All-conquering hip-hop group talks charity projects and TV shows
Having started life as Kangol-rocking rappers signed to a label run by a former NWA MC, before transforming into Tron-lookalike cyber-house pop artistes, the Black Eyed Peas are unlikely contenders for the biggest-selling band in the world. But they are, so just deal with it. Over the last five years, the BEPs have soundtracked literally every wedding reception, awards ceremony and ritual disembowelling in the world, and with latest single ‘Don’t Stop the Party’ still doing the business in the charts, expect them to be ruling the airwaves for some years yet.
You all have your various personal educational outreach programmes – App operating a library in the Philippines, Will sponsoring a scholarship programme – is it important to have practical projects? Will.i.am: ‘It’s the “do” era.’ App: ‘Yeah! I was given the opportunity as a kid from a third-world country: I was adopted and brought to the US, where I was able to pursue my dreams. And that’s why it’s important to me to do the same thing, to give the same opportunity that was given to me. I lived in a province called Sapang Bato, and some of those kids will never see a computer. And now I have the power to provide that, why not? Because you never know what’s gonna happen, I might find the next Black Eyed Peas out there! Or I might find the next genius codewriter or something. You never know what an opportunity could do. Otherwise they’ll just be running around, farming again.’
You’ve taken a lot of stick in the past for your change in musical direction from the days when you were signed to Eazy E’s Ruthless Records. Do you still consider yourself a hip hop group? W: ‘Yeah, that’s what hip hop is always doing. Hip hop is NWA, but it’s also Kid ’N Play. It’s Technotronic, but also the Jungle Brothers. It’s Run DMC and Beastie Boys. So Black Eyed Peas is hip hop. We’re today’s Afrika Bambaata that takes electro, or dance music and runs it with bass to make hip hop songs out of ’em, like today’s “Pump Up the Jam”.’
Does it annoy you that criticism tends to focus on your fondness for party-centric lyrics? W: ‘Our first big hit was “Joints & Jam”, and at that time that was the style of party music that we would go to, that was a dance song. “Request & Line”, “Hey Mama”… It’s always been party tunes, it’s just the party changed. Since 2005, when we released “Monkey Business”, to 2008, those three years were the most radical change in pop culture as a whole. Facebook came into our lives, YouTube exploded. That 20-year-old listening to us in 2007 – in 2005 they were only like 17, they weren’t really going out. So when they were finally going out – “I make my own decisions, I got a car, I got a job” – it was a different lifestyle. Different things entered culture, and we were right there with them, riding that wave.’ Taboo: ‘And the way we celebrate, because people always say, “What happened to the positive, socially conscious side?” We’re socially conscious, in that we bring the uplifting and celebrate feeling good.’
Will, you’ve been involved in both American Idol and the US version of The X Factor: do you think TV talent shows deserve their reputation for churning out templated pop stars, or do they democratise the pop game? W: ‘That’s just the record industry. I don’t see American Idol as a talent show. I see it as a glorifed A&R farm on TV, looking for a specific thing, and hopefully we can get it. And that’s someone who can sing songs that other people wrote. So in that case, it’s a pretty good TV show. Because that’s what happens in the record industry, and whoever thought of that is a genius, because it didn’t come from the music industry. But it is a specific type of talent show – it isn’t looking for songwriters or pianists, American Idol isn’t for everybody.’