory military service and will focus on solo work before reuniting in 2025. Today, RM is frank about the fact that he and BTS are at a crossroads in their lives and career, and he’s unafraid to ask for Yoda-style advice from someone whose nonstop shape-shifting has been rewarded with unmatched, decade-spanning success.
RM: I just want to point out [your 2006 solo song] “Take It Off (Dim the Lights).” Because that was on one of my playlists. I even translated it into Korean and recorded it once when I was an amateur.
Williams: Whoa! That’s crazy.
RM: These days genre doesn’t mean anything. But at that time, I think some rappers criticized the rappers who sing or use Auto-Tune. Sometimes you sing, sometimes you rap, sometimes you just sing the hook. So how do you position yourself when you participate in a song as a performer?
Williams: Wow. First of all, no one’s ever asked me that, believe it or not. I make decisions based off feeling. I don’t make them based off of convention.
Listen to the ‘Musicians on Musicians’ podcast featuring RM and Pharrell Williams
RM: “I got to rap.” “I got to sing.”
Williams: Yeah, no. It’s just whatever it feels like it needs. And I’m going to channel it as best as I can, because I’m trying to tell somebody else who’s better than me to do it. Oftentimes, what would happen was artists will be like, “Nah, we want you to stay on there.” And I’ll be like, “No, but it’s for this person.” I channel what I feel like is missing, and I forget that it’s going to be me. Because if I think that it’s going to be me, then it won’t be as good, and I won’t be as confident. For example, there’s a record that I did with Mystikal a long time ago—
Williams: Yeah. “Shake Ya Ass.” Right? Chad [Hugo] and I produced it together. But when I was writing that hook, I was pretending that Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations could do it. I remember saying to them, “Oh, man, we’re going to get the guy from the Temptations to do it.” And they were like, “Nah, no. The record company wants you to stay on there.” It was this weird thing where I started to realize that my sweet spot is when I channel other people and I surrender to what the music needs and not let my ego or my feelings get involved.
RM: As a team, we’ve been to the U.N., and we also met President Biden. We never thought these things [would happen], but I think naturally we became one of the representatives from the Asian community. I’m always thinking to myself, “Am I that good? Do I deserve all the responsibilities?” And I’m really doubting myself. I’ve heard that you do a lot of stuff for the community. So I wonder how you deal with all the responsibilities to be good and moral.
Williams: I mean, the [charity] work that I do, there’s always a circumstance. Either I’d say some dumb shit and then regret it later, or there’s been a time when I have a record that sort of affected a certain portion of a demographic. So then it made me think about things differently. And then I go set up a [nonprofit] and act against the ignorance that I was a part of. And educate myself, enlighten myself. Then other times, I also do it because of what you just said.
When you ask yourself, “Man, am I good enough?” Or, “Do I deserve all this?” I think what makes it easier for me to sleep at night is when I go do that work. It helps answer those questions. It’s like, wherever there was a deficit in your confidence of you deserving to be here or getting that kind of awe from the fans, wherever the minus is, this adds to it.
RM: I hope all of my confusion and these stupid thoughts will help my life get better, [and I can] be a better grown-up for the fans.
Williams: What people don’t realize is when you have literally hundreds of millions of fans and you encounter them 100,000 at a time . . .
RM: Can’t notice a single face. It’s just a mass.
Williams: It is a massive energy coming at you, and you say, “Jump.”
RM: Then they jump.
Williams: Then they jump. And you sing, and they sing every word. And you can feel through their voices that so many of their lives have been affected and changed because of something you’ve done. I don’t know how you do that. Because I’ve had a couple songs do that, and then when I get out there and go sing it, that would make me cry because it was too much of a responsibility. Man, every time I get that close to that, I always step back.
RM: Why? Is it too heavy?
Williams: It’s too heavy, man. It’s too much of a responsibility. That’s why I really revere people like yourself and your band members and other artists like Bey and Jay and even Kanye — like, man, what y’all go out there and go face every night on that stage? It is humbling and it’s overwhelming. And sometimes your nervous system has got to be built for that. Let me ask you this, how do you deal after you come off the stage, feeling electrified and shocked every night, how do you decompress?
I’m a human and I really get nervous and I sometimes get depressed by, and even get swallowed by, all the energies,” RM says. “But I try to deal with it because I love the music.
RM: My first performance was in front of 10 people in some small clubs when I was, like, 15. And I forgot most of the lyrics. So at that time I realized, “Oh, I’m not a star type. I’m not one of these frontmen who could enjoy all this shit like Kurt Cobain or Mick Jagger.” I’m just a human who loves writing music.
For example, we had these stadium shows in Las Vegas last April. It was four nights. But every night is a challenge. After we finish the first three songs and then we take out the earphones and we’re like, “We’re fucking back” — from that moment, there’s a different persona, a different me for the next two hours and a half. But before that, from the rehearsal and even in the plane, I got really, really nervous and [feel] so responsible, because I really am aware that fans buy the tickets and they come from Brazil, from Japan, Korea, from everywhere. They come there for just that one night.
So it fills me, like I have to pay back. I have to offer them the best night ever in their lives. So it’s a mess, and it’s too much energy. I’m a human and I really get nervous and I really sometimes get depressed by, and even get swallowed by, all the energies. But I try to deal with it because I love the music. I love their love. Because I think love is really happening when we give to somebody, not when we take. So I just want to give back to them. They brought us from just a small city in Korea, all the way back to the heart of this music industry, Las Vegas, L.A., New York. Me having an interview with Pharrell, it could happen because of fans all over the world. I’m just always grateful and I don’t want to disappoint them.
BTS are currently in what your bandmate Suga described as an “offseason” — which got mistranslated as a “hiatus” — with more focus on solo work for the moment. RM, you’ve said that to a certain extent, you feel like you’ve lost a sense of direction for the group.
Williams: I definitely had my struggles with having a lack of a sense of purpose.
Williams: Right around , when I put out In My Mind. As soon as it didn’t do what I wanted it to do — I mean, culturally it made an impression, but egotistically it didn’t perform the way I wanted it to. It just didn’t do what I was used to at that time, and that really hit me hard. So that made me start to think about purpose and things having real true DNA and not just aesthetic purpose, but real true meaning and something that could be meaningful to people, but at the same time, still fun. And I’ve always loved the girls, so that was always going to be a part of it [laughs].
So I understand what that is. I know what it’s like to hit that place in your career for whatever reason — and you guys are doing fine, but I think from what I’m hearing and what I’m understanding, you guys, you hit a place where you were like, “What are we doing? Who are we? Are we who we said we were?”
Williams: And as you think about who you are and you think about what you mean and what your intentions are, it’s also kind of determining who you want to be. I mean, how’s that feel? Like, where are you in that process right now? Because you’re working on a solo record, right?
RM: Yes. Like 90 percent of the work is done. I’ve released some mixtapes as one of the members of the band, but it was just an experiment. I think this time it’s maybe my official first solo album. But it’s been, like, 10 years since we had our debut as a team. K-pop is all about the band and the groups. And as I told you, I personally started my career as a rapper and as a poet. So that was a tricky part actually, because K-pop is like a mix. It’s the mix of American pop music, other visuals, Korea, and social media and stuff. It’s really intense and really hectic. So it has some pros and cons of its own.
After 10 years, I think it was not our intention, but we actually became a sort of a social figure, and we took it. So a K-pop band going to have a speech at the U.N. or meeting the president, I think I was really confused and I’m like, “What am I, a diplomat or what?”
Williams: Right, yeah.
RM: I was just a small rapper and lyricist when I was young. So it was 10 years, really intense as a team. And I actually was in charge of almost all of the interviews and representing the team in front of the other members. That was my role, I guess. I think I got really . . . I don’t know, “Yo, I got to stop this for a bit. I got to shut it down and fall away from it and then just see what’s going on,” making my mind really calm down. That’s how I got to concentrate on my solo [album]. These days I really have been thinking about when I first listened to you, the first feeling and the vibe, and the reason why I started, why I chose music for my whole life, I guess.
When I started my music, I was like 14, and now I’m 28. So I’m in that process. It’s really tricky and confusing, and I just don’t know what’s going to happen. So if you could give me any advice, because it’s different from the K-pop, but you’ve done a lot of projects, like, N.E.R.D, Neptunes, and of course your solo work. So any thoughts about . . . ?
Williams: Being in the Neptunes, being in N.E.R.D, and having a solo record really helped me, because you do one thing and then you take a break. You do another thing, then you take a break. And it allows me to put on different hats and put on different masks. So I understand that, and I know having that departure is going to make it really fresh for you. I think it’s good for you to do that because then when you come back to it, to the group—
RM: To the team.
Williams: Yeah, I think it’s going to be super fresh. Who are the producers on your solo record?
RM: Sometimes we do our stuff on our own, and there’s an in-house team always working with us in the label. Sometimes we get our songs from outside too. It’s flexible. You produce maybe sometimes with Chad or just on your own, right? Is that a lot of work?
Williams: For me, it’s like Michelangelo when he was making sculptures. He’s just . . . and I’m going to screw this up, but his whole thing was he was just getting rid of the rocks that were in the way of the sculpture, something to that effect. It’s the same thing. I’m just carving away at it and adding layers until I feel like it’s right. And then if I feel like I need some help, then I’ll reach out to somebody. My ego would get in the way when I was younger, but now my loyalty is not to my ego.
RM: What is it to?
Williams: It’s to the song. It’s how do we make the song the absolute best? That’s where I’m at now.
And I don’t want to do anything that just feels like, “Oh, that’s cool, that’ll fit.” No, I don’t want to fit. I want to knock the wall down and want to set the whole entire block on fire. Not one room, the block. Not the house, the block on fire. I want it to be on the news at night. Listen: “Block on fire.”
RM: Block on fire. B.O.F., block on fire. That’s a cool name for a brand, actually.
Sometimes as I grow up — and I’m between my chapter one and two, like I said, the group and solo; maybe I’m between music and maybe [visual] art, between that. So sometimes I really feel afraid, like, “What if I don’t like music anymore?” I love art. But it’s somewhat different.
Williams: It is.
RM: It is. Music is like, it’s everywhere. I’m sad, but it’s everywhere. Sometimes I really feel afraid — like, music, it’s not my first thing anymore, sort of like that.
Williams: Yeah. That’s temporary.
RM: Oh, really? I’m relieved.
Williams: Yeah. Then all of a sudden you go, “Whoa. It’s the only thing I want to think about.” It’ll happen.
RM: What do you get from visual art, fine art?
How do we make the song the absolute best?” Williams says. “I don’t want to do anything that just feels like, ‘Oh, that’ll fit.’ No, I don’t want to fit. I want to set the whole entire block on fire.
Williams: I think for every modality that we have, every submodality that we have, meaning visual, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, auditory, it’s pretty much all the same. Like with food, something can taste sweet or sour. Things can smell sweet or sour. Visually we can see something that looks sweet to us and something that’s sour. With the auditory, we can hear something that is so sweet and so pleasant, and then we can hear something that’s like, “Ooh, sour,” you know?
And so I really get enjoyment by working with artists in different artistic disciplines to determine where the congruence is. Like, “Oh, wow, that’s your sweet. Oh, that’s your sour.” You know?
RM: A fun thing for me with visual art is that when I listen to some great music, I’m blown away, but still, sometimes I feel really jealous. It [can be] really, really painful. So it’s funny, right? But for visual art, I just won’t draw a single line because I want to remain as an outsider. But I’m a lover. I’m a fan. I’m a maniac. So when I look at all the paintings and maybe sculptures, I just feel really relieved because I can love it as much as I can.
Williams: That’s awesome.
RM: Any new projects coming up for you?
Williams: Well, my project, it’s called . . . it’s [under] my name, and the title of the album is Phriends. It’s the volume one. You guys [BTS] are on there, obviously. And I’m actually talking about this way more than I’m supposed to, but it’s a song from my album that [BTS] sang and it’s amazing, and I’m super grateful.
RM: I just love this song.
Williams: I love it too.
RM: Fuck, yeah.
Williams: Everyone that hears it is like, “Whoa.”
RM: I fucking love it.
Williams: I love it, love it, love it. But I’m just going to put this out there. You said you’re 90 percent done with your solo album. But if within that last 10 percent, if you need — you don’t need me, but I mean . . .
RM: I always needed you, for 15 years.
Williams: OK, well, if you want to do something, we can actually do it.
Williams: Yeah, and you tell me what you want. Uptempo? We go uptempo.
RM: I’m honored and grateful.
Pharrell, any final words of advice for RM?
Williams: You know what? I would just say continue to move forward. Continue to be curious. And don’t put any kind of pressure on what it is that you do by saying . . . No absolutes, like “Oh, I will never do music again,” or “I will never . . . ” I wouldn’t do any of that. I would just—
RM: No nevers.
Williams: No nevers. Just stay along for the ride. Just keep going.
Williams: Yeah. And just see where you end up. Because it’s really interesting.
WELCOME TO ROLLING STONE’S 2022 Musicians on Musicians package, the annual franchise where two great artists come together for a free, open conversation about life and music. Each story in this year’s series will appear in our November 2022 print issue, hitting stands on Nov. 8.
Production by Xavier Hamel for BRACHFELD. Photography direction by Emma Reeves. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. RM: Hair by Han Som. Makeup by Kim Da Reum. Styling by Kim Young Jin. Williams: Styling by Matthew Henson. Tailoring by David Vlato. Styling assistance by BReaunna Matthews. Photography assistance by Reid Calvert. Digitech: Stowe Richards. Lighting assistance by Colin Jacob.
Artwork by Carlos Cruz-Diez. Cromosaturación, 1965/2012, painted drywall, fluorescent lights, and colored plastic, 50-5/16 x 24-1/4 x 13 ft. Joint acquisition of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Art with funds provided by the Acquisition and Collection Committee; purchased by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden with the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2012. © Atelier Cruz-Diez, Paris/Bridgeman Images. With thanks to the team at MOCA: Johanna Burton (Maurice Marciano Director), Clara Kim (Chief Curator & Director of Curatorial Affairs), Eva Seta (Communications Director), Monica Roache (Associate Director of Events and Rentals) and Sergio Ramirez (Director of Security and Maintenance).