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As a third of Black Eyed Peas, rapper, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Will.I.Am has helped craft a body of work that combines the accessibility and commercial savvy of pop-rap with the adventurous, eclectic spirit of underground hip-hop. Behind The Front, the group's critically acclaimed 1998 debut, helped win Black Eyed Peas a loyal following, which it's cultivated through famously energetic live performances and stints on a series of prominent tours, including the Warped Tour and the Smokin' Grooves Tour. Last year's terrific Bridging The Gap more than fulfilled Behind The Front's abundant promise, while Lost Change, the third entry in BBE's much-acclaimed Beat Generation series, proves Will.I.Am to be a formidable solo artist. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with the hip-hop renaissance man about performing live, his stint with Ruthless Records, and the joys and frustrations of being on a major label.
The Onion: How did you become involved with the Beat Generation series?
Will.I.Am: I was doing the score for a Levi's Internet film, and I thought the work that I was doing was really good. I wanted more people to hear it, so I hooked up with BBE. The next thing you know, I was in London and BBE was interested, so we put it out. It happened really simply. I just showed them my shit, and they liked it, so we put it out.
O: I've read that when Pete Rock heard Jay Dee's entry in the series (Welcome 2 Detroit), he went back and added several more songs to his own album in the series (Petestrumentals). Did you feel like you were competing in any sense with the series' other producers?
WIA: No, because mine was already a score, so the purpose of doing it was more or less, "Wow, I really like the shit I did, and I really want to put it out." I did some songs afterwards that are not in the movie, just to put some uniqueness to it, but otherwise it was the score.
O: How did you end up scoring an Internet film?
WIA: Well, it was a film that we were already in. It came about really weird. I asked the guy who was doing the film if I could score it, and he just said, "Yeah." There was no politics behind it. Normally in the record industry, there's lawyers and contracts and all that dumb shit, but there was none of it on this one. It was done the way it should be done.
O: Is scoring other people's work something you're interested in doing in the future?
WIA: No, but the whole BBE connection is something that I want to be a part of. I'm definitely up for doing more shit with BBE.
O: Black Eyed Peas has always enjoyed a diverse fan base. What about the group appeals to such a wide range of people?
WIA: I think it's because we all listen to different types of shit, and our audience is a reflection of that. I think the audience is a reflection of the sort of music we like.
O: Early in your career, you were signed to Ruthless Records. How did that come about?
WIA: I was freestyling at a club event that David Faustino from Married With Children was hosting, and there were some Ruthless Records representatives there. They signed me just off my freestyling. Once again, there were no contracts, no demo, no lawyers, or any of that dumb shit. I got fucked in the long run, but it started out well.
O: Did it seem at all strange that Ruthless was interested in you? You obviously don't fit the profile of their average artist.
WIA: Eazy-E was one of those cats that wanted to have dope MCs around him to write his shit, or to just be there. He just wanted to be surrounded by dope shit. Now, I'm not saying that I was one of his dope-shit selections, but he wasn't closed-minded, that guy.
O: What was your relationship with him like?
WIA: It was cool. He thought that we were weird. He was like, "Why do
you guys dress like that? You can freestyle your ass off." Shit like that.
O: One of the many ways Black Eyed Peas differs from other rap groups is in its use of live instruments. What led you to begin performing with a band?
WIA: Mainly for musicianship. I got tired of DATs and records. I wanted to allow for a certain level of human mistakes in the music. I like the idea of having a different vibe every night, you know, as to what the bass player might be feeling that night, or whatever. We just wanted live shit.
O: You recorded quite a bit of music for Ruthless. What did that work sound like?
WIA: It was a little bit more experimental, very young. We were trying a lot of different shit, but the backbone and the subject matter that we dealt with has remained the same. In the early days, we were a lot more experimental, basically, because we didn't know what the fuck we were doing.
O: You've performed on a lot of different tours. Which has been your favorite?
WIA: The Warped Tour, and probably Big Day Out in Australia. I just like the diversity of it, the fact that it's like a traveling circus. It's just the dope shit.
O: Do you approach your performances differently based on the crowd?
WIA: A lot of our show is based on spontaneity and improvisation, so it changes every night, regardless of the crowd. We don't change the core essence of what we do, though. Like, if we're on the Warped Tour, we're not going to get a fuzz pedal or anything. We just keep it the same. It just depends on the people and the energy.
O: As someone who's worked with major labels and independent labels, what are the benefits and disadvantages of each?
WIA: Releasing an album on a major label is like sending a package through Fed Ex. You know that it'll get there, and you know that it'll get there on time. At the same time, people send bombs and shit via Fed Ex, so it can be used for some really fucked-up purposes. On the other hand, releasing an album independently is kind of like sending a package via a private delivery service. It'll reach fewer people, and you don't really know if it'll even get there, but it'll probably reach the right people, which is important.
O: So I take it you want Black Eyed Peas' music to reach the largest possible audience.
WIA: Of course. If you have a vaccine or an antidote that people can benefit from, you're not going to want to keep it to yourself. You're going to want to spread that wisdom or whatever to as many people as you can, so everybody can benefit from it.
O: Even before the World Trade Center attacks, there was a lot of talk about cleaning up hip-hop. How do you think the attack will affect hip-hop? Do you think it'll cause people to re-examine their values?
WIA: Everything affects hip-hop. The question is, how does it affect the money that corporations are going to invest to put out different kinds of hip-hop? Hip-hop may offer negative feedback on the world's problems, but that's just the hip-hop that's being promoted now. There are hip-hop groups in different sectors and different communities that are doing positive shit, but corporations and companies don't want to spend the money on them that it would take to get them out there. When you're a corporation, you're going to stick with what works. That's why every McDonald's is the same. The music industry is the same fucking way, man. You know, they're like, "Fucking MC Knucklehead is blowing up right now! We need a new one!" It's that mentality. But groups like Talib Kweli, us, De La Soul, Jurassic 5, Mystic, hopefully they're going to break down the doors and sell records to the point where corporations can say, "Hey, this sells records, too. We need more of them." The only thing that I'm afraid of is that if we get too big, the labels are going to be like, "Get a fucking Indian guy, and a black guy, and a fucking Pakistani, and make them dance!" That's the only thing that I'm afraid of.
O: Do you feel like people are hungry now for something with more substance?
WIA: Yes and no. Music is music. Beats are beats. People love music. People don't really love poetry; they love music right now. It's the same in hip-hop. You can have a dope-ass beat, and then have somebody talking about testicles. Everybody's still going to like that beat. And then you can take the same beat, and have somebody who's talking about some stuff that we all need to hear. Even though people love music, they're not really checking for poetry, or for the lyrics, like maybe they should. And that's why you have a lot of dumb shit on the radio.