His schedule is practically as busy as the President's, but at no point does Will.I.Am stop writing songs. If you ask him about a plug-in, he'll write a song on the spot just to show you how the plug-in works. In fact, as Will sits in Black Eyed Peas' L.A. studio, wearing a FireWire cable as a belt and staring at his Apple Cinema Display, it's a wonder he thinks about anything aside from music. He's apt to bound out of his seat and record synths and beats and whatever at any moment. He might even make his visitors — in this case, a Remix editor with zero rapping skills, whatsoever — rap on the spot. His songwriting style is all very quick, and as he well knows, it fosters many opportunities for “magic” in the studio.
Will also has a tendency to play his music quite loud. After playing some tracks from the group's upcoming fourth album, Monkey Business (Interscope, 2005), the room is swimming in the lovely tone of tinnitus. Consternation swiftly comes across his face: “I just heard a high-pitched noise, but it's my ears — now, every song is in that key,” he says with a laugh. “Like, how about we write a song in the key of [sings high-pitched noise] boooooooooo?”
He's deep into the life of being a producer, performer and rapper, with all its benefits and downsides. For Will, it started with his first group, Atban Klann, with MC and break-dancer Apl.de.Ap. Eazy-E signed the duo to his label, Ruthless, but after Eazy's death, Atban's album was shelved and the band dropped. Will and Apl then recruited Taboo, and the trio became Black Eyed Peas, signing to Interscope. They went from playing shows around Los Angeles to releasing Behind the Front in 1998 and treading all over the map. Their music was conscious and edgy and underground but with such well-crafted arrangements — and careful attention to sonic space, musicianship and melody — that it was clear the mass public would soon welcome the band with open arms. With the release of Bridging the Gap in 2000, Black Eyed Peas continued to keep the underground love and balance it with a bit more R&B appeal with help from backing vocalist Kim Hill (“Tell Your Mama Come,” “Hot”) and guest vocalist Esthero (“Weekends”). Some big-name guests — including De La Soul, Les Nubians, Mos Def, Macy Gray and Jurassic 5 — also joined in.
Yet the explosive success of the party-loving Elephunk (A&M, 2003) still came as a shock. From Apple iPod commercials (“Hey Mama”) to giant radio hits with Justin Timberlake (“Where Is the Love?”) to awards-show performances of “Let's Get Retarded” (with its PC-friendly version, “Let's Get It Started”), the group was everywhere — instantly. Black Eyed Peas' secret weapon was its new member, Fergie, a former singer for the TV show Kids' Incorporated and former member of the pop group Wild Orchid. Fergie fit the puzzle just right, and the band's success snowballed.
But to those musicians out there toiling for years to get a sliver of the kind of payoff that Black Eyed Peas finally experienced, it's still a case of, well, be careful what you wish for.
ROAD FOR THE WEARY
After releasing Elephunk, Will claims that Black Eyed Peas did more than 480 shows from June 2003 to early December 2004, sometimes two or three shows a day, thus the new album title, Monkey Business. “The idea with Monkey Business was like organ grinders,” Will says. “You're working out there, and you only get a peanut, and you give all the money made to the monkey owner. There is a good payoff, but you work hard. Last week, we flew from South Africa to L.A. It was a 20-some-hour flight. And before that, we flew from Pittsburgh to Rome to Johannesburg, like, in five days. In Rome, we sat in traffic for, like, four hours, got to the hotel, washed up, went shopping, sat in traffic for two hours, went back, left the hotel to go to the [MTV Europe] awards show [where BEP took home the Best Pop Group award], four more hours of traffic, then went to an after-party for two hours and then left to get on a plane. I sound like a dick to say that it's hard, but it is hard on your body when you are on three hours of sleep.”
What's amazing, knowing BEP's schedule, is that Will (and Apl, who has two songs on Monkey Business) wrote 60 songs for the album during the past year. And Will didn't do it in isolation. “I write better when someone's in the room with me,” he says. “Otherwise, I have no point of direction. When somebody's in the room — they don't even have to sing or play an instrument or rap — I can see what they're gravitating toward, what makes them go, ‘Oh, that's great! I like that!’”
Will started coming up with ideas in January 2004, when he and the group were at the Big Day Out tour in Australia. He took his 15-inch Apple Mac G4 Titanium laptop (which now looks like it's been driven over by a lawn mower and has since been retired), a Digidesign Mbox and Pro Tools, an M-Audio Oxygen8 keyboard and Propellerhead Reason software all over the world. Will uses Reason for synths and programs beats from a sound library he's recorded in Pro Tools. “What I do is come into the studio and mic hi-hat sessions where I just get different hi-hat, percussion, shaker and cymbal patterns,” he says. “And then, all my songs are based off of those sessions. It's like a boring day. So I have a bunch of tse tse tse or tschika tschika tschika and psssss pssss pssss. And then in Pro Tools, I can manipulate them into all kinds of different time signatures.” Once Will has a new library of drum sounds, he's ready to take it on the road with him.
THE TRAVELING ALBUM
While record shopping and performing in Brazil, Will sampled a Beatles-esque fingerpicked guitar melody from Brazilian psych-rock band Os Mutantes' “Vida de Cachorro” for a Monkey Business track called “We Can Change.” When attempting to clear it, Os Mutantes said that the only way that BEP could use it is if the band played on it. The band did just that and mailed the track to the U.S.
On the same trip, Will also bought a Dick Dale CD. Days later, he was on the bullet train from Tokyo to Okinawa sampling “Miserlou.” “I just got bored and wrote the hook in Japan,” Will says. “And then I said, ‘Hey, let me see if I can clear it, 'cause I don't want to work on the song if I can't clear it.’ And [Dale] said, ‘The only way you can clear it is if I play on it.’”
Meanwhile, vocals, guitars and horns were recorded at Metropolis in London while the band was performing at European festivals. And the drum track for the song “Don't Fuck With My Heart” was recorded on the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and Educational Tour Bus while BEP was on tour with N*E*R*D. “Somebody asked me what's the difference between Monkey Business and Elephunk,” Will says. “It's that there was not a lot of fucking-around time.”
THE STARS ARE ALIGNED
There may have been little time between performances to write new music, but Will became faster and more efficient with the time he had, due in part to the Synchro Arts TDM plug-in VocALign. “Don't Fuck With My Heart,” a '60s psychedelic and spy-film-flavored track with a deep BEP bass synth and call-and-response vocals from Fergie, is instantly infectious, the kind of track you could play 10 times in a row. At one point, there's a robotic vocoder effect on Will's voice. “That's me and the sitar,” he says. “When I sung it, I sung it in the same twang that the sitar was playing in, and then I put them together using VocALign.
“Say, for instance, you go do a rap, and it's off beat,” Will explains. “But I liked your voice and the texture of your voice. What do I do? Okay, let me rap it, play it on time, get yours that's off time and VocAlign it to my time.” To demonstrate, Will takes a sample CD with Brazilian beats, samples four bars from the second loop onto a Pro Tools track, copies and pastes the loop and sets the bpm to 100. Then, he leaps up and plays a buzzy rhythm synth part on his Korg Triton followed by a throbbing kick sound. Then, to demonstrate that this white girl can't rap, he asks yours truly to rap “1, 2, 1, 2” over and over to the beat. This one is on beat, so Will puts an Echo Farm effect on the part and then asks for a more complicated rap to the rhythm of Wa wawa wawa wawawaaa wawawaaa. This trips things up a bit, so Will raps the same thing, but better, and lines up the two with VocALign so they're perfect.
“So people who can't rap right, I'm just like, ‘Nah, just say whatever you're going to say! I can make you say it,’” Will explains. “It's helped me out with a lot of shit — drummers, guitarists. Say, for instance, the guitarist's got a problem playing on the one. The rhythm is ducka ducka ducka dun ducka dun, but he's going ducka dun ducka dun; it's like, ‘Just play it.’ And then I'll record myself just hitting the rhythm on this desk [with my knuckles]. I tap out the rhythm and VocAlign his rhythm to my rhythm.”
But Will doesn't skimp on using solid musicians and vocalists; VocALign is just a tool to help move things along. Similarly, to quickly accomplish the dirty, grungy '60s guitar sound on “Don't Fuck With My Heart,” Will miked up a Mesa Boogie amp from a distance, played a Yamaha electric guitar, compressed it and fine-tuned the sound using the Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in.
Another time-saver for Will is the Serato Pitch 'n Time plug-in. “Say, for example, that I have a conga sample, and the way that I got the live dude in [to replay the sample] just sounds like Guitar Center,” he says. “I can't get it to sound like the way that it does on the sample. But the sample is in the key of E. The song is in C. So I Pitch 'n Time it to make it fit.”
ADD IT UP
Although Will is quick in the studio, some songs have a long gestation period, even as long as a year. “I think the longest [on Elephunk] were ‘Where Is the Love’ and ‘It Smells Like Funk,’ because other [people 's] songs will come out, and I'm like, ‘Wow, that's great! We kind of do have a song similar to that one. How about I try that on [our song]?’ So it's always adding to it, just getting inspired by other things. On ‘Smells Like Funk,’ I was listening to some Disney thing, and I liked the baritone men in it, so I was like, ‘Oh, trombones! I want to use trombones! Nobody uses trombones and tubas.’ So we came in and put the trombones and tubas on ‘Smells Like Funk,’ and one day in rehearsal, we came in and [guitarist] George [Pajon Jr.] was like, do do doodododo. And I was like, ‘What is that?’ And he's like, ‘That ain't nothing but a pentatonic blah blah.’ So we would always add to it.”
Another song from the last album, “Let's Get Retarded,” was recorded five times before it was released. “The first ‘Retarded’ was nothing like the ‘Retarded’ we have now,” Will says. “We were married to the first one because of the magic when we recorded it.” The very first version has a gated guitar sound, a lo-fi bluesy guitar melody and a heavy kick. “That was retarded,” Will says. “After we tried it, we were like, ‘Eh, that was kind of gay.’” The second version sounds bassy, bouncy and groovy, but it doesn't have the same power as the commercial version, thanks in part to a last-minute walking bass line. “We were in rehearsal with our bassist [Mike Fratantuno, since replaced by Timothy “Izo” Orindgreff] and guitarist [Pajon]. We were trying to figure out these chords. And [Fratantuno] was trying to find the right note. So he was just going down his frets, and we were like, ‘Hey, what's that?’ And he's like, ‘No, I'm just going …’ And we're like, ‘Loop that!’ So he does, and then we say, ‘Can you resolve that?’ And then we're like, ‘Hey, George, write some chords to that.’ We were just listening to the old version in the car, and we were excited. But then I sang the hook and verse to the fuckup that happened in rehearsal, and that's how the ‘Retarded’ that we have now happened.”
QUICK LIKE LIGHTNING
Although some songs go through various incarnations, BEP also has tracks recorded in a day, such as Elephunk's “Hey Mama.” “That was one of these days,” Will says. “I was showing somebody something in the studio. They were like, ‘Hey, why don't you do a reggae song,’ and I was like, ‘Eh, if I'm going to do a reggae song, I want to fuse bossa nova with the kind of bone structure of dancehall but using bossa nova rhythms.’ And he was like, ‘What do you mean? Bossa nova and reggae don't go together!’ And I said, ‘Actually, they kind of do. It's all Afro rhythms, just a different emphasis on the kick or snare, but they're influenced by the same thing.’ So I was showing him, ‘Look, you can do it just like this.’ And the song came out like that.”
Will is careful not to labor over any one idea. Rather, changes to songs happen organically. “I try to make [a song] quick to avoid me being lost in it, 'cause if I'm lost in it, it's never going to sound good,” he says. “Everything is always going to sound sloppy; everything is always going to sound muddy; everything is always going to sound tinny because I'm in it. I'm not enjoying it. If I'm making a beat and my mind-set is on fixing it, then it's never going to be fixed. It's like cooking fast. You want to eat when it's hot. As soon as you start, ‘Well, no, uh …,’ then it's gonna get cold, and it's not going to taste good. So you make it real quick so you can enjoy it.
“Some people call that demo love,” he adds. “But the thing is, it's not that you're in love with the demo; you're in love with the fact that it sounds like somebody else did it. You become a fan of what you just did.”
It's when Will gets out the microscope and looks at the individual parts painfully close that he loses the opportunity to become a fan of his own ideas. “When I'm aware that I'm making something, then it's never right,” Will says. “If you've spent three days tweaking the same thing, throw it away. That's a bad relationship.”
BRING IN REINFORCEMENTS
“I've had talks with people who say, ‘I don't like that snare sound. Why don't you use [Digidesign] SoundReplacer?’” Will.I.Am says. “But there's something about the ambience of the room. You replace the sound, and you're replacing all that stuff. So I'd just do sound reinforcement. Say a snare sounded like paper — it was flat; it didn't have no pop. I'd just reinforce that snare with another snare on top of it. It takes a long time. You see the waveform, the different peaks, and you [match it with] different snares on a separate track … put it there, put it there, put a little ghost snare here, gain that one lower and put it there.”
MAKING MONKEY BUSINESS
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4 computer w/Cinema Display; Glyph Trip rack hard drive
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Digidesign 888|24 I/O (2), 1622 I/O, Control|24 console, USD Sync
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable; Vestax PMC-06 Pro A mixer
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Digidesign Pro Tools software; Korg Triton Pro X keyboard; Moog Source synth; Novation K-Station keyboard; Roland Juno-6 synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp; Neumann M 147 mic
Monitors, amps, miscellaneous:
Event Project Studio 8 monitors (2); Furman RP8L power conditioner; Hafler Pro 500 amp; UREI 828 loudspeakers