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Inside Will.i.am’s High-Tech Dream Factory

Hanging at the rapper/producer’s Wonka-esque HQ as he and the Black-Eyed Peas talk A.I., their new album and why the trio is “a media company”

Black Eyed Peas, 2018, apl.de.ap, Will.i.am and Taboo

During a visit to Will.i.am's Wonka-esque HQ, the Black-Eyed Peas discuss their new album and how they're making technology smarter.

James Hickey

William “Will.i.am” Adams scrambles to hide a prototype box made for the Black Eyed Peas’ seventh album, Masters of the Sun Vol. 1. An early version of the ambitious, boombox-shaped, augmented-reality-compliant object, he moves it away from the prying eyes of Rolling Stone, stashing it behind the desk of Eddie Axley, the head of his in-house art department.

Located on the second floor of Will’s massive, cross-disciplinary Hollywood compound known as “The Future,” Axley’s workspace also has prototypes for ideas like a speaker shaped like a head: “Bass cabinets in the back of the dome piece,” beams Will. “Why does it have to look like speakers?” There’s a futuristic “cloud turntable” that Will conceived to have artificial intelligence for record collectors to archive vinyl rarities. It’s reminiscent of something between a round alien ziggurat or a staggered set for a Busby Berkley musical circa 3000.

Will, dressed in a poncho-esque gray shirt and some magnetic i.am+ Buttons headphones worn like a necklace, starts setting up an origin story. He says he called his team about making a turntable when Axley interrupts: “No, that’s not how it goes.” Axley says Will called him while watching the Super Bowl with his mom, and then asked him to come down after they were done.

“I came to the studio,” recalls Axley. “Will’s with a frickin’ drill in one hand and all the parts laid out. And Play-Doh in the other hand. He’s like, ‘This is what we’re gonna do, Eddie.'”

The Future is Will’s Wonka-esque idea factory. If Jack White’s Third Man is making whimsical vinyl gobstoppers, the Future is where you develop the tech to make them change colors. His tech company, i.am+, founded in 2013, is increasingly focused on conversational computing, attempting to brainstorm a more humane future where voice assistants work for you instead of just funneling information to companies. His media wing, i.AM.Media, created the Afrofuturist comic book Masters of the Sun with Marvel, complete with augmented-reality components and hopes to turn it into a TV show. And, of course, his group, the Black Eyed Peas — an outfit with three Number One singles, six Grammies and a pop domination streak that culminated in headlining the 2011 Super Bowl halftime show — are returning with their first album in nearly eight years, a futuristic jazz-rap throwback where Public Enemy layering meets Native Tongues rhyming and Boogie Down Productions edutainment.

“The Black Eyed Peas is a media company,” says Will, lowering his voice for a piece of wordplay: “Black I P, for Black Intellectual Property.”

With a stark white interior like a set from THX-1138, the Future is a self-sustaining complex where his different companies share resources. There are recording studios, obviously. Will’s is a deeply quiet room that used to belong to Beats One Radio. His bandmates of more than 20 years, Taboo and Apl.de.Ap, have one too, covered in Star Wars toys. There are two soundstages where the Black Eyed Peas can film music videos on blinding greenscreen — they own the cameras and the lights. Two guys are in the edit room preparing for four videos BEP are set to film this weekend. There’s wardrobe racks, yarn-filled rooms to cut and sew, a place to test VR, a stainless-steel kitchen with dark-purple dragonfruit spa water on the counter and an office space. A four-piece band is rehearsing the Peas’ latest single, “Big Love” on the soundstage where they shot politically charged music video “Ring the Alarm, Pt.1, Pt.2, Pt.3.” The research and development wing is rows of computers in a raw warehouse space, with concept art decorating the walls. A giant, metal-shaving-filled Robocop 2 nightmare box is a computer numerical control machine that makes prototypes — Will explains, “the same machine that makes your iPhone, that makes a PlayStation or parts for turbine engines.”

Back in his studio, littered with A Tribe Called Quest and Michael Jackson CDs, books about street art and rock icons, Will holds court with Taboo and Apl, playing music from Masters of the Sun at an enormous volume. At certain points, the room’s colorful party lights pulse on and off distractingly. Turned away from the giant Star Trek–ready touchscreen, he checks his phone.

“Oh! Oprah replied, bro!” he says excitedly.

The video for “Big Love” had dropped that morning, an unflinching, realistically violent, nine-minute plea for gun control that depicts a school shooting. As told to the room, Will and Oprah have a back and forth about America’s emotional reaction to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. It’s important to note that when the Queen of Media texted, we didn’t hear a ding, a ring or a vibration.

“I don’t like notifications on my phone. ‘Cause I want to check my phone, I don’t want my phone to check me,” Will explains later. “I don’t wanna be fucking whipped by bling-ling-ling. … And you know what’s crazy right now? The phone isn’t sensitive to that.

He holds the phone close to his mouth and speaks clearly: “Yo, Siri. Block everybody from accessing me except for Apple.”

Siri: “I’m sorry.”

Will, exhaustedly, lets the phone plop out of his hands. “What the fuck, I can’t do that?” He tries again. “Yo, don’t let any calls come into my phone right now except for the one that I need at 8 o’clock.” 

Siri: “Hi.”

“The fuck? Wait, wait, come on son.” He tries a final time to illustrate his point. “I’m expecting a call at 9 p.m., so turn off the phone to save my battery, but only turn it on at 9.

Siri: “To power off your iPhone, press and hold the power button.”

“Really what we’re in the midst of building is a new type of media information company,” says Will. “Everyone’s on their phones. But we have access to the phone. It’s not our phone. iOS isn’t mine. Siri’s not mine. Siri don’t know me. Siri don’t care about me. Eventually, these machines are gonna be smarter, and smarter, and smarter, and smarter, and smarter, and are they gonna care about you? And if they care about you, is it yours?

“It’s a flood, and somebody has to build the ark, because the flood is swallowing up all things of yesterday, right? If you’re Target, if you’re Best Buy, if you’re Walmart, it you’re freakin’ IKEA, if you’re CVS, if you’re Walgreens — what are you gonna do when everything is conversational? You gonna put all your customers, all your experiences in their cloud? How are you gonna do that? There is no alternative for them.

“The other day somebody was like, ‘It’s gonna cost X amount of dollars for us to work “Big Love.” Get the views up.’ I’m like, ‘How much of those views are bots?’ Like machines that are watching it, and commenting on it, and reading the response for a human, and then a thousand bots respond to one response from a person. That’s where we are right now, bro. Where you can’t distinguish a bot from a person, and the only way to do that is if you had your own A.I. to tell you the difference between a person and a bot. But Siri’s not mine. Alexa’s not mine. There is something missing in the world that we don’t have today that we’re all gonna have tomorrow. That’s the vision of what we’re developing.”

Will’s animated speeches about the future — often somewhere between a TED Talk and voice-switching Robin Williams routines — are passionate and convincing. And it’s hard not to think he doesn’t have some bead on the future. After all, Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 smash The E.N.D. did presage America’s appetite for pop-frazzled EDM. He claims 2010’s video for “Imma Be Rocking That Body” anticipated artificial intelligence. And, while the music industry was collapsing, Will was a quiet co-founder and equity partner in a little company called Beats. Rolling Stone points out that the Tron lightcycle that Taboo rode over the audience on their 2010 tour even anticipated Kanye West’s acclaimed floating stage.

He saw our show at the Madison Square Garden,” Taboo notes. “And he said, yo …” Will interrupts and then stands up for another one of his energetic rants

“Not only that. He took our security, he took our freakin’ wardrobe person, the stylist, he took our fuckin’ trainer, DB [Don Brooks], he took all our shit!” Will says, escalating for comedic impact. The Peas erupt with laughter. “Write that!”

That same tour, Will had a shiny metal mask. “He came to me, he was like, ‘Yo, that mask shit is crazy.’ And so when Kanye had his mask thing, and people were complaining that he couldn’t talk, I was telling him backstage, I was like, ‘Yo, you know you’re not supposed to put the mask over your mouth, right?'”

Will even says he suggested that The E.N.D. — released nearly 10 years ago — should have been a digital-only release and Interscope’s Steve Berman told him the industry was not ready.

“So here we are, 2000-and-fuckin’-18, when it’s obviously ready for digital,” says Will. “Now they’re like, ‘Look, you still have to get people to buy your records in Germany and Japan, so we need a physical.'”

Interscope is going to take care of getting records and CDs in whatever record stores remain, but Will is cooking up a bespoke object he hopes will appear in places like Urban Outfitters, Barney’s and the Apple Store. Shaped like a boombox, it will hold the Masters of the Sun comic book, a letter jacket, a pair of Buttons wireless earphones and, hopefully, a physical copy of the new album. It will also function as a portal to new Black Eyed Peas content if you aim your phone at it using the Masters of the Sun augmented-reality app.

Will recalls meeting his collaborator – Jarrod Dogan – who helped him think outside the proverbial box. “He was like, ‘You know what? That’s what I do for family members and close friends. I just make them awesome boxes for Christmas and tell ’em, ‘Don’t look inside. Because what’s inside probably isn’t better than the box.’

“Like if you were to go to Disneyland, they say ‘products.’ They don’t say the word ‘merch.’ Musicians are the only ones that say merch. … Do you think freakin’ Adidas calls it ‘soccer tour merch?’ ‘Ayo, yo, yo, the Lakers are on tour, you gotta get they fuckin’ shoe merch!’ No, nigga, products! The packaging … is … the product.”

Though the Masters of the Sun box is future-minded, the music housed inside looks firmly to the past, the throb of A Tribe Called Quest’s alt-rap masterpiece Midnight Mauraders stretched out into the era of multipart Kendrick Lamar suites. The rapping is athletic, re-tweaking old BEP cadences and even venturing into a detour of the polysyllabic thesaurus-heavy style they jokingly call “pterodactyl rap.” Guests include Slick Rick, Posdnous of De La Soul and Tribe’s departed Phife Dawg. A Nas guest verse emerged from a decade-old USB stick Will.i.am found in his car.

“I’m not trying to rhyme like the new kids. Let’s rhyme like the kids we were when we were new kids,” says Will before embarking on a hilarious attempt at a Migos-style triplet flow.

Will and Apl agree that the album has the feel of their days in the Atban Klann, a jazz-rap crew that released exactly one 12-inch on Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in 1994. Taboo sites the “energy of hunger and determination” he feels from the days of the first Black Eyed Peas album, 1998’s Behind the Front.

After playing “4ever,” a headknocker built on a sample of jazz flautist Herbie Mann, Will exclaims, “I’ve been trying to sample this shit since I was like 17, fuck.”

Will tells the story of Atban Klann member/producer DJ Motiv8 teaching the young MC once known as Willonex how to hunt records by looking for names that appear in album credits like Roy Ayers and Bobbi Humphrey. Motiv8 eventually schooled Will on Mann and he attempted to use this rhythm on “Let Me Get Down,” one of only three Atban songs that saw official release. The rhythm and length were too unwieldy for where Will’s skills and sampler technology were in the early Nineties.

“It feels like the girl you had a crush on in high school that never really wanted to get with you. Now, as you’re older … she still looks hot!” says Will. “That’s how I feel about this record.”

“You thought I was too nice back then,” chimes Apl, “but I know how to hit that shit right, man.”

“That’s how I feel! Like, I don’t care! We’ve done the big, stadium-filling songs. But, when we were in high school, I just really wanted to sample this. … We smashed that high school crush, lyrically and instrumentally.

Will says Masters is the first album the Peas worked on in the same room together since 2005’s Monkey Business. As a trio, they eat dinner together every day at 7 p.m., and hang out to do things like see De La Soul open for Lauryn Hill, catch Black Panther together in London or watch boxing. For the Fourth of July, they rented an Airbnb in Malibu with about 50 of their closest friends, including the ersatz, pop-facing Pea Fergie.

“4ever” also features the voice of Gene Wilder delivering the iconic line from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” It’s more than just the favorite film of the Future’s head dreamer. When he was a 20-year-old aspiring rapper, a rented VHS was the “go-to-sleep” film for Will and his then-girlfriend.

“I remember we were fuckin’ poor as shit. We would be standing at the bus stop, like, ‘Yo, imagine if we get hit by the bus mirror. Nigga, we’d be so paid.’ We would think about any way to come up, ’cause this fuckin’ hellhole that we livin’ in, there’s no fuckin’ way out,” says Will in sharp tones. “So Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that kid had no way out except for that golden ticket, and his heart, and his soul. And Willy Wonka was like, ‘That’s the kid. Because he has the right ingredients. He’s not spoiled. He’s a good kid.’ For anybody that’s poor, that movie’s like, ‘Man, if only somebody could see my purity. I just want my family to be happy.’

“I saw myself in Charlie. He ain’t black, but damn. That nigga was poor as shit,” Will says. “I’m Charlie, and one day I’mma be Willy Wonka. I’mma have a factory just like that one. All white, like Mike Teavee. Whole fuckin’ building’s white, ’cause I would watch that film like, ‘Man, one day I’m gonna have fuckin’ shit like fuckin’ Willy Wonka’s shit.'”

He pauses, “No Oompa Loompas, though.”

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