Standing in line at 6am in a non-descript coffee shop just off Hollywood and Vine, a 30-something businessman in a crisp white shirt with an iPod in his pocket turns to me, “Need to get that coffee huh?” he asks, looking way too happy before sunrise.
“Nah, a chocolate-chip muffin actually,” I manage from behind dark shades.
“You heading to work?”
Too many questions this early, “I’m heading out to Vegas.”
“Ah. For work or pleasure?” the man asks with a little smirk.
“I’m interviewing Will.i.am,” I offer thinking his next question will be, “who?”
“I love the Black Eyed Peas! I have their music on my iPod. Hey can I come with you?”
With a 4-pack of Red Bull, a chocolate-chip muffin and a box of Shermans, I, too, plug in my iPod loaded with BEP music as I head North on the I-15 to meet with the man behind and, in front of, the Black Eyed Peas.
Because it’s Will’s vision both technically and creatively that put BEP on the map. This summer BEP was in the living room of every home with a living room during ESPN’s promotional campaign for the NBA playoffs (and finals) with their single Let’s Get It Started. He also, anticipating a new kind of future between gaming and music making, lent his talents to The Urbz: Sims In The City game, which includes an iTunes download card for BEP unreleased tracks.
Ron Fair, president of A&M and co-executive producer of BEP’s newest, Elephunk, is quick to point out how his co-exec producer sets new standards in keeping his music, eyes front. “Will is a guy who started out as a breakdancer and a writer of rhymes for Eazy-E. He came from the streets but along the way he developed an incredible tool box of skills starting with an MPC and making beats and moving from there to sequencing music to mastering Pro Tools and continuing to develop himself as an artist at the same time,” says Fair.
“He takes all these different areas puts them all together and operates as kind of a one-man band. He makes records instinctively and on top of it BEP functions with a live band, where other guys use canned beats. He starts with a beat that he makes with gear but then translates it into a live framework, which is really unusual. That’s why people like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams look up to him. Because what he’s doing with live music-mixing it with the beats is really the forward movement of hip-hop and pop and how they blend. So when you have a guy who’s as potent behind the scenes as he is in front… it’s a great combination.”
After wrapping up a photo shoot that proved as entertaining to watch as BEP’s show, Will.i.am joins me poolside at The Palms. We settle into a private cabana with the afternoon Vegas sun splashing in and, with recorder on, Will opens up on engineering, producing, the new Black Eyed Peas’ CD Monkey Business (release date: 2/05) and just how bright the future looks ahead.
EQ: Chris Lord-Alge said that when he worked with you he really respected you because as a producer and an engineer, “Will saw the finish line and I helped him get there. He heard in his head the way he wanted it, and all his comments were just, which I respect.” How do you feel the role of the producer has changed?
Will.i.am: I think the role of the producer’s the same as it ever was. There are just different tools to execute your thoughts and ideas. The tools have made it a little bit easier to articulate your thoughts, made it a little bit more user-friendly to those that are aspiring producers to bring forth the things they have in their heads. I remember recording and editing on two-inch tape. But now it’s totally different; we can do so many things, it’s limitless now.
How easily did you make the transition from analog into the digital world?
Dave Pensado said [imitates Pensado], “Hey, Will, you can do really good with this Pro Tools stuff, you should give it a shot. Go meet with Rhett Lawrence, he will teach you all the things you need to know about Pro Tools.” So I went to meet Rhett. He showed me a couple of tricks. I would call them to troubleshoot. They were really, really helpful.
You’ve got a studio in your house in LA. Dish on the goodies?
Pro Tools: I’ve got the Digi 002, the Control 24, the M-box. Then, I have some vintage analog gear like a Clavi, Moog, Hammond organ, drum set.
And no going back from Pro Tools?
I don’t program on a sequencer anymore. I do it all on Pro Tools. For me, it’s the now and the future. I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring; all I know is that right now, the way I produce music, I wouldn’t want to change it, because I see it on Pro Tools. I see the way it forms. I see the grid, I sequence on that, it gets played there and edited there and mixed there. I used to use the Akai MPC; I do everything on Pro Tools now. It wasn’t designed to be a sequencer, but I sequence on that and program on that. So I get my drums right, or the combination of my stock sounds that I created and a live kit, and I manipulate it to make my program.
When you go into your studio what comes first?
The beat. I have a live kit, but instead of playing the whole kit or sampling a hi-hat, I just play hi-hat for three minutes. Then I’ll go play the snare for three minutes; then I’ll program the kick. That’s what makes hip-hop, hip-hop—the focus the drum machine gives each drum without the bleed. So why don’t I interpret what a drum machine does live, take out everything else and just play the hi-hat?
Then, I will treat the drums the same way I would treat vocals. The way you would do a vocal and ad-lib a vocal, I have a drummer come in and ad-lib my drum program and put the fills and the crashes in.
Same way with horns. I try not to let the horns play at the same time—saxes go first, trumpets second. So I treat everything like a vocal.
A bass line comes second, or the guitar. It all depends on what the driving force of the beat is. Sometimes I’ll just get a hi-hat and a guitar riff and then I’ll build around that. Or sometimes just the beat and then the guitar riff, or sometimes when it’s just me in the studio, it’s the beat and the bass line, and then I play the keys or Hammond or Clavinet over it.
I work best with guitarists. I’m fascinated by the guitar. I don’t want to learn how to play it because I like the art form of collaboration, somebody else’s interpretation of what’s in my head and the journey of trying to get there, communicating and dictating to the guitarist what it is that I’m thinking, or interpreting what’s coming from the guitarist.
What tips would you have for someone in the deep end of Pro Tools possibilities?
Well, I would like those people to keep this in mind: this equipment is becoming more and more affordable, so you’re going to get a lot of young guys that are going to do all these crazy tricks. The one thing that technology can’t mimic is that natural raw magic. Capturing that is worth more than any crazy trick and plug-in that you could put on a vocal. You can do all the editing tricks in the world, but natural magic is natural magic, and capturing that is priceless.
You went from analog tape machines, to your laptop. Now, you’re recording on your bus, you’re recording on the road…
Yeah, we recorded on a plane, at the Louvre in France. We recorded on the Bullet Train, the fastest train in the world, in Japan. Pro Tools has made it to where we’re like a newlywed couple with music and you’re just screwing anywhere: “hey, let’s go do it in the bushes? Let’s do it on the bus?” So it’s the same enthusiasm with music. “Why don’t we go sneak over there and record in the Notre Dame?” So I got the Pro Tools in my backpack, with a little mic, I got my headphones, and I record. But I think the biggest thing that’s going to happen in the future is mobile technology.
It’s distribution of music. I could make something on my laptop and straight from my laptop it could get to somebody’s phone. You don’t even have to go to a freakin’ master plant anymore. Straight from the artist, artist to consumer—no middleman. Any minute now a phone company is going to see that vision and take advantage of it. It’s going to be out of the UK, Germany, Japan. It’ll probably be, like, Australia, since nine out of ten people have phones in Australia. It isn’t going to be a record company.
It’s interesting to think that distribution of music will probably change how it’s produced.
Well, I can’t wait until they make speakers that tap into your nerves, to where you could actually feel bass frequencies instead of hearing them. I can’t wait until instead of knobs and faders you have three-dimensional objects that you manipulate to get the sound that you wish. If I wanted a big bass sound I’ll just move the sphere rounder. [Moves his hands in the air.] If I want it louder I’ll move it closer to me, or position it lower until it resonates out. Or if I want a distorted guitar, I’ll manipulate the sphere to more of a spike. I wish you could EQ shapes that would represent sound and frequency.
And outside of this new record, in a philosophical sense, what are you looking forward to?
Keeping it. First, the inspiration was to get it. “Oh gosh, I can’t wait to do this, I can’t wait to do that.” And now we’ve done a whole lot of things, some things that we dreamed of and some things we never dreamed of, and now that we’ve achieved these things, there are other things I want to achieve. But now the motivation and the driving force is keeping it. Momentum and longevity and at the same time being enlightened by other people’s process of how they keep it or get it.
Especially now that there are no rules anymore. There are no rules on who sings good, there are no rules on who is the hot producer. All that crap is forced and just bullshit.
But what I do is no different than what somebody reading the magazine could do. I’m no better than nobody else. I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best keyboard player, and I’m definitely not the best producer. But it’s all interpretation. I believe my interpretation and that strong belief that somebody else will believe it as well, and appreciate my interpretation of music. That’s all it is, perspective and interpretation.