“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.”
Behind The Front–Black Eyed Peas (1998)
Bridging the Gap–Black Eyed Peas (2000)
“Jimmy Iovine (Interscope Records label head) called me to his office. He sits me down in a meeting and says, ‘I need you to turn in a Score.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And he’s like, “You need to turn in a Score…the first Fugees album sold less than your first record, and look at what they did with The Score and how successful they became.” And I was like, ‘Hmmm…’ That’s when we did Bridging the Gap. The title means just that…We are bridging the gap of music. Here’s where we are and here’s where we are going. We need to build a bridge to get to the next phase.
One of my favorite moments from that record is ‘Weekends’ (feat. Esthero). I remember when I played that song for De La Soul and they went crazy. And we worked on a song with Mos Def called ‘On My Own.’ Before that, I wrote the chord progressions for the chorus on ‘Umi Says.’ I was in the studio just writing some chords and Mos was like, ‘Yo, can I use this?’ After that I was like, ‘Yo, Mos…can you jump on this Black Eyed Peas record? Let’s do a swap.’ I also remember working with DJ Premier on ‘BEP Empire.’ I thought, ‘Wow…I’m working with Premier.’ Because I was a big Gang Starr fan. And then when we did the video for that record we were going back to the original concept of the group—to take hip-hop to places it has never been. So we shot the video like it was an infomercial. We were selling hip-hop to people who may not understand what the fuck it is [laughs]. You have to pay attention to our movement. Don’t critique us if you wasn’t there from the beginning.”
Elephunk–The Black Eyed Peas (2003)
“It was Dante Santiago who introduced us to Fergie. He had known Fergie since they were 15. So the same dude responsible for getting me my first record deal is now introducing me to Fergie, which led to her joining our group. Elephunk was already done before we met her. So we let Fergie get on some of those tracks. When you hear her on the beginning of ‘Let’s Get It Started’ that song was already done; we just added Fergie at the start of the track. Fergie became a friend to the group. She became part of the family. She would go out with us. We just fell in love with her friendship. Before she even joined the group, Fergie was just the cool girl in our crew. She was with us at the club and in the studio. I would ask her, ‘Hey, you want to hop on this hook?’ But the album that we really started collaborating together on as a group with Fergie was Monkey Business.
The success of ‘Where Is The Love?’ changed our lives. We recorded Elephunk in 2001. Then 9-11 happened. Literally, the day after 9-11 is when our tour started. We were touring all over America. We went to New York and everybody was afraid, but we decided not to cancel the tour because we wanted to go out and bring relief to the public. So when we finished the tour on November 18, on the 20th I was recording in the studio all day. My writing partner Printz Board was like, ‘Yo, let’s go to the club.’ But I asked him, ‘Yo, you got one more in you? You never know what we will come up with.’ That one more song turned out to be ‘Where Is The Love?’
We didn’t know that ‘Where Is The Love’ would change our lives because when I turned it in to the record company they said it wasn’t a hit. I turned in ‘Let’s Get It Started’ and they said it wasn’t a hit. I turned in all of our songs in 2001 of September and Interscope said none of those songs wasn’t a hit. So we recorded more songs in 2002. Now they are telling me that ‘Hey Mama’ wasn’t a hit. And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ We were afraid we were going to get dropped from the label. I was making more money from a Dr. Pepper commercial I did than being in the Peas!
So I told Jimmy Iovine that he could keep the money and focus on the Peas. And Jimmy was like, ‘Well, let me hear the music.’ And I’m like, ‘You haven’t heard our new music???’ We found out that the reason Jimmy hadn’t heard it was because Steve Stoute was the guy that was our A&R. And Steve didn’t let Jimmy hear any of our songs. After that, I told Jimmy, ‘I don’t want Steve Stout to be a part of our project anymore.’ Steve Stoute didn’t understand where we were coming from. Steve could only understand hip-hop one way.
We had to change the dynamics of our relationship with Jimmy Iovine. We made it to where I would play something for [our collaborator/producer] Ron Fair and then we would give Jimmy the dopest songs. I played Jimmy all this music, and being a stand-up dude, he focused on the Peas. By the time ‘Where Is The Love?’ came out, we started getting a different look. We were playing to bigger crowds. [‘Where Is The Love?’ would go on to make the top-10 of the Billboard singles chart, pushing the Peas’ Elephunk to its highest album sales at that point, eventually moving over 8 million copies worldwide.) You can always turn a bad into a good. ‘Where Is The Love?’ is a song that represents me and my crew. We didn’t know Fergie when we wrote that song, but it helped establish our friendship.”
“Ordinary People”–John Legend (2005)
“Ordinary People” was supposed to be for the Black Eyed Peas. But it didn’t sound right when we did it. ‘Where Is The Love?’ had become a huge hit. ‘Let’s Get It Started’ had become a hit. So now I have to go in the studio and compete with those songs. So that was ‘Ordinary People.’ We went into the studio saying, ‘Let’s make a big song.’ I was surprised how big it became for John Legend. It defined his career.
I knew John when he was [billed] as John Stephens. We made an underground side project called Must B 21. We did a song together called ‘Swing By My Way.’ That was the first time he performed on a record. I had a song with MC Lyte and KRS-One. That was the beginning of me working as a brand. Coors beer put that album out. I own all the masters, which is unheard of. I went to Coors and I told them, ‘I want to do a soundtrack for your beer. You can use it for marketing.’ They gave me loot and I paid all of the artists really well.”
Monkey Business–The Black Eyed Peas (2005)
“After Elephunk, we knew our next album Monkey Business was going to be huge. It took us to another place. When we released Bridging the Gap we were successful only in Australia, London and New Zealand. So we already knew the possibilities of his being successful worldwide because of our success abroad. Monkey Business opened us across the globe. The crazy part was a song like ‘My Humps’ also became [a hit in the ‘hood]. And that’s unfortunate. The ‘hood caught up with the Black Eyed Peas because of a song called ‘My Humps’ and not ‘Where Is The Love?’ What does that say about the ‘hood? Is that something to be proud of? I’m from the ‘hood. And that’s the reason the ‘hood is the ‘hood. People rep the streets and are not cleaning up the streets. They are not bringing opportunities to the streets. Therefore, songs that are successful in the ‘hood usually have nothing to do with uplifting the culture.
By this time, the Black Eyed Peas were a global group. When we performed in front of 1.2 million people in a show in Brazil—this was a Black Eyed Peas show. I told everybody, ‘This is my future. I’m going to live in this country for the rest of my life. I’m going to be in Brazil.’ It’s a representation of where I want to be. I’m onstage with my friends in front of a million plus people! Think about it. Our passion for music attracted that many people. They are coming to our show to hang out with us. That’s incredible.”
“I Love My Bitch”–Busta Rhymes (2006)
“This song happened because of the BET Music Awards. I was coming off the success of ‘Ordinary People,’ but BET didn’t acknowledge me as the co-producer and writer of the song. That hurt my feelings. How the hell am I not being acknowledged as a songwriter? John Legend and me had the same manager so again, how did ‘Ordinary People’ win an award and I’m not acknowledged?’ I called Stephen Hill flipping like, ‘What the hell?’ Then I realized it was nobody’s fault but my own. Instead of crying like a bitch I thought, ‘Well, let me fix that.’ Obviously, the universe was telling me something. So I fixed it. I went up to Jimmy Iovine and told him that people don’t know that I am a producer. People just think I am the guy in the Black Eyed Peas.
So I set out on a new strategy. I wanted to know what 10 years later looked like for me. What is the 33-year-old version of me telling me, right now? I have to make these moves so the older version of me is in a healthy place. So I branched out with my music. Before I only gave beats to the Black Eyed Peas and some of my friends like John Legend. I wasn’t producing anybody. So fnow we are going to do Busta Rhymes’ ‘I Love My Bitch.’ Busta didn’t even know I did beats like that. Nobody knew. So I made it my mission to make tracks for other artists.”
Timeless–Sergio Mendes (2006)
“It was not difficult to work with Sergio Mendes. I love Bossa Nova; I love samba. My musical library is vast. I have a crazy musical vocabulary. So if someone told me to do a bluegrass record I could probably do that. One thing I can’t do is classical music [laughs]. I’m not ready for that. I know my limitations. But I can do a hybrid of sounds and that’s what the record with Sergio Mendes was all about. It was like my favorite A Tribe Called Quest records…the whole concept of hip-hop and jazz. Why not work with a Sergio Mendes who has been sampled by a lot of hip-hop artists?
Being in the studio with Sergio Mendes was like being in a studio with a friend. Most people that are great musicians like Sergio are the friendliest people. Music humbles great artists. They are great because they are open-minded. They are great because they keep expanding and growing. Like I said, Brazil is a place I want live in the rest of life in. So I already had a lot of those song ideas for [Timeless] in my head.”
The Dutchess–Fergie (2006)
“When we first put Fergie in the group we were already working on her solo project. Her solo project was finished by the time we were doing Elephunk. We would come into the studio and work on Fergie’s album. She was already in a group called Wild Orchid and now she was going solo, so we recorded five songs together.
While we were out on tour for Monkey Business we were finishing The Dutchess. That was always the plan. And it was great because Fergie was such a strong vocalist. She made it easy. When you listen to The Duchess it’s all about styles. ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Fergalicious’ sound nothing alike. It’s all music, man. Music is the territory. There are a lot of different styles of music. It’s not called rap, It’s not called pop, it’s not called rock, and it’s not called country…it’s called music. I do all different variations of music.”
“Compton”–The Game (2006)
“I met the Game on the red carpet of an awards show. He was like, ‘I need to fuck with you Will.i.am.’ So I did my research on Game. I wanted to know what got him going. So when I did that I was like, ‘Okay…I get it. Game really respects Eazy E.’ I recorded with Eazy. I knew Eazy, so he was someone I was familiar with. I remember on his album 5150 Eazy had this thing where he said, ‘Compton! Compton!’ So I picked up the 5150 record and I sampled that ‘Compton, Compton’ part. I channeled Eazy’s spirit with the line, ‘It’s the home of America’s gangsta rap, the place of danger/Gangsta boogie, gangsta boogie/Where the cops is crooked, and them bitches is killin’ and them niggaz hold it down like black guerillas.’ I pictured Eazy saying it in his voice.
I wanted to make a song where aggression met melody. Just the point of being proud from a place like Compton, even though it’s not a place to be proud of. But you are proud that you survived. That’s what I wanted to get across on ‘Compton’. What is the theme song for survival? But I told Dante that I didn’t know if I liked it because it was a dark song. It was too dark and it was going to be out there in the universe. I didn’t want that coming from my mind. But Dante was like, ‘Will, don’t worry about that. Ain’t nothing wrong with dark music.’ He was right. The Game killed that song.”
Hip Hop Is Dead sessions (“Hip-Hop is Dead” and “Can’t Forget About You” feat. Chrisette Michele, 2006)
“At this time, I was working with Michael Jackson. I met Nas because I was also working with Kelis. And Nas was like, ‘Yo, I want to do a song with Mike.’ I told him that I would be with Mike next week and I would ask him. So I mentioned it to Mike and he was interested in working with Nas! At the same time, I told Nas, ‘Hey, I love your music. Is there a way I can contribute to your project?’ And Nas was like, ‘Cool.’
I went in the studio with Nas after the Peas came back from Australia. To me late 90s hip-hop was very redundant. A lot of the music that was coming out from ’97 to 2005 was all the same shit. Everybody was following Biggie and the Neptunes. But when you go back to 1986 to 1994 there was always new shit. There were different styles and variations. You had NWA and then later Black Moon and Souls of Mischief, and X-Clan. Those are all different styles of hip-hop all at once. But after that era, it was the same shit. So I had an idea for a song called ‘Hip-Hop Is Dead.’ I was like, ‘Nas, I got this song called ‘Hip-Hop Is Dead.’ And he loved the concept. That’s when Nas told me, ‘Yo, I’m going to change my album title to Hip-Hop Is Dead.’ I couldn’t believe it. We did another song (with Chrisette Michele entitled ‘Can’t Forget About You’), which was basically about that period of hip-hop when rappers were not afraid to be different.”
Songs About Girls–Will.i.am (2007)
“I learned a lot while making this album. About what to do and what not to do. Songs About Girls was my first true solo project. The other solo albums I recorded were for brands. I did one for Levis and the other for Coors. The inspiration behind Songs About Girls was that I broke up with my girlfriend of 10 years. So I needed to communicate to her how sorry I was for the way I acted in our relationship. She didn’t want to talk to me on the phone, so I wanted to talk to her through my songs.”
Thriller 25 sessions–Michael Jackson (2008)
“I was working with Mike for two years before the Thriller anniversary album even came up. The first time I met him I was really nervous. But he’s so open and charismatic, and lighthearted and bighearted that he made me really comfortable. It was crazy how much music knowledge he had. He had a big heart, but he was very fragile. He was emotional, so vulnerable. He had been taken advantage of by so many people in the past, but he managed to stay very wise in the industry. I learned a lot from him. For the Thriller 25 album we remixed ‘The Girl Is Mine’ (‘The Girl Is Mine 2008’) and ‘P.Y.T.’ (‘Pretty Young Thing 2008). Do you know how crazy it was to work on songs from such a big album like Thriller? That’s the biggest album of all time!
The first time I met Michael face to face was in Ireland. He asked me about my name. He was like, ‘So, the name I AM, do you know what that means? It’s a very powerful name.’ We would talk about how powerful the name Michael was from Michelangelo to Michael Jordan. We just became real friends. He would call me on my birthday, father’s day. I would call him on his birthday and even Christmas. He didn’t like recording in LA anymore, so he recorded at my house, which was outside of LA.
Michael’s people wanted to pay for my plane ticket to Ireland and asked me how much money I wanted. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want any money. And I’ll pay for my own plane ticket.’ I didn’t want to be one of those producers that took advantage of Michael Jackson and his money. I love music and he loved music, so if the music that we made ever comes out we can figure out how everyone’s compensated later. I still have Mike’s vocals. There will never be another Michael Jackson. He’s the greatest, man.”
The E.N.D.–The Black Eyed Peas (2009)
“Like I said, I’ve learned a lot through my time [in the music business]. From being signed to Ruthless Records to Eazy E passing away with AIDS in 1995 to the Black Eyed Peas playing colleges. Bridging The Gap and Behind The Front both sold over 500,000 copies. We went from that to selling 11 million records with Elephunk. So, I realized that there’s no way that The E.N.D. is going to be as successful if there are no record stores. At the time, The E.N.D. was being released Tower Records closed down and Virgin Mega Store closed down. So how are we going to compete with no record store? My theory was, hey, let’s make music for life, not for the radio. That’s where a song like ‘I Gotta Feeling’ comes from.
We started to make songs that your favorite football team could come out to. The type of songs you will hear at your graduation or when you are about to get married; songs that you can play all around the world, not just New York or London. We were making celebration music…world music. The tour for The E.N.D. was our biggest one yet. We became a stadium act. I remember opening for U2 and looking at that massive crowd. This is when we were still playing arenas as headliners. U2 was doing stadiums.
I went to our booking agent and asked, ‘How do I get the Black Eyed Peas to do our own stadium tour?’ I said the same thing when we were opening up for Justin Timberlake. I told Cara Lewis, who was our agent, ‘I want to compete against Justin Timberlake.’ She told us, ‘Well, if you do that the promoters that book you will never book you again.’ But I didn’t want the group to stay in the same place we were in. I wanted to jump. So we switched our agent. Now we are playing stadiums. To me The E.N.D. represents that progression.
Usher’s “OMG’ started in France. This is when the Black Eyed Peas was flying everywhere. We would fly to London, do a TV show at 8 a.m. and do our show at 9 at night and then I would go out and DJ at an after party at 1 in the morning and wake up at 7 in the morning to fly to another city. It was draining. Early morning, show, after party, fly out…over and over again. So we are doing this TV show in France and we get into ‘I Got A Feeling.’ The whole crowd is crazy and they start chanting “Oh, Oh, Oh, Whoa Oh, Oh, Oh, Whoa Oh…’ And I’m like, what the fuck?’
So I go to the show producer and say, ‘Excuse me sir. Can you give me a copy of this show? I told him that I wanted to make a song out of the end of our performance when the crowd started chanting. He just couldn’t understand what I was trying to do. So they send it to me and I’m in New York. And then I go into the studio and I got it! [Will hums out the groove to ‘OMG.’] I felt that moment. I knew there was a jewel in that one minute [of the show chant]. We didn’t take two days to make ‘OMG.’ It took 30 minutes.
I remember when I told Usher’s team that I had a big international hit for him. At first, they were apprehensive like, ‘Well, maybe we can release ‘OMG’ in the UK first and release the real single in America.” But I was like, ‘No…don’t do that! You either trust me or you don’t. If it bombs, I’ll take the blame.’ This goes back to psychology. I told Usher’s people, ‘It’s a big song, but do you want it?’ Even if it has a hard time cracking the charts in America you will have a hit everywhere else in the world. And this is what artists don’t understand. Usher will be able to travel the planet and perform. And that’s what happened with ‘OMG.’”
The Beginning–The Black Eyed Peas (2010)
“I got the idea to use [‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’] for ‘The Time (Dirty Bill)’ from DJing at clubs. What culture is telling you right now is that everything is upside down. Everything is changing. We have a congressman showing his private parts on Twitter. The world is crazy. You have musicians signed to record companies that are not even making money. But you have a DJ who plays other people’s records, that puts the music out for free on the Internet, and they are making $4 million a year just DJing. What the fuck is going on? So I started DJing on the side. I would do a Black Eyed Peas show for 50-80,000 people and then I would go play a club for 200 people. I’m going to get $1- $2 million to play at a Black Eyed Peas show and then DJ for free, That’s when I found out songs like ‘Time Of My Life’ worked when I would play at these clubs. People loved to sing to that song. It made them feel good. So I wanted to re-work that for a Peas’ song.
It took us a month to make The Beginning. We were on tour and we were putting together songs in the hotel room. This album is filled with hotel beats and dressing room beats. Everything is psychological whether you are a magician or writing a no. 1 song for the radio. You have to make people believe the unbelievable. You are anticipating how someone is going to react to a song based on people’s environment and state of mind. That’s what the Black Eyed Peas have been able to do. Fergie sold 6 million copies; Monkey Business sold 12 million copies; Elephunk sold 11 million copies. And The Beginning is doing its thing.
But it’s the way people react to the music. That’s what really matters. Again, the critics don’t get it. Yes, I’m a wordsmith. Yes I can come up with crazy choruses off the cuff. Yes I can make cool beats. Yes I don’t rely on ghostwriters. But most of the people who judge me are a product of ghostwriters. They are afraid to take chances. The Black Eyed Peas are not.”