The Black Eyed Peas practically disappeared after conquering the world in 2009 and following it up with a monster 2011. In that final year before going on hiatus, they played two of their three Number One singles at the Super Bowl halftime show, performed on four different continents, appeared on American Idol and Dancing With the Stars and even released their own video game for Wii and XBox. Though their EDM-tweaked sixth album, the The Beginning, had underperformed, there was no doubt that the Black Eyed Peas were one of the hugest pop groups in America.
"We thought we were gonna come back in a year," explains Will.i.am. "Then the year turned into two years. Then Taboo caught cancer like the flu – and beat it – and three years turned into four years, and four years turned in five years."
Though the three founding members – Will.I.Am, Taboo and Apl.De.Ap – reappeared briefly for 2015 nostalgic mash-up party "Yesterday," this year sees the politically charged single "Street Livin,'" the first single from their ambitious project Masters of the Sun. (Longtime BEP singer Fergie was not involved.) Originally released last year as a 114-page afrofuturist graphic novel via Marvel Comics, there's also a musical component, virtual reality component, and an augmented reality experience featuring voicework from rap Avengers like KRS-One, Rakim, Queen Latifah, Common and more.
Moreover, "Street Livin'" marks a swing from the group's chart-topping cosmopolitan boom-boom-pow into a more formalist, Nineties-style rap with modern flavors. Its lyrics detail systemic racism, police brutality, post-Reaganomics capitalism and more. It mirrors the humanitarian work the Peas have been doing behind the scenes for years: Will's I.Am.Angel Foundation helps Californian kids make it to college and supports robotics teams in Ferguson; the Apl.De.Ap Foundation builds schools in the Phillipines; Taboo has been loudly protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and was given an MTV Video Music Award for his "Stand Up / Stand N Rock #NoDAPL"
Rolling Stone caught up with the Peas, who have returned to traverse the worlds of music, comic books, tech and politics
In 2010, the Black Eyed Peas were a mix of pop, rap, R&B and EDM. "Street Livin'" is a rap song in the way that KRS-One would define a rap song.
Will.i.am: There's no chorus.
What made you want to go that route?
Will.i.am: We're scientists, we know how to make things for every occasion and this is the occasion of "wake up," bombarded by numbskull-ness everyday when we're thumbing through life on our devices, and we need to make sure that we play our part to make sonics that reflect the work that we do in the community.
You guys have been deep into social causes for years. What made you want to put it to music?
Will.i.am: We wrote a whole bunch of songs. …
Apl: We have ... over 100 songs.
Will.i.am: And so, as we were finishing Masters of the Sun ... when we were scoring the worlds, you know, the mood of jazz, soul … that was the mood. And so when we finished "Street Livin'", we're like "Yo. … Play that shit again. Yooo. You feel that shit?"
The record company is like, [mocking voice] "We really want the Black Eyed Peas super big, you know, you guys been gone for so long. We want to make sure we have big explosion with the Black Eyed Peas being back. You know, what I mean by explosion? Will, you guys are big pop group! You got the big pop songs!" … Like, nah nigga, we did that. Nah, this is what we're doing.
It's almost like what you and Apl were doing with Atbann Klann in the early Nineties.
Will.i.am: We kept saying, like "What would our 17-year-old self think of where we're at now?" So we'd try to outdo our 17-year-old self; when we were hungry and we was all about battling and rhyming and dancing and b-boying. ... So we said to ourselves, "We gotta out-do every fuckin' line. It has to be better than the last line."
So now after [we] accomplished all the things you can possibly accomplish in the world of music industry, from Grammys to Super Bowls to World Cups and inaugurations. It's like alright guys, we went to outer space and shit, motherfuckers had space suits on. Chilling on Saturn's rings. I'm like, yo, bro, let's just come back down to Earth. It's kinda crazy down there right now.
Everyone seems to be reading a lot into the fact that Fergie isn't on this song.
Will.i.am: So there's a song that Black Eyed Peas did with De La Soul on Bridging the Gap ("Cali to New York"), it was just me and De La Soul. There's a song that we have ["Gone Going"] … it was just me and Jack Johnson. There's a song called "The Apl Song" where it's just Apl. Ain't none of us on it. So that's the Black Eyed Peas.
Is she still a member of the group?
Apl: Fergie is family.
Will.i.am: Family is family, right? So...
Apl: Yeah, that don't ... never change.
So, you do not care about making a hit record at this moment?
Will.i.am: What's a hit record. though? … After you've made those types of hits … the industry isn't that [anymore]. When we had our hits it wasn't the way it was when Lionel Richie was making his hits. So the downgrading of just what a hit is financially. What is a hit? Now we have to invent.
Apl: The way we were making it felt like going back to Behind the Front. It's that blind faith, but you feel good making it because it's like it's that same excitement again.
Will.i.am: When we were doing those records, the record company, we needed their assistance, we had to go to a studio that that record company paid for. … To do this project to be at our own facilities. In our facilities we have augmented reality guys and virtual reality folks all working on the project at the same time. And then our AI department that's doing all of our next-level voice operating system shits and then our sound stages and our recording studios all in this 60,000 square feet facility.
And you guys own all of this?
Yeah. Three hundred employees.
This is where it gets tricky because the comic book has music, it has an augmented reality component, it has a virtual reality component. Is the music made to stand alone? Is it going to be a "record"?
Will.i.am: I think a "record" is limiting to things that you can accomplish today. Forever, you can always update the app.
It's more than a comic book or an album or an augmented experience. What do you call the entire project?
Will.i.am: Because it's the first … there's no title for it. Imagine it's 1930 and somebody has a recorder and they take a Cadillac and they go down to freakin' New Orleans and somebody's like, "Hey I wanna record you." That person that's playing the blues is like, "What are you fucking talking about? I don't even know what recording is." Oh, I got this contraption, I'm going to record you.
Imagine it's 1918 and Charlie Chaplin, the first time he seen the freakin' moving picture camera. They're used to just theatre, and opera singers are just used to just opera. The idea of movies, what the fuck is that? What the hell is a cinematic close up? What is that? People see the play from the audience, they never do a close-up shot. So new ways of telling stories had to be invented because of the technology. The same now.
This compound sounds very Wonka-esque. What city is it in?
Will.i.am: Our headquarters is in Los Angeles. We have offices here in New York for all of our home stuff ... home automation and intelligence. I.Am+ is like this cross-disciplinary creative factory that does everything from ...
The fashion aspect, the tech aspect, the Venn-diagram of the two.
Will.i.am: So fashion ... let's not go there. Fashion only because we are creating an operating system for wearable things. We're not making freakin' clothes and shit.
Right, you're making wearable tech.
Will.i.am: We're making an operating system for wearable tech. It's like ... an ink company isn't Rolling Stone. We just provide the fucking ink. So ... we're A.I. We're O.S., A.R., V.R ... and in studios; editing, recording, capturing both audio and visual.
You really seem to love the technological revolution that we're going through right now.
Will.i.am: 2018, a whole new industry is about to jump off. New careers, new jobs, new technologies, new ways of expressing yourself. … You're in the house, you run out of soap, you say something like "Abracadabra," fucking genie's in the bottle now. What we thought was fucking crazy with Aladdin that you say something like "Abracadabra, shasazaram!" and some motherfuckin' shit pops off and able to bring things to your home. That was myth 20 years ago. That's real now! Some wand where Harry Potter said "Shazoomazips!" We're not too far from being able to have some type of device – you say something and out comes a result. And, that's exciting! That is the most disruptive, craziest place for creative people to actually create in.
When you look at tech – like Siri or Bitcoin – do you think of it as an inevitability for society or more of an entrepreneurial opportunity?
The thing that excited me about Siri is the backing thing that allows Siri to happen, and that's TTS [text-to-speech] natural language processing. Whatever the interface is, whatever the experience is, that backing interface ... that code, that algorithm ... that's what excites me. The potential of natural language understanding. Conversational computing. That's, like, of course, that's what everybody's gonna be doing. Is it gonna be Siri? Is it gonna be Alexa? Is it gonna be something else? That's not what excites me. What excites me is the tech to make that happen.
It's almost like the way the Black Eyed Peas were on top of dance music before everyone else.
Taboo: I mean, he's always like that. I mean, even with the app. He told us about this years ago because he gets an insight to what's coming.
Will.i.am: In the beginning of [the video for 2010's] "Imma Be Rocking That Body," I was on artificial intelligence.
The video, if I would've watched that in 2010, I would've thought that was satirical.
Will.i.am: No, that was always real, bro. Yeah, it's 'cause I knew that A.I. was coming.
Taboo: No, he's serious, dude.
Will.i.am: There's other things that's coming, like ... you know, the printing of protein. If you have a liver problem, kidney problem ... they're gonna print you new organs in the next 20 years. … Impossible Burgers are delicious, bro ... it ain't meat. Where we're going, we've never been here before.
Is there in anything in music happening right now that gets you excited in the same way, where you can hear it and say, "Oh, this is clearly paving a way for the future?"
Will.i.am: No. What's paving the way for the future of music ... is augmented reality and virtual reality. … Right now in 2018, you're like, what's the future of music? Not music! There's always gonna be like, people are gonna push the boundaries on like, formats or song structure. What if I told you that today's popular music structure, no matter if it's underground hip-hop or underground rock, or pop, or whatever, it all is based on the limitations that record and vinyl had. … "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad" was a song they sung over and over and over and over and over again ... there was no time limit.
That's why they thought they couldn't put rap on a record.
Right, so here we are in 2018 and TV is still TV. … A TV [show's] either 30 minutes long or 60 minutes long and the commercials that surround it are either 30 seconds long or 60 seconds long. So when you come to virtual reality and augmented reality, there are no boundaries yet. So that means for the art-form, you're freer as artists to think outside of these boundaries that the technology put around us.
Records and vinyl. How long is a song? 3 minutes and 30 seconds? Oh, what a coinkydink, it just so happens that a song rotates in 33 degrees on a vinyl at 100 BPM or 98 BPM a minute. ... We already know the math. So. What is the future of music as far as how it progresses? I would bet that it's going to be virtual reality, augmented reality 'cause that's the true place for dreamers to dream up new shit. You can't dream the way it is because everyone's so conditioned to yesterday that even if you do abstract jazz, it's still the version of their version of doing it.
If Michael Jackson was alive and Thriller just happened … and virtual reality was out. He would be doing virtual reality right now. Think about it. He did "Thriller" and "Billie Jean." …
When there was hardly any music videos.
And not many people had MTV. There are more virtual reality headsets in the world than there were people with MTV cable subscriptions. You know what I mean? … It's an amazing time for somebody to try to do "Thriller." The hit for VR is gonna come.