“We’re trying to bridge gaps,” states Will.I.Am., lead rapper for the Los Angeles ensemble Black Eyed Peas. Thus, he notes, the title of the group’s second album, Bridging the Gap.
As for the gaps in question, take your pick. Among the most obvious is the Peas’ continued commitment to bypass all-too-typical rap cliches (from gangstas to bitches to bling-bling) in favor of the more thought-provoking, positive vibe they introduced on their acclaimed 1998 debut, Behind the Front. Like its predecessor, Bridging the Gap demonstrates the Peas’ knack for achieving depth — such as on the uncompromising, gritty “Get Original” and the funky “Bringing it Back” — without sacrificing accessibility; the band believes in making the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar. A perfect example is the album’s first single, the soulful feel-good jam “Weekends,” which features a strong guest turn from electronic chanteuse Esthero.
“‘Weekends’ is probably the ultimate party song,” Will says. “But our reason for writing it is to pay homage to the nine-to-fiver; the person that works from nine to five, goes out and buys our records, and buys the magazines to read about their favorite artist.”
In addition to making music for their fans, the Peas see their music as a way to show love to those artists that inspired them. Two of their heroes, Wyclef Jean and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, each produced a track on Briding the Gap, with Premier taking the reins for the album’s opening song, “BEP Empire” and Wyclef handling the smooth “Rap Song.” Will describes the latter tune as an ode to the ladies in the Peas’ lives. “On the last album we had a love song, ‘The Way U Make me Feel.’ This one we wanted to do another one, but we wanted to do it differently,” he says. “So we thought, ‘Let’s compare our girls, or people that we care about in that way, to a rap song and the way a rap song makes you feel; like the first time you heard ‘Check out my Melody,’ by Eric B. and Rakim, you wanted to keep on hearing it.”
The song not only pays homage to their ladies and great rap songs, but to the soul greats that Will says he grew up on, such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross. Consider it a bridge back to vintage Seventies soul, when songs showed ladies real love. “We didn’t want to do the songs talking about bitches and ho’s,” he says. “If someone wants to write their own version, and compare it to a bitch is a bitch, that’s on them. We choose positive songs that really reflect the kind of woman that we like.”
That attitude is working for them, at least judging by the talented women that help the band out on Bridging the Gap. In addition to Esthero, and Kim Hill on “Hot,” Macy Gray lends her vocal gifts to the album’s finale, “Request + Line,” an ode to radio and DJs. The group’s relationship with Gray predates the success of her first album. Will, who has produced the majority of each of the Peas’ two albums, produced some tracks slated for Gray’s On How Life Is. Though those songs didn’t make the cut, the two formed a friendship that was extended when the Peas opened for Gray on a recent tour.
The Peas have been no strangers to the road over the last two years. In addition to their dates with Gray, they’ve logged miles with the likes of No Doubt, Lit, and the Warped and Smoking Grooves tours. The experience proved invaluable when it came time to record again — once the group figured out how to bridge the gap separating their live intensity from the studio. “I remember the first couple of songs that we did for this album we were kind of depressed,” Will recalls. “We were like, ‘Wow, what’s wrong with us? These songs suck.’ So we had a little powwow and we realized that what we were bringing on the stage, we had to bring to the record.”
The group also realized that though they were now hanging with the big boys, they had to stay true to what brought them there. “Because we’ve been on tour, because we know the people we know, because we’re happy because we know them, we can’t let that change how we come across on record,” Will says.
Having been around the business since 1992, when he was signed to Ruthless Records as a sixteen-year-old high school student, Will has seen enough of the music business to know what pitfalls await bands trying to follow up a successful debut album. “A lot of times, bands whose first albums I like, the reason their second albums don’t live up to the first is because they’re in the game to be in the game. And they act it; their personalities change,” he says. “We’re not going to try to be in the game just because we’re in the game. People like us for us, for who we are. Not because we’re some crazy-ass freaks.”