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Hip-hop producer Timbaland goes old school T-shirt shopping

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Timbaland, the renowned music producer and rapper, at the vintage clothing boutique Procell in New York, on Oct. 21. The producer behind rhythm and blues stars including Aaliyah and Ginuwine paid a visit to the Lower East Side boutique devoted to 1990s style.

NEW YORK — Most shoppers visit Procell, a tidy boutique on the Lower East Side that specializes in vintage 1990s fashion, in pursuit of nostalgic, age-softened eye candy, even though some weren’t alive when Red Hot Chili Peppers tour shirts and Erykah Badu promo tees were screen-printed.

But Timbaland is not the average customer. As a renowned music producer, rapper and collaborator with Aaliyah, Jay-Z and Missy Elliott, he had an all-access pass to the cultural renaissance reflected in the store’s neatly hung racks.

When he showed up at the store on a chilly Thursday evening, it wasn’t just to shop. With a backdrop of era-appropriate dance hall and shelves freighted with “South Park” dad hats, Polo-branded basketballs and yellow Sony cassette players, Timbaland offered a running commentary on past creative partners and far-flung musical inspirations.

“This represents the weed smokers,” he said, after spotting a shirt for Cypress Hill’s 1993 “Black Sunday” tour on one of the racks for $300. A 1994 tee showing Korn, the nu-metal outfit with byzantine haircuts, was $150 and conjured recollection: “That tour bus was wild, like, wow.”

Timbaland, 46, has a malevolent stalactite of a beard and, with his muscled frame vacuum-sealed in a pewter gray spandex ensemble, looked like he had just finished throwing kettlebells at the moon. He cackled at a shirt promoting Eddie Murphy’s 1995 horror-comedy, “A Vampire in Brooklyn.”

“This is my movie,” he said. “He walked into church and said, ‘Goddamn!’ and started smoking.”

Timbaland, whose legal name is Timothy Mosley, grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and now splits time between Miami and Los Angeles. He was on a one-day spin through Manhattan late last year, and his itinerary included a stop at Spotify to preview new music and dinner at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen. Considering his notoriety, the convoy was nimble: his girlfriend Michelle Dennis and a linebacker-looking man in a Tennessee Titans hat who was his driver and bodyguard.

Timbaland said he had lived in New York for six years during the “era of drug dealers and extortionists,” but felt the city had changed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Not only did they knock down the buildings, they messed up the vibe,” he said.

While Timbaland is associated with an older generation of entertainers, he remains relevant as both a musician and a personality. Following a downswing of weight gain and OxyContin abuse, he has re-emerged as an in-demand producer.

Recent credits include Sam Smith’s emotive “Pray” and collaborations with the rapper Ski Mask the Slump God. Most notably, he was a producer of four songs on Justin Timberlake’s new album, “Man of the Woods,” including the singles “Filthy” and “Say Something.”

“I try to find all the youth,” Timbaland said. “They crazy, but I love it. I’m not 21, so I’m like, ‘God, they got so much energy.’ I stay in shape so I can keep up with them.”

Timbaland rose to prominence producing for 1990s R&B stars including Aaliyah and Ginuwine, and forays into hip-hop and pop cemented his legacy as a key architect of mainstream music over the last 20 years. More ringmaster than wordsmith, he released three studio albums as part of the duo Timbaland & Magoo, and three more as a solo artist, most recently in 2009.

Even today, Timbaland’s sonic signatures — stuttering percussion, menacing minor-key synths and roboticized ad-libs — have aged elegantly. He discovered his trademark Middle Eastern inflections while exploring record shops in London.

“I heard the music and the singing and I was like, ‘You hear that vibrato?’” he said. “The melodies touched my soul. It’s not meant to be understood language-wise, but it’s what you feel.”

He divulged another influence after unearthing a $300 shirt for Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 “Pretty Hate Machine” album.

“His sound was so unique and so different,” he said of Trent Reznor, the band’s frontman and an industrial rock producer. “Besides me and Pharrell, he was the guy to watch. Now, because of computers, you can manipulate so many different kinds of sounds. Back then, you had to really work to do it, and Trent was that dude.”

After nearly an hour of meandering down memory lane, and a quick spin through a Nick Atkins art show in another area of the boutique, Timbaland got down to business. He settled on a shirt for Jodeci’s 1993’s “Diary of a Mad Band” album, which had personal significance. Jodeci, a platinum-selling R&B group, had mentored him when he was in his early 20s, while he was part of a collective known as Swing Mob.

“These things just aren’t out there,” said Brian Procell, the shop’s 34-year-old owner. “That Jodeci shirt is $300, right? But if you gave your assistant $10,000 and said, ‘Get it for me tomorrow’? It doesn’t work like that.”

As a parting gift, Procell offered Timbaland a rare Aaliyah shirt. Her singles “Try Again” and “Are You That Somebody?” both from movie soundtracks from the late 1990s, were among the singer’s highest-charting records before her death in a 2001 plane crash.

“I want to frame it in my studio,” Timbaland said. “Because, guess what, my sound is not out there. It’s just showing how tasteful my sound is. That’s what it means to me. I was part of this era.”

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