In the distant future, when the world has been reduced to smouldering dystopian plains, and curious extra-terrestrial life finds itself methodically dredging the decimated earth for past relics, you can count on any Black Eyed Peas record – like a cultural time capsule – to reflect exactly where humanity was at, at that exact time. Or just before.
You see, throughout the last three decades, the salient pioneers have managed to maintain their status as one of the biggest boundary-pushing groups in the world – restlessly warping, reinventing and redefining their addictive olio of pop, hip-hop, dance and conscious rap. The three founding members – will.i.am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap – harbour a preternatural foresight that has consistently positioned them teetering all-knowingly at the precipice of the next zeitgeist, right before it topples over us. Music industry oracles, if you will.
And their celestial music has soundtracked just about everything in our teen-to-adult lives. Their breakthrough album Elephunk in 2003 – with longtime BEP singer Fergie – saw their commercial success hit household name status with its breezy, thumping exuberance, tied off with politically-charged track “Where Is The Love?” (originally written in response to 9/11, but showcasing its heartbreakingly timeless relevance when rebooted in 2016 aimed at America’s gun violence crisis, and then again in an emotional live performance with Ariana Grande following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing). Monkey Business in 2005 spurred on a hedonistic R&B era with the revved-up energy of “Pump It” and accessible house party fodder of “My Humps”. But world domination became irrefutable with 2009’s party behemoth The E.N.D., which saw the group focus on our call for dance floor hedonism, with global hits “I Gotta Feeling”, “Boom Boom Pow” and “Meet Me Halfway”. After a years-long hiatus, their ambitious next project, 2018’s Masters of the Sun, pivoted to a new era with tech-driven ideas; an intersection of an album meets a socially-conscious, augmented-reality comic book, and saw BEP trade their club prowess for a return to gritty politically-charged jazz flows in hit track “Street Livin’.” It’s a song, that no doubt – akin to “Where Is the Love?” – with its incensed lyricism and poignant indictment of the criminal justice system and police brutality, has bearing with the current Black Lives Matter protests and riots.
The forward-thinking vanguards have become an irrepressible industry institution – propelling, shaping and spearheading whatever comes next. This summer sees the group drop their highly-anticipated eighth studio album Translation – their first pop album in 10 years – this time turning their focus to a Latin-infused sound with global rhythms and internet-breaking features of Shakira, J Balvin, Nicky Jam, Latin-trap star Ozuna and more.
But 2020 has been a year of uncertainty. No one could have foreseen a global pandemic, or its economic repercussions, or the unjust death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis triggering global uprising and instilling a collective conscience in people all over the world. In the palm of my hand, my phone and social media feeds are dosing out overwhelming measures of panic, brutality, and polarity. And when I catch up with the trio over the phone from LA, they are impassioned, and hope releasing such triumphant sounds at such a time will help their fans – explaining in a Twitter statement: “… with all the negativity, panic, pain, stress and confusion…[we] think some sunshine and joy can lift people’s spirits…”
Their blueprint for success, like the thundering course of natural waters, are impossible to replicate. But one thing is clear, Black Eyed Peas are going nowhere. I caught up with will.i.am, Taboo and Apl.de.ap and talked about Black Lives Matter, surviving cancer, and crafting their album in lockdown…
Rollacoaster: Hello guys, how’s it going at this crazy time?
will.i.am: [doing an impression of a posh British accent] Hello, this is Will. I’m doing a very rubbish UK accent.
[Laughter] Rollacoaster: Not rubbish at all! I’m very impressed. How has lockdown been for you guys?
Taboo: I’m in Los Angeles. I live in Pasadena so I’ve just been locked down at my home, with my family, and periodically I’ve been able to social distance at the studio with Apl and Will.
will.i.am: Yeah, it feels like COVID-19 was a year ago with the rise of this new thing that we’re dealing with right now. There are soldiers on the street, our city is on fire, businesses are destroyed.
Apl.de.ap: There’s people fighting, you know? The actual looters and then people who have to protest and protect buildings at the same time. It’s really confusing.
Rollacoaster: You guys started out with conscious hip-hop, pouring socially astute messages into your music. I mean, “Where Is The Love?” came out 17 years ago, covering police brutality and systemic racism. With everything that’s going on right now, is it kind of devastating to feel like nothing has changed in 17 years?
will.i.am: Nothing has changed for the black person in America. Nothing has changed in 100 years. I mean, there’s been extreme progress with Jim Crow being undone, but the systematic racism that still exists in our justice system, nothing has changed. And you have this crippling and manipulating of lives, wickedness being implemented, lives being taken, broadcasted on our phones for us to see it happen. And at the same time, people haven’t been working. And if you ain’t working, you haven’t been making money; if you’re not making money you’re struggling, not eating. It’s tough, so it’s compound on compound. It’s the system giving people a triple middle finger.
Rollacoaster: And because of social media, fans are noticing the artists that are staying silent now. Do you think that musicians have a moral responsibility to use their platform to be vocal?
Apl.de.ap: You have to be mindful of how you react, it can’t come from a angry place. You have to really take your time and get the right messaging.
Taboo: And then you have folks like Colin Kaepernick, where unfortunately it didn’t go well for him. He got banned from the NFL for making a statement saying that it’s not right what’s happening in our community.
will.i.am: It’s not to say that every single musician has to have a moral responsibility, that’s not fair. But we do need to celebrate those musicians who do do that. Bob Marley was a godsend. The Clash. Marvin Gaye. I think fans are intelligent enough to know that entertainment is entertainment. You know, not every artist has to be Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but the ones that do step out… we need to do a better job celebrating those people.
Rollacoaster: Looking at your journey so far, your art goes through these massive changes. With your new record, it feels like we’re at a different iteration of party music now. How do you decide what’s next?
will.i.am: It’s future casting. Like when we did electro music that was like, “this is where it’s going, let’s get on this, let’s start collaborating, let’s research, let’s network like we did for The E.N.D.” We saw what was happening in the underground in 2007. So we collaborated with the Boys Noizes and the David Guettas. And with the conscious jazz-influenced hip-hop, we were just students and fans of music – of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. We travelled around the world and we were like, wait a second, Macy Gray has a whole bunch of demographics that come to our show and Elephunk was born. And then “Where Is The Love?” was written in response to 9/11. And Monkey Business was an extension of our global travels and selling out venues that got us to arena status. Then after The E.N.D., we took a little break. Taboo fought and beat cancer, and now we’re students again. Then we did Masters of The Sun which is about police brutality and injustice, and we returned to our origins and made jazzy, street-conscious, social activist music. I was just listening to “Street Livin’” right now and I was like, we could put this out right now with everything that’s happening.
Apl.de.ap: “Where Is The Love? (Remix)” too.
Rollacoaster: They’re both super fitting with the current times. And it’s so interesting that you talk about your changing demographics – what’s been your response to this rise of TikTok and user-generated content, with people out there doing different dance challenges to one of your latest singles “Mamacita”?
Taboo: Our core audience are the Peabodies, who are the fanbase that we’ve had throughout the years because they rocked with us no matter what era. When were were doing the jazzy hip-hop, then it was more underground backpack-type audiences, and then when we transitioned to Elephunk there was a broader audience. And now with TikTok, you tap into a younger demographic, and it’s cool because we come from the dance world, so we see folks doing their own versions of the “Mamacita” challenge. It’s cool to see where people can take it and how inspired they are by our music and our frequency.
will.i.am: TikTok is like hyper-activity, it’s really not about your video, it’s about the content you give them for them to make their own visuals, which is a whole new world to engage. You set off activities and you see people compete. It’s like when you’re at the concert and you point the mic at the audience and they say “where is the love”, or you sing “I gotta feeling”, mic to the crowd, they go “woo hoo” in unison. That’s TikTok. It’s call and response. Everybody’s engaged. Doing a different version of the same thing.
Rollacoaster: You guys keep talking about this “future casting” – can you explain what you mean a little bit?
will.i.am: There’s a lack of different types of content makers and participants in culture. There are some people that are like, this is happening right now, let’s hop on it. That’s the cookie cutter. They see a shape, and they duplicate the shape after the shape already happened. And then there’s folks that are like, I wonder what’s coming next? Do you think people are going to like this, or do you think they’re going to like the combination of this style and that? We’re those type of folks.
And we’ve seen you implement this “future casting” every step of the way. The multi-faceted format of Masters Of The Sun was so unique, looking into augmented reality and incorporating music in that way. Do you think we’re at the end of putting out straight-forward music albums?
will.i.am: I think we’re at the end of a lot of things. We have this one good friend of ours, who is a conspiracist with a big heart, and he said something to us like two or three years ago. We were all at dinner, and he was like “soak it all in fellas, and enjoy this moment because these are the good old days.” And he was absolutely one trillion percent correct. Why? Because we can’t gather and go to a restaurant together right now, who knows if that experience will ever be the way that it was before, where all twenty people were at a table, eating dinner, freely breathing, laughing out loud.
Rollacoaster: It’s so true. The future is a bit of a question mark right now. And how do you think it’s all going to affect the future of music?
will.i.am: Music will be needed. There’s going to be new types of sounds, new types of social gatherings around music. A whole new underground is being born right now. Every genre from jazz to blues to swing to hip-hop, it all was underground, and something’s being invented right now. Something’s happening right now.
Taboo: And with ways of artists performing, we had the opportunity to perform with some technology, kind of like robots, with automatic cameras that were filming us. It’s about respecting the times but also finding creative ways to perform. It’s about being creative and pushing the envelope of performances and how we can still create content for the world to get a glimpse of us, and making an effort to give you something other than just a Zoom performance.
Apl.de.ap: I feel like we’re going to slowly immerse into performing again. Being creative with like drive-in shows. It’s going to look funny and there will be separation, but it’s just about testing it out, you know?
Rollacoaster: How do you guys feel about releasing a new album in the midst of all of this?
will.i.am: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It’s like a double-edged sword because you want to be celebratory about an album or a project but then you’re realising what’s happening in real time, and it just hurts. It hurts because people are bringing up “Where Is The Love?” every time something bad happens. Our song that we created on the hills of 9/11 is always brought up and we love that song and it’s a song to provide therapy for folks that need it.
Rollacoaster: Why is your new album called Translation? And how does it mark a new era of Black Eyed Peas?
will.i.am: Translation is empathy, understanding, collaboration. To translate from one culture, and one language into something somebody else can understand, it takes patience, it takes tolerance, it takes educating. Translation is the bridge. And Black Eyed Peas, we bridge the gap, from this culture to that culture. We were the bridge between electronic music and pop. We were the bridge between what was going on in America to the rest of the world with “Where Is The Love?” Now we’re bridging what’s happening in the Latin community to the rest of the world.
Rollacoaster: Knowing your track record, following this album there’s going to be an explosion of Latin music…
will.i.am: The Latin explosion has already happened. It’s just to the rest of the world with English-speaking countries, they don’t yet know the power of the Latin world. Like, Olly Murs is big in the UK, but not around the world.
Rollacoaster: That’s so true…
will.i.am: There’s such a disconnect between what happens in the Spanish-speaking countries versus what happens in the English world. The English world is super isolated, like you could be big in freaking Atlanta but nobody knows about you in Ottawa, Canada. Like J Balvin is big in Columbia and also big in all of the Spanish-speaking countries. Olly Murs is big in the UK, but not big in all English-speaking countries. You could be big in freaking Wales, but they don’t know you in Hawaii. What do you mean you mean like a whale in the ocean? No Wales bro- I see whales all the time!
Rollacoaster: [Laughter] Yes, that disconnect needs to be bridged. And ultimately, what do you want the impact of the album to be?
will.i.am: We designed it as a playlist because when you’re making a playlist you want to make sure every song is a gem. Everybody’s like, I’ve got my singles, here’s a bunch of bullshit songs to surround them with. There are very few albums that have like jam-packed gems, like [Michael Jackson’s] Off The Wall, Thriller, [Stevie Wonder’s] Songs In The Key of Life, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
Rollacoaster: That makes sense; every album should really be full of hits. And what were the biggest challenges of tweaking and honing this record in lockdown?
Taboo: During the pandemic when it all went down, fortunately Will was in the studio, making sure that everything sonically went together, and transitioned from one song to another. He stayed focused on the project while everybody had to be isolated, and the studio was his home. It was a labour of love and time and effort to put together this whole project.
will.i.am: One time we were frustrated with how the songs were going. Apl was like, “Will, can I be honest with you? You keep saying we’re missing something and I gotta tell you, I know what we’re missing and I hope you don’t get mad. It’s you bro, you’re not focused. You’re doing this tech stuff and all this stuff and that stuff, and when we did Elephunk you were 100% there, and when we did Monkey Business you were 100% there, when we did The E.N.D., even though you were doing your tech stuff you were at least 90% there. But right now, you’re not even 60% there. And you’re frustrated but it’s you that you’re frustrated with, because you’re not there.” I was like shit. You broke me down.
Apl.de.ap: I kept it simple and I said, “Will, we need your all.” That’s it. And not being distracted with a million things. I think that’s what made the album really tight. It’s a playlist to be put on and get the party going. And that’s what we really want to say right now.
Taboo: [Laughs] Will had that Michael Jordan moment where he wanted to go play baseball, and then he went back to basketball. And then started winning championships again.
Black Eyed Peas’ new album Translation is out now via RCA UK.