Black Eyed Peas' reaches past the beat

May 5, 2006


The Black Eyed Peas trace their roots back to 1989, when bandleader (Will Adams) and apl (Allen Pineda) first started making hip-hop tracks together. The third member of the group, Taboo (Jaime Gomez), came on board later, in time for the release of the 1998 debut "Behind the Front."

On that album and on 2000's "Bridging the Gap," the Los Angeles trio (plus their first backing singer, Kim Hill) could be heard as a more frivolous version of Philadelphia's musically inventive and lyrically conscious Roots. But the Peas began to move in an even poppier direction after recruiting a new singer, Fergie (Stacy Ferguson, a former member of the teen pop band Wild Orchid), and their commercial breakthrough came with the 2003 album "Elephunk" and the hits "Where Is the Love?" and "Let's Get Retarded" (retitled "Let's Get It Started" when it became an NBA theme song).

Next up was 2005's "Monkey Business," the love-it-or-hate-it smash hit "My Humps" -- and full-fledged superstardom.

As a result, is now not only the driving force behind one of the biggest pop bands in the world, he's one of the most sought-after producers in hip-hop or R&B. We spoke by phone from Los Angeles about all of his many musical endeavors, and his almost absurdly ambitious plans for the future.

Q. Let's start with your production work. You were at the helm for the Brazilian artist Sergio Mendes' recent album "Timeless." How did you end up working with him?

A. He collaborated with us on "Elephunk"; he played piano on the song "Sexy," which is an interpretation of an Antonio Carlos Jobim song. Sergio is great, and we were really on the same plane. He's hip.

Q. You're also working with Justin Timberlake on his next solo album.

A. Yeah, I'm doing three or four songs on Timberlake's record, and most all of Macy [Gray]'s new record; she's on my label, and this is the one that I think will really do it for her. I just did Busta Rhymes' new single; five songs on Nas' album; four songs for Snoop; a song for Too Short and five songs for Kelis. Oh, and five songs for the new John Legend!

Q. You're working with live bands on a lot of these records, and the Black Eyed Peas often record with live instruments. But now a lot of artists are turning to you for the more electronic sound of "My Humps," which you almost seem to dismiss.

A. It's funny, because that "My Humps" thing was rare -- once in a blue moon. It's a beat with a synthesizer. Here I am arranging horns for Earth, Wind and Fire and miking guitar cabinets for Carlos Santana, and here comes [sings the song's backing track], and that one got people going, "Hey, give me a beat!" Which is cool -- I see the desire and the temptation to have those types of beats. Those are hard to come by.

Q. How did you come up with "My Humps"?

A. I was doing horns for Earth, Wind and Fire, and in the middle of the session, in 10 minutes, I just did that beat -- boom, boom, boom -- and I breathed on the mike. [Laughs] Played a little synth on it, and that's it. Now I can pay my kids' college tuition for life!

Q. Because of the Peas' success in the pop world, do you think your abilities as a hip-hop and R&B producer get short shrift?

A. The funny thing is that I'll run into DJ Premiere or these dudes that we all look up to -- the De La Souls, the Tribe Called Quests -- and they all congratulate me and appreciate how far we took hip-hop. They don't see it as not being hip-hop; they see it as, "Yo, you guys are keeping it alive." The fan always has a different perspective than the architects.

Q. The knock on the Peas is that they're "too pop" or "too soft."

A. Yeah, and people were like, "They can't rap." But this sort of thing has been going on since Miles Davis created jazz fusion. Innovators always get it. Now, I'm not saying we're creating jazz fusion; don't get me wrong! But you think outside the box, and you realize the sky is not the limit. ...

Q. In many ways the Peas are a completely different group today than when you started. But I've read several interviews where you insist it's been a natural evolution.

A. There's a lyric that we have in our album "Behind the Front," in a song called "A8." The song starts by somebody asking, "Yo, son, whatcha think about those Peas?" Then we imitated a gangster dude: "Yo, I don't know, them dudes just be onstage dancin' and stuff -- they on some old Las Vegas bull----!" Then the rap kicks in, and I'm like:

"Yo, my man, I got a plan to do it all / I got a plan that none of y'all ever talked about / 'Cause underground n----- don't be thinking / I'm going kinda nino like Lincoln / How can you make moves when you're always strapped under / I plan to read the scriptures, tell you more about the thunder / I wonder what really makes the world go round / Not thugs, 'cause thugs go 'round the brain of a brother's down." That verse says everything: We're going to go and go under the surface. I want to see what makes thunder happen!

Q. Do you think it's easier to make a point when you're maintaining a sense of humor?

A. That's one thing I hated, when people made me feel belittled because they were talking about something I didn't know. I learned that from a lot of teachers in school who'd make kids feel stupid. What kind of enthusiasm does that give you to go and learn when they're making you feel dumb? Rappers like Kanye West and Common give you a message, but they don't make you feel dumb. There's nothing common about Common. His knowledge, his approach -- he's a rare gem. It's all presentation and how you flip it.

I think our album titles tell the story. "Behind the Front" symbolized where we were: We weren't the ones in the front, but we were doing some major planning in the background. "Bridging the Gap" was the plan: "We see a big gap here, and I wanna bridge it." I wanna build a bridge for the people on the desert to come and get water at the lake. After that bridge was made: "Elephunk." We rode our elephants over the bridge! Then when we realized all the politics and how much the elephant weighed, we were like, "Yo, man, this business is kind of wack. This is like 'Monkey Business.' " The whole thing was a documentary of our travels.

Q. You've gotten some crap about how aggressively the Peas have sold this album, the commercials ...

A. Which is stupid, because our videos are commercials, and the product that you're selling through that commercial is your album, and the brand that owns that product is a record company. The only difference is that the only place they play that commercial is on MTV, and MTV gets paid all the money from the ads. At some point, you've just gotta cover your ears and not listen to the he-said/she-said and the commentaries about the moves you make when you have to make those moves to survive in a business that's sinking. It has nothing to do with getting paid -- it's about reaching new listeners through this new form.

Q. It's a weird time in the music industry when you get better results having your music heard in advertising than on the radio.

A. It's not a messed-up situation, it's just about new media outlets. I have a lot of ideas about that! When you go get your money at the bank and there's a TV screen right there on the ATM, at some point somebody is going to infiltrate that and make a deal to play their music while people are taking their money out. When you're pumping gas and watching the numbers go by, it takes 10 minutes; you might as well listen to a song!

Q. So this is all part your world domination plan?

A. Dude, you know it!

Q. When do you get down to making a new Black Eyed Peas album?

A. The only thing we can do is wait to put out a new record in 2008. Fergie has to put out a solo record. I have to do a solo record. Then I think we have to reinvent what Black Eyed Peas is. I don't know if that's a film or redefining what a musical is. ... I think that's what we have to do to survive in a world of new content, gadgets, kids with PSPs, cell phones, MP3s and text-messaging. We have to redefine with it all means.



Billing each installment as "an independent critical analysis," the "Under Review" series of DVDs tackle some of rock's most influential artists, offering insight into their careers via interviews with critics and authors, along with rare performance footage. Among the earlier subjects: the Who, Small Faces, the Smiths, Syd Barrett, Kate Bush and Queen. Now come two new DVDs focusing on the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart.

Clocking in at 85 minutes, the Velvets disc includes interviews with drummer Maureen Tucker and bassist Doug Yule, as well as Billy Name, a regular at Andy Warhol's Factory. Lou Reed and John Cale are obviously missed, but writers Robert Christgau and Clinton Heylin have more honest and interesting things to say anyway, and the performance footage and live and studio recordings of songs such as "Sunday Morning," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Heroin" and "Sweet Jane" make the disc a treat.

Once again, the main man is missing in the Captain Beefheart DVD, but there are plenty of conversations with members of his old Magic Band and other groups. Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes is on hand to offer critical perspectives, along with several other writers, though it's a shame the filmmakers didn't tap Rolling Stone veterans Langdon Winner or Ed Ward, who wrote some of the best pieces about this most complicated of artists.

On the other hand, if you think you know more than the DVDs' experts, both come with bonus-feature quizzes to really test your knowledge of musical arcana.