“I started off as a battle rapper. I was battling in parking lots against other MC’s…just freestyling. Then I realized that De La Soul was making real hip-hop songs. The Native Tongues had a huge impact on me. They were my favorite hip-hop crew of all-time. You can hear it on our [first record] on songs like ‘Fallin’ Up’ and ‘Joints & Jams.’ I loved ‘Buddy’ by De La. I loved ‘Saturdays,’ too. When that song came out I was like, ‘What?!!!’ What a great fucking song. The rhymes, the beat, the chorus, the turn around…it was just great…that and ‘Ring, Ring, Ring.’ Really, that whole De La Soul album (1991’s De La Soul Is Dead) changed my life. It showed me another way of hip-hop songwriting. Now I do a different kind of battling. I went from battling backpack rappers to battling songwriters to battling managers.
Dante Santiago is very important [to the start of the Black Eyed Peas]. He is the guy that in 1992 told David Faustino to have a rap contest and I entered that rap contest. That’s how I got my record deal with Eazy E and Ruthless Records. He was at the same club that night. You have to remember…Dr. Dre had left Eazy and Ice Cube left Eazy, so he had no one else in the camp to ghostwrite. Eazy signed me to Ruthless to be a ghostwriter. I remember what Eazy said to us when we came to the label. ‘You guys are going to be the West Coast version of Digable Planets. No one will ever see you coming.’ It was brilliant. Eazy was great. But he eventually died from AIDS, so we were out of a deal.
Apl.de.ap and Taboo were my friends from the beginning. There was no, ‘Oh, these guys can roll with me in the group.’ Some people choose their friends and some people are blessed to have good friends. And I was blessed that Ap and Taboo were my friends. We started a group because we loved hip-hop. We loved performing. The reason why they looked at the Peas early on as a live act when we were first starting out was because in 1997 hip-hop was dominated by gangsta rap. It was thugs, thugs, drugs, and more thugs, which was cool because there was some great music that came out at that time. But it was strange to see these same guys claiming that they were thugs living in nice houses and neighborhoods. They did not really live the lifestyle they were rapping about. It’s like, “Your mommy and daddy was together and they both had jobs. So what’s up?” What the fuck are you doing? [laughs] And you are telling me that I’m soft?
The Peas’ theory was let’s play colleges all throughout California from Berkley to San Diego so when these kids graduate they can take us to the world with them. That’s how we got our record deal. We owned colleges. The Black Eyed Peas was a gig act. We made a career out of touring. When we came out onstage it was like, ‘Oh, those are the performing ass niggas.’ It was almost unheard of like, “Oh, you guys can perform live? And you can dance??? This is different.”
There’s one misconception. Kim [Hill] (who sang hooks for the Peas and appeared in videos with the act in the late ‘90s) was never in our group. We always had girls helping us out. Early on, it was Macy Gray, who was down with the team; Kim was down with the team. When we were signed to Ruthless Records in 1992 and I was 11th grade, we had a girl down with us named Dandelion. We always had a girl down with our crew. My whole thing was, Yo, I like rhyming, I like making beats, and I like choruses. So I would write songs that had girls singing on the chorus. Our whole thing was to take hip-hop to places where it’s never been. When I look back on our first album, I am happy with it. I’m happy with our career every step of the way. I learned a lot from that time.”