LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - “As individuals, we’re misfits,” says Fergie, the sultry female singer of the Black Eyed Peas. “Together, we’re like one big misfit. People are always questioning who the hell we are.”
It’s the day after the group’s May 6 performance, in futuristic garb, on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Chilling out in a small, sparsely furnished room at Center Staging in Burbank, California, she and fellow members of the multiracial group — Will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap — resemble a live version of a United Colors of Benetton ad.
Fergie is dressed in black-and-white capri-length leggings set off by a hot pink shirt and a sharp pair of black ankle-strapped heels from her self-named shoe line. Sitting next to her on the sofa is apl.de.ap in a lemon V-neck T-shirt, white-framed shades and his signature Mohawk. Opting for blue-green glasses, Taboo sports a black leather vest, an eye-catching cross on a silver chain and several impressive arm tattoos.
With his close-cropped hair hidden under a red plaid cap, Will.i.am sits astride a black chair, wearing a striped shirt and gray jeans tucked into black combat boots. He’s pondering the question Fergie just answered: Who are the Black Eyed Peas?
“When something is different, authentically unique, it’s always going to be questioned,” the Peas’ mastermind says. “By default, people aren’t going to understand us because there aren’t that many like us.”
After the multiplatinum pop success of 2003’s “Elephunk” and then 2005’s “Monkey Business,” the Black Eyed Peas stood accused by fans of selling out: blunting its cutting-edge, live-band hip-hop in favor of lightweight pop crossover fare. As the June 9 release date for their fifth studio album, “The E.N.D.” (will.i.am music/Interscope), approaches, some of the same criticism has cropped up. But what’s not in question is the exploding popularity of “Boom Boom Pow” — the first No. 1 single for this band of creative misfits.
Rooted in club beats and the 808 old-school kick sound, the energetic track is a runaway top 40 hit, and has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
The concept for “The E.N.D.,” an acronym for “The Energy Never Dies,” doesn’t stray far from the Peas’ basic formula, Will.i.am says. “We’ve always had a smorgasbord of sounds including dance,” he notes, pointing to songs like “Be Free” from “Behind the Front,” “Weekends” (on “Bridging the Gap”) and “My Humps” (“Monkey Business”). This time around, Will.i.am became inspired while in Australia filming his first major movie role, as the mutant John Wraith in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” During downtime away from the set, he soaked up the electro dance and house club vibes in Sydney.
“The youth in those clubs are pumping a whole different thing,” Will.i.am says. “It felt like hip-hop 1989, 1990, 1992. But they’re not rapping. It’s all beats. I came back just buzzing.”
With Taboo, apl.de.ap and several band members in tow, Will.i.am flew to London, where Fergie was working on her first major film role, in “Nine.” Setting up shop at the same studio where they recorded “Monkey Business,” the Peas began working on “The E.N.D.”
“There’s always a sense of Andy Warhol whenever we make a Black Eyed Peas album,” Fergie says. “It’s an artistic factory with several rooms going at the same time. We don’t just sit down. We jump from room to room, all of us adding ideas to the recipe. If you get burned out on one idea or your ears get tired, you walk to another room and step into a whole fresh creative zone for more ideas.”
Enlisted to help draft beats were MSTRKRFT, David Guetta, Boys Noize, Keith Harris and Paper Boy. The result is a nonstop party album fusing rock, soul, hip-hop, reggae and dub with thumping beats, tempo twists and turns, and memorable hooks. Beyond “Boom Boom Pow,” there’s the upcoming second single, “I Gotta Feeling,” which apl.de.ap describes as a “college anthem for people looking forward to escaping life’s pressures by going out and having a ball.”
Picking up on the same escape theme is “Out of My Head.” Channeling R&B veteran Millie Jackson, a slurring Fergie opens with three little words, “I’m so tipsy” — which she was while recording the song. “This song reminds me of the fun character of ‘My Humps.’ I told Will we have to get some wine if I’m going to do this correctly. I’m not going to front on this song. So we all got a little tipsy.”
“Now Generation,” another notable track in the 16-song set, is a nod to the young generation who helped move President Barack Obama into the White House — galvanized, in part, by Will.i.am’s viral “Yes We Can” video. Powered by a guitar and bass intro that morphs into fist-pumping rock ‘n’ roll, the song captures the emotion of being part of that generation. “This is the first time in history where we have a powerful new youth generation connected by technology, not by religion or government. So they want things now,” Will.i.am says.
The “E.N.D.” goal, he adds, is to make people move and escape. “If you had to pick one genre that’s migrating at the highest frequency, it would be the dance world,” Will.i.am says. “That’s where music as a culture really lives. It’s a genre making music for the sake of music.”
He added that, with people downloading individual songs, “the concept of the album doesn’t exist anymore. So this will be like a never-ending record; it will just keep going like the title says. It’s still important to be successful in the remaining business we do have, but you also want to position yourself so you’re not playing catch-up or riding someone else’s bandwagon.”
Come fall, the Grammy Award-winning group will start its first official worldwide arena tour in Asia and Japan. One of the stops along that route is a recently announced September 24 performance as part of Guinness’ worldwide celebration of its 250th anniversary. Then it’s off to Australia before returning to the United States for five shows on U2’s stadium tour. After a break, the Peas will launch the North America leg of its tour, then visit the United Kingdom and Europe.
The Black Eyed Peas got started when best friends Will.i.am (“the only black dude in a Mexican neighborhood”) and apl.de.ap — a non-English-speaking adoptee from the Philippines — began break-dancing and freestyling together. In 1991 the teens signed to Eazy E’s Ruthless Records as part of the band Atban Klann. But their vision of hip-hop and dance didn’t mesh with that of the gangsta label. So the pair left and formed the Peas after meeting Chicano Taboo (whose “musical heroes were A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul”) while battling at a local club.
After signing with Interscope, the trio released its critically acclaimed debut album, “Behind the Front,” in 1998. Two years later came “Bridging the Gap” and the Macy Gray-assisted single “Request Line.” Also featured on the album was the group’s female singer Kim Hill, who left the group in 2000.
Three years later the Peas notched their first major breakthrough in 2003 with third album “Elephunk” and the anthem “Where Is the Love?” featuring Justin Timberlake. Providing backup accompaniment on the album was former Wild Orchid member Stacie “Fergie” Ferguson, who later became the fourth Black Eyed Pea. The foursome scored its biggest single at the time — the No. 3 Hot 100 hit “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” — when fourth album “Monkey Business” was released in 2005.
Touring almost nonstop stateside and overseas between 2004 and 2007, the group spun off another hit (“My Humps”) and picked up two Grammys for best rap performance by a duo or group (“Let’s Get It Started” and “Don’t Phunk With My Heart”). In between, Fergie released her 2006 multiplatinum solo debut, “The Dutchess,” and got married. In addition to producing Fergie’s debut, Will.i.am collaborated on projects by Sergio Mendes, Nelly Furtado and others as well as releasing his solo album. During that time, Taboo and apl.de.ap began recording their own solo albums, among other projects.
But now everyone is back in the pod and ready to keep going for as long as they can. Playfully ribbing Fergie about how long she’ll be performing “Boom Boom Pow,” Taboo hobbles around the room and jokes, “We’ll be touring on the moon while she’s singing, ‘I’m so 2000 and 80 ... all my kids come on.’”
As the room erupts in laughter, Will.i.am has a final word for the naysayers: “What we’ve gone through to get here has been a great journey — some unique-ass s—t. We haven’t changed conceptually from what the Peas were and wanted to be: mass appeal, not segregation. And we’ve stayed true to that.”
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters